Recording session with Desmali’s music group in Equatorial Guinea. He plays the asiko square frame drum and the percussionist plays the gumbé drum.

Crossings: music and culture across the Atlantic

Janet Topp Fargion (British Library) and Lucy Durán (SOAS) point to the cultural roots, routes and roundtrips of some of the forms of religion, dance and music carried over from West Africa during the slave trade, and (re)created in the Caribbean and the Americas.

Drawing of the slave ship 'Brookes'

This is one of the best-known images produced by abolitionists created to show the horrors of the transatlantic crossing - also known as the Middle Passage - between Britain, West Africa and the Caribbean. The drawing shows how captives were crammed into the hold of a slave ship - this image shows the real ship 'Brookes' and appeared in the book of Thomas Clarkson.

Drawing of the slave ship Brookes. Taken from: Thomas Clarkson, The history of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British Parliament (London: Longman & Co., 1808).

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Usage terms Public Domain

This image was produced to illustrate how captives destined for the Americas were crammed into the hold of the slave ship Brookes. It shows 454 people, the maximum allowed by British law from 1788. In fact, the Brookes carried as many as 609 at one time. This engraving was published in the 1780s by abolitionists to raise awareness about the horrors of the Middle Passage. What it also very clearly demonstrates is the very limited extent to which captives would have been able to carry with them any items of their material culture such as musical instruments or dance costumes. They were, however, able to carry stories, and religious and musical knowledge and concepts. These were powerful and important. Whether remembered directly or created anew in changed circumstances, expressions of such cultural knowledge became vital in the struggle for daily and psychological survival.
Yoruba religion in the Americas

One continued religious practice is candomblé, an African-Brazilian religion born out of enslaved Africans, primarily from Nigeria and Benin of Yoruba and Fon descent. Brazil was a major importer of captives from this region of West Africa. With them came the concept of àsé, a Yoruba word for an energy deriving from ancestral spirits (axé in Brazil), which is reinvented and relived as candomblé in Salvador (Bahia) in northeastern Brazil.  In religious contexts candomblé practice involves spirit possession, thought to be brought about with the aid of singing, dancing and drumming, to connect with the spirit world. Candomblé influences all aspects of life, however, as the axé energy acquired assists people in reaching their potential and ambitions in a secular world too. Some practitioners also believe that the protection of axé is the force that has sustained Africans in many parts of the world from enslavement to independence and into the present day.

In candomblé, and related religions elsewhere in what Paul Gilroy dubbed the ‘black Atlantic’, we thus see the continuance of religious thought and worldview, spoken using West African words and performed using West African musical instruments and characteristics. Thus West Africa’s òrìsà (ancestral spirit) becomes Brazil’s orixà, Yorubaland’s sekere (gourd rattle with cowrie shells or beads) becomes Brazil’s xequerê, and the candomblé drums (atabaque) are played with the agogo (cowbell), a Yoruba word for bell.

Watch excerpts from the film Yemanjá: Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil (2015. A Project Zula presentation by Donna Carole Roberts and Leonardo Dourado. See http://www.yemanjathefilm.com/)

A Project Zula presentation by Donna Carole Roberts and Leonardo Dourado

Copyright © 2015 Project Zula; item held by Donna Carole Roberts
Candomblé is not the only examples of continued West African religious practices in the Americas. Another is the African-Cuban santería. Also with its roots in Yoruba culture – with certain Roman Catholic elements – santería has spread to the North America (particularly to New York) and other nearby countries in South America.
African-Cuban abakuá makes the roundtrip to West Africa

The first Abakuá society was founded in Havana, Cuba, in 1836, its members mobilised to buy captives their freedom and participate in independence movements against the Spanish. Abakuá is derived primarily from the West African male secret societies (leopard or Ékpè societies) of the Ejagham, Efut and Éfìk peoples of the Cross River region. In Abakuá ceremonies the actions of important ancestors from these peoples are enacted, recited and sung about.

Abakuá has travelled a long and circuitous journey from the Cross River region in southeastern Nigeria to Cuba, where it was recreated by emancipated slaves in Havana as an all-male secret society believed to invest the members with power; then back with repatriated Cubans to West Africa – to Sierra Leone and to coastal Equatorial Guinea on the island of Bioko, where they encountered Éfìk migrant workers and recreated Abakuá; and from there, transported with migrant Fang cocoa plantation workers well inland in that country where, known as Abakuya, it is today played for all festivities and is an important part of local Fang culture.

Listen to Lucy Durán’s radio programme on the music of the Fang in Equatorial Guinea including recordings and discussion on Abakuya in Ebibiyin.

