Monday, January 26, 2009

J. S. Bach & Zarabanda, the Congo God: African Influence on Western Music

Where to begin? Ned Sublette, author of the seminal Cuba And Its Music, which I commend to all curious readers & require for all music lovers, begins with the Phoenicians, the biblical Canaanites, who brought Africans with them in their settlement of Cadiz in plus or minus 760 b.c.e. Apart from its large silver mines, Cadiz became one of the most cosmopolitan & important trading cities of Spain, the second largest city in the Roman empire by the time that the Romans reached the Atlantic. Among the most popular entertainers of the Phoenicians were singing courtesans, many of whom were black. It is not possible to know what these women sounded like, but the musical sex worker would later continue for all seven of the centuries of Muslim rule in Spain. Sublette posits that African people in Cadiz must have affected the culture, explicitly the music of Cadiz, as they have changed the music of everywhere else that they have lived.

But I think it best to begin at a place where more is known of the history & culture. The major African influence in medieval Spain began with the arrival of Abd al-Rahman & his Berber army in 755. Abd al-Rahman was the scion of the Umayyad family, rulers in Syria. His family was annihilated by the Abbassids, who assumed dominion over the empire of Islam. The only Umayyad to survive the massacre, Abd al-Rahman ran to the end of the west, gathering disaffected Berbers as he went, & made his way across the strait of Gibralter to Iberia. As Asian Berbers, the Umayyad do not represent the African culture that I intend to sketch here, but they did bring some of it with them, & they did set into play the African Muslim arrivals that were to follow.

Iberia in the mid-eighth century was no place at all, as culturally & economically undeveloped as could be found in what we now call Europe. There was an emirate at al-Andalus, Andalusia to us, but it was overthrown by the Umayyad army. Abd al-Rahman established his capital in Cordoba & made it the most sophisticated city in the world. He spread his emirate over much of Iberia, establishing in the process one of the most tolerant, literate and culturally advanced civilizations in Western history. Christians & Jews, as “people of the book”, lived in fairly integrated prosperity: many Jews held high office, & Christians were free to worship, though they could not build new churches or proselytize. Jews & Christians also paid taxes, though Muslims did not according to Islamic law. Jews in particular enjoyed a valued status as an educated elite. They would not be so comfortable in Europe again for a millennium.

Intellectual culture was all but dead in the Christendom of the time; the policies of the Church discouraged it. Theology after St. Augustine was full of Platonic absolutes, with an undertone of Paul’s dictum (after being ambushed a group of philosophers while preaching in Greece) that when reason & scientific evidence contradict the scriptures, go with the scriptures. Significant European intellectuals from the classical line would not appear again until the arrivals of Peter Abelard, Hildegard von Bingen & St. Thomas Aquinas in the 12th & 13th centuries.

The lords of al-Andalus were the polar opposites of such Paulist anti-intellectualism. In The Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal wrote,

It was there [in al-Andalus] that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered & reinvented Hebrew; there that Christians embraced nearly every aspect of Arabic style – from the intellectual styles of philosophy to the architectural style of mosques….This vision of a culture of tolerance recognized that incongruity in the shaping of individuals was enriching & productive…

The vernacular tongues that would evolve into Romance blended first in al-Andalus; poetry, which had not much been heard since the Roman Empire fell, followed the vernacular.

The Umayyad employed Qiyan, enslaved African singers & dancers who were also sex workers. They were said to know thousands of songs, & were often the most valuable possessions of their owner. Professional male musicians were new to Muslim culture in the eighth century; the first known to arrive in al-Andalus was an African known as Ziryab, a male Qiyan of well-earned legend. One translation of Ziryab is “Black Songbird”. His origin is unknown, but he came to Cordoba by way of Tunisia after antagonizing his teacher by singing too soulfully for the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad.

