8 Feb

Map of the Week: Music of the African Diaspora
















By Alexandra Kicior

This map shows the influence of African diasporic communities on the various musical traditions of the Americas. While different musical styles have clearly developed along unique paths, many can be traced to common origins in the musical traditions of West Africa. Such traditions were introduced to the new world through the Transatlantic Slave Trade. When African people were forcibly transported to the Americas en masse, they brought their culture, and notably their music, with them. 

The massive impact of African culture on the music of the Americas relates to the importance of music within enslaved communities. Music often served as a source of strength and resistance. It helped build community and kept individuals in contact with their cultural heritage. The realities of slavery did affect musical traditions. Oftentimes instruments were not accessible to enslaved people, so vocal work took on profound significance.

Moreover, it is important to acknowledge the musical heritage of the Americas as the product of cultural exchange. West African traditions were often fused with Indigenous or European influences, creating unique, place-specific genres. For example, the Banjo was invented in the Caribbean and Colonial North Africa. The drum-like body and strings of different lengths are uniquely West African while the flat finger board and pegs are likely European in origin. 

A black banjo player with a wooden leg. Photograph, ca. 1865. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, this studio shot features a “scoop neck” banjo.













All in all, this map emphasizes the immense cultural influence of Black communities in the Americas. Its regional perspective further shows the importance of transnational views of the Slave Trade and race more broadly. It is vital to highlight and celebrative the rich cultural contributions of Black communities through the region as they are so often left out of national narratives. 

Courtesy of Britannica. Ma Rainey (center) and her band, 1923.











The culmination of this great sublimation of musical energy into vocal work can be seen in genres such as Gospel Music and Hip-Hop. The music of the African diaspora makes frequent use of ostinato, a motif or phrase that is persistently repeated at the same pitch. The banjo is a direct descendant of the Akonting created by the Jola people, found in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. Thus, the melodic traditions of the African diaspora are probably most alive in the Blues and Jazz. 

Cuba Carnaval celebrations. Courtesy of Amakuru Blog.









Cuban Son performers. Courtesy of Classic Sailing.











Bachata Performers in the Dominican Republic. Courtesy of Brisal Y Mas Blog.











The roots of most Cuban music forms lie in cabildos, a form of social club among African slaves brought to the island. Traditional Afro-Cuban styles include son, Batá, yuka, and Rumba. Bachata is a popular guitar music that originated in the Dominican Republic, having strong African and Spanish influences. The subjects of bachata are often romantic with tales of heartbreak and sadness. 

Haitian Folkloric Dancers. Courtesy of Pinterest.









Haitian music, known to many as Méringue, developed during the early decades of the 19th century. Kadans, Haitian Creole for “cadence,” followed the mini-jazz era. Kadans had an influence on the development of Zouk in the French-speaking Antilles of the Caribbean. Zouk, with influences from calypso, is a sound that has a slow tempo with several varieties that have developed in francophone Africa. 

Jamaican Ska in the early 1960s. Courtesy of Mixcloud.

In Jamaica, African diasporic music is made to portray resistance through music in order to strengthen the communal bond and identity for groups that share collective memories of oppression and suffering. Mento is a style of Jamaican music that predates and has greatly influenced ska, which was also fused with African traditions, American jazz, and blues. Along with the rise of ska came the popularity of DJs who began talking stylistically over the rhythms of popular songs, which would later give birth to dancehall and pioneer rapping that later emerged in New York. Reggae stems from early Ska and Rocksteady, but also has its own style of Jamaican authenticity. 

Reggae Soundsytem in Kingston, Jamaica, 1980s. Courtesy of Wiriko.

When Africans came to the United States, they brought their music with them. Over time, a new genre of music emerged, called spirituals. Most of these have religious texts and they were sung by enslaved Africans while working, in prayer meetings, and in churches. This genre of music, therefore, reflects the collective enslaved African experience. Many other African-American music genres, such as gospel and jazz, developed from the genre of spirituals.