Sylviane Diouf knows her audience might be skeptical, so to demonstrate the connection between Islam and American blues music, she’ll play two recordings: The Muslim call to prayer (the religious recitation that’s heard from mosques around the world), and “Levee Camp Holler” an early type of blues song that first sprang up in the Mississippi Delta more than 100 years ago.
“Levee Camp Holler” is no ordinary song. It’s the product of ex-slaves who worked moving earth all day in post-Civil War America. The version that Diouf uses in presentations has lyrics that, like the call to prayer, speak about a glorious God. (“Well, Lord, I woke up this mornin’, man, I feelin’ bad . . . Well, I was thinkin’ ’bout the good times, Lord, I once have had.”) But it’s the song’s melody and note changes that closely parallel one of Islam’s best-known refrains. As in the call to prayer, “Levee Camp Holler” emphasizes words that seem to quiver and shake in the reciter’s vocal chords. Dramatic changes in musical scales punctuate both “Levee Camp Holler” and the call to prayer. A nasal intonation is evident in both.
“I did a talk a few years ago at Harvard where I played those two things, and the room absolutely exploded in clapping, because (the connection) was obvious,” says Diouf, an author and scholar who is also a researcher at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “People were saying, ‘Wow. That’s really audible. It’s really there.’ “
It’s really there because of all the Muslim slaves from West Africa who were taken by force to the United States for three centuries, from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. Upward of 30 percent of the African slaves in the United States were Muslim, and an untold number of them spoke and wrote Arabic, historians say now. Despite being pressured by slave owners to adopt Christianity and give up their old ways, many of these slaves continued to practice their religion and customs, or otherwise melded traditions from Africa into their new environment in the antebellum South. Forced to do menial, back-breaking work on plantations, for example, they still managed, throughout their days, to voice a belief in the God of the Quran. These slaves’ practices eventually evolved — decades and decades later, parallel with different singing traditions from Africa — into the shouts and hollers that begat blues music, historians believe.
Another way that Muslim slaves had an indirect influence on blues music: the instruments they played. Drumming (which was common among slaves from the Congo and other non-Muslim regions of Africa) was banned by white slave owners, who felt threatened by its ability to let slaves communicate with each other and by the way it inspired large gatherings of slaves. Stringed instruments (which were favored by slaves from Muslim regions of Africa, where there’s a long tradition of musical storytelling) were generally allowed because slave owners considered them akin to European instruments like the violin. So slaves who managed to cobble together a banjo or other instrument (the American banjo originated with African slaves) could play more widely in public. This solo- oriented slave music featured elements of an Arabic-Islamic song style that had been imprinted by centuries of Islam’s presence in West Africa, says Gerhard Kubik, an ethnomusicology professor at the University of Mainz in Germany who has written the most comprehensive book on Africa’s connection to blues music (“Africa and the Blues”).
An influence on the blues
Kubik believes that many of today’s blues singers unconsciously echo these Arabic-Islamic patterns in their music. Using academic language to describe this habit, Kubik writes in “Africa and the Blues” that “the vocal style of many blues singers using melisma, wavy intonation, and so forth is a heritage of that large region of West Africa that had been in contact with the Arabic-Islamic world of the Maghreb since the seventh and eighth centuries.” (Melisma is the use of many notes in one syllable; so, instead of a note that produces, say, a single sound of “ah,” you’d get a note that produces something like, “ah-ahhhh-ahhh-ah-ah.” Wavy intonation refers to a series of notes that veer from major to minor scale and back again, something that’s very common in both blues music and in the Muslim call to prayer. The Maghreb is the Arab-Muslim region of North Africa.)
Kubik summarizes his thesis this way: “Many traits that have been considered unusual, strange and difficult to interpret by earlier blues researchers can now be better understood as a thoroughly processed and transformed Arabic-Islamic stylistic component.”
The extent of this link between Islam and American blues music is still being debated. Some scholars continue to insist there is no connection, and many of today’s best-known blues musicians would say their music has little to do with a religion whose most extreme clerics regularly deride the evils of Western pop music. Yet a growing body of evidence — gathered by academics like Kubik, and by others like Cornelia Walker Bailey, a Georgia author whose great-great-great-great-grandfather was a Georgia slave who prayed toward Mecca — suggest a deep relationship between slaves of Islamic descent and U. S. culture. To be sure, Muslim slaves from West Africa were just one factor in the formation of American blues music, but they were a factor, says Barry Danielian, a trumpeter who’s performed with Paul Simon, Natalie Cole and Tower of Power.
