Home 9 Volume 2 9 Music in the Life of Africans and Their Descendants in the New World


THE FIRST AFRICANS were brought to the Americas at the threshold of the sixteenth century, just as Spain was initiating the colonization of these lands, first discovered in 1492, while consolidating its definitive domination of peninsular territories by the seizure of the last Moorish strongholds. By this time, the slave trade already existed between Europe and various locations in sub-Saharan Africa.

The invading Arabs and European merchants and traders who reached beyond the difficult barrier of the Sahara desert found Africa to be a complex mosaic. Highly intricate migration patterns always had affected that continent. Its environmental and ecological diversity gave rise to many different types of modes of subsistence, and to a variety of social and cultural responses. Given these circumstances, the first lot of Africans introduced by the slave trade to the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, and later to continental areas—where they were further dispersed—had little to offer in new lands that must have appeared dramatically foreign to both the African slaves and the conquering Spaniards. During this initial period, both colonizers and slaves must have experienced a sense of marked social disruption. The reduced number of Africans, their very condition as slaves, and their differences in place of origin, ethnic group, and even age (a key social criterion in Africa since age is correlated with different levels of social responsibility), must have reduced their possible cultural contribution to a minimum.

The African presence in the Americas, particularly in the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico) and Brazil, increased substantially between the second half of the eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. An increase in demand for more “pieces” (slaves) had broadened the commercial dimension of the slave trade and given rise to changes in its organization, while attracting the participation of other European maritime powers. At the same time, the African chiefdoms were incrementally becoming organic units in a vast network of domination they created to harness the widely different degrees of dispersion to which the various human groups had been subjected. This, in turn, anchored more securely their cultural traditions and generated a more precise definition of their hierarchies and belief systems, enhancing particular forms of class stratification. Dramatic changes were also in store for the Americas, as a growing demand for products, especially sugar, eventually would substitute slave labor with wage labor.



Slavery was abolished in the Americas between 1822 and 1888 (Santo Domingo, 1822; Chile, 1823; Federation of Central America, 1824; Mexico, 1829; Uruguay, 1846; Colombia, 1851; Ecuador, 1852; Argentina, 1853; Venezuela and Peru, 1854; Paraguay, 1870; Puerto Rico, 1873; Cuba, 1886; and Brazil, 1888). Long before then, an increasing population of freedmen resulted from complex and drawn-out procedures, such as the coartación (partial sums that slaves paid to their masters for their freedom) or service in armies waging wars of independence in exchange for freedom. It was within this freed sector of the population, with a majority made up of Africans born in the New World and mestizos (of mixed parents), that a movement to take possession of cultural traditions that had been cast in the mold of the dominant (Hispanic) culture took place. This phenomenon was manifested in the American presence of lay religious festivities that assumed a totally secular nature, at least among those Africans and their descendants who were marginalized to the peripheries of urban centers. They were joined by a considerable number of whites who had been relegated to the most exploited social groups. This process also became intensified by the neocolonialist penetration that peoples from this part of the world have endured since the end of the nineteenth century. Music in particular (songs and instruments), as well as dances (and secondarily ritual dress) were the powerful expressions of traditional popular culture, anchored mostly in the multiple forms and variants of some among the most tenacious African religions. These expressions played an extremely important social role among populations of African descent, which were already an integral part of the cultural profile of the Americas.

Although African cultures were not “moved” to the Americas as integral wholes, we cannot consider their cultural products as mere fragments or shreds, ripped out of their original cultures and inserted as parts of the quilt of another culture that, unfolding independently of African influence, then would become “tainted” with dissectable African traits and sown with afronegrismos more or less detectable and just as easily removed, as if it were possible to “cleanse” this hypothetical culture of its black African influence to allow—by simplistic opposition—”whiteness” to shine through. Thus, the African presence cannot be viewed either as a catalogue of rhythmic figures and formulas or as a repertoire of melodic gestures and patterns. It would be even more contrived to try to single out scales of this or that type as contributed by Africans, or think it possible to detect the minimum number of African components in urban folk musics. On the contrary, it is necessary to view African influences in a more general sense, as implicit modes of being too deeply embedded to be obliterated by the alienation imposed by the system of slavery, as it developed in our America.

