up a Nation: Race and Black Music
A Bracing Book
This very bias is brain-storming and spirit-raking for everyone because we tend to react as if we were attacked and accused and we think: “Stop and look around.” What is so unique in the dual reality of the American nation, both black and white? Is it only two by the way? What about Native-Americans, Mexicans, Asian-Americans, and their respective contributions to the American nation? This is a nation built on a whole complex of differences and the main and dominant group has to learn how to live with it. And is that main and dominant group that homogeneous? But isn’t that the very core of human history? No social group has ever been united, even before nations existed, and a society can never be reduced to two groups. The Germans versus the Jews? We know what came out of it. The working class versus the capitalist class? We know what came out of it. This is a deep and ancient metaphysical way of thinking. The orthodox Christians versus the heretics. The Christians versus the Infidels. We can argue—for the sake of arguing—that this is a “western” concept, a Mediterranean attitude, etc. We may think of Turks versus Kurds, of Turks versus Armenians, of Sunnites versus Shiites, to widen the spectrum. We can even think of India and the Untouchables. Every time history thought and behaved as if humanity was cut into two groups, it led to extreme catastrophes.
The conclusion reached by W.E.B. Dubois and Ralph Ellison is a lot safer and progressive: the future can only come from democratic diversity, and we must not fall in the trap of considering all whites as one homogeneous group or even class of people, which Radano seems to do often. The poor white farmers, the poor white immigrants, the poor white workers had little to do with the rich plantation owners or the rich capitalists and bankers. That is where the book is most superficial. Chateaubriand, in his Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe (1824) wrote:
We even know that at the end of the nineteenth century, the capitalists of the United States were absolutely frightened by the possible alliance in rural areas of poor white and black farmers, and even the possible alliance of this rural movement with the working class both black and white trade-unionist movement in the cities. They did all they could to prevent it and succeeded. We can wonder if the movement was strong enough and unified enough. But such alliances were possible and even started being built. It’s what Howard Zinn describes in A People’s History of the United States, as the Farmers Alliance and the Knights of Labor. The recent development about the Mississippi case (see Mississippi Burning) of the killing of three white northern activists coming to help the blacks register for voting is there to remind us and prove that the white community is not homogeneous, nor is the black community.
Syncretic thinking or “jazz thinking”
Syncretic means several things. The reasoning is always a flow of consciousness. Argument A leads to argument B that leads to argument C that may lead back to argument A but in the new context of being brought back up by argument C. The reasoning is circular but helicoidal, going up little by little. Syncretic also means poetic in the sense that it associates words and sounds in a flowing continuous rhythm of images and arguments that build up a path to a conclusion that is just one or two steps higher than the starting point. No plain clear-cut deduction or syllogism. Rhythm, sounds, images, concepts, facts are piled or strung up to build a slow pilgrim’s progress towards a conclusion. Syncretic lastly means that the facts and conclusions are constantly dialecticized and seen with two edges: “Gifts can be double-edged, serving the giver as well as the taker” .
And at once he shows that it can be positive and negative for both the giver and the taker. Note the word “taker” (for the whites) is not neutral as receiver would have been. He thus doubles the dialectics of Dubois’s “gift” but introduces a term for the whites that may imply that the “taker” was not given anything. This is important. We are back to the first discussion. The blacks give the American nation a new development in culture but the whites take it, appropriate it instead of exchanging it for something else. Once again this dialectics does not differentiate the whites who are racist from those who fight against racism, even to the point of giving their life in doing so. The Civil War was a good example of their giving back. But to remain within the cultural field, or even the musical field, we cannot deny that some whites have done a lot for that black music to be produced and propagated (I am thinking of that Polish Jewish immigrant after the second world war who created the Chess Label that enabled the blues to get into the radios and onto the market, as Martin Scorsese tells us in Godfathers and Sons), but also that many white artists have used the great gift from the blacks to invent their own dimension with it, a dimension that went back to the blacks to enrich them in their turn with new developments. Jazz is a perfect example but rock and roll is another. Elvis Presley did not only use the black gift: he invested his own style, being and existence into it to produce a new dimension in music, and not only white music. But we could and should quote Europe: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, in English, and all the other musicians and groups in Europe and the world.
