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The Power of Black Music: Interpreting its History from Africa to the United States.

Reviewed by

Christopher Brooks Virginia Commonwealth University

After several "false" starts (i.e., picking this book up, reflecting on Floyd's thesis, and wondering if I agreed or not), I began this review in earnest. The argument that Samuel Floyd makes in The Power of Black Music is a compelling one that demands serious consideration, especially for specialists. For those of us who have taught African American music surveys or specialized seminars in the area, it offers and affirms many ideas, challenges old assumptions, and suggests new approaches to existing ideas. It is a well-researched book and draws on many sources both printed and recorded to support the argument.

Floyd's assumptions are forthright:

African musical traits and cultural practices not only survived but played a major role in the development and elaboration of African American music. The debate and interpretations surrounding the theories of survivalism, syncretism, and non-survivalism posited by Herskovits (1947), Waterman (1948, 1952), and Jackson (1933, 1943), respectively - are not relevant to this study.

Since these studies have become "classics" in the discourse of survival of Africanisms in the diaspora, Floyd's statement downplaying, if not dismissing, them at the outset of the book gives readers some idea of the uncharted musical waters into which they will be taken. For his theoretical framework, Floyd relies on Henry Louis Gates's The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism (1988) and Sterling Stuckey's Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (1987).

With these works as references, Floyd identifies several paradigms which have been an intrinsic part of the African American musical experience in this country. Among them are the ring or ring shout (taken from Stuckey's Slave Culture) found on both the African continent and throughout the history of African American music making. Other paradigms include call-and-response; the ubiquitous performance practice; cultural memory manifesting itself in a variety of ways consciously or unconsciously; Dance, Drum, and Song; mythology; and the ever popular (and complex) Yoruba trickster deity Esu. The ring, which in the African context symbolizes continuity of life (dating back to ancient Egyptian symbolism), manifests itself in community circle dances and other religious and secular events both on the African continent and in African American culture. Within the African American musical context, Floyd identifies multiple manifestations and citings of the ring phenomena from stylized vocalities such as ululations, screams, shouts, moans, and hums found in spirituals and subsequent African American musical genres, to the jazz funerals throughout the South (best known in New Orleans), to the 1949 popular song and dance of saxophonist Paul Williams, the "Hucklebuck," among others.

The call-and-response phenomenon is found within numerous instrumental (e.g., jazz riffs) and vocal genres (e.g., the "hi-de-ho" section from Cab Calloway's song "Minnie the Moocher") cited by Floyd, but more insightful observations regarding this performance practice are found in William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony (1930):

Briefly, the four movements of the work can be described as bound together by an ever prevailing "blues theme." The work's first movement begins with this trope; then a modified sonata form of this twelve-bar blues is presented in two "choruses" accompanied by a variety of riffs, walking rhythms, and call-and-response dialogues.

This passage sent me to my recording of this work, and Floyd's analysis is on target. The celebrated Yoruba trickster deity Esu makes himself present in ways too numerous to recount here (e.g., the well-known story of blues singer Robert Johnson's Faustian bargain with the devil), but the reference to Harriet Tubman as an Esu-like figure (as borrowed from the Wendell Logan composition Runagate Runagate) is particularly intriguing. I am unfamiliar with this composition, but look forward to hearing it.

Initially, I had problems with Floyd's concept of cultural memory (as adopted by Jason Berry), because it at first seemed an extension of the popular phrase "It's a Black thing, you wouldn't understand it," which I have challenged in the past as an example of mysticality. As the work progresses, however, Floyd's ample illustrations of this concept not only become clear, but very plausible.

Much of this work identifies specific genres, and composers whose works, ideologies, or musical philosophies embrace these basic paradigms or "apostatize" them. For example, he cites Treemonisha as an example of Scott Joplin's rejection of the African American mythological in favor of "raising the race through education" because the conjurer's African-based beliefs are categorically dismissed by the lead character. Although Floyd did not address it, Joplin does include a "ring dance" in the beginning of Act I which would seem to embrace the ring concept which is central to Floyd's discussion. Nonetheless, as someone who has been familiar with this opera for close to twenty years and has used it in class for at least ten, I found this a refreshing approach to the work. In one last comment on Scott Joplin, Floyd seems to identify his life dates as 1877-1931, which would contradict the life dates listed in other works as 1868-1917.

In another critique, Floyd takes on the short-lived but historically significant turn-of-the-century journal Negro Music Journal and suggests that the serial's viewpoint was elitist because of its rejection of contemporary African American popular music and privileging of the works of Western art music composers. This is likewise a different view of a well-regarded serial.

Although everyone may not agree with Floyd's conclusions or may find that his interpretations stretch some traditionally held views, there is something in this volume for everyone. Floyd makes clear that a sequel is in the works. I look forward to its arrival because he promises to examine such issues as vocal styles and the influence of African American musical genres on the singing traditions in Southern Africa, among other genres in the diaspora.
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Author:Brooks, Christopher
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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