Sunday, December 2, 2007

North Mississippi, Part 1: Otha

One day someone smarter than me should sit down and lay it out plain about African-American music in the 18th century: What was going on? The music that we folks in the western hemisphere call “traditional” generally seems to date from the 19th century (or later), so it’s hard to guess what the roots of our traditional music sounded like, but I’m here to posit that 18th century roots music was pretty hot.

Take a look at the musical history of the Caribbean and you find a striking number of similarities. The Africans there tended to get down in the same ways – or at least using the same tools – from island to island. Every island had some combination of drums (many of which were improvised; like the alluringly named “boom pipe” of the Anglophone Caribbean), maracas (called shak-shaks on many Anglophone islands and chakchaks on the Francophone ones), scrapers, triangles (called cling-a-chings, tingtings, etc.), melodic wind instruments like fifes, pennywhistles, and flutes and/or stringed instruments like the fiddle, banjo, guitar, ukulele or cuatro (which is primarily identified with Puerto Rico, but was present in both the Spanish and the British Antilles) among others. This is not the place for a reading of Caribbean musical history (though wikipedia totally is, if you’ve got a few hours to kill), but the similarities between the music on these islands that developed during a time when African adults weren’t even allowed to leave their own plantations, much less pop over to Montserrat from Martinique to see what was doing musically, are amazing and totally worth checking out. The impression that you walk away with was that the early music made by Africans in the New World was still very African indeed. Presumably, slavery shoe-horned the myriad musical traditions of West Africa together to make something new but still familiar enough that it could give birth to music in Trinidad and Tobago (calypso), Jamaica (mento), Antigua and Barbuda (benna), the Bahamas (goombay), the Virgin Islands (quelbe) and Barbados (Barbadian calypso) that were sonic kissin' cousins and used many of the same instruments.

In the U.S. the oldest hot music (or hottest old music) must surely be the fife-and-drum corps of the Mississippi Hill Country. Mississippi farmer Otha Turner, f-n-d’s most visible exponent in the 20th century, made his own fifes by selecting lengths of bamboo and boring them out with a red hot poker. He made the soundholes on his instruments by licking his fingers and arranging them on the flute in a position that felt right (!), then burning holes on the spit marks – a chicken-or-egg conundrum that demands tradition account for itself in this process. (I mean, how did he know where to put his fingers so that they felt right in the first place? Who was the first guy that decided where your fingers should go?) In a fife and drum corps, Otha and other blowers of the fife carry the melody of a song, while a bass drummer and at least one snare drummer kick up an accented martial rhythm behind him. Alan Lomax, who first recorded this tradition when he came across Hill Country multi-instrumentalist Sid Hemphill in the early 1940s, theorized the music dated from the 18th century. From the liner notes to Sounds of the South:

"Thomas Jefferson’s body-servant formed a fife and drum 'combo' with his best friend the day the Revolutionary War broke out, probably to play the patriotic tunes of the day….Today this combination dominates the dance music of Anguilla and Nevis in the West Indies."

(You also hear this tradition, or something like it, in the Tuk ensembles of Barbados. They use a tin whistle rather than a fife. Check out Google video for a 1/2 hour documentary on the Landship. Eye-opening.)

Ethnomusicologists (and dudes like them) couldn’t get enough of bossy, Budwesier drinking, filterless cigarette smoking Otha Turner, who hosted academics and documentary makers until his death at 95. He appeared on any number of compilations for labels like Rounder (Afro-American Folk Music from Tate and Panola Counties) and Evidence (Living Country Blues) before debuting a full-length under his own name in 1997 with Everybody Hollerin’ Goat (Birdman), a set of recordings made over several years at his annual picnics. You can find him in any number of documentaries as well. (Dig him in this 10 minute film on here).

Ethnomusicology and Otha Turner met head on in the late 1990s with From Senegal to Senatobia, credited to Otha Turner and the Afrossippi Allstars. In an attempt to give an Old World context to this most African of U.S. musics, Minnesotan college student and drummer Matt Rappaport brought a Senegalese kora player and several African percussionists (living in Chicago) to play with Otha and his drum corps.