For the European colonizer, the new lands must have provided an opportunity to satisfy unfettered personal interests, ambitions, and tastes. As these visions were so personal, even their collective structures were destined to defend the extreme individualism etched in the consciousness of the European Renaissance. Africans, instead, from time immemorial, were involved in various forms of exchange, mutual aid, and collaboration, functioning as part of organic groups. While this was perhaps momentarily altered by the socioeconomic alienation and hostility fostered by the slave trade, the innate African view of society, the basis of African social consciousness, is a group image, an image of collective action and participation. This stood in radical opposition to the individualism of the European colonizer, which at times reached inconceivable extremes. The sense of social collectivity allowed Africans and their descendants to be in and remain within their cultural expressions, to situate themselves in their time and space. Based on “togetherness,” these enduring expressions fostered their union with place, nature, and with one another.

Within this group-oriented perception of being, music provided the most decisive mechanism for masses of slaves to identify with the new land and with their fellow humans. The musical language that Africans recreated in the New World only retained and transmitted categorical models, which, by analogy with language, we could call syntactical and discursive (or rhetorical), despite dramatic disruptions in their cultural trajectories.

Africans also incorporated functional elements, similarly affected by disruptive circumstances. These ranged from the dress that slaves were permitted to wear and the housing assigned to them, to their languages, which underwent changes and shocks at the outset of colonization, and even to their food. As far as music was concerned, syntactical and rhetorical models were inserted into very different conditions from those in their natural habitat, and had to be adapted to the resources of a new material culture (such as the raw materials used to build instruments, for instance). Consistent with this mechanism of cultural insertion into a socioeconomic milieu in formation that was highly unstable, the African presence in the music of the Americas cannot possibly be approached from the viewpoint of discernible roots, for it is much more than stereotypical rhythmic formulas or the introduction of certain instruments—such as claves, tumbadoras, or maracas—into an ensemble made up, for instance, of flute or clarinet, trombone, old ophicleide, and two violins.



We must remember that no African cultures were “moved” to the Americas as integral wholes. Nor did Europeans transport their cultures intact. The arrival of Africans, as well as Spaniards and colonizers from other empires or countries, took place at many different times and in varying demographic distributions over the course of several centuries.

In the presence of musics perceived today as characteristically American, the contribution of Africans and their descendants (both slaves and freedmen) is clearly discernible in a very general way, molded as it were by the African presence. Practically everyone sings and dances, and many whites of various origins participate in the dancing. The relatively smaller number of instrumental performers is commensurate with the degree to which instruments are associated with ritual, since the playing of some drums requires initiation rites, and their construction might call for special consecratory practices—from the selection of the tree chosen for its wood through the final stages of construction and the first moment they are made to sound (see Victoria Eli Rodríguez, “Güiros and Batá Drums: Two Instrumental Groups of Cuban Santería,” in this volume). Likewise, there are musical performances further limited to specific religious practices that, as part of other processes and social circumstances, have anchored African traditions in the New World while also attracting other groups to African belief systems.

