Sunday, June 3, 2012

Moving to a beat

I think it is difficult for many Americans to realize how much the world has gained from African music.  I realize that in the world of humans, we all came physically from Africa which is an even bigger deal.  But still, most tv story shows these days contain one or more scenes with a sound track that includes a heavy, distinct, steady, basic rhythm.  As Prof. Bill Messenger makes clear in the Great Course "Elements  of Jazz: from Cakewalk to Infusion", there were times in the late 1800's and early 1900's, that Caucasians who had always been convinced of their superiority to African-Americans found that their favorite bands could not produce the wild and intoxicating sounds that what appeared to be rag-tag, untutored Black musicians could make every time they wanted to.  The draw of the sought music was strong enough that whites waived some of their impulse to avoid interacting with Blacks.

I saw part of "Amandla!", the music film that won the Sundance Film Festival of 2002.  That moving movie shows the more or less natural reaction of South African Blacks to various public threats and intimidations by the white police during the apartheid struggles.  Since Europeans seem to have a natural tendency toward stoicism and emotional control, they have the habit of listening to music, even stirring music, in a state of body stillness.  Africans, African-Americans and many of today's young people of all ethnic groups tend to move their bodies in various ways to accompany a strong beat.  In "Amandla", the African pattern of singer voicing a call and the surrounding group answering with a repetitive part was often used naturally to rally and unify a group under threat.  The American civil rights movement included moments of a similar nature where a singer would sing out and soon a large mass of people where singing "We Shall Overcome".

We watched "Joyeux Noel" and saw Scottish, French and German troops in one of the bloodiest wars ever halt their fighiting and share a little of the common religious heritage and feelings on Christmas Eve in WW I in 1914.  This "fraternization" with the enemy is a very serious crime in nearly all armies.  As the German troops were being sent in a windowless box car to the site of their punishment, a single singer sings out a hymn to help the group remember what they have seen and experienced together, disapproval or not.

Yesterday, at my friend's funeral, the coffin was brought out of the chapel and the service ended with the song "Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king", sung to a simple, insistent and African-sort of beat.  I felt like I was in one of those parades I have seen in New Orleans when a funeral really moves by to jazz, hand-clapping and dancing.  At lunch after, all those assembled were of European descent but we appreciated the uplifting effect of that rhythm and that way of ending a service.  One of us remarked that she had to verify to herself that she really was in the chapel of a Catholic convent. 

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