Musical roots, routes and roundtrips

Gumbé

It is common knowledge that some of the best-known popular musics of the 20th century have their roots in Africa. The flow of African musical influences that led to the creation of such genres as calypso and steelpan (the mainstays of carnival), jazz, blues and salsa tends to be seen as a one-way trip: out of Africa into the New World. What is less known is that these musics have travelled back to the continent over more than two centuries, sometimes via circuitous routes, feeding into local traditions and generating new, exciting forms of music: Highlife, Rumba, Afrobeat, gumbé and so-called desert blues, to name but a few.

While there are many musical forms that could be used to illustrate these ‘routes and roots’, two musical instruments  – gumbé and the banjo (and their related musical performance styles) – help to highlight the impact of transatlantic musical crossings on the world’s music and popular culture.

Much research remains to be done on African gumbé but back in the 19th century it took West Africa by storm. Its fruits can be heard today in some of Africa’s most influential popular musics, such as Highlife and Rumba; and in Guinea-Bissau, it remains a powerful expression of national identity.

Gumbé / goombay / gumbay / gome, variant names for a drum and its music, began life in the 18th century in Jamaica, among Maroon communities. We know little about its exact origins, except that it was the name for a large frame drum with four legs, built like a stool. The classic drums of equatorial Africa, carved out of a single log and played with the hands, were banned by slave owners in the Caribbean and southern United States, since they were believed to be able to ‘talk’ and communicate across long distances, rallying enslaved communities to uprisings.

Gumbé returned to Africa when some 500 Maroons were deported from Jamaica to Nova Scotia in 1796 and from there in 1800 to the recently established Sierra Leone taking their music with them. By the mid-19th century, communities of resettled enslaved peoples were established all along the coast in countries now known as Senegal and The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and indeed as far south as Angola. Wherever they settled, gumbé went with them.

Listen to an extract of Jamaican gumbé on Drums of Defiance: Maroon music from the earliest free black communities of Jamaica. (Smithsonian Folkways SFW40412, track 121 ‘Falla me’. Recorded by Kenneth Bilby. British Library shelfmark 1CD0065710)

Listen to Lucy Durán’s radio programme on music in Equatorial Guinea including recordings and discussion gumbé musician, Desmali.

Desmali’s music group in Equatorial Guinea, 2013. Photo: Lucy Durán

Recording session with Desmali’s music group in Equatorial Guinea. He plays the asiko square frame drum and the percussionist plays the gumbé drum.

A recording session with Annobonese singer and guitarist Desmali, and his music group, in Equatorial Guinea in 2013. This photo was taken by music producer, journalist and broadcaster Lucy Durán.

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What caused gumbé to take such a strong hold? The gumbé drum itself, the driving two-step rhythm and the modern and perhaps risqué couple dancing were certainly novelties. But more importantly perhaps, since the music did not belong to any one ethnic or ritual context, it was a form of inter-ethnic entertainment in the new West African societies. West African coastal people such as the Ga and the Kru played their roles in disseminating gumbé around West Africa. The Ga people, for instance, living around present-day Accra (Ghana’s capital), travelled widely around the continent as labour migrants. 

One of their destinations in the early 20th century was the island of Bioko (Equatorial Guinea), with busy harbours and a flourishing trade where large numbers of Creoles from Sierra Leone were settled. The ethnomusicologist Isabela Aranzadi, who has carried out extensive research in Equatorial Guinea, traces the complex routes that gumbe (cumbé) and other Caribbean returned styles took before reaching Bioko, where it remains a well-established musical form. There, Ga labourers from what was then the Gold Coast picked up gumbe from Sierra Leoneans and brought it back to Accra, where they called it gome, a music that responded well to the diverse population of the growing metropolis, influencing Highlife.

And London was buzzing with Ghanaian and Nigerian Highlife in the 1940s and 1950s. British music magazines such as Melody Maker had regular columns devoted to reviews of the Decca West Africa series in the 1940s; the West African Rhythm Brothers, a Nigerian band led by Ambrose Campbell, were resident at the fashionable Abalabi Club in Soho, London, in the late 1950s. Their music was infused with gumbé rhythms. The Abalabi was a meeting place for musicians from all over the world, especially from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as jazz musicians from the United States. Such are the ‘routes’ that gumbé has travelled.

Listen to Highlife music from the 1940s and 1950s published by Decca West Africa

The country where gumbé remains the strongest as a living tradition is Guinea-Bissau, where it has been indigenised by musicians such as Manecas Costa (b. 1967). Here, gumbé became popular in the 1960s and 1970s as a statement of resistance to Portuguese colonial rule. Gumbé was used as a way of spreading information among guerrilla fighters, and of calling for help from ancestral spirits. In some ways this can be seen as a continuation of the spirit in which gumbé was first created among Jamaican Maroons.

West African lutes and the origins of the banjo 

Musicians and historians have made connections between the various West African lutes and the emergence of the banjo in the southern United States in the 19th century. The American banjo was first created as far back as the mid-17th century by enslaved African peoples in the Caribbean – an instrument known as the Creole Bania, a gourd plucked lute, considered to be the original banjo – and a century later in the southern United States. Louisiana was particularly significant as many enslaved Africans were taken there in order to cultivate rice, bringing with them their own musical styles and repertoires. 