In the Americas, Africans and their descendants also participated in many popular traditional festivities of Hispanic origin, either on their own or because their masters sponsored the events. These included purely religious festivals, such as Corpus Christi, in which Africans in Spain had participated since before the Conquest of the Americas. The Corpus Christi procession in Cuba featured members of religious, civic, and labor organizations following the “Majesty” or image of Christ, with representations of pagan scenes trailing behind them. These scenes unfailingly featured a vanquishing angel, when not one of those warring saints, and also Lucifer, never without his wife, or other he/she devils who roam in the infernal domain. Representations also took on the style of autos sacramentales (peninsular plays of religious or contemplative character, frequently with incidental music) with the participation of blacks, properly costumed and masked; or adapted the tradition of battles between Moors and Christians (Moros y cristianos, resignified in the Americas to symbolize the conquered and conqueror) in folk versions that became increasingly remote from the actual battles waged in Spain during the Reconquest. The tradition of masqueraded groups (comparsas), of very ancient African ancestry, is still retained today in some Catholic festivities, in addition to other comparsas on diverse themes organized by neighborhoods with a majority of blacks and mestizos. From these types of representations, various festivities associated with the celebration of carnival have been derived. All of these occasions incorporate membranophones modeled after ancient African drums, along with instruments of European provenance, and idiophones developed in the Americas, such as cowbells (cencerros), plowshares, hoeblades, and automobile wheel rims.

In the aftermath of the abolition of slavery, a peculiar reconstruction of cultural traits of a functional nature took place in areas with large concentrations of people of African descent resulting from different types of colonial exploitation. This reconstruction engaged even the most oppressed, as they began to reorder their ways of life. In essence, freedom implied greater economic instability for these African Americans. Furthermore, this process of cultural reconstruction also was affected by the different attitudes toward the black sector of the population reflected in policies adopted by governments of the new republics, with more than a few conflicts generated by shifts in social class-structure among the dominant sectors. Thus, on the one hand, one cultural response was to integrate the practice of ancient African cults with old songs and their texts, and with traditional instruments and their toques, seeking the closest possible reconstruction of these songs’ and toques’ particular ritual functions. (In this context, a toque can be defined as a rhythmic locution of patterns and strokes that serves a specific communicative function.) On the other hand, there was a sector of the black population that, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, tended to integrate into society at large, readjusting and accommodating to new living conditions, but this only to the extent that minorities of blacks and mestizos were able to join a small middle-level bourgeoisie, as measured by the scale of industrially underdeveloped nations.

The groups subjected to the most drastic relocations and social upheavals had to face profoundly alienating circumstances. Those uprooted by such changes had to adapt habits and customs to new situations and opportunities. This process of adjustment is reflected, for instance, in changes that affected musical instruments. These were greatly modified by the need to use more readily available materials. In some cases, their complexity was reduced by simplification; in other instances, instruments were developed and elaborated in response to new contacts and ideas. Songs, on the one hand, suffered noticeable change and loss, including some cases of a leveling of pitches in the melodic line. On the other hand, many songs were added to the repertoire that alluded, for instance, to ethnic groups, some of them already extinct. Other songs would commemorate past events and situations, using texts to store historical memories.



Many of the changes noted above were kindled by migrations, as, for instance, those outward from Haiti from 1791 until Haiti declared its independence in 1804. The migrations from Haiti to Jamaica carried with them the festival described as the French Girls’ Parade. On a larger scale, the migrations from Haiti to eastern Cuba brought the tumbas francesas to the island. Concurrent with the transfer of Louisiana to the United States in 1803, another migration from Haiti led to settlements in south-central and western Cuba, then continued to some of the Lesser Antilles until it reached Guadeloupe and Martinique, bearing the airs of the biguine (bégin), greatly enjoyed and cultivated by the black population. The Louisiana Purchase preceded by one year Haiti’s independence in 1804 and the concomitant greater migration of white colonizers as well as blacks, both slaves and freedmen, along with many mestizos, from Haiti to Cuba. Another instance—different from the migrations that originated in Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century—is exemplified by the fiestas of Big Drum in the island of Carriacou, the terminal point of migratory movements that originated in the French possessions of Martinique and Guadeloupe during the two moments in history when Carriacou, a satellite island of Grenada, was in the possession of France (for a superb study of the Big Drum dance of Carriacou, see McDaniel 1992). Other migrations took place along the Caribbean coast, from Colombia to what would become Panama, and later movements, originating in Panama after the construction of the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, carried new musics that had assembled there to the Lesser Antilles.