In Cordoba, Abd al-Rahman II had filled his court with excellent singers, & Ziryab was the greatest of them. It was said that he knew 10,000 songs. His style was distinctive & he had vast knowledge. More important for our purpose is the fact that he made important improvements on the oud, which would aid its transformation into the lute: he improved its design, added a fifth string & originated the use of an eagle quill instead of the wooden plectrum. Ziryab was a great music theorist who established the world’s first music conservatory. As if his music innovations were not enough, according to Ned Sublette,

…[H]e popularized new styles of dress, adding to the winter & summer clothes a specialized wardrobe for spring & fall;…he popularized facial shaving for men;…he introduced toothpaste, underarm deodorant, & the use of salt as a laundry bleach; he popularized asparagus & made many culinary innovations, & popularized the drinking of wine…He is also said to have given Cordoba that fundamental contribution of the singing star: a new hairstyle.

Generations of musicians acceded to Ziryab’s principles in Cordoba, Granada, Sevilla, Toledo, & Valencia. If the ninth century was Islamic music’s golden age, setting its course up to our day, then the Black Songbird may be said to have founded its renaissance.

The Muslim’s returned high culture to a Europe that had lost it after the Roman fall & the ascent of the Church. In addition to a refined medium of sung verse, dance & musical instruments; they introduced radical new knowledge in medicine, astronomy, agriculture, chemistry & most important, mathematics, not to mention historically pivotal innovations that they brought over from the far east, such as gunpowder & paper. They had a nascent banking system, including bank drafts. The roots of the Renaissance are in the mid-east & North Africa, for without the mathematical & financial innovations of the Muslims, the Medici would never have developed the banking systems that financed the artists, architects & other humanists whose work we so admire. Without the Arab &, to a lesser degree, Jewish innovations in navigation & navigation technology the heroic voyages of discovery could not have occurred. Even the celebrated late medieval rediscovery of the writings of antiquity is attributable to the Muslim scholars who preserved them when the Church was destroying pagan writings. Let me resist the impulse to linger over this most interesting subject; instead I commend to you Jerry Brotton’s The Renaissance Bazaar: From The Silk Road To Michelangelo.

Al-Andalus grew fat & lazy & underwent a series of civil wars, with the emirs allying with various Christian lords in an undulating series of battles for one prize or another. The ascendancy of the Christian lords would eventually congeal into the reconquista, which would continue until Ferdinand & Isabella’s expulsion of Muslims & Jews from Spain in 1493. First the Norman princes captured Palermo, the Islamic seat of Sicily, then Cordoba in 1013, & moved on toward Toledo. This does not mean that that they overthrew al-Andalus’ culture; rather, they moved into it. For the first time they read the great libraries, particularly the one at Cordoba, an event that would alter the intellectual life of the West permanently. Maria Rosa Menocal observed, “Over the course of the subsequent century & a half, the Arabized Normans ended by becoming near captives of the culture they had conquered.”

After the Christians under Alphonso VI of Castile took Toledo in 1085, the Ummayad caliph of Seville, al-Mutamid, applied for help to a fundamentalist regime that recently had risen to power in Marrakech in the polity now known as Morocco, the Almoravids,. Al-Mutamid, a wise, literate & accomplished man, expected that the Almoravids would be a short hire, that they would defeat Alfonso & then return to Marrakech. But he underestimated their fanaticism; defeat Alfonso they quickly did, but the Almoravids were contemptuous of the Andalusian way of diplomacy with the Christians & integration of the Jews into all manner of high civic function. These dour & intolerant jihadists took over al-Andalus &, with their successor Almohads, ruled for 150 years; yet they never defeated the proud Andalusian culture

The important aspect of the Almoravid arrival for our story of African music is that the army that they brought comprised enslaved warrior Africans, mostly Sudanese: the Moors, or Blackamoors according to the English, & the Moors brought a powerful new weapon, the war drum. The armies of Christendom had never heard the like, & it terrified them.

