Power in the Word. African traditional to African American Spiritual Music

Black music is one of the largest cultural exports of the United States. From jazz and rock and roll to hip hop, country music and more, billions of people all over the world enjoy the musical inventions of Black Americans daily. That said, the centuries-old origins of the African rhythms and rhymes that were molded into modern music remain obscure to most.  

On February 16, Dr. Ardencie Hall-Karambe, associate professor of English and Theater, honored and shed light on how Black music in America came to be. In her presentation “Power in the Word: African Traditional to African American Spiritual Music,” Dr. Hall-Karambe invoked the grand tone of a natural storyteller and started off the talk with an expedition into African mythos. 

“Once upon a time, long ago in a large village called Africa, there lived four brothers, the sons of Djemba the drum king. King Djemba, who was the best jeli or griot or storyteller in all the land, shared his knowledge of rhythm and rhyme with each of his sons... [teaching them] to play the songs and tell the stories of their people.” 

It is said that King Djemba’s sons created instruments to go along with their father’s drum: the mbira, Calabash Rattle, talking drum, balafon, shekere, udu, djembe and the kora. They set up homes in other parts of Africa to memorialize their village through song and language, teaching these rhythms and rhymes to their children who taught it to their children and so on.  

To illustrate how this myth has materialized in African culture, Dr. Hall-Karambe played a clip of daily life in an average village where rhythms have been passed down through everyday life. From cooking to cutting trees, working steel masonry and collective singing, all activities followed a steady, intrinsic beat. 

A man from the village narrated. “Everything, all work, all these sounds, all the brilliance is of the rhythm... Every step we take is rhythm, every word we speak is rhythm. So, we are all in this rhythm now. Everything is rhythm... We are not going to cut the throat of our culture. It will live on. We’re going to keep it alive.” 

When Europeans came and enslaved millions of Africans and stole them away to the West, they took their drums and forced them to give up their native languages. “The enslavers feared the gifts that King Djembe had given his son and that his sons had given their children,” said Dr. Hall-Karambe.  

But even without drums, enslaved Africans kept their rhythmic history alive, using their bodies and their voices as instruments to speak about the injustices and crimes that were happening to them.  
Reinterpreting the words of Christianity in a way that was meaningful to them, the enslaved Africans created field hollers and gospel music as a tool for revolution. With songs like “Wade in the Water” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” they coded and spread instructions on how to escape to the North and/or to Mexico where they would be free.  

Combining the power of a language reclaimed with the rhythms passed down by their ancestors, African Americans created the blueprint for modern music as a way to communicate under grave persecution, and to free their minds and souls while they struggled to survive. The rhythms and rhymes of gospels and field hollers later became genres like barbershop quartets, rag time, blues, jazz, country, rock and roll and beyond.  

"It was something that we had that as part of our DNA, it's something that we cannot get rid of,” said Dr. Hall-Karambe, “and that is one of the reasons why it is so hard to duplicate African American music to this day.”