By the early 1900s, yet another migratory movement had played itself out that had some bearing on traditions carrying the allusive function of recalling, commemorating, resignifying upheavals, and creating a historical memory. This movement emanated mainly from what was then the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico and can be traced to the early decades of the nineteenth century. It entailed a slave trade between Puerto Rico, the island of Cuba, the Spanish-speaking territory of Hispaniola (Santo Domingo, the present-day Dominican Republic), and the rest of the Antillean archipelago. The demographic shuffling that ensued took place after the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, thereafter campaigning against it and threatening the labor supply in other colonies. As the slave trade was not only discouraged but openly prosecuted, and therefore at its peak, the price of a slave rose to its highest. Occasionally sheltered by legal loopholes, this trade often was outrightly clandestine and even entailed stealing blacks from other islands, where they were freedmen, and selling them in Cuba, Santo Domingo, or places in continental America. This movement of slaves, which began in the 1820s, brought about a tremendous mixture of ethnic and age groups to the physiognomy of the Caribbean, and did not cease until struggles for independence put an end to Spanish domination in the Americas. We must keep in mind that, while these complex migrations were taking place, new groups of Africans also continued to arrive, contributing in no small measure to the transmission and reinvigoration of African traditions in the New World.

The spirit of abolition of slavery joined the trumpet call of South American independence, sounded by Simón Bolivar’s victory at Ayacucho in 1824. The independence of Venezuela and Colombia in 1811 and 1819, respectively, led to another important migration from these countries toward southern Cuba, the lower coast of Mexico, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Rico. This migration included entire families, the departing Spanish troops, and volunteer forces that united Spaniards with many creoles, mestizos, and some blacks. This migratory wave carried with it a tenderly amatory type of slow song in triple meter with idyllic texts that took root in the Caribbean song repertoire (or cancionística caribeña), appealing mostly to modest families of an urban middle class. The romantic song genre or, simply, canción, prospered in urban centers and attracted singers and guitars (and possibly variants of the guitar created in the New World), composers, and performers who were mostly men (white, mestizo, and black) from the middle class, as well as manual laborers frequently performing serenatas offered to a lady.

As a whole, the population of African descent in the Americas arrived at different times and places, in varying numbers, and from ethnic backgrounds as linguistically diverse as distant in geography. We also must consider individual differences among Africans, because just the fact of being African did not mean that a person knew how to play the drums, or practice ancestral cult worship, or carve masks, or weave cloth, or work stone, or smelt metals. And, in addition, we must recognize the disruption and demands of the slave trade on individuals and the very few options open to them. From the slave block, in whatever place in the Antilles or the South American continent, the slave immediately was relocated to any of a great variety of environments—ranging from the city, where they performed domestic service and drove carriages, to the most remote sites, for work in inhospitable mines or fishing for mother-of-pearl. Slaves had to adapt to a wide variety of conditions, including being assigned to types of agricultural or other labor with which they were unfamiliar, and face despotic treatment of many sorts while enduring indescribable aberrations. From these initial disruptions, they developed various strategies to reconstruct their musics. Sometimes softly sung personal songs were kept alive by an elder, perhaps accompanying himself with a sanza (mbira), or by beating on the seat of a chair. Other songs learned in Africa included those performed outside of the boundary of rituals, among them puyas (gibes) for social gatherings or nonreligious occasions whose satirical texts served as an indirect form of social commentary. There were also work songs, as well as other types, such as a rich repertoire of sung narratives.

