The Merging of West African and European Cultures

as Reflected in Early Afro-American Music 

by Vada E. Butcher, Ph.D. 

             Note: This is the second lecture delivered at sessions of the

                          Spelman College NEH Institute on Southern Black

                          Culture during the summer of 1981.  

     Although the history of Afro-American music parallels that of Afro-American speech and literature to some degree, there are major differences in the evolutionary pace of these histories, most of which may be attributed to the distinctive nature of music. Unlike orature, music is highly dependent upon related arts and crafts for, with the exception of a few special genres, music derives form, idiom, and style from language and man-made instruments. At first glance then, it would appear that the uprooted West African had few resources with which to make music when he landed on American shores. There was no lingua franca, for he and his fellow slaves came from widely diverse areas of West Africa. In certain areas of the United States, the unfriendly climate could not produce the materials he needed to fashion his native instruments, and indeed, where these resources were available, the condition of slavery afforded little time or inspiration for musical craftsmanship. Moreover, the practice of drumming, one of the most highly developed West African musical skills, was sternly forbidden by slave holders in the United States in their attempt to prevent any activity which might incite rebellion. Despite these negatives, the slaves made music--in some instances under duress, while yet on ships in route to the western hemisphere. The music which was performed under these circumstances and shortly after the slaves' arrival in America must have been representative of the diverse 


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February 2001