Call to prayer
Danielian, who is Muslim, says non-Muslims find this connection hard to believe because they don’t know enough about Arabic or Islamic music. The call to prayer and other Muslim recitations that were practiced by American slaves had a musicality to them, just as these recitations still do, even if they aren’t thought of as music by Westerners, Danielian says.
“I’m part of the Tijaniyya Sufi order, which is based in West and North Africa,” says Danielian, who lives in Jersey City, N.J. “And I know that when we get together, especially when the cheikhs (leaders) come and everybody gets together and there are hundreds of people and we do the litanies, they’re very musical. You hear what we as Americans would call soulfulness or blues. That’s definitely in there.”
What Americans now think of as blues music developed in the 1890s and early 1900s, in Southern states like Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Blues music was an outgrowth of all the different music that was then being performed in the South, from minstrels to street shows. Early blues performers didn’t recognize the music’s African or Muslim roots because, by then, the songs had more fully merged with white, European music and had lost their obvious connections to a continent that was 4,000 miles away. Also, by the turn of the 20th century, the progeny of America’s Muslim slaves had generally converted to Christianity, either by force or circumstance. Among Southern blacks in that period, there were few exponents of Islam. But as more scholars like Diouf and Kubik research that period in history, they see plenty of signs that weren’t obvious 100 years ago.
Take the case of W.C. Handy, who earned the moniker “Father of the Blues” for the way he formalized the music over a 40-year career of writing songs and playing the cornet. In his autobiography, Handy (whose parents were slaves) writes about a life-changing moment that happened around 1903. Handy was sleeping at a train station in Tutwiler, Miss., when “a lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar. … The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. . .. The singer repeated the line (“Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog”) three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.”
Singing about everything
The song was about a nearby train station where different trains intersected. As Handy noted in the autobiography (which was published in 1941), “Southern Negroes sang about everything. Trains. Steamboats, steam whistles, sledgehammers, fast women, mean bosses, stubborn mules — all became subjects for their songs. They accompany themselves on anything from which they can extract a musical sound or rhythmical effect, anything from a harmonica to a washboard. In this way, and from these materials, they set the mood for what we now call the blues.”
While washboards, in fact, became popular among later blues musicians such as Robert Brown (known as “Washboard Sam”), the technique that Handy witnessed — that of pressing a knife on guitar strings — can be traced to Central and West Africa, where, as Kubik points out in “Africa and the Blues,” people play one-string zithers that way. Handy assumed the technique (which is now called “slide guitar”) was borrowed from Hawaiian guitar playing, but it’s more likely that the itinerant guitar player that Handy met in Tutwiler was manifesting his African roots. Kubik has traveled to Africa many times for his research and has lived there.
Bailey, who visited West Africa in 1989, says the African and Muslim roots of Southern U.S. traditions are often mistaken for something else.
Churches face east
Bailey lives on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, where a small community of blacks can trace their ancestry to Bilali Mohammed, a Muslim slave who was born and raised in what is now the country of Guinea. Visitors to Sapelo Island are always struck by the fact that churches there face east. In fact, as a child, Bailey learned to say her prayers facing east — the same direction that her great-great-great-great-grandfather faced when he prayed toward Mecca.
Bilali was an educated man. He spoke and wrote Arabic, carried a Quran and a prayer rug, and wore a fez that likely signified his religious devotion. (Bilali had been trained in Africa to be a Muslim leader; on Sapelo Island, he was appointed by his slave master to be an overseer of other slaves). Although Bilali’s descendents adopted Christianity, they incorporated Muslim traditions that are still evident today.
The name Bailey, in fact, is a reworking of the name Bilali, which became a popular Muslim name in Africa because one of Islam’s first converts — and the religion’s first muezzin — was a former Abyssinian slave named Bilal. (Muezzins are those who recite the call to prayer from the minarets of mosques. ) One historian believes that abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who changed his name from Frederick Bailey, may have had Muslim roots.