An important religious organization was the black brotherhood or confraternity (cofradía). The cofradías were established by the Catholic Church in order to disseminate Christian doctrine and often involved a commitment to mutual aid among its members. With the Christian doctrine that blacks were more or less receiving, they also must have learned the ritual songs of the Marian cult. A similar process took place at the turn of the nineteenth century with songs of the various Protestant denominations in the English-speaking Caribbean, many of which were assimilated into the local cults that emerged from populations of African descent in these colonies or countries. There were also lay religious organizations of greater African influence, or cabildos, that existed apart from the Catholic Church. As belief systems were being rescued, Africans and their descendants began to shape actual forms of ritual enactment and reconstruct ritual objects as a means of preserving and transmitting traditions that eventually would define their cultural patrimony. Along with the reconstruction of cults, including divination and ceremonial language, new social hierarchies were emerging that assigned roles of leadership to those key practitioners, both male and female, who professed the greatest degree of faith in these systems and went on to occupy central positions in the cult houses. In Cuba, these houses were called casas de santo (saint’s houses), casas de mina (Mina houses, referring perhaps to a West African ethnic group, or to the practices of slaves shipped to the colonies from the now-Ghanaian port city of Elmina), and casas de palo (referring to palo mayombe, the Bantu-derived cult).




The aesthetic value assigned to timbre or tone color as a fundamental syntactical element is Africa’s principal contribution to musics of the Americas. The African conception of timbre in music is analogous to the function of color in the plastic arts. Timbre refers to color-textures unfolding in time and space, wherein pitch, rhythm, and modes of sound production create distinctly differentiated masses of sound. This conception probably derived from the role that means of sound production played in primeval stages of humanity, as sounds that imitated those known to humans or allusions to them were used to obtain sonorities capable of “enveloping” humans or “occupying” a given space. We should keep in mind that the very first steps taken by humans—in Africa itself—must have created a sound in the environment that occupied space and engaged attention. Even today, in fact, shouting and screaming (that we could call voceaciones) are “environmental sounds” that African women and children utter to accompany chiefs and dignitaries when they depart for an event and when they return. The transfer of a real image, such as any environmental sound, to a performance, which is a controllable human creation, conceivably could have been little more than a higher level of animism to the African mind. The combination of different timbric layers, organized as sound masses of different tone qualities, conjures up images of corporeality and color, and might have stood as a concrete representation of sonorities transcending auditory images in surrounding nature. Such a concept of timbre permitted Africans to assemble a sound mass produced, for instance, by a drum skin, combined with another sound mass produced by other means. The latter could entail a metal idiophone or aerophones, such as ivory trumpets and resonating vocal tubes. It even could entail a chordophone. In African music, strings are not used, as in European music, to produce “melody” with flowing sounds that combine various intervals. Rather, a chordophone repeats a single motif whose constancy makes it sound like a timbric band (franja tímbrica) of a specific color, somewhat like the perceptual effect of an ongoing pedal point. A similar effect can be produced by internally or externally struck idiophones played by shaking. The Cuban musicologist Fernando Ortiz, perceptively underscoring the importance of timbre in his works (such as La africanía de la música folklórica de Cuba [1950] and Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana (1952-1955]), pointed out that African music uses the sound potential of wood, skin, and metal. Ortiz viewed this as an African means of uniting the three kingdoms of nature, namely vegetable, animal, and mineral. What Ortiz interpreted as an allegorical reference to nature we consider today as an African cognitive device to attain a concrete timbric corporealization of different auditory images offered by nature.

Timbric bands (franjas tímbricas) are sonorous masses of different textures and tone qualities that are temporally extended. While the European musician might conceptualize the unfolding of music in time as articulated by small units, the African musician conceives of a performance as situated in space, instead of unfolding in time, more like concrete images within a space whose dimensions are shaped by the timbric combinations themselves, and by the very subtle variables in the quality of such timbres. African music thus circumscribes a space whose dimensions and boundaries are intrinsically delineated and easily perceptible as timbric bands. Such, we believe, would be a view of African music by African criteria.

