Mali and Massachusetts share a common rhythm

July 1, 2004

Last month, legendary blues man Taj Mahal performed a one-off concert with Tinariwen, a band from Mali, to great acclaim. Though the two had never played a note with each other until the day before the concert, “one of them just started playing a groove and off we went”, said Taj, after the show.

In a review of the concert, the Guardian believed this synchronicity came from the fact that “they share what is called ‘assouf’, the sense of pain and loss that is central to their rhythmic and compelling blend of desert blues.” But maybe the answer is much simpler, that the music of the blues and the music of Africa mixed so easily because the two came from the same place.

Most people are aware that there is some kind of link between modern-day pop music and Africa, knowing that pop came from rock’n’roll, which came from the blues, and that the blues originated with the slaves of the American South in the late nineteenth century. But why do these modern styles sound the way they do? Why those particular rhythms, melodies and harmonies?

The answer lies in three hundred years of cultural export from Africa to all parts of the Americas. And, depending on where the Africans landed – invariably as slaves – their music adjusted, and blended, with the styles and cultures of their new homelands to form the rhythms and melodies we hear today.

But there is not just a similarity between these styles, it is the same music, evolving as it passes between cultures and people over time, combined and recombined again and again.

One of the earliest examples of this blending occurred in Brazil. The Portuguese landed in 1500, and brought slaves to work on sugar and coffee plantations soon after, sometime around the mid-sixteenth century. The majority were from the Bantu tribe, who lived in an area now known as Nigeria, and the Yoruba tribe came from what is now Angola.

As they settled, the Yoruba culture became dominant amongst the slaves, as did their religion, which became known as Candomblé in Brazil. The music and dances of Candomblé functioned as an important way for the slaves to keep a spiritual connection with their homeland, by keeping alive their traditions and beliefs.

The carnival, that most famous of Brazilian celebrations where authorities allow the normal rules of society to be turned upside down for a day, was another outlet for the slaves’ music, as well as a way for them to vent feelings of frustration. And, despite being a European import, the carnival became a central focus of Brazilian life, something that continues to the present day with the spectacle of the Rio Carnival.

An early incarnation of the Brazilian carnival arose in the northeast of the country, in the region of Pernambucu. In this area, the slave masters allowed the slaves to organise themselves into groups representing the nations of their homelands. Each group would crown a king and queen, and the king would represent his tribe for the year.

These crowning ceremonies happened with the full blessing of the masters, and would involve participants dressing up in the fineries of the European court, including a range of characters such as an ambassador, pageboys and even ‘slaves’, who would hold a parasol above the newly crowned king and queen.

Accompanying these ceremonies was a style of music called Maracatu, a fusion of African and European styles. The African slaves did not have access to their traditional instruments, so would use whatever instruments were to hand. As a colonial outpost, this meant military instruments, particularly the snare drum and the bass drum.

In Maracatu, the player of the snare provides a constant roll, which the bass drummer punctuates with syncopated rhythms. Meanwhile, other musicians play more typically African-styled instruments, such as the Abé, (shaker), and the gongué (cowbell).

Maracatu took on other aspects of Western music, most notably the time signature. Instead of the complex polyrhythms of Africa, Maracatu uses Western time signatures, such as 4/4 and 6/8 (four or six beats to the bar), and then builds songs from four and eight bar repeats – similar to electronic dance music today.

However, Maracatu rhythms retained an important element of their African roots. Instead of each four-beat bar being exactly divided into 16 equal-length semi-quavers as in the West, in Maracatu, the relative length of each semi-quaver can be longer or shorter, giving the rhythms their distinctive swing.

It is this swing that Western-trained musicians find most difficult to master, contradicting their training, which focuses on ‘keeping regular time’. However, this swing is what gives the music its dance-inducing vitality.

Maracatu is a very early example of a style that came from combining African and European music, settling into a recognisable form as early as the 1750s. But it lives on today, influencing musicians such as Chico Science, who blended it with rock, rap and funk to create a new sound – Mangue Beat – in the 1990s.

Elsewhere in Brazil, the first settlers’ music moved in other directions. In Rio, European salon music, including the Polka, the Mazurka and the Waltz, had a greater influence. Such styles combined with the slaves’ Lundu music. The colonialists considered the Lundu to be far too lewd but, once combined with European music, it produced a lyrical dance style known as the Modinha, which also became popular back in Portugal.

The fusion of European and African styles also led to the Samba – today, the iconic Carnival music. After the emancipation of the slaves in 1888, it developed in two different directions. One strand emphasised the lyrical European melodic aspect of the Modinha, while the other, Samba Batacuda, employed large African drums – ‘bataque’ – to create a heavily percussive and syncopated music. These drums shifted the Samba away from melody and towards the rhythm and, like Maracatu, this rhythm has a very pronounced swing. It is this second, more percussive, style that forms most Samba music we hear today.

In 1950, Antonio Jochim took the syncopated rhythms of Samba and blended them with Jazz, American song and French impressionism to create the Bossa Nova (the ‘New Way’). It was an immediate worldwide hit, with songs such as ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ popular across the globe.

Similar styles emerged from other Latin American countries at around the same time. From Cuba came the Rhumba, a secular version of the ‘Bat’, a ritual dance of the Cuban religion, Santeria – similar to Candomblé. From the Dominican Republic came the Meringue, while Argentina contributed the Tango. All these styles were fusions of African and European music.

While many people still listen and dance to these Latin styles today, the dominant form of popular music in recent decades – rock’n’roll and its direct descendents – came from African music’s development elsewhere, namely in the southern states of North America.

There were significant differences between the music of the slaves in North America to those in the South America. In North America, members of the same tribes did not stay together, as often occurred in the south of the continent, and the masters rarely tolerated their religious practices. As a result, the music of North America had fewer roots in ritual and religion; instead, it was more a simple expression of their experiences living in a foreign land forced to work under terrible conditions.

The Field Hollers of plantation workers is the earliest instance of slave music we can find in the southern states of North America. The colonialists gave these work songs their name, while their church hymns heavily influenced the music’s style. Over time, such songs developed into gospel music, still a vital part of black communions today, and, latterly, heavily influencing the Soul music of the 1960s and 1970s.

The music of the Field Hollers developed in other ways, most obviously into the Blues, often spread via travelling musicians. As a development of Field Hollers, the music had clear African influences, but there were other connections. The original Blues instrument, the banjo, is an adaptation of an African single-stringed gourd instrument called the ‘hodu’, and the chords used may also relate to Africa. Some music historians believe that the distinctive ‘flattened’ thirds, sevenths and occasional fifths are an attempt to translate the modal tonality of African music onto Western musical scales.

Bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta, such as John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James, took up the electrically amplified guitar in the 1940s, giving the Blues a new tone. This innovation led to European and American Blues-Rock of the 1950s and 1960s, played by such groups as the John Spencer Blues Explosion, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.

Mainstream popular music is a fusion of Rock’n’Roll, Latin and Jazz, combining the melodies and harmonies of the European tradition with the syncopated upfront rhythms and percussion from the African slaves brought across to the Americas. Today, when we listen to modern styles such as R&B and UK Garage, we can hear the syncopation and triplet rhythms of African music,

So it should come as no surprise that a band from Mali and a Blues man, who grew up in Massachusetts, can almost instantaneously fuse their musical styles together to create a blended sound. Rather than coincidence or a similar sense of pain fuelling their synchronicity, it is history that explains the Taj Mahal and Tinariwen phenomenon, for both man and band play a groove that, at heart, is much the same.

First published in AK13 magazine in July 2004.