African-American music is a fusion of African and European elements, and I think that fusion has evolved in a more-or-less organic way since The Day. For my money, cross-cultural experiments like this one generally end in tears. They leave me with the impression that the idea man behind the project wants to devolve the music; sort of “un-fuse” it so that you’re left with its constituent elements, making it easier to categorize. Not so with this album (or the even more ambitious Fulani Journey album by Afrissippi – more on it later). I suppose the best one can hope for in an album like this is that everything sounds natural together, that these musicians, whose common culture separated 400 years and 4,662 miles (thank you, this site) ago don’t screw things up; you know, no one loses the groove or, worse, bumps into the kora and loses an eye. What’s so great about this album is that adding all these African elements to the fife and drum combo seems to invigorate it. It seems like polyrhythmic djembe ensembles should have been in attendance at every Tate County, Miss., country picnic from Day 1.

Having been around since the Revolutionary War (if you’re smoking what Lomax is rolling) the fife and drum sound is pretty well-established. Whether you love it or not (and I love it – just sayin’) you know what you’re in for when you put a fife and drum side on the box: Big head-bobbing beats on the bass drum, breathy harmonics from the cane fife, snappy ass-twitching action from the snare drums. Maybe someone will clap. It’s a tried and true formula, refined over the entire lifespan of the United States, and not much in vogue among the young folks. This record shows what the possibilities for the music actually are. That doesn’t just mean that From Senegal proves that a cane fife sounds sweet over a djun djun, or even that the fife should have been played over a djun djun all along, which often seems to be the end goal of projects like this. It means that the cultures that produced the fife and the djun djun are still complimentary. Would an Antiguan cling-a-ching player have felt at home in a Dominican bélé ensemble in 1776? This record says yes.

They don’t give the kora player much, but the beats is large. Here or here.

From Senegal to Senatobia (2000)
Otha Turner & the Afrossippi Allstars
Birdman, BMR025
Recorded in 1999 at Otha Turner’s farm and Zebra Ranch Studios
Otha Turner – fife, vocals
Morikeba Kouyate – kora
Sharde Evans – fife
Luther Dickinson – bottleneck guitar
Musa Sutton, Manu Walton, Abe Young, R.L. Boyce, Bernice T. Evans, Rodney Evans, Andre Evans, K.K. Freeman, Matthew Rappaport – snare drums, bass drums, djembe, djun djun, sangban, kenkeni, bells, shakers, tambourines


Objectif said...

I found out about your blog thanks to Uchenna of "With Comb and Razor." I read your first blog entry and immediately thought to myself this is the sort of thing I'd love to publish in my magazine, Objectif. Here's a link to a pdf copy:
If you're interested in being published in Objectif you can contact me at
In any case, I'll be frequenting your blog as I think its a great project.
P.S. excuse my inactive blog

zim said...

Big Al,

I saw your comments on comb and razor and likembe and thought I'd check out your blog.

Nice first post, I love that otha turner CD as well and really dug the clips of him on the PBS series "the blues"

by the way you can hear a few clips on his web site:

"Big Al" Marghreb said...

Objectif, I'll definitely check your magazine out! Is it in anyway inspired by the Balla et Ses Balladins collection? They are a truly great band! I'll be in touch soon.

"Big Al" Marghreb said...

Zim, thanks for the kind words! I'll definitely check out his web site.

Do you have Everybody Hollerin' Goat as well? It's great, too. I think it's less self-consciously an African project, but still winds up sounding even more African to me!

zim said...

big al,

I don't have that one - will have to check it out

Comb & Razor said...

Rapidshare blows, man... i've been clicking that link for two days and won't work!

"Big Al" Marghreb said...


I'm gonna see what's up with some mediafire maybe! In the meantime, I'll dropsend it to anyone who emails me at

Comb & Razor said...

ah... finally was able to download it. good thing, too--these beats are neck breakers!

i'd heard Everybody Hollerin' Goat before but i wanted to listen to Turner in concert with the African musicians before i threw my thoughts out there...

lately i've been leaning towards the idea that most pre-20th century African American music might not have been all that "African" in character... not in the way we think of "African" music, anyway.

i still need to sort out my thoughts on it, but let's just toss this question out there: why do we think of this drum sound as African-derived when it could very well be a holdover from the American military (the Revolutionary war and all that)?

