It is estimated that fourteen million slaves were brought to the new world. The majority were brought from West Africa, a highly developed, civilized, area. The people from this area were, by no means primitive. Their artistic traditions were refined, defined, and sophisticated.
The chief stimulus for African and art and music is religion, religion not in the Western sense of the word, but Religion as an inseparable, vital, innate part of the individual. The true study of the spiritual as folk song has been obscured by the tendency to misinterpret its religious role. To the traditional African, religion was all encompassing and not compartmentalized as it is to Western and European cultures. Africans consider religion a totality, the unifying element of their lives: religion is life. African religions were always positive. Hopelessness and abandonment were not part of the religious vocabulary. All aspects of life were accepted and dealt with in a philosophical way. This same philosophical approach can be found in the Black American spirituals. Similarities to Christianity can clearly be found firmly rooted in Africa. The concept and belief in one God, eternal salvation or damnation and spirit possession are themes from Africa which come through in the spirituals, “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down,” “Dese Bones Gwine to Rise Again,” “Somebody’s Knockin’ at Yo Do,” are good examples.
A strong sense of community and a reverence for family were of utmost importance to the native African, unlike American writers such as Emerson and Thoreau, who believed that a strong sense of community stifled individualism. The African believed a strong sense of community not only reinforced and enhanced, but also nurtured the individual through feelings of confidence and belonging which it inspired.
Slavery was not exclusive to America. Africa had slavery. However, in contrast, slavery in America was particularly harsh. Slaves in Africa were recognized as a member of the family. Excruciating labor both in fields and homes was not demanded of them. Through the merit system, a slave was allowed to rise in his position in the tribe. Slaves were provided with clean homes, and slave children could not be sold and were often freed. The African innate sense of humanity is exemplified in their treatment of slaves. In the American mind slaves were considered personal property to be disposed of at will or treated less than human.
Self-improvement, understanding, and wisdom were the goals of most individuals in the African culture. The formal process of learning was achieved through apprenticeships in trades and crafts. Writing was not widespread in Africa. The histories and information relative to the culture were recounted by Griots. Griots were individuals with remarkable memories who traveled from place to place reciting things they had memorized. They were the authority on genealogies, religion, music, poetry, storytelling and all other pertinent cultural information. This strong narrative tradition is evident in the Black spiritual. Songs were another system for preserving knowledge in Africa, and later in America became a vehicle for conveying information. The oppressive plantation life was unable to kill this innate desire to learn. A good example of this can be found in the Frederick Douglass book,
Up From Slavery
Freedom and democracy were of critical importance to the African-spirit. Model examples of democracy can be found throughout the continent and primitive forms of democratic ideals are widespread throughout the tribal political system.
As the visual arts did not play a direct role in the shaping of the spiritual, I will emphasize the musical and narrative traditions that directly influenced the development of the Black Spiritual in America.
Music is an African tradition and like their religion it is not compartmentalized but is an intricate, inseparable part of the African soul. Basic traits of African music are uniform across tribal and geographical lines. Africans have music for all occasions. Music not only accompanied major events such as birth and marriage, but was a part of everyday living. The vital energy of the African is manifest in their music. Black music is unity music and the making of music is the concern of everyone in the community.
Musical performances are participatory events. It is rare to make music for someone, music is always made with someone. The audience is an active participant in a musical performance.
Music composed or used for one occasion may frequently be used for another. For instance, a dance song may be used as a lullaby. This is directly opposed to other cultures where a certain musical pieces are designed only for specific functions.
A close relationship between music and storytelling exists. This fondness for stories and poems is reflected in the pronounced narrative and dramatic character of African songs which employ few words to tell entire Biblical stories in dramatic fashion. In a visual way, Jacob Lawrence, later on, uses this same format to establish clarity of message in his paintings.
Music is essentially antiphonal; male choruses answering each other in distinct musical phrases. The singer often improvises. From this improvisation the chorus takes up a refrain and sometimes two choruses challenge and answer one another in a call and response fashion.
The primary instrument is the drum. Closely related to drumming is hand clapping which is well established in Africa and is a vital element in the African American spiritual. Hand clapping is always expressed with metronomic precision and is never used for random accent.
The rhythm of African music is very complex. The main characteristic of African music is the simultaneous use of different rhythmic patterns, sometimes up to five rhythmic patterns in one piece. This is the major difference between African and European music. All these musical characteristics will become evident in the Black Spiritual.