These probably were kettle drums; the drumheads might well have been made of the skins of enemies; the great music historian, Fernando Ortiz, wrote that 11th century African war drums probably were “fed” with the blood of enemies. These were drums of power – they called to earth supernal beings. They talked, and therefore had a great military value as they could give commands. The drums were of great utility in the course of battle as the primary means of maneuvering troops. Theirs was not a sound that your army & townspeople wanted to hear during a siege. El Cid, the first great modern epic poem (a form that was a byproduct of the culture of al-Andalus), mentions the Moorish drums three times. These kettles would evolve into the tympani, whose importance in Western music is well known.

Other instruments that settled into Iberia during the years of al-Andalus included the rehab or rebec, the first bowed strings that the European continent heard; it would be the antecedent of the violin. Another was the shawm, a double reed instrument that may or may not have been the progenitor of the oboe. They also had a cylindrical bore trumpet that was more advanced that any brass that Westerners played. They introduced the tambourine.

There is much, much more to be written about the infusion of North African & Mid Eastern music into the Western vernacular, particularly in the instance of sung poetry, but I will skip ahead a few centuries to a hot relationship that Ned Sublette tells of so well: the marriage of Havana & Sevilla.


What, you might wonder, can the god of steel, the primary god of the Congo, have to do with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach? Quite a bit, actually, but I’ll take the long route to the answer.

The word “drum” has no documentation in the English language before 1529. Europeans had danced to the tambourine, introduced, as you will recall, in al-Andalus, & a few small drums have been noted here & there. European armies adopted the Moorish military kettle drums during the wars of reconquista, but they had not yet been employed in music. Why? because the church designated drums the instruments of the devil & banned them. This was not unreasonable from the church perspective as they considered the polytheistic gods of other cultures to be demons (a belief that had prevailed since Peter settled in Rome) & these drums spoke articulately to the gods as could be seen in the routine possessions that occurred during African religious ceremonies. Of course, all dance & dance music were banned by the church, though they never were anywhere near eradicated.

In medieval Europe, dance & musical instruments essentially existed almost entirely within the domain of the lower classes. Andalusia, with its powerful Moorish retentions, was the source of much of the continent’s instrumental music. The moresque or morisca, which mean “Moorish dance”, is the dance that appears most often in texts from the 15th century. In Britain it became the still extant Morris dance.

Cultural change accelerated when Portugal instituted the transcontinental African slave trade in the 15th century. The conservative, up tight Portuguese didn’t know it, but they were importing rhythm & a love of dancing to Europe. Fernando Ortiz wrote, “from the south, hot & black, the rhythm of Africa invaded Europe up to the cold countries, where the negros were frequently drummers, both in the armies & in the popular diversions.” The source was Iberia: Lisbon, Cadiz, & increasingly, Sevilla. By the mid-16th century drums had become integral to show music, & then to court music, because the new dances could not be done without them.

The social mobility of dances & their rhythms will be familiar to us today: the popular dances were done first by black people, then by poor whites, & then by the “society.” Yet Western music historians have been silent on these origins, though the documentation is ample. Sublette observes, “The entry for ‘rhythm’ in the 29 volume New Grove Dictionary of Music does not once mention Africa in its 32 page text. But it does speak of a ‘metric revolution’, noting that

Around 1600 a dramatic change took place in Western rhythmic notation…The appearance of this constellation of notational features is significant, for it indicates that a basic change in the rhythmic foundation of Western music was underway…Before 1600 some music was metric while other music was not; after 1600 most music was metric.

Ned Sublette:
I would like to suggest that this European metric revolution had something to do with a new wave of dancing, which in turn had more than a little to do with the rise of the African slave trade & the entry of Africans into European society. As everywhere else Africans have gone, they played music & got people dancing.

The Spanish purchased their enslaved Africans primarily from the Portuguese for settlement in the New World. A rebellion in 1522 in Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic & Haiti, struck chords of memory of the fierce warrior Moors, & the Spanish, who still dreamed of crusades to rid Jerusalem of Jews & Muslims, wanted no more of it. In 1526, King Carlos issued an order that banned the importation of any “Gelofes [Wolofs, from the Senegambia], nor those from the Levant…nor any others raised with Moors.”