"Big Al" Marghreb said...

Yeah, I think without the American military I think the fife-and-drum music isn't possible -- there wouldn't even be a reason for it. So it is totally a holdover from American (and in the Caribbean, French and British) martial drumming. But listen to that bass drum! F-n-D gets dat-gum funky! With those polyrhythms and the way Otha plays off of the snares... It's a music that more than ragtime, more than the blues, even more than early jazz, seems to exist just to build up complex rhythms people can dance to! That doesn't really make it an African music, but I think it does make it the U.S.'s most African-influenced music (at least until John Lee Hooker and James Brown arrive).

I totally see your point though, like why do we hear drums and just think "Africa?" And this is bigger than fife-and-drum. It ain't like white people had never seen a drum before the Portuguese rolled up in Ghana. So, what's up?

Here's my guess: Drums are the instruments that most clearly express African musical concepts outside of Africa. I mean, I think if anything is clear, it's that Africans can play African music on any instrument (I give you Willard Cele and pennywhistle jive:, but in the New World, drums were probably the only instruments that Africans could reasonably rebuild their music around. They were portable, easy to construct, and generally awesome. Also, I think non-Africans kind of seized on what they heard in the drums because they could relate to them and hear new ideas in them. I think that sort of fostered this idea on the western side of the pond that Africa (generically) is just a land of drums. Just guessing though.

Damn, I think there's a whole post in this, Uchenna! Seriously, what do you think the answer is?

Comb & Razor said...

i think you pretty much answered the question with this:

Here's my guess: Drums are the instruments that most clearly express African musical concepts outside of Africa.

obviously, Europeans had seen and played drums themselves, but i suspect that what made African drumming so alien and even fearsome was the way that Africans thought about the drum's function.

it might be a bit reductionist on my part, but i'd say that the baseline purpose of drums in the European mind was to act as a metronome. Africans played drums as lead instruments and even beyond that, used them as a means of communication.

which is one of the reasons why slave masters saw fit to ban the use of drums.

a lot of the accounts of black "frolicking" in the 18th and 19th century describes the use of fiddles, mandolins and other stringed instruments more than drums (of course, there were instruments like the banjo, which is essentially a drum disguised as a stringed instrument). and the artists renderings of the dancing seem to resemble the stiff-torsoed, highstepping footwork of Irish jigs more than the kind of pelvis-centered movement we tend to associate with sub-Sahara African dance.

(i think those drawings are pretty unreliable, of course)

so yeah, that kind of thing had lead me towards the idea that a lot of the "Africanism" in black American music might not have arrived until the late 19th century via Cuba...

...but the rolling bass drum in that F&D music makes me think again!


"Big Al" Marghreb said...

I dig you. And I totally agree about the function of the drum in Europe -- which is what I think must set f-n-d apart from straight up martial music. They used the bass drum to subdivide the beat in very neat, monorhythmic (is that a word?) ways. Duple meter, triple meter. Otha and 'em might play duple and triple meters at the same time though! You find the same ideas occurring to people in lots of slave-holding countries -- not always on drums -- and you get some very weird mixes of European and African cultures. Like there's supposed to be an old school dance in Montserrat that is like an Irish jig from the waist down and African from the waist up!

But Cuba, man. We owe Cuba. The whole world owes Cuba. I think you read about calypso and about jazz and how they both had what Jelly Roll Morton called "the Spanish tinge" (basically just a syncopated bassline called the habanera, I guess -- it sounds like you have science on this, so I'll back up if you want to school me -- that is African-derived). I also hear about the elements that make Cuban music Cuban are the clave, which is an African thing, and the Andalous, which is a Spanish thing. But Andalusia is former Moorish area of Spain, right? So doesn't that mean the Andalous is heavily indebted to North Africa?

Spinning said...

Hey Big Al,

*Nice* blog!

have you read Dena J. Epstein's book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals? She includes an (I believe) 18th c. quote re. "the sprightly barafoo" (i.e., balafon) being played on a Virginia plantation. (and her log appendix on variant spellings of "banjo" + their sources in early documents is worth the price of the book.)

Re. the "Andalus" music from the Maghreb + Andalusian (Spanish) music, that's complex. You could start with Federico