Likewise, traditional African singing unfolds within spaces and boundaries that are easily perceptible to the listener. However, the referential pitches that frame intervallic hierarchies are not comparable, for instance, to the function of a finalis in Gregorian chant whose reiteration serves to relativize and situate variable modal structures. For the African singer, these referential pitches are recurring lines (líneas de recurrencias) that, carrying a structural function, differ from one song to another and can change when they fulfill the function of introducing another song. The pitches we are calling “referential,” or recurring lines that articulate a structure, create spaces between utterances that the singer fills in with a traditional melody and text. In turn, the interspersed song-text itself undergoes variations regulated by a system of allusions or deprecations. Moreover, the referential pitches can be emphasized further by ornamental turns and auxiliary tones, particularly when, in the course of a song, they accumulate comminatory meaning.

Carrying further the simile we have adopted in reference to a spatial conception of musical performance and timbric bands therein, we must add that the timbric plane occupied by the drums results from an elaboration of texture, or density. This texture is obtained, on the one hand, by the combination of two, three, or more drums of different sizes and registers, while, on the other hand, the rhythmic patterns performed by each drum create internal planes that retain their rhetorical, or discursive, function. The timbric band is therefore a composite of the internal planes generated by the rhythmic patterns and strokes of each drum. In musics closely circumscribed to religious systems reconstructed on the basis of African antecedents, drums of various sizes and head tensions are combined to provide a relatively wide range, from low to high. The lowest-pitched drum plays irregular and intermittent rhythmic figures; the larger diameter and looser tension of the drumhead allow the drummer to articulate a variety of strokes produced by different hand positions. He can play at the rim or toward the center: he can strike with his fingertips or with his four fingers outstretched, with the edge of his hand, or with a cupped or a flat hand. Through these and other resources, the performer (tamborero) can improvise a line whose oratorical character reproduces the inflections of speech, hence our definition of its character as “oratorical.” Although the other drums also maintain their own rhythmic patterns and their own oratorical character, their patterns are, however, reiterative (regular or repetitive). The middle-pitched drum plays repetitive rhythmic figures in longer phrases, while the highest-pitched drum articulates rhythmic motifs and pitch variations in shorter phrases that are constant and reiterative. There are also many toques, some of them very complex, in which the middle- and high-pitched drums mutually complement the inflections of a brief verbal phrase that drummers know from tradition. Reiteration, as performed in these middle- and high register planes, makes possible a linear and spatial projection of the drum ensemble’s timbric texture.

Other instruments are added to the complex timbric band created by the drums. Idiophones that enrich the timbric texture of the drums could include those of the atcheré (acheré) type, namely a rattle or kind of maraca made from the gourd of the güira, totuma, or calabaza fruit whose strikers are inserted inside the vessel; agógo or campana, a generic term for iron idiophones comprising instruments such as the cencerro (cowbell) or guataca (hoeblade); and, in other instances, those of the shekeré (chekeré) type, namely güiros or shakers externally struck by a netting of cowrie shells, beads, or seeds, which, known by different names in different languages, belong to a timbric group associated mostly with specific religious rituals. This type of güiro is used not only in Santería, but also in Candomblé, in the cult of Changó, and in Vodú. Beyond enriching the overall timbric texture, these idiophones carry important functions in certain rituals because their timbric qualities are capable of invoking the presence of certain deities. (See María Elena Vinueza, “Music in Festive Celebrations of the Regla de Ocha”; Victoria Eli Rodríguez, “Güiros and Batá Drums: Two Instrumental Groups of Cuban Santería”; and Carmen María Sáenz Coopat and María Elena Vinueza, “Oral Traditions of Cuba,” in this volume.)

This conception of timbre, organized as a temporal projection of color that involves combined orders of registers, rhythmic figures, and sound qualities obtained from specific performance techniques, constitutes an aesthetic category that Africans bequeathed to the musics of the Americas. The greater or lesser presence of this expressive principle, or the varying importance of timbre as an expressive mechanism in the structure of musical manifestations throughout the Americas, might well serve as a criterion or significant factor in the delineation of musical areas. At the same time, many musical expressions, influenced by the demands of urban taste, have retained historical variants of this aesthetic conception contributed by Africans. In the Americas, the presence of this spatial conception of timbre and its syntactical qualities operates as a creative principle that serves a communicative function, maintaining to this day its viability as a form of social and artistic expression.

