Given enough time, Africa will slide into the song

Tonight I once again witnessed a fascinating phenomenon of Af-Am music, Af-Am in the broadest sense to include all of the Americas: the way the performer maintains fairly strict adherence to a number/song they was it was written, and then veers off and Africanizes it.

We were at a birthday party attended by about 20 people. One woman, fairly young, offered a song, a gospel song. Almost everyone there belonged to a Holiness church. She sang several verses of the song, clearly in an Af-Am, bluesy mode, but sung pretty straight if not sweet (sweet meaning sounding like Johnny Mathis instead of Al Green).

Very nice, I thought, as she “ended” on a strong note. But no, she then began improvising on the lyrics of Carry Me Through the Storm, crying out about riding in Jesus’ arms and so forth. But what was most striking was how totally blue the notes became as she swung into the sort of intoned chanting characteristic of Black preaching styles. The melody became much more melismatic [I saw several spellings of this word but this is what I found in the Am Heritage Dict]. More emotion was certainly heard in the voice.

She finally ended on a spiral down into a field holler.

Now this was a gathering somewhat mixed as to age and, as I said, this lady was fairly young. So it means, as if those of us who circulate in these circles needed any evidence, that this deeply African form of song is in no way disappearing. It may be buffetted by outside influences to make it more palatable to those on the outside, but in that sanctuary of Black culture, the church, it thrives.

Such deepening of a performance into more overtly African forms can be seen and heard everywhere there are performers of Af-Am heritage. I think of Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith and other organists who give us hints of the blues in otherwise clear statements of old standards only to launch into a heavy call-and-response pattern with cross-rhythms and bent notes. You can most clearly hear it in church as a song takes on a perfervid push and insistence with fewer melodic and lyrical embellishments but with more intricate clap patterns and driving drums, often resulting in possession. Worth experiencing.

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