Spiritual DNA

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Thank you!
May 2016

What is left of a people, after even their concept of existence is obliterated?

Sub-Saharan African music: shared characteristics 

Music and dance in most of Africa are used in communal cultural expression as well as for communication (having grown up in London it was a revelation to hear the local djembe drummer announcing dinner time on a daily basis in the village of Jumapo – where my paternal roots lie – in the Eastern region of Ghana). When coming together in rituals that address social issues such as reaching maturity, as well as for festivals, funerals, religious ceremonies and work to name a few, people share rhythm, and in this way they share life.

There are many ethnic groups that combine to make up the Sub-Saharan African musical tradition – so often transmitted orally; the Bakongo, the Fon, the Mandé and the Yoruba are just a few examples of these. Within it, however, some distinct shared characteristics that are similarly present in music across The Americas; in the Cuban rumba, the Brazilian samba, the Uruguayan candombe, or in soca and calypso from Trinidad and Tobago, to name but a few. Here I want to look at the music of North America. It is here that – through blues, ragtime, gospel, jazz, funk, RnB, rock ‘n’ roll, rap and house – Black American Music has changed the way the world hears music.

“I contend that the Negro is the creative voice of America, is creative America, and it was a happy day in America when the first unhappy slave was landed on its shores.”

Duke Ellington, 1941.

Call and Response

Creative, inclusive and improvisative at once, this is a type of communication in music where someone sings or plays something – call – and someone else plays it back – response.

The work song – a particular example of call and response. Historically the West African tradition rejects ‘laziness’ in favour of hard work, and the African work song illustrates this perfectly; call and response being part of communal discipline. Knowing this helps us understand the Black American work song tradition, which is essentially a celebration of work – not what you would typically expect from a repressed people under slave labour.

Fisherman on the Ghanaian coast,1964. A tradition that has changed very little over the last centuries.

Gandy dancers constructing railway tracks in America’s South, 1929.

Master class: Reggie Thomas (piano) and Alvin Atkinson, cerca 2010.

Let the music explain! A few tracks displaying call and response:

Minnie the Moocher. Cab Calloway, 1958.

Limbo Jazz. Duke Ellington with Coleman Hawkins, 1962.

Make me Rainbows.Ella Fitzgerald & Count Basie Orchestra, 1979.

Everyday People. Arrested Development, performed 1993.

Lefleur Leflah. The Fab 5: Heltah Skeltah & OGC, 1996.


You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.

 Charlie Parker

ImprovisationPerhaps the pinnacle of creativity; musical improvisation is the spontaneous composition and performance of music, no doubt requiring a serious mixture of skill, knowledge, an ability to communicate one’s emotions and imagination, and an ability to respond to external creative dynamics.

Improvisation is a global phenomenon, found in the majority of traditional music forms. Its presence in Black American Music pertains to certain Sub-Saharan musical traditions, which emphasise the importance of the individual’s input as part of a collective enactment, often seen in improvisational acts of percussion, drumming, singing and – of course – dancing.  

Women playing djembe in Guinea, West Africa

Body and Soul. Coleman Hawkins. 1939.

“An emphasis on improvisation and spontaneity is a further shared trait of different African musical cultures, and these too have figured prominently in – and, to some extent, have come to define – the later jazz tradition.”

Ted Gioia. (1997). The History of Jazz. Oxford University Press, Inc.

It seems that society, considerably more so in Western cultures, spends much of its time planning, thinking ahead, and trying to live life strategically. Improvisation appears to be the exact opposite; it only ever exists in the ‘now’ – as one’s life energy is played out in real time. This cannot but be healthy for both mind and body, for your instinct and imagination override cerebral reflection and procrastination: the stuff of intellectual achievements but, on the other hand, of stress and mental overloading also.

Examples of improvisation in performance; whether singing, playing, or dancing.

James Brown. T.A.M.I Show. 1964. (as a side note: 7.54 mins onward IS legendary)

Bridge over Troubled Water. Aretha Franklin. 1971

Freestyling. J-Live. 2009.

Move your Body. Hot 8 Brass Band. 2012.


“Where I come from we say that rhythm is the soul of life, because the whole universe revolves around rhythm, and when we get out of rhythm, that’s when we get into trouble.”

Babatunde Olatunji

Polyrhythm is the simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythm patterns – meters – that do not necessarily come from the same source. It is perhaps the most prominent characteristic of African music, and can be seen in many Sub-Saharan percussive styles and dances, such as the Agbekor dance of the Ewe people or in Kpanlogo music of the Ga people, played on instruments such as the djembe or the dundun drum.

In Black American Music this polyrhythmic feature is deeply manifest and can be seen, as music historian Ted Gioia points out,  “…in the lilting syncopations of ragtime, to the diverse offbeat accents of the bebop drummer to the jarring cross-rhythms of the jazz avant-garde.” as well as in countless ‘hypnotic’ funk and house tracks.

Personally, there is nothing more liberating than feeling and responding to the call of polyrhythmic sounds: it’s the delight of the soul’s ancient earth-navigator within.

“Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul”

Plato, c. 400 BC

Agbekor: War Dance from the Volta Region, Ghana. As enacted by dancers for choreographer Jason Aryeh’s Research Project.

Akiwowo. Babatunde Olatunji. 1986. Here you can clearly hear the bell whose role in Sub-Saharan music is often that of the time-keeper.

Free for All. Art Blaky and Jazz Messengers. 1964.

M’Boom. Max Roach. Re 1973

Me’Shell Ndegeocello. Mu-Min. 2005

El’Baka. Raynald Colom. 2012


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