Cuba, then, was settled by Africans from the forest regions; drum speaking Africans, unlike those from the North of Africa, the grass & desert lands, whose musical orientation was strings. Those Africans went to the British colonies, a fact that provides Sublette the basis for an elegant explanation of the reason that jazz musicians & Afro-Cuban musicians had such a hard time playing together when Dizzy Gillespie & Mario Bauza tried to merge the two in the 1940s, but that’s another story. The Cubans came from the region of Africa that Europeans called the Congo, though it was much larger than the Congo & included Angola & more. They were the people who are most often referred to as Bantu, an appellation that these Africans dislike as it is applied correctly only to language & not to people.

In 1539, “the year before the drum made its first appearance in English history”, a writer made note of an African dance in Panama called the zarabanda. It came from the Congo, called by the Congolese Nsala-banda, after the god of iron, the principal god of the Congo. It was later noted in Havana.

The zarabanda would soon show up is Sevilla, the port city of preference in commerce between Spain & Cuba. Sevilla by then had a large African population. There was a grand May festival there, the Festival of Corpus Christi, “a splendid fiesta of religious drama, sacred music, & even sacred dance, with floats supported on the shoulders of a dozen men” (Sublette). As with any large popular festival, the partying went on all over the city, in streets & alleys & other public spaces. Africans came out in costumes of their own, performing their own dances accompanied by their own instruments, especially the drums, still satanic to the powerful clergy.

The zarabanda quickly grew wildly popular in Spain; the church declared it anathema & threatened to whip men who did it & sentence them to the galleys, & to exile female performers, but still it raged. Covarrubias de Orozco wrote in his Spanish dictionary of 1611, ”It is lively & lascivious, because it is done with immodest shaking of the body.….Although all parts of the body are moved, the arms make the greatest gestures, sounding the castanets.” The dance dominated the Corpus celebration of 1593 with everybody joining in, to the disgust of the clergy. Padre Juan de Mariana thought that it was “so lascivious in its words, so ugly in its sway, that it was enough to set decent people afire.” Padre Juan seems a bit contradictory here, but one can imagine the sheer irresistible power of the rhythm & the release of inhibitions.

Soon, the zarabanda was seen, not only in festivals, but also in the open-air comedy that would lead Spain into its golden age of theater. People of African descent were very popular in Spanish entertainment in the 17th century when Spanish theater was the most highly developed in Europe. As Fernando Ortiz wrote, “the negro & the mulatto…were something more than figures in the background; they were also musicians, dancers, singers, comedians, even authors.”

The zarabanda adapted as its adoption spread. African guitarists of Seville, with their percussive phrasing, were the best in Spain. They played the zarabanda music on this new instrument & made it what Sublette names the rock & roll of Spain in the way that it acquired rapid popularity. As the guitar quickly moved into the poor quarters across Europe, the zarabanda rode with it. It was soon in Naples, another city with a large African population. As it traveled it became instrumental: it lost its text & context. The first notated example appeared in Italy in 1606; Ben Jonson mentioned a saraband in England in 1616. By the time it settled in France it had doused its percussive fire & become the common conclusion of a dance suite. In the 18th century, J. S. Bach wrote at least 39 sarabands, the most dances that he ever composed. Instead of the rabble rousing, sexually graphic demonstration that shocked Covarrubias & Padre Juan so much, it had changed into something that Lincoln Kirsten called “elegiac, meditative & noble.” Ned Sublette’s summary:

So imagine that Zarabanda, the Congo god of iron – the cutting edge, if you will – traveled on a slave ship with his magic, his mambo [“mambo” originally meant magic] & his machete as soon as the New World was open for business. Then he went back through Havana, across the ocean again, where he got all of Spain dancing, then covertly crept up through Europe – through the servants’ entrance, of course - & became part of what we call classical music. In the process, his name was frenchified, he lost his drum & his voice, & his tempo slowed way down. All that remained was the distillation of his dance onto the lute & the guitar, with only the barest of the original flavor remaining. Today we call that process going mainstream.

