Friday, June 28, 2013

363. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 21:Out of Africa?

To repeat my previous question: "So if we are looking for a connection between some important historical event and dancing, then could that historical event have been: the discovery of the New World?" And the answer, I'm afraid, would have to be: "no." For a long time I thought it was "yes."

Why? Not because of any influence streaming from the dancing and singing of Native Americans to European colonists -- the cultural differences are simply too great, and there is no trace of any significant influence of that sort anywhere in Europe for centuries. But the Americas were also the scene of a mass migration of African slaves to the newly founded colonies, and, as we well know from the proliferation of so many hybrids in Latin America, the Caribbean and North America, African music and dance has always had a magical effect on the European psyche.

So my thinking went something like this: 1. There has to be some explanation for the sudden emergence of all these ostinato patterns in Southern Europe, all around the same time, all so strongly associated with dancing; 2. Much African music is built around ostinato patterns -- and in Africa almost all music is accompanied by dancing; 3. The New World is the most likely place for Europeans to have been exposed to African music and dance; 4. By analogy with what we know happened in the Americas during the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries, where all sorts of music/dance hybrids inspired by the music of African slaves have proliferated, one might assume that something similar could have happened in the earliest American colonies, especially those of Portugal and Spain, during the 16th Century.

Unfortunately for such a promising theory, the dates simply do not match. Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, toward the end of the 15th Century. Yet the early Frottola, which as we've seen, already exhibits many features of the new "tonal" language, dates from earlier in the 15th Century. Similarly, the remarkably "modern" dances of Joan Ambrosio Dalza (see Post 356) were published in 1508, far too early to reflect any New World influences. So much for that theory.

But wait. I'm not ready to give up yet. Because there was another route through which African influences might have reached Europe. According to Wikipedia, "slavery in Brazil began after the first Portuguese settlement was established in 1532." However,
The Portuguese became involved with the African slave trade in 1441, long before the discovery or colonization of Brazil. Slaves exported from Africa during this initial period of the Portuguese slave trade primarily came from Mauritania, and later the Upper Guinea coast. Scholars estimate that as many as 156,000 slaves were exported from 1441–1521 to Iberia and the Atlantic islands from the African coast. [Slavery in Brazil, Wikipedia]
Spain also imported African slaves during this period:
The history of Spanish slavery began with Portuguese captains Antão Gonçalves and Nuno Tristão in 1441. The first large group of African slaves, made up of 235 slaves, came with Lançarote de Freitas three years later.[1] In 1462, Portuguese slave traders began to operate in Seville, Spain. During the 1470s, Spanish merchants began to trade large numbers of slaves. Slaves were auctioned at market at a Cathedral, and subsequently were transported to cities all over Imperial Spain. This led to the spread of Moorish, African, and Christian slavery in Spain. By the 16th century, 7.4 percent of the population in Seville, Spain were slaves. Many historians have concluded that Renaissance and early-modern Spain had the highest amount of African slaves in Europe. [Slavery in Spain, Wikipedia]
So, there may still be some hope for my theory, if we alter my question to read as follows: "If we are looking for a connection between some important historical event and dancing, then could that historical event have been: the introduction of West African slaves into Portugal and Spain?" Again, I could certainly be on the wrong track, but in this case the dates make more sense. Of course, a theory is just a theory and there are all sorts of "interesting" theories that never pan out. But I must insist that it would be a mistake to simply reject any such theory out of hand, because without a theory we have no way of accounting for the rather sudden and dramatic introduction of such a characteristically African structure as the instrumental ostinato into a Renaissance Europe dominated up till then by a completely different type of music, largely vocal and based on modal counterpoint.

Also, it's not all that difficult to see how anything of African origin could be looked down on as vulgar and obscene in the Europe of that time, and why popular dances inspired by those of African slaves would initially be denigrated and even banned. This evolution from rejection to acceptance would not have been unlike what happened in the United States as well, during the 19th and 20th Centuries, where dances and music of African American origin were initially denigrated, then enthusiastically embraced.

Thus, as I see it, we have good reason to take seriously the possibility that at least certain aspects of the radical musical change we've been charting could have been due to African influence. To better understand what I've been talking about, here's an example of an African griot performance, on the kora, a combination harp and lute:

Brikama Griots

If you listen carefully, you'll hear the ostinato repeated continually throughout this impressive performance: G-F-E-D.

Here's another very gifted griot, also playing the kora, this time from Mali:

 Mamadou Diabate - "griot," "jeli," or storyteller

This performance is especially interesting because of the distinctive role of the very simple two note ostinato in the bass, played by the index finger of the right hand, while the thumbs of the right and the thumb and index finger of the left hand play the elaborate higher part. While the resemblance could be completely coincidental, I can't help but be reminded of the layout of so many Renaissance lute and guitar parts, where both the bass and the melody are performed by different fingers on the same instrument. It's notable also that the bass happens to consist of the notes C and F, sounding almost like a "dominant" to "tonic" progression, in the context of a simple F major scale.

[Added Sunday, June 30: According to musicologist William Prizer, the technique of playing more than one note at a time on the lute dates from the 1460's (i.e., twenty years after the introduction of African slaves into Portugal). Prior to that date, "the lute would have been responsible for only a single line and would have been played with a plectrum." [Op. Cit., p. 190] As already noted, the Kora player uses only his right hand index finger to play the bass notes. Similarly, when the lute is played with the fingers rather than a plectrum, the bass is also confined to a single digit, in this case the thumb:

Greensleeves - Anonymous - Cutting - Lute

It's interesting to speculate on the possibility that, in addition to the introduction of the ostinato into European court music, the new method of lute fingering, which enabled complete ostinato-based dance pieces to be performed on the lute alone, might also have been inspired by the performances of African slaves. Unfortunately, there is nothing I'm aware of in the written records to either confirm or falsify either hypothesis, but if that is the case it certainly would not have been the only time the music of African slaves would have had a profound impact on Western musicians.]

to be continued . . .


Karl J Haas said...

Dear Dr. Grauer,
Very interesting line of inquiry. I'm wondering if it might be worth considering the trans-Saharan slave trade as another point of entry for West African cultural expression into European "art" music. This trade route pre-dates the Atlantic trade by at least 400 years, making black Africans active participants in making up the Mediterranean world. The historian Ismael Montana has done work on this topic.
Also, might the performance practice of the oud in Andalusian muwashshahat played a factor in influencing the ostinato? In contemporary takht ensembles the oud often starts off playing a riff that conforms to the iqa metric structure. Someone more knowledgeable than myself may know whether this would have been common in the late 14th or early 15th c.
Thanks so much!

DocG said...

Yes, Mr. Haas, you make an excellent point. African slaves were traded for a very long time and most likely found their way to southern Europe long before the 15th century. I'm wondering how much research has been done on all the various possible ways in which African musical practices could have influenced European music, both popular and court-oriented.

I'm skeptical, however, regarding the influence of Andalusian music, at least as far as the ground bass is concerned. Because the ground bass in Europe is almost always associated with dance, and because so many of these dances were initially regarded as "lascivious," it makes more sense, as I see it, to attribute them to African influences, especially since dancing is such an important aspect of African life.

In any case, your comments make sense and are much appreciated.