At different times in American history, rhythm has been a contested issue. Within the cultural “melting pot” of the nation, both the way people feel rhythms and musical meter and the instruments they use to express them have sometimes been interpreted as “dangerous.”
During the years in which slavery was a part of American life, the ships that crossed the Atlantic Ocean en route to the Americas, ships carrying African slaves, also brought the music and dance traditions of these people. Many of these traditions were rich with rhythmic complexity. Even today the rhythms we think of as “the beat” in popular music carry traces of the West African music brought to the Americas by slaves, and nearly all of the music we hear now is the result of musical and cultural mixing between the many ethnic populations that have cohabited here since. Music has always been a meeting place, sometimes challenging the “official” systems of social organization.
When the slave trade was in practice, each colony and country responded differently to the cultural practices of the forced labor that drove their economies. In Cuba, slaves were permitted to gather at specific times. In these communal moments music and dance traditions from throughout West Africa were both maintained and adapted to their new home. Slaves identified as having musical talent were also required to learn Spanish dance music and perform for plantation owners. Modern Cuban music is a germination of these dual influences, the African and the Spanish. But throughout the slave territories of the American South, with the singular exception of New Orleans, African drumming was forbidden. In West Africa, drums are used to communicate across long distances–rhythm conveying a language, much like Morse Code–and plantation owners were afraid that drumming could be used to incite revolt. However, West African rhythmic traditions were not lost so much as filtered into permissible musical experiences: singing and clapping in religious settings, call and response vocal during field work, and in playing stringed instruments such as the banjo, violin and later guitar.
Many think of current popular music as decidedly “American.” Yet just beneath the surface, popular music, like all music, is rich with bits of musical information about its sources, the places from which its component parts came and the people who performed those parts. As percussionist Sheila E. says of Latin Salsa music in Soundbreaking Episode Five, “it’s my DNA, it’s the foundation of who I am.”
This lesson explores several strands of the musical “DNA” that make up the beat of popular music. Looking to the past, this lesson asks what it means to call music “Afro-Cuban” “Afro-Caribbean,” or more broadly, “African-American.” Students will use Soundbreaking clips of Santana and Beyoncé and the Soundbreaking Rhythmic Layers TechTools to locate in American popular music influences stemming from the African-American church, Latin America and West Africa. Students will then explore the ways “the beat” of this music has, to some listeners, been perceived as “dangerous” while, for others, it is believed that music has been able to challenge obstacles of racism and segregation, bringing people from varied ethnic groups and lifestyles together in ways that words and laws could not.