As it was with the zarabanda, so it would be a generation later with the chacona, which replaced the zarabanda with the dancing poor. A verse from that time of that giant of Spanish theater, Lope de Vega, reads, “From the Indies / to Sevilla / it has come by post.” For “Indies”, read Havana.

The chacona was most often played on the guitar with castanets & tambourines. Like the zarabanda, it was the dance of slaves & servants; like the zarabanda, it was said to be Satan’s invention: its movements were sexually suggestive, its lyrics mocking, even of the clergy. It was danced very fast. Its course through the hard strata of society was the zarabanda’s. By the time that it worked its way up through the dance masters & musicians of the courts of Europe & entered classical music it had become entirely instrumental, & was much slower. It was no longer the chacona; it was now the chaconne or passacaglia, the terms were nearly interchangeable. However, the “constructive device” as Sublette calls it, remained the rhythmic cell that is the common constructive device of the drum cultures of Africa.

Ned Sublette’s conclusion of this chapter is cogent & challenges what we thought we knew of the cultural basis of classical music. I quote it here at some length as I am loathe to paraphrase & certainly can’t improve it.

The undulation of the zarabanda & the ostinato of the chacona were badly needed in European music. The sixteenth century was a time when church composers, after centuries of stretching the boundaries of the liturgically permissible, had erected a complex superstructure over the cantus firmus of Gregorian chant, elaborating rules of harmonic movement for independent vocal lines, what theorists call voice leading. When composers transcribed the multiple, independent lines of the early polyphonic vocal composers for lute & for organ, a new kind of music was born: a complex, legalistic, purely instrumental music for listening.

With the gradual acceptance of equal temperament, the system that made the keyboard king, a concept of functional harmony was developing that would reach its peak in the “well-tempered” works of J.S. Bach. With that came a new concept: harmonic rhythm – the resolution of tension & release in time. This led to the tonal-dramatic structure of the sonata, whose internal architecture, combined with the multimovement structure of the suite, would give rise to the symphony.

It was a tremendous intellectual & aesthetic achievement. It’s the basis of what university music departments teach to this day. Rhythmically, however, it was much less sophisticated than what the Pygmies had been doing for millennia. It definitely wasn’t for dancing.

But Europe wanted to dance. The slave trade, which had previously spurred a fantastic prosperity in the Islamic world, was now generating riches for Christian Europe. &, as previously had happened in the Islamic world, there grew a moneyed leisure class that wanted music for dancing.

But the Europeans never learned to drum. Ortiz writes:

A curious phenomenon occurs whose consideration is indispensable to appreciating duly the influence, then & later, of black drums. The musical transcendence of blacks in the musical cultures & theaters of the whites manifests itself preferentially by the penetration & dissemination of the characteristic rhythms of their drums, but not by the adoption of those drums, except for those of military character. This social phenomenon in Europe has hidden much of the reality of African influences…& the invasion of the rhythms, which then penetrated the whites’ music, has remained in large part unexplained.

In other words, the rhythms were taken up but were shifted over from the drum to the tambourine, an instrument not associated with the vileness of the negro. The masters, not the slaves, wrote the history; the slaves’ culture was invisible, even as it transformed that of the masters.

When that African – probably, specifically Bantu – thing of dancing to a syncopated rhythmic loop came into Europe via Spain from Havana & found a home in the dance suite, that was about as rhythmic as European art music was going to get until well into the twentieth century.

Well said.

Next, Jeseph Bologne, the Chevalier de St. George, whose mother was African & whose father was a French Noble, becomes the greatest swordsman (double meaning here) in France, one of its greatest composers & violinists, & creates the first modern orchestra.


Anne L'Ecuyer said...

Fascinating. Too bad a blog can't play along. I would love to be able to hear the musical changes as you describe them. I imagine you can hear it all in your head!

Unknown said...

Extremely interesting! Very glad to see you recount the contributions of Muslims in the development of music and culture in Spain as well as Europe, Quite interesting about the development of drums. Very well written!