African to African American Expressive Culture the oral tradition
from Africa • The oral tradition includes music stories oratory religious expression • “The African tradition aims at circumlocution rather than direct statement. The direct statement is considered crude and unimaginative; the veiling of all content in every-changing paraphrase is considered the criteria of intelligence and personality” (Jones in Blues People). • Literature is an extension of the oral tradition
What did the slaves bring with them? • Spirituality: integrated into everyday life Community: emphasis on family and community relationships, strong kinship networks The Griot: community historian, councilor and storyteller
Music: as an integral, necessary part of life • “the fundamental concept that governs music performance in African and African-derived cultures is that music-making is a participatory group activity that serves to unite the people in to cohesive group for a common purpose” (Jones in Blues People 15).
African musical traditions • Rhythm and Poly-rhythms • Societies in West Africa possess music rich in rhythmic vitality with multiple layers of rhythms. While European classical music developed complex harmonies of tones, African music developed complex interweaving of contrasting rhythmic patterns. African musicians strive for at least two different rhythms at once, and it’s the juxtaposition of opposing rhythms that creates the vital spark of African music.
Music: Rhythm • Rhythm is the most striking feature of African and African American music: the human pulse, syncopation (shifting from strong to weak accents), polyrhythms and meters.
African music • Drum • Body movement and body as musical instrument • Group singing • Call and Response, Improvisation, expression of emotion • improvise: to make up spontaneously theme and variation: songs become altered versions of other songs. • Call and Response: leader calls out, group responds
Ellison and the Blues “The Blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstance whether created by others or by one’s own human failings. They are the only consistent art in the United States which constantly remind us of our limitations while encouraging us to see how far we can actually go.”
Ralph Ellison and the Blues • “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically” (Ellison from Shadow and Act).
Ellison & Blues • “Let us close with one final word about the blues: Their attraction lies in this, that they at once express both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit.” • Through Blues you can turn pain into art.
Signifying as part of oral tradition • “Signifying means indirect talk rather than frontal pronouncement; it emphasizes verbal facility and innuendo (Jones). Signifying is manipulation of meaning through metaphor, allusions, and imagery. • Signifyin’ (g) is an African American vernacular tradition with these characteristics: indirection, circumlocution, metaphorical, humorous, ironic, rhythmic fluency and sound, teachy but not preachy, directed at a person or persons usually present in the situational context; punning, playing on words, and introduction of the semantically or logically unexpected (Triumph of the Soul).
African American music • Themes of Pain and Triumph and Transcendence, especially in the Spirituals and the Blues • “By confronting one’s pain directly, one gains access to deeper, uncontaminated human reserves, gaining in the process renewed strength, renewed hope, and renewed humanity” (Jones 16).)
African retentions • Literature and music developed together with the partial goal of political liberation. • Music and literature created enormous resilience, integrity and subversiveness that enabled spiritual and physical survival. • Oral expression also created effective resistance to complete assimilation into the majority culture or annihilation.