Tracing origins – fascinating

One example of how African influences get lost or buried was revealed to me very early, before I had ever thought about the African-Americans among us.

I was a devotee of True: The Men’s Magazine. It was filled with tales of daring-do and also a question and answer section. I was reading that one day and noticed a question about drumming in military bands. Already at that young age, about 10 or so, I had become fascinated with drumming. My aunt got one of the early television sets and whenever Ed Sullivan or other variety show had on its obligatory big band, my family would call me in from play when the drum solo came on.

So I read with great interest the answer to this question: why do the drummers in military bands wear a leopard-skin apron. The answer came in two parts: the apron was to protect the drummer’s uniform from the drum rubbing against it AND, the reason it is a leopard skin is that in the earliest military bands, dressed in livery b/c they were funded privately by wealthy patrons, the drummers were always Africans.

I had always wondered why the marching beat of military bands was so different from that of most other Western music. Rock and roll was just coming in at that time; records by Black artists were usually labeled “race records” and unavailable to nice White boys like me in small towns. But the ratta-tat-tat rhythms of the snare over the pounding base offered rare examples of cross-rhythms. But where did those come from, over there in rainy England? Now I knew.

By the way, much of our popular music was informed by African music via the African sailors serving on ships even before the slave trade flourished. In the early days of the slave trade, African dances from the Caribbean slaves were modified and eventually found their way into art music as ’sarabandes’, ’fandangos’, ’chacons’ and other defunct dances originally derived from African slave dances of the New World brought back by Europeans.

You can read about this in books by Marshall Stearns, John Storm Roberts, Harold Courlander, Robert Farris Thompson, and many others.

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