West African Music in America
West African Muslims brought a rich musical heritage from the Sahel to the United States. About 24% of the estimated 400,000 Africans who landed in this country came from Senegambia, where Islam had existed the longest. Not all Senegambians were Muslims; but many had lived in Muslim kingdoms or in proximity to Muslims, and they too were familiar with the Islamic singing style. In addition, Muslims from other areas of West Africa were also deported to North America. In the American South, Africans from different regions, representing a variety of religions and cultures came into contact, each bringing his or her own musical style.
The more numerous non-Muslims from coastal West Africa and Central Africa relied heavily on drumming, complex rhythms, and -- above all -- group singing and dancing. The Senegambians and other Muslims, were used to playing string instruments -- they had dozens of kinds of lutes - and solo singing. In the end, one kind of music predominated, due in part to a significant event that took place in South Carolina. In 1739, Africans originally from the Central African country of Angola launched an uprising, during which they used drums to call to revolt and to encourage their troops. The following year, drums were forbidden throughout the South, except in Louisiana, which at the time was French. Following this law, Senegambian musicians, who traditionally played string and wind instruments, could continue to perform while other Africans were prohibited from playing their drum-based, collective music.
The fact that the blues, or anything remotely sounding like it, does not exist in any other countries in the Americas is thus due to two main reasons: the United States received the highest proportion of men and women from the Sahel, and it is also the only country in the Americas where drumming was strictly forbidden. Whereas Afro-Caribbeans, Afro-Brazilians, or Afro-Uruguayans developed a strong drumming tradition, African Americans did not, and what makes their music so different is precisely the predominance of Sahelian-Islamic elements.
Moreover, the Senegambians quickly adapted to European string instruments such as the fiddle and the guitar. From their lutes they created the banjo, which was later adopted by white musicians. They also continued to fashion the typical instrument of the Mandinka people, the kora, as witnessed by Benjamin Latrobe who saw one at a gathering in Congo Square in New Orleans in 1819.
Jellemen of Soolimana
© Courtesy of the New York Public Library. Image # 1257454. http://digitalgallery.nypl.org
Senegalese Kora Players
© Courtesy of the New York Public Library. Image # 832886. http://digitalgallery.nypl.org
© Courtesy of the New York Public Library. Image # 832330. http://digitalgallery.nypl.org