The Jola from present-day Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau are a farming people with special talents for rice growing. This made them highly valuable to slave traders. Their arrival (with the knowledge of their version of the lute, the akonting, if not the instrument itself) suggests a direct connection with the development of the banjo.

Photograph of an akonting

Photograph of an akonting, an instrument of the Jola people of The Gambia and Senegal.

Photograph of an akonting, an instrument of the Jola people of The Gambia and Senegal.

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Recording of Aleenum (My sister/brother), song with akonting by Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta, July 2015

Copyright © Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta

Shelfmark Ref: C1712

See more about the origins of the banjo.

Structural similarities of the two instruments include the round gourd body, a long neck that goes right through the body, a short top string that is always played open, and a movable bridge. There are similarities in playing technique as well, featuring a stroking style used by the Africans who played the early banjo in the plantations and also identical to the playing style used by Anglo-Americans when they identified with the instrument in the American south in the 19th century. 

Banjo traditions have had lasting worldwide influence, and the exploration of their foundation in West Africa seems a powerful way of demonstrating the enduring impact of West African forms of expression.

Carnival

A different but also complex international trajectory can be seen in the music and practice of carnival. Caribbean carnival, the Mas tradition, began in the late 18th century with French plantation owners organising masquerades (mas) before the fasting period of Lent. Enslaved inhabitants, forbidden from taking part in carnival, devised their own celebrations called Canboulay (from the French cannes brulées, meaning burnt cane), which, in Trinidad and Tobago, became carnival.

With its calypso and steelpan music – arguably rooted in the West African storytelling and social commentary songs, and percussion traditions respectively – carnival was brought to the United Kingdom from the late 1940s by new arrivals from the Caribbean. It has taken root in the UK, most famously in Leeds and in Notting Hill, London. Here we see the continuation of calypso on platforms alongside other Caribbean forms of music including soca, reggae and the sound system.

Bele carnival costume

Bele carnival costume. Designed by Ray Mahabir of Sunshine International Arts. Photo: Toby Keane. This item was on display in the British Library's 'West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song' exhibition 2015-2016

Bele carnival costume. Designed by Ray Mahabir of Sunshine International Arts. Photo: Toby Keane

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Detail of Bele carnival costume

Detail of Bele carnival costume which was on display at the British Library's 'West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song' exhibition 2015-16. Designed by Ray Mahabir of Sunshine International Arts. Photo: Toby Keane

Detail of Bele carnival costume. Designed by Ray Mahabir of Sunshine International Arts. Photo: Toby Keane

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The costume above was designed and made by Ray Mahabir of Sunshine International Arts. It is based on the tradition of Bele or Bel Air, a drum dance and song closely linked to Caribbean history, struggle, freedom and celebration. The tri-panelled skirt of the costume blends African, Caribbean and European textiles, reflecting the coming together of cultures. 

Thus we see stories of cultural retention and of adaptation and creativity in a wide variety of cultural forms: in religion, music and performance forms emanating from the culture of crossings. African-inspired music has made the ‘roundtrip’ back to the continent, and been adapted, re-signified and reclaimed by local artists and audiences in a continuing process in which Africans on both sides of the Atlantic continue to identify with each other in a dialogue reconnecting people of African descent with their ancestral roots. Many of these expressive forms have broken through into a much wider public consciousness in global forms of 21st-century music.

1 Barbara Hampton, 1979, ‘A Revised Analytical Approach to Musical Processes in Urban Africa’ in Kazadi wa-Mukuna (ed.), African Urban Music, special issue of African Urban Studies, 6, Winter 1979-1980, pp. 1-16
Janet Topp Fargion, Curator World and Traditional Music, Sound and Vision
  • Dr Janet Topp Fargion
  • Dr Janet Topp Fargion is Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music at the British Library. Her general research interest is the discipline of Ethnomusicology, with a focus on the music of Africa, particularly of South Africa and the Swahili Coast in East Africa. Her research currently centres on ethnographic sound recordings as sources for ethnomusicological investigation. She is an active member of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology and the Archiving Committee of the Society for Ethnomusicology and is chair of the Research Archive Section of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives. In 2015, she co-curated the British Library major exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song.

  • Dr Lucy Durán
  • Lucy Durán is Senior Lecturer in African Music at SOAS and writes extensively on West African music and culture. She has a long professional involvement with the music industry, as music producer, journalist and broadcaster, notably as presenter of BBC Radio 3’s world music programme World Routes. Her Growing into Music project resulted in several films documenting musical progress of children in leading Mande jeli (griot) families. She is also project advisor to the Aga Khan Music Initiative for their work in Mali.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.