On African music and transculturation

African music forms and rhythms that emerged in the Americas constituted a beat that has “always threaded back to Africa.”

In the words of the Caribbean poet, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, the middle passage created “bridges of sound” that carried memories of Africa to the Americas, music that echoed down the generations from “Harlem” to “Havana.”

Individual islands in the Caribbean and the mainland diasporic slave communities in the Americas shared the basic rhythms (and some instruments) derived from Africa. But these were fused with the instruments and rhythms of the cultures with which African slaves interacted, a process that the Cuban ethnomusicologist Frederick Ortiz termed “transculturation.”

Trinidadian calypso and parang, and the samba and son rhythms in Cuba (son was a modified, more refined version of rumba which became popular in the second half of the nine- teenth century) combined the structure and elements of Spanish canción (song) and Spanish guitar with African rhythm and percussion instruments.

Son, samba, rumba, and other Latin and African-Caribbean dances influenced salsa. In the Southern U.S., the European fife and drum convey some of the rural music that has the most authentic African rhythms.

The fife and drum are also the basis of Jonkanoo music in Jamaica (Jonkanoo is a Jamaican Christmas tradition, incorporating African traditions going back to the days of slavery).
This incorporation of European instruments and music forms demonstrates how Africans in the diaspora subverted the dominant culture and asserted positive African identities. Slaves played for their master and learnt European instruments and rhythms but these became syncretized into popular folk music (defined as played with acoustic
instruments). Jamaican mento draws on the fife and drum of Jonkanoo, Pocomania (an African-Christian revivalist cult) and church music, the European quadrille, and slave work songs passed through the generations.

Musical forms in different parts of the diaspora have also retained purer African elements where percussion instruments and call-and-response vocals predominate. Examples here include rumba in Cuba, Rastafarian Nyabhingi in Jamaica, and the Kongo and Yoruba music found in African-derived religious sects such as Kumina in Jamaica,
Shango in Trinidad, Haitian Voodoo, and Cuban Santeria. Such music was performed “beyond the ken” of whites during slavery and continues to be associated with peasant or urban working-class cultures.


Barbara Bush (2006) African Echoes, Modern Fusions: Caribbean Music,
Identity and Resistance in the African Diaspora, Music Reference Services Quarterly.

Image source:  Nyabinghi Drum Circle with Wolf

On One-drop

This unique drumbeat can be found in all genres of post-1960 Jamaican popular music, but, when used in this relatively slow and relaxed style of reggae, it provides a significant challenge to performers unfamiliar with Jamaican popular music. During my first attempts to play over this drumbeat, there was a constant urge to count the third-beat emphasis of the kick drum and side-stick as the first beat of the measure. The absence of the rhythmic anchor, normally provided by the kick drum on the first beat of the measure in most European and North American rock/pop music, was initially disconcerting. Although the one-drop employs the hi-hat, to maintain the motion of the beat during the course of the measure, it is often performed with rubato, forcing the other rhythm section players to establish a timing reference from a rhythmic cycle that can be measured in bars. The unique nature of this drumbeat demands that the performers in the rhythm section collectively share the responsibility of establishing and maintaining rhythmic motion and stability. It is in this context that the challenge of playing competent reggae guitar becomes most evident.

Found in: Jamaican Rhythmic Perception, from:
Ray Hitchins (2013) Rhythm, Sound and Movement: The Guitarist as
Participant-Observer in Jamaica’s Studio Culture, Ethnomusicology Forum.


Melody is the second aspect of the three-fold song of rhythm, melody, and harmony. From melody we can learn much about our relationships with other energies. Melody cannot exist without relationship. One tone by it­ self does not create a melody. As one tone is placed along side of other tones, melody is formed. Melody – whether, spoken, sung, or played upon an instrument – will soothe and alter emotional and mental states. It can balance men­tal stress and it can be used to relieve pain. Who has not seen a mother singing or humming softly to a crying child? (Often the mother rocks the child while doing so, and the rocking helps restore a soothing rhythm to the child’s metabolism.) By singing to the child, the mother links her energies with those of the child (relationship),and the pain or emotion is soothed and balanced. In this way a gentle form of forced resonance is unconsciously employed. Humming or singing a light melody throughout the day to that child that still lives within us is one of the most therapeutic things we can do for ourselves. It relieves stress and helps us to maintain balance. Every melody is comprised of tones that do affect us on many levels. Here’s a way to experience this: While on your way home from work, sing a simple childhood mel­ody to yourself. This will restore balance and help to cleanse your energy of any negative debris you have accumulated within the work environment.

Found in SACRED SOUNDS: Transformation through Music & Word by Ted Andrews.

Llewellyn Publications, 1995.