The March 2001 issue of Choral Journal features an article titled “African-American Spirituals and Gospel Music: Historical Similarities and Differences” written by Marvin V. Curtis. Following is a section from the article.
The music of the African-American spiritual and gospel have many similarities and differences. Both descended from the African and African-American experiences of worship, dance, improvisation, and-above all-slavery. These two genres are rooted in the belief that “God has brought us through so much already; we can be sure He will continue to do so.”(1)
Spirituals and gospel music are community songs with their roots in the hopes and faith of a community struggling to find its way in a strange land. It is music that helps one discover faith in the ultimate justice of life.
THE AFRICAN COMMUNITY
Slavery records indicate that the ancestors of the African American community were from West Africa. The empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Kanem-Bornu, Mossi, Hausa; city states of Ashanti, Benin, Dahomey; and the Delta states, Gambia, Oyo, and Senegal, dominated the area.(2) Those countries are known today as Senegal, Guinea, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, and parts of the Congo and Zaire.
It is through the writings of Olaudah Equiano (born in 1745 and kidnapped at age eleven, and one of the first Africans to write in English about his experience) that a definition of the size of this area was established. “That part of Africa known by the name of Guinea, to which the trade for slaves is carried on, extends along the coast above 3,400 miles, from Senegal to Angola, and includes a variety of kingdoms.”(3)
Religion and music were one in African life. Music was primarily percussive in nature, although string and woodwind instruments were present. Music was not performed in a concert setting, but in everyday life and in ceremony. It was participatory; the whole community was involved in music making. There were two important aspects to music making: song and dance.
Song reflected the values of the community. Songs were sung to celebrate the’ birth of a baby, the loss of a tooth, the marriage of a couple, the death of a loved one-every aspect of life. Song was used in working and ceremonies. It was also a part of the African language, since African languages are a combination of raised and unraised pitches. Called the “toneme,” they are the rising and falling of pitch, slurs, and glissandos that help convey meaning of words. Since words and their toneme are not spoken in isolation, those listening respond to the sounds in their own way. In music making, when an instrument or voice renders a passage, there is a response from the participants in attendance. The result is a call-and-response. The song held one other important aspect; it could be used to convey one’s feeling without betraying one’s true nature.
(1) Gwendolin Sims Warren, EVIJ Time I Feel The Spirit (New York: Holt, 1997), 183-184.
(2) Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans 3rd Edition (New York: Norton), 3.
(3) Henry Gates and Nellie McKay, AJricanAmerican Literature: The Norton Anthology (New York: Norton), 141.
The rest of this article can be found in the March 2001 issue of Choral Journal at acda.org/choraljournal. Click “search archives” and choose March 2001 from the dropdown menu.