In my household right now we have 4 levels of cultural exposure. My wife was raised in a Black Pentecostal church, came from a small town in East Texas, spoke Black English until adulthood, and had little to do with White people except Miss Anne whose house she cleaned. Her sense of what Black music is about is totally a matter of cultural exposure and extremely deep, to the extent that without her realizing it (I think) she uses it as a yard stick, i.e. she judges other music by it except where there is a clear difference in genre or tradition. By that I mean she enjoys some Country Western and for us the distinction between that and Black music is clear. Recently a Pentecostal organist, a White man who said he began playing music back in Missouri at age 14, came to check out the organ we were selling (he bought it for the church) and he played a few bars just to see. Holy Moley! My wife and I said we would be sure to visit just to hear him play. I those few notes were any indication, this guy could hold his own in any Black music context. The music director of the – god, I hate this word but it fits so well here – funky little Pentecostal church my wife was baptized in back in Texas turned out to be White. This is in a town where the Black and White housing are entirely separate still. So being White is no bar to being at home in Black music.
Unfortunately, there does seem to be a bar for a lot of us. What helped me along as far as I’ve gotten is three years in the church my wife was raised in. The first and to me still paramount element of any African based music is what Gunther Schuller has termed “forward propulsive directionality.” Many of us raised in a non-Afro based culture (mine was working class White, Midwest) do not put in the effort to acquire this rhythmic sense. What I did, dissatisfied as I was with my inability to maintain the “forward” part (if you have this pulse down, you can see what happens when you try to apply it to non-Black music: there is a kind of glitch or gap in the forwardness of the pulse. Elsewhere in this blog I’ve discussed this but here I will point out that I often have taken the hand of someone who does not get what I mean and, telling the relax their hand and let me move it, tapping their hand in time to the music. They tend to snatch their hand away or resist after a couple of bars – it definitely works on the nervous system). So I would watch church members clapping and follow as closely as I could their movements. Over time it grabbed me – and “grabbed” is a good work for it. It gets inside you and takes over. It is a very pleasant feeling. What helps, I noticed, was that most of the time the worshippers would pull their hands away from each other after the clap and pull back to a specific point in a very mechanical manner. But it worked. Eventually I got to where the music took me over, took over my hands and feet. One time it almost took over my whole body, starting at my feet as a blackness slowly traveling up to my chest before I stopped it, suppressed, not wanting to “get happy and shout” or whatever I’d do and make the church think I’d been filled with the holy ghost. Later I read Maya Deren’s account of being possessed in voodoo ceremonies and it was like what I’d experienced. Generally you see vodunsis’ foot clamp to the floor and their bodies try to get loose; people get close to them to protect them. In the church I was in people had more control although for most there was a distinct loss of control, just not as total as the Haitian seems to be.
So out of that, doing what I always do, which is to listen to and watch the audience/participants and see where the high points, the dramatic points are as manifested by the behavior of the cognoscenti, my sense of the music is similar to what people raised in it is although not equal to theirs. Just put on some music and watch my wife is all I have to do; she slides right into a grove. Equally interesting is the way she’ll jump up to dance to a piece of music that starts out with a good (= Black) sound and then fall back and go sit down as the pulse wanders all over.
This pulse, BTW, is often called “the beat.” But that word has been used and misused, so I avoid it. All music with rhythm has a beat.
After me comes our daughter. She danced well as a teen and young adult but then got married. A musician friend sent us his new CD and it has a good deal of soul and some funk in it and my wife and I were enjoying it when our daughter said it really wasn’t anything she got excited over. As my wife responded to certain licks that definitely recalled blues and gospel, I realized those had no meaning for her. And I had just that morning been reading Kofi Agawu on meaning in music. Later that night I listened to Winton Marsalis and Eric Clapton and the band doing Corrina Corrina and it was full of those meaningful sounds. But without learning the music in the sense of acculturating to it, they have little meaning. The way I got the meaning was watching and listening in that church.
Our son loves reggae and most Black music. He grew up on rap. He shuffles around on the dance floor like I do. He, like our daughter, seems to have none of that Pentecostal fire. And that takes me back to Traces of the Spirit by Robin Sylvan, the connection between West African music and ecstasy.