Syncretic means a fourth thing. The discourse very often sounds like a forum on the Internet with a historical time line that is not respected, with arguments and counterarguments that sound like rebuttals, etc. Rousseau is not quoted in the eighteenth-century section of the book (second chapter) but in the third chapter dealing with the antebellum nineteenth century. Same thing with Montesquieu’s denunciation of racism: "It is impossible for us to suppose that these beings should be men; because if we supposed them to be men, one would begin to believe that we ourselves were not Christians" .
And a lot more could be said about Montesquieu. And what about Buffon:
In fact none of the Enlightenment French philosophers and scientists are quoted in the eighteenth century section. If I insist on the French philosophers and scientists, it’s because French Louisiana covers at the time nearly half of the North American continent, from the Gulf of Mexico to Quebec and Maine. It should have been studied in detail in the pre-revolutionary period because of the influence the French had on the history of the United States. We know Lafayette of course who was moved by philosophical ideas. We know too that these ideas brought about the French Revolution that abolished slavery, with all it means for the blacks. The role and action of the French Catholic church should have been studied: their encouraging conversion and religious practice, their tolerating of Vodun and other African practices, their teaching reading and writing, their encouraging local languages, particularly Creoles that are still in existence today, and of course music. It would also have enabled Radano to contrast the two revolutions. It is not only one word that is different: “all men are born equal in rights” versus “all men are created equal.” This would have led to understanding that the whites were not one homogeneous group in America and in the world and that those who opposed slavery in the United States had deep and old roots in their culture due to the Enlightenment philosophers and scientists.
But this non-respect of the historical time line is typical of today’s Internet communication which is deeply and systematically syncretic. This is going to become an important characteristic of the twenty-first century. We will have to deal with it and we, intellectuals, will have to fight it back. Syncretic thinking is interesting and even enriching by the short circuits it may create in our way of thinking, by the emphasis on intuition more than deduction, by the importance of concatenation instead of logical relation, etc. We need to see that a strict deductive method prevents us from seeing many new ideas and stating many new hypotheses. But one thing we will have to be strict about is the time line of history. We cannot use something from the twentieth century to prove something in the eighteenth century, and vice versa. Syncretism is extremely important for the opening of new trails in the wilderness of the unknown, but it has to remain within the historical time line: anachronism, so common in syncretic Internet thinking, can only lead to fuzzy ideas and confusion. Fuzzy concepts (and we know mathematics are using more and more of these) are necessary to progress but historical confusion is maybe romantic and poetical but it is not acceptable in research.
