• A Blues Recording From The Congo -- In 1906!

    March 31, 2011. Posted by Alex Rodriguez.

    The Congo River Basin: Birthplace of the Blues?

    This is the first post in a new biweekly blog feature, You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter. For the series introduction, click here.

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    Finally--Proof that the MELODIC content of African American music (not just the rhythm) comes from Africa!

    In talking about the African origins of African American music, most people fall back on comparing African drumming troupes with jazz bands—and from that starting point, either they try desperately to show that African drums and jazz are similar (Gunther Schuller, Marshall Stearns, many others) or they argue that there is too little similarity (Randy Sandke, most recently). This recording shows that they are all on the wrong track: African MELODIES have survived in African American music--especially the blues--and this recording proves it!

    When I play this for my graduate students, invariably they say right away “That's the blues!” Not only can you hear the flutist(s) playing very familiar blues licks over and over, he  constantly goes back and forth between the major third and the “blue” third! (Pardon the technical terms, but I think this will be audible to all listeners -- click the audio example below for more explanation of this.)

    Although this incredible recording was released on CD in 2000 and is in the public domain, nobody – not even the people who wrote the 284-page booklet that accompanies this 4-CD set – has commented on its use of the blues scale sound!

    Also—this is key—the Congo IS one of the areas from which Africans were taken to North America (even to Manhattan, as research has shown). Although the Congo is in central Africa, it has a strip along the Congo river that connects the region to the West African coast. And the Congo culture (also spelled Kongo in English) was an important force in African history.

    Click the audio links below for more from Dr. Porter on this fascinating recording and the (mis)representation of African music in jazz historiography, in which he answers many questions, including:

    -- Are there other recordings like this one?

    -- How far back in time do we need to go to find the African roots of African American music?

    -- What documentation is there of African music from that era?

    -- What geographical areas of Africa would have influenced African-American music?

    --Is African music all about troupes of drummers?

    --Why has there been such emphasis on the drumming troupes in the Western imagination of Africa?

    Come back on Thursday, April 14 for the next installment in this series: The Origins of the Word "Jazz" (UPDATE: now online!)

    For Further Reading:

    Gerhard Kubik, Africa and the Blues

    Read an interview with Kubik from Afropop Worldwide

    Kubik, The African Matrix in Jazz Harmonic Practices

    Peter van der Merwe, Origins of the Popular Style

    The book below was replaced by Kubik but still worth reading:

    Paul Oliver, In Yonder Came the Blues

    Unrelated Trivia:

    There is a tune called “Congo Blues” by the innovative white xylophone/vibraphone artist Red Norvo, recorded by him with Bird and Diz in ‘45, and also featured on a radio broadcast of Diz with a Coltrane tenor solo in 1951.

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