The pervasive role of timbric elaboration corroborates the expressive value assigned to timbre, which we rank at the top of our aesthetic priorities in African retentions in the Americas. Among the most enduring retentions of ancient African origin are the timbric band defined by membranophones with its specific communicative function, and the use of idiophones of very diverse shapes and materials that, incorporated into drum ensembles, fulfill other functions and often carry added meanings when associated with cults because, as mentioned above, idiophones possess timbric qualities capable of summoning the presence of specific deities. The adjá, for instance, a type of agógo or bell made of silver, plays a key role in the ceremony of public presentation of new initiates in the cults of the Yoruba/Lucumí Obatalá, a deity syncretized with attributes of the Virgen de las Mercedes; and it suffices to color the atcheré with even commercial red enamel, or combine red with white stripes, for this type of rattle to produce the timbric quality required for a ritual “call” to Changó.

In addition, the instrumental timbre of drums is combined with the vocal timbre of song. This type of song should not be compared with any of the European conceptions of singing, nor should it be associated with urban popular songs of the Americas, which developed as a response to social functions conditioned by colonialism and associated with the respective cultures of domination. This, because in African-influenced expressions, the text sets forth an entire narrative that, dealing expositorily with actions, events, and thoughts, only reveals its meanings to those who possess knowledge of its allusive associations.

Using a rather peculiar placement of the voice (impostación), as if searching for a specific timbric quality, the African singer repeats a passage at length, the same one over and over, with slight variants, while improvising a text that does not change the basically expository character of its content. Moreover, the soloist performs in altemation with a chorus that prolongs the vocal timbric band and, contributing an element of greater density, volume, or thickness to vocal color, also projects the discursive dimension of this communicative timbric band when performing in alternation with the soloist.

We insist on defining in this manner the main contribution of the African musician to musics of the Americas, which is still easily discernible in urban musical expressions because many genres—or species as some have called them—have resorted to instrumental ensembles that maintain distinctly defined timbric textures. This principle also can be detected in 20th-century music of the once “avant-garde,” as composers working with electronically generated sound continue to explore the potential of timbric bands. To the value that the African musician assigns to timbric color, as a “signifier” capable of combination into “bands” or “zones” that create a “signified,” we must add other African retentions that complement musical communication. Among them we can mention the alternation between solo and chorus as an interplay between two contrasting levels of density, and melodic shapes ordered preferably from high to low in linear intervallic profiles that the singer emits in a single breath.

By transcending mere repetition and raising it to a rhetorical level, that is, by ordering it as a formal structure that becomes a system of communication analogous to a language, the African musician objectifies an image of the supplicatory functions stemming from the various belief systems to communicate with deities, or forces and powers raised to the level of deities. In this context, resorting to repetitive formulas is a concrete solution. Repetition surfaces in song, namely in the recurring lines or referential sounds that frame a space, “domain,” “band,” or “zone”: and it surfaces in the instruments that are added or superimposed to the space or “band” defined by the drums, that is, in the use of those idiophones that also fulfill ritual functions because of the attributes assigned to their timbric color, such as the atcheré, agógo, and chekeré, for instance. To these forms of reiteration we can add the sound textures created by the middle- and high-pitched drums, whose patterns are repetitive. As a principle, reiteration in this context is also a form of objectifying a relationship with the environment. Musical reiteration thus objectified might represent a temporal expression of the same needs that inspired the earliest human decorative arts, such as painting on parietal (cranial) bones, or etching rough lines and depressions on ceramics. Through various artistic modes of objectifying reiteration or repetition, Africans created rhetorical, or discursive, expressions. The rhetorical character of their musical discourse was created by utilizing a system of accents, or contrasting intensities, as variables whose order is elaborated by the musician.