The first idea is that it was an African-American invention and Radano insists on the break between Africa and America for these slaves. He insists on the fact that they had different languages, that they were sold and sold again into complete estrangement, that they did not have that rhythm in Africa and could not bring it along with them, that this invention started slowly and haphazardly to develop into slave songs and then later forms of black music. His insistence on a complete break is surprising. He refuses to accept the idea that it was in the genes of the blacks. I can understand such a refusal. Yet, here and there, he gives facts that go against the idea of a complete break, and what’s more he explores what music Africans had in Africa at the time. His idea seems to be that this rhythm was invented under the strain of slavery and all its torture, violence and exploitation, as a reaction to it. He does not seem very clear on that point of the break or the continuity of the blacks from Africa to America. He seems to forget that Africans were very often trilingual to be able to exchange with their neighbors. He seems not to know that most of the languages of the slaves were from western Africa, hence from one group of languages; Bambara or Manding, itself from the wider family of Bantu languages. This means that many words, the general intonation and the syntax were very common from one language to the next. The whites did not know those languages and most of them could not even understand them, which means that they scattered the slaves according to their original African villages more than according to their languages. He does not take into account the process that created the Creole language(s), which is the survival of some lexicon and a lot of syntax of the African Bantu languages into either English or Spanish or French that were imposed onto them. The process accelerated the evolution of the European languages and produced either the Creole language(s) we can find in the West Indies, or even on the continent, or further on down the road of integration the present language of African-Americans, black English. Some of the testimonies given by Radano even go that way with one preacher who advises his colleagues to learn the language the blacks speak in order to evangelize them better and faster. The extreme violence of the process of enslavement associated with the complete transportation away from Africa makes communication a necessity and makes the birth of such a language extremely rapid. It only took about one hundred years in England for Anglo-Saxon to evolve into the first forms of the Creole language known as Middle English, and the invasion of England by the Normans was a lot less violent and deculturizing, which does not mean the loss of one’s culture, but the destructurization of one’s culture and later restructurization of it. What’s more he forgets that the slaves often arrived in the West Indies where they stayed some time to recuperate a little bit under the control of their transporters who were mainly Spanish or French and these did not scatter them away at once. As for the French, often the slaves were captured in Africa and brought to Bordeaux, for example, to be kept for a while in the lower floor of some houses built along the embankment of the river in collective “cellars” or “jails,” each transporter having his own slave-house. His lack of knowledge of the process makes him state something that cannot be accepted as an acceptable hypothesis. There was less of a break than he pretends, and the voyage of the slaves from Africa to the American plantations may have taken several months.
But his exploration of rhythm does not have enough scope. He encloses it inside the black community in the United States, so that he cannot characterize the black invention except with the word “syncopation.” Percussions have existed in all societies, and not only in “primitive societies.” In the Middle Ages they were varied and used in all popular music for dancing. But this popular music and its percussions were introduced in the churches in the famous masses of fools or asses, or in the biblical opera of the thirteenth century, Ludus Danielis, or in the Danses Macabres of the fifteenth century. On the other side popyphony was devised in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries within Gregorian church singing and it was introduced into secular music by Adam de la Halle and his “opera” Robin and Marion in the twelfth century. In fact we should also speak of the courtly secular music of Troubadours and Trouveres, hence of three styles in constant dialogue and exchange. Rhythm and percussions were mainly from one style but spread to the others. In the sixteenth century the English madrigal developed under Henry VIII by the junction of popular songs, often known as maypole songs, and the new Italian style arriving in England. Diderot in his Encyclopedia has one full page dedicated to percussions (thirteen different instruments) in the eighteenth century, and it does not include the tam-tam. But rhythm which was carried by the tempo of the melody was also emphasized by percussions or the use of some instruments like the violin, or the strings (Vivaldi), or wind instruments (Purcell). The eighteenth century is the century of the strange migration of one tempo. The ternary “bourrée” was borrowed by J.S. Bach as a rather heavy and rustic tempo from village dances. Mozart borrowed it in his turn and made it light and spinning. And it was to become the waltz later for Viennese salons and then to go back to the people and become very popular indeed late in the nineteenth century. Exchange is the master word in such musical inventions: here a new tempo which is also a new rhythm.
What Radano misses here is essential, and typically African. African rhythm is double. There is what corresponds to our tempo marking the strong beat of the measure, often slow and followed by simple dancers. But there is also another rhythm that is fast, at times very fast, following all the beats of the measure, at times even beats cut up into sections, and that rhythm can lead to a dance that is completely different, edging even on real trance. That is the real invention of African music, the two rhythmic lines, one slow, one fast, that follow each other, are superimposed onto each other. If you slightly push the fast one forward it produces the syncopation we are speaking of. Modern drums are devised to be able to work two or three different simultaneous rhythmic lines. European dances could be very fast too, like the Italian tarantella, but we never had two rhythmic lines.
