by Anthony Masundire
Slavery was a rather dark time period in the history of mankind. It had already started to be seen in smaller variations in different parts of the world, but gradually it grew and grew until it became one of the biggest and most profitable business practices of the mid 16-18th centuries. Slavery tore apart families, made men richer and more powerful than they could imagine and changed the course of history as we know it. The entire system was so extreme and penetrating, that its effects are still felt to this very day.
When African natives were transported to the Americas via the middle passage, their colonizers attempted to have them forget their past lives and culture, and live the rest of their lives in the new world as slaves. As recent documents have shown, however, this was not the case. Africans who were brought to the Americas brought with them, among many other things, the oral traditions of African societies and incorporating African symbolism. Slaves crafted objects that were reminiscent of African traditions as well. The retention of African traditions were strongest during the early colonial period and in the areas which held the highest slave concentrations, these particularly being large plantations in the lower South.
The cultural artifacts that I chose to delve into more deeply were the musical instruments which African natives played during the time they were enslaved. These artifacts offered a new way of understanding African people’s culture, since at this time they were forbidden from obtaining an education, speaking their native tongue or any other way really of expressing themselves through an alternative medium. In the ‘Deep South’ African slaves were forbidden to touch any musical instruments because their masters felt they might use them to communicate secret messages and cause rebellion. Slaves manufactured drums, banjos, and rattles out of gourds similar to those found in Africa, keeping traditions they had been practicing for centuries alive. This was based on African stringed instruments.
I was also drawn to the musical instruments of this time period because I consider myself to be somewhat of an artist/poet. Music is an art form, and through this art we are able to relate messages, invoke emotions whether joyous, sorrowful or anything in-between. As we will see later in this blog, this is exactly what slaves did to keep themselves going in this cruel time.
The African Shereke and banjo.
The producers of these cultural artifacts, as previously stated, were the slaves themselves. They created these pieces in an era significant to African American life because it set the tone for how African Americans came to be racialized, othered and put down the social ladder of American society.
The musical instruments produced during slavery were important to the time period because among many things, they presented African Americans a chance to keep their spirits high. The significance of the instruments definitely changed over time. Traditional African musical practices were either fiercely suppressed or tightly controlled. Gradually, however, African-American sounds entered the musical mainstream, notably in popular and religious genres. This transformation of original African musical styles and instruments throughout the Americas continues today to influence musical practices worldwide. Instruments such as the banjo went on to be played in many different musical contexts. It is widely used in country and western music but it was also used in the early days of jazz.
Today, almost 500 years after the first arrival of slaves in the Americas, the enduring rhythms and styles of African-derived music continue to cross racial, political and economic barriers to re-energize popular, religious and classical music.
In class we watched a brilliant film called “12 Years a Slave”. This motion picture did a pretty thorough job at depicting the horrors of the slavery time period, including the way in which African-Americans were seemingly sometimes tricked into servitude, for as long as one could imagine. One recurring theme embedded in the movie, though, was the importance of music. The flicks’ main character, named Solomon, was a gifted violin player. His ability to play an instrument automatically gave him higher status than that of other slaves who weren’t as talented in other fields. Playing of and making musical instruments can be regarded also as a form of resistance.
During this time period, slaves were not allowed to work, therefore had no way of earning any type of income. However, at one point in the movie, Solomon was hired out to a different plantation due to a bad season on the one that he occupied. Once at this new site, the plantation owner heard of Solomon’s talents, and had him play at an event, letting him keep the money earned to himself. This is just an example of the power music, among other things, had for the duration of the time period.
The world over can thank African slaves for their contribution to the music scene. It is unfortunate that it just happened to occur and was catalyzed by the slave trade.
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Pittman, LaShawnDa. (2015). Slavery and Slave Resistance [PowerPoint slides].
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