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Islam and the Blues

For more than a century the blues, born in the Deep South, has conjured up images of cotton fields, oppressed sharecroppers, pain, lonesomeness and misery. When one thinks about a music so embedded into rural African-American culture, Islam does not come to mind. Yet it should, because the deepest roots of the blues grew not in the Mississippi Delta but thousands of miles away.
It all started in the savannas of the Sahel, the 1000-mile wide savannah belt just south of the Sahara desert that stretches from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Red Sea in the east. In the Sahel, people from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and neighboring countries created, out of various influences, a musical style that eventually traveled west with the transatlantic slave trade and transformed itself on the American plantations.

Jellemen of Soolimana

As early as the 8th century, Sahelian West Africans came into contact with Muslim Arab and Berber traders from North Africa. By the dawn of the 11th century, many had converted to Islam, which had spread peacefully, not through wars or conquests. The sub-Saharan Muslims traded with the North Africans, traveled to Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, and as far as Arabia, 3,800 miles away, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Among the cultural exchanges that took place between North Africa and the Middle East on the one hand and the Sahel on the other were music and a singing style of a particular kind. The characteristics of the Islamic type of singing that Sahelians adopted are found, primarily, in the recitation of the Qur'an and the call to prayer. The individual, male or female, who recites the Qur'an uses wavy intonations, strong trembling sounds, vibrato, and long pauses between sentences; they lengthen the notes and they used melisma, changing the note of a syllable while they are chanting it.

These techniques are also present in the call to prayer that the muezzin delivers five times a day from the minaret of the mosque. Although the recitation of the Qur'an and the call to prayer are not music, they are musical and have influenced religious and secular singing throughout the Muslim world. Sahelian Muslims adapted and transformed the Islamic style of declamation and solo reciting and singing to make it their own. In parallel, West Africans deported through the trans-Saharan slave trade brought their music and rhythms to North Africa and the Middle East where they were often employed as musicians, and they too influenced the musical and singing style of the countries they were forced to live in. Especially among Sufis, there was an Africanization of Islamic elements.

 

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