Traditional musicology limited the description of this conception of a musical language by saying that Africans “displace accents.” Likewise, it was said of their pitch systems that “they suppress leading tones” and use “off-key” sounds. Such views did not take into account the communicative value of other, more systemic conceptions of pitch combinations, such as those created by Africans. When viewed from an African perspective, the systematic reiteration of variable accents within a cycle reveals a type of discourse based on communicative structures, like languages. In the same way, specific tunings, easily defined because of their wide deviation from tempered tuning (as a convenient comparison), also are organically structured as systems of communication. In laboratory measurements of the toques of instruments that form the musical ensembles called tumbas francesas in Cuba because of their old Haitian origin, the Cuban musicologist Olavo Alén Rodriguez (1986) documented how a system of variable accents is reiterated within a cycle to obtain a discursive type of elaboration in phrases of organic structure. These “phrases,” however, lack the periodicity we would associate, for instance, with European music of the late eighteenth century. Alén Rodriguez also was able to demonstrate that some cases of intonation were part of a system that rules out any reliance on the octave and its hierarchical functions.

The African spatial conception of timbre, with its concomitant syntactical qualities, sustains specific modes of creativity and carries communicative functions that are artistically viable to this day. Many contemporary musical expressions, outside of ritual, represent variants of this traditional aesthetic feature of African music. Even in musics that are highly influenced by the demands of urban taste, instrumental ensembles of various types and for different genres exhibit well-defined timbric textures.


In traditional popular musics created in the urban contexts of this region and closely related to dance, certain rhythmic patterns (or rhythmic motifs) have become characteristic, even to the extent of identifying certain genres. These also have been assimilated into compositional procedures derived from European art music. Some of these patterns may be of possible direct African derivation, perhaps traceable to the treatment given to the membranophones.

The most extended rhythmic figures are those that appeared as constants in the Cuban contradanza and its close derivative, the danza. They also are found in traditional dance music of Argentina and Peru. In these cases, the basic motif is

Another rhythmic motif was based on the use of five note-values within a measure in duple meter, forming a pattern that the popular Cuban musician calls a cinquillo (5-note pattern):

Yet another rhythmic motif characterized as an African retention is the so-called tresillo:

In some contradanzas and danzas of the nineteenth century, the preceding pattern was notated as a quarternote tresillo (triplet) within a duple meter:

In all of these cases, the popular musician manipulates the note-values with great flexibility, within a series of variables whose elaboration responds to the rising tension of the music and dance, leading to a climactic point. At times, the musician allots equal values to the notes, and at other times the performer alters the durations. In the same fashion, the popular musician tends to accentuate the final beat of the measure, offsetting the regular metric accents, in order to elaborate an irregular discourse and create different articulations of the rhythmic pattern.



The attempt to identify African influence through such rhythmic figures, which in some instances sufficed to assign them the status of “markers” of national identity, is simply the result of a lack of discrimination in aural perception by excluding from the listening experience the communicative function that syntactical structures carry in traditional African musics. Among musicians who are not of African ancestry or are untrained in the tradition, be he or she a musician who learned by intuition or an academically trained musician, the necessity to reduce the complex elaboration of timbric textures that carry various communicative functions leads to a leveling or simplification of values inherent in traditional sound structures. This reduction to a common denominator—an attrition of meaning and retention of simplified rhythmic shapes—can include the elimination of a plethora of rhythmic subtleties. The result is neither a sum nor a synthesis of the different timbric textures, since, in traditional African music, communication is not achieved simply by polyrhythmic combinations as units of perception. These simplified rhythmic patterns neither reflect, nor can they be analogous to, the timbric textures or bands projected by the membranophones and by the various idiophones that complement them in traditional performance. The reductive process by which urban musicians created these rhythmic figures, as well as others that have surfaced in urban popular musics, produced only replicas that stand as mere references to another, far more enduring, American reality: the communication system that Africans contributed through the aesthetic value assigned to timbre in their musics.


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