“History changes things,” says Bailey, 59, who chronicled the history of Sapelo Island in her memoir, “God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man.” “Things become something different from what they started out as.”
A good example is the song “Little Sally Walker.” It’s been recorded by many blues artists, but it’s also been recorded as “Little Sally Saucer” (the lyrics describe a girl “sittin’ in a saucer”). Frankie Quimby, a relative of Bailey’s who also traces her roots to Bilali Mohammed, says the song originated during slavery on the Georgia coast, written by songwriting slaves who took the last name (Walker) of their slave owners.
“I’ve seen (people) take the song and use different words,” says Quimby, who sings slave songs with her husband in a group called the Georgia Sea Island Singers, which recently performed for President Bush and his Cabinet. “We’re educating people about this.”
Guitar derived from Arab oud
Because there is little documentation about these slave-time origins, it’s easy to argue about what can be unequivocally linked to Africa and Islam. Islam and Arab culture have certainly been influences on other music around the world, including flamenco, which is rooted in seven centuries of Muslim rule in Spain.
The modern guitar is a direct descendant of the oud, an Arabic lute that was introduced to Europe during Spain’s Muslim reign. In fact, there’s a connection between Renaissance music and Arab-Islamic culture, a connection that academics have studied with more precision than the connection between black Muslim slaves in America and this country’s blues music.
So far, knowledge of Islam’s association with blues music seems limited to a select group of academics and musicians. Books like Kubik’s “Africa and the Blues” (published in 1999 by the University Press of Mississippi) and Diouf’s “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” (published in 1998 by New York University Press) are more geared toward university audiences. Kubik’s book, for example, is weighed down with chapters of dense writing and obscure references.
In terms of popular culture, it’s hard to find a single work — whether it’s a novel, movie, song or other art form — that covers the topic of Islam, music and African slaves. “Daughters of the Dust,” Julie Dash’s 1991 film about life on the Sea Islands of Georgia, features a Muslim man who portrays Bilali Mohammed, but a scene that shows him in prayer lasts just a few moments, and the movie received limited release.
“Roots,” Alex Haley’s novel that was made into a historic TV series in the 1970s, featured a main character (Kunte Kinte) who is Muslim, although novelist James Michener and others doubted the authenticity of Haley’s work.
As more people become aware of the connection between Islam and the blues, there will be an inevitable shift in perception of how the Muslim religion has spread across continents and influenced other cultures. The difference between Spain, which once was conquered by Muslims, and the United States is that African slaves were brought to this country in chains, against their will, to do hard labor. The slave trade led to a diaspora unlike any other in human history, with at least 10 million Africans bought and sold into bondage in the Americas. Those slaves’ pain is evident in American blues music — a music that’s often about cruel treatment, sad times and a yearning to break free. Blues music is a unique American art form that went around the world and, in turn, influenced history. Without the blues, there wouldn’t be jazz, wouldn’t be the bluesy music of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
Bending of notes
In his book “Black Music of Two Worlds,” author John Storm Roberts says he can hear patterns of Islamic African music in the songs of Billie Holiday. Roberts refers to the “bending of notes” that is evident in Holiday’s sad, soulful ballads as well as the call to prayer. This same note-bending can be heard in the music of B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. Blues music, with its thriving tempos and many lyrical references to relationships, has often been described as “the devil’s music” by those on the outside looking in. Even many devout Muslims think of blues music as decadent and indicative of permissive Western morals.
People like Diouf, Kubik and Moustafa Bayoumi, an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, who has researched Islam’s connection to American music, are trying to correct the public record. Bayoumi wrote a paper two years ago that examined African Muslim history in the United States in which he argues that John Coltrane’s best-known album, “A Love Supreme,” features Coltrane saying, “Allah Supreme” in addition to the many refrains of “A Love Supreme.”
“It’s about uncovering a hidden past,” says Bayoumi, asked about the spate of new scholarship on the subject of Islam and African Americans. “You can hear (influences of Islam) in even the earliest days of American blues music. What you’ve gotten lately is an ethnomusicology that’s trying to reconstruct that. These are deliberate attempts to rebuild a bridge, as it were.”
First published in SFGATE Muslim roots of the blues