But this invention is not black anymore. It is part of the human universal heritage and culture of the whole world. Note such effects were possible in European music with one instrument providing the official tempo and another filling in the tempo with a much faster rhythm, “too many notes” as is said about Mozart. The piano even led to that with the opposition between the two hands (which was not possible with the harpsichord because of its rather limited range). And it is that potential that explains the great success of the piano with black music, which is thus a pure case of exchange, of giving back, or taking back something in exchange for something else. This very remark, the invention of the piano forte first and the real modern piano second at the end of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth century respectively in Europe, leads us to the next step in the discussion Radano introduces us to.
Rhythm and the modern world
Songs to accompany work have always existed among workers of all types. Sailors are well known for that but also mowers and thrashers when these activities of mowing and thrashing were performed by hand. It was also linked to European “compagnonages,” “corporations” and “free-masons” in the Middle Ages. I could quote one of these songs still used in the 1960s and 1970s by industrial carpenters to get rid of an annoying foreman. Two lines sung by a few and then two lines sung by all the workers, over and over again, till the foreman left the workshop. Such songs go back to very old history and we must not forget that call and answer singing was the normal rule of Gregorian chants.
But the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution, urbanization brought a new rhythm in life, always faster, especially with mechanization, Fordism and Taylorism, or with hectic urban life with subways, trains and automobiles. The human body had to adapt to this new rhythm and to quicken its pace and reflexes tremendously. It brought rhythm, or rather fast rhythm into our life. The African invention that existed in Africa long before slavery in America translates that marvelously. The basic heart rhythm did not change, but the fast rhythm of the nerve impulse needed for fast reflexes and quick stereotyped actions was a new thing in life. Radano sees it but does not use it to explain why that rhythmic music became popular nearly over night and to show how vain and useless all attempts to stop the phenomenon or to contain it were bound to be. It goes beyond any class or ethnic group. It is the expression of a new stage in human development and its success shows how the new rhythm in life also—in a way—produced it by taking over some thing that already existed with another signification to express the new environment.
You can find that notion of exploded life and living rhythm expressed with other means, in music pieces by Prokofiev, Stravinsky and many others, plus of course all the modern developments we know in all types of music. African-Americans just proposed an original way of expressing that change, and it produced a completely new planet of music. The emergence of percussions in classical European music started with Beethoven, then Berlioz (the Tuba mirum of his Requiem requires sixteen kettle drums and ten percussionists to play them) and then Schoenberg, Stravinsky (who found it so easy to shift from his Russian music to jazz), Bartok, Varese, etc. Today we can even have full orchestras with only percussions. But if you widen the discourse you get out of the racially determined US locked-up approach, you get out of the dual vision of blacks versus whites and reach a universal vision of many different styles and groups having percussions and dual or even more syncopated, or not, rhythm in common. We definitely have to get out of dual thinking if we want to reach some valid and constructive conclusion.
This leads me to the idea that at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, people like W.E.B. Dubois started thinking that the dual racially determined society that was imposed by the powerful whites of the United States was no longer able to carry any progress. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Ellison later, and many others, whites or blacks, in the US or in the world, widened this vision especially within the context of the Cold War that divided the world in two.
Let me conclude with Radano:
This conclusion contains a contradiction that Radano has never tried nor been able to solve or even overcome. And this contradiction blocks any dynamism: stating that the racial imagination of black music exceeds racial and national bounds and at the same time is reduced to the relational tension between blackness and whiteness. Contradictions cannot be solved by the elimination of one of the opposing elements, proving orthodox dual thinkers including Marxists wrong, but it cannot be reduced to just two elements, otherwise the instability will produce recurrent catastrophic setbacks. It is by working within this instability to produce some change without breaking the back of the camel or capsizing the boat that things may change, maybe slowly, but surely. We have to build alliances within this instability to weigh onto it and make it move in one direction rather than another and produce a new instability that will be better for everyone, or at least for the majority. That is the meaning of Dubois and Ellison for today when we reach the globalized level of the world. Remember our limit is the sky if we are able to seize the day, as some Black Panthers of old used to say.