cowbell as cultural memory

Reading Sam Floyd, my suspicions rise over terms like “cultural memory.” I recall a disturbing conversation with a Prof. Woods, chairperson of the art department at ASU in which he described in airy-fairy terms some mystical quality found in Navahos and their art. Any sort of mysticism in social sciences bothers me and I see no reason for it in art.

So I read closely what Floyd was saying. In all honesty, I think he really is talking about cultural traits that are passed down in very subtle ways. It is too easy to ignore the complicated work of sifting out all the factors involved in transforming a culture and just invoke some ineffable quality.

In the music of the African Diaspora, it is quite common to hear people talk in this quasi-mystical jargon, from “they all can sing and dance” to “the African soul.” But Floyd is grasping at something all of us who love the music of the Diasporic peoples “sense” in common, from Nigeria through Trinidad to New Orleans. “Sense,” of course, is just the sort of indefinable word I would like to avoid, so three examples come to mind: the bell, the ring dance, and the connection to movement.

First, the bell, often called a cow bell or cencerro in Spanish, gankogui in Ewe, and whatever in other African languages. It is a clapperless bell. Other items, particularly brake pads, serve to produce that special sound. Surprisingly to Westerners who do not think of bells as anything more than a fun way to make music, usually with clappers in bells set to different pitches, the bell is the heart of African drum choruses. The reason is that all the other rhythms go off the time-line the bell plays, which itself is a short, repetitive ostinato. The most famous time-line is the Afro-Cuban “shave and a haircut, two bits” clave rhythm. Kofi Agawu gives another name to the time-line: topos, which is defined in Merriam-Webster as  “a traditional or conventional literary or rhetorical theme or topic” and, if we truncate it, we get “a traditional rhetorical theme.” Rhetoric here is “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.” If one understands music as a mode of communication (and Agawu devotes a great deal of space to exactly that topic), then composing the music to effectively communicate certainly implies “topoi” or themes. In African music, these time-lines often are of great interest and beauty just by themselves, but in combination with other rhythms, the create the overpowering display we call cross-rhythms or polyrhythms.

The survival of that bell is seen in all Afro-Latin music but traditional African-American music has no bell, or so I thought until I read that the high hat cymbal in the jazz band serves that purpose, plays that role. I never had understood why every jazz band had that sound. This, to me, is an excellent example of Sam Floyd’s theme of conversion from Africa to North America without losing the essence.

The ring dance is seen commonly in Africa but not so much in Europe, so to find it in the Americas can generally be called a survival of an African trait. We are familiar with it in the old ring shout of slavery times, where shuffling feet and clapping hands accompany song. Nevertheless, it survives in that repository of so many African traits in the U.S., the church. One time I took my wife-to-be to the movie Black Orpheus, which contains a scene from the Afro-Brazilian candomble service. She recognized in the women dressed in white, shuffling around in a circle, clapping hands to the rhythm of drums the same tableau she had grown up with in a Pentecostal church. Strikingly similar is the tarrying service where a prospective convert kneels and places his/her head and hands on the seat of a chair in a prayerful attitude, waiting to “receive the Holy Ghost” aka be possessed as a group of church women dressed in white shuffle around him in a circle clapping and stomping their feet and beating tambourines in complex rhythms as they chant “thank you, Jesus” very rapidly over and over.

Finally, a scene in the HBO series Treme showed the young man, a prominent jazz musician and son of a prominent Mardi Gras Big Chief who masked Indian, marching in a Mardi Gras parade. He had struggled with is heritage, other jazz musicians teasing him in a harassing manner about his old-timey roots. How do you connect the Mardi Gras traditions to modern jazz but avoid the corny costumes of Dixie-Land jazz bands? He stepped out of the parades for a moment to speak to someone on his phone and as he returned to the parade, he passed a boombox emitting modern jazz. He froze for a moment as the connection between the two musics clarified itself in his head; the show did an excellent job of weaving the two thread together.

If you go on youtube and type in something like abakua you get a site like this:

and then compare it to the original abakua center in Africa, Calabar and the Niger Delta cultures here:

(all I wanted was the url but the video itself comes up)

Videos of Mardi Gras parades are plentiful and you can find videos of similar carnival parades in Rio, Trinidad, etc., anywhere the slave trade deposited Africans. These all combined with the European, esp Italian and Spanish, carnival traditions to create the modern cultural phenomena going back to Africa.

There is an interesting site that delves deeply into the connection between Cuban abakua and Niger Delta epke societies at

One of the books in my reading list (see What I’m Reading Now category) is Ivor Miller’s Voice of the Leopard, all about the connection between the Niger Delta cultures and Cuba.

So from all these examples, we can see where Floyd has a point regarding the continuity of the essence of African culture(s).

June 13, 2020 Another one I had never thought of. Watching the eulogy to George Floyd given by Rev. Al Sharpton I mentioned to my wife how the organ punctuated his speaking like they do in Holiness churches, which we are very familiar with. Suddenly it hit me: that parallels the drum texts that accompany declarations and singing in West Africa. The speaker/singer says/sings a line and the drum repeats it. Then today, just now, prompting this addendum to this entry, I was watching a video on dance and the program was in West Africa among the Yoruba. The dancer was shadowed by a bata drummer and the narrator said the drum was telling the dancer which way to move, and that reminded me of this parallel. I have no idea nor way of proving that this notion of mine has any basis in fact but I find such survivals, if survival it is, intriguing.

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