The History of African American Music
By Yaya Diallo
When I saw this title, I was afraid and I’m still afraid regarding my opinion about the subject. The subject is complex and difficult so I cannot resolve it overnight. I am an African. I do things the African way. I cannot write about African American music like a Western scholar. In my culture we live the past and the future in the present. When I listen to some African American music I can feel the past, the present and the future all at the same time. Now, the best way for me to handle this subject is to work by questions and answers.
Q: Yaya! Who do you think you are?
A: I don’t think! I am Farafin, which means I am a dark skin man. The word Africa is the Arabic name for our continent. In Bambara we call the so-called “Africa” Farafina. Farafina means the land of dark skin people. I am from Farafina and I am proud of it. I don’t want to be somebody else. People in general say African American. I would say American Farafin, which means dark skin human being who lives in America. Q: What is your African background?
A: I come from far away. I was born in 1946 in Fienso (French Sudan), now Mali. My parents were nomadic. When I was very young I used to travel a lot. I grew up in the bush far from any western civilization. The music that I heard was very traditional and played live. I did not have a radio or TV. I had the opportunity to listen to the music of the different ethnic groups from the Ivory Coast, Burkina and Ghana. In some villages I heard Muslim songs coming from the mosques. By night, I would enjoy the frog symphonic orchestras. From 1946 to 1960 I was living in complete nature. My musical training is a long story but you can learn more from my book The Healing Drum.
Q: What are your feelings about the civilized world?
A: In the city I had strange feelings. I saw people listen to music through what I thought was two kinds of boxes. The first was a radio. You could change the singer with the tuning button, I thought. The second needed records. It read 78, 45 and 33 1/2. You had to adjust everything with something but I did not have a clue as to what. Even still, the only music that I heard was the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Johnny Holliday.
Q: What do you think about the word African American?
A: Dark skin people living in America are not different from people I met in Africa (Farafina). To me they are just different ethnic groups like the Yoruba, the Bantu, the Zulu or the Tuareg. Africa is not one culture. We have thousands and thousands of languages and different music. My wife is an African American from Louisville, KY. Her mother is from Dark Corner, MS and her father from Jackson, TN. Like my wife and family there was one African American man, James Brown, who saved my life with his music.
Q: How can an African American man save the life of a traditional African?
A: In 1967 I left my country to go to Montreal, Canada. On my way, in Paris, I saw a big picture of James Brown in the Olympia Theater. In my mind I thought, “Oh! A black man in Olympia in Paris, France.” In Montreal I was looking for a place to dance or listen to the music that I loved. One day I found a radio station that played black music. I heard James Brown and felt at home.
Q: What do you think about African American music?
A: I always say that I don’t think, I feel. When we talk about African American music we talk about Spirituals, Blues, Funk, Jazz, Gospel, Rap, dance music, etc. I want to talk on each one by one.
When people in Canada were dancing the twist, jerk and go-go, in my country a French man named Johnny Holliday was playing bad versions of Wilson Pickett and Ray Charles’ music in French. In America I found out this French man was a robber. He stole the music, sang it in French and looked like a genius for us Africans.
Q: What did you feel when you started to dance?
A: I used to go out to dance to Wilson Pickett, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone’s music. For me they were Africans. They had good beats, good feelings and most important, African Soul. I did not feel that from Chinese or European music. In the 70’s I discovered the Funk music, The O’Jays, Parliament, Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang and JR Walker and the All Stars. I felt I was at home when I knew the Motown Family (Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder). I could survive because I had those kinds of musicians.
Q: In terms of music, what is the link between African and African Americans?
A: African Americans are Africans from the village and sadly they just don’t know it! When you listen to the music you can find out. Kool and The Gang played Funky Stuff. When you listen to the drum part you will get the Dounouba part of the dance Sounou. Sounou was played in the 15th century and today is the dance young people love. In Africa we learn the past in the present and teach it to the next generation. The African Americans sometimes do not know how African they are.
Q: Why can you say that they are African?
A: The first time I heard the Four Tops I thought I was listening to the Bambara Farmers in the evening after a hard working day. The Temptations reminded me of the men Fire dancers and singers. I can listen to the Temptations but I am afraid to see them. I am not initiated to the Fire dance and the music brings out memories about the secret ceremonies that happened afar in the village. Aretha Franklin is for me a great Djeli-mousso coming from the Empire of Mali in the 13th century. When I listen to African American music I don’t worry about the meaning, only what I feel.
Q: What do you think about Jazz?
A: Really, to tell the truth, I don’t feel jazz. Many people coming from Africa feel the same way. I learned about jazz in 1980 when I recorded my first album, Nangape, on Onzou Records. That opened the door for me with jazz. Jazz magazines like Cadence and Down Beat wrote articles on me like I was a “jazz man.” I was invited to do workshops at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY. I met big jazz names like Art Blakey. He said, “When I play with Yaya I feel comfortable, he’s the only African that I can play with and I don’t worry.” I completed a trio with Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell in the Symphony Space in New York.
Q: What about Gospel?
A: To me gospel means religion or church but my father-in-law changed my mind. When going to church with him I saw a big band and a big choir. People were singing and I forgot that I was in church. I was surprised; I saw ladies in a trance like in my village but they called it shouting. This reminded me of the Mania Secret Society where only woman go into a trance when praising god (See The Healing Drum).
Q: What is rap?
A: I love rap! I use to lie about buying rap and say that it was for my children. Rap is the old tradition of the Fulani people in Mali. It tells life stories through poetry that is recited quickly. Nomadic people have to explain their daily journey through this same quick form, but without the foul language. Today, the young people think that they have reinvented the wheel.
Q: Yaya, what is wrong with African American music today?
A: Today everything is easy. Instead of buying a drum set you buy a drum machine. Computers do everything. You can get almost every sound by pressing a button. This is the type of world that we live in today. The young Africans love it like we used to love James Brown. Time is the only thing that has changed!
Q: How did African American music change American Society?
A: We changed everything! We changed the style of dance; we created new sounds, new styles, and new way to dress…EVERYTHING! Country music is the white version of the Blues. Rock-n-roll comes from our music. People forget that Jimmie Hendricks was a Blues player that just changed his sound and look. Without James Brown, Sly and Family Stone and the Motown Family there would be no Madonna, no Celiene Dion, no techno, and no disco. African Americans brought this to the world. It is sad because people do not recognize it. We changed the world and it will never be the same again.
Q: How do people know you in America?
A: I am the author of two books, The Healing Drum and At the Threshold of the African Soul. I have four CDs, Nanagape, The Healing Drum, Dombaa Folee, and Dounoukan. I thank Onzou Records, the first company that trusted me to make my first album in 1980. That was not easy!
This article is edited and submitted by Stephen Conroy, producer of Onzou Records, promoting the work of musician/author Yaya Diallo, a native of Mali, West Africa. The article originally published in Music Dish on March 1, 2003 was written in response to their call for articles to celebrate Black History Month.
Refer to Music Dish Article:
THE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSIC
Listen to Yaya Diallo’s acoustic instrumental album Nangape with African drums, balafon and flute music on New Music Canada.
Yaya Diallo CD Nangape online media kit with audio link:
www.onzou.com, Onzou Records, Yaya Diallo’s West African Music