The victims of the negro slave trade – as I’d been reading from Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad a few days before back in Huye – were hurled into the New World with nothing to their name, stripped of the objects and social ties that would allow them to create a cultural bond. Coming back into Kigali Public Library to indulge in The Great Black Music exhibition1 would help add chunks of what could be missing pieces to Colson’s unfinished story in my head (I’d only gone 200 pages in).
Here, I saw that of all the African cultural practices, only music, dance and religion – immaterial arts – were preserved and reinvested with the power to bring people together. The music created by black populations on the American continent was generated in the humility of slavery. It created a freedom that black people did not possess. It made the poetry of being “invisible men”, of the humanity denied them, resound like a trumpet. Through the curious reversal of the situation, it came to embody everything that was new and original to come out of America.
The impetus of the exhibition was to show that it is impossible to draw a clean line between any of the forms of black music and ‘pure and authentic’ African music forms. The various musical currents of the African diaspora do have points in common: a particular use of short melodic and rhythmic patterns that make one want to get up and dance, such as in blues, funk and afrobeat riffs, the loop in hip hop. There’s also a clear penchant for rhythmic structures; the call and response technique, pentatonic scales and modified timbres that could already be heard in African instruments, the gravelly voice of bluesmen, the mute and wah-wah of jazz trumpets, the saturation of electric guitars…
Through the over 80 exhibit screens, one sees among other things, that religion is one of the first places people turn in order to recreate identity and express themselves artistically. Cuban Santeria is a synthesis of Catholic rites and African religions. Voodoo rituals were an instrument of cohesion between slaves. Afro-Brazilian Candomble is a subtle mixture of African beliefs, Indian rites and Catholicism. The maloya of the Reunion island cultivates the memory of ancestors through music, while gospel and negro spiritual combine African beats and Christian faiths.
Largely though, upon tracing the roots of black music, it asks and showcases through a series of artists how Great Black Music perpetuated itself in the twentieth-century and how it continues to do so today.
Through artists of the coupe-decale to the booty-shaking of zouglou, the vocoders of Jamaican dancehall to Hispanophone reggaeton. The life and times of artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Sly Jonhson, Marvin Gaye and their roles in the march for civil rights were narrated with accompanying video and their own soul, funk, rhythm n’ blues music. The jazz adventures of Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Miles Davies, John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway, Steve Coleman & Cassandra Wilson. Reggae and Jamaican music from Bob Marley, King Tuby, Lucky Dube, Seeed, Alpha Blondy, Tiken Jah Fakoly. The Congo’s rumba, bolingo and makossa sang by arists such as Bonga, Zao, Franco. Afro-soul artists like Miriam Makeba, Cesaria Evora, Tadieu Bone, S.E. Rogie, King Sunny Ade, Angelique Kidjo. Muted calypso with Harry Belafonte, Kassav, Gilberto Gil.
My highlight was the jazz and blues of Duke Ellington morphing into the rhythm and blues undertones adopted by Elvis Presley on the way to birthing roll into rock n’ roll, and its evolution into the more electric riff-driven exploits of Jimi Hendrix.
What the exhibition did is to offer the listener insight into the sounds, senses, sensibilities, fashions, politics, struggles, successes, failures, songs, dances, names, bands, moments, connections, controversies, conventions, conversions, cadences, and rhythms that have made black music over the past one hundred years.
1The exhibition ran from April-August 2017, Kigali being its first African city and its tenth stop.