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Desert Dancer What Islam Gave the Blues (5) What Islam Gave the Blues 30 Sep 19


What Islam Gave the Blues, by Sylviane A. Diouf, Brown University.

Sylviane A. Diouf is a social historian whose research interests include the trans-Atlantic and trans-Indian Ocean slave trades, West African Muslims, and resistance to slavery.

An excerpt:

"On American farms and plantations, Qur’anic recitations and Sufi chants, done solo or in small groups, would have sounded just like songs. And so too would the call to prayer, the adhan. The words of the adhan are the same everywhere, but each call has a distinctive sound, characteristic of each place. It will sound different in, say, Uzbekistan and Senegal. Perhaps the most striking holler in that regard came from Bama, the star singer of Parchman prison. Like the adhan, his “Levee Camp Holler,” recorded by Lomax as late as 1947—a sign of the genre’s longevity—could have floated from a minaret. It is almost an exact match to the call to prayer by a West African muezzin. It features the same ornamented notes, elongated syllables sung with wavy intonations, melismas, and pauses. When both pieces are juxtaposed, it is hard to distinguish when the call to prayer ends and the holler starts. It was most likely these audible expressions of Muslim faith, and not merely what the musicians brought over, that generated the distinctive African American music of the South.

The blues is generally understood as a secular music of loss: lost women, lost jobs, regrets, and defeat. But it has a more profound, spiritual side: defying despair. In the 1950s, Ralph Ellison, while writing about flamenco—another Islamic-influenced music—remarked that the “blues voice mocks the despair stated explicitly in the lyric, and it expresses the great human joke directed against the universe, that joke which is the secret of all folklore and myth: that though we be dismembered daily we shall always rise up again.” For theologian James Cone, the blues is “a secular spiritual." In this spirituality, perhaps one may find an echo of one of the blues’s roots in Islamic practices and music.

The blues is not African music; there is no traditional “African blues.” Nor is it “Islamic music.” The blues is an African American creation, born of American circumstances and various influences. What makes it unique is the prevalence of a number of Sahelian/Islamic stylistic elements that became dominant due in part to historical events particular to American slavery. One, the Stono uprising, was an attack on the system in the pursuit of freedom. Another, the uprooting of a million people, was engineered to feed the monstrously violent development of slavery in the Deep South. Still another was the virtual re-enslavement of the post-Emancipation period. To resist the onslaught of these cruel historical circumstances, African Americans used all the cultural tools that best allowed them to express their suffering and hope, to comfort themselves, and to help them cope. Among these were the soulful tunes of the hollers and the blues. Though largely unrecognized, they are some of the most enduring contributions of West African Muslims to American culture."

Seen via the Ajam Media Collective on Facebook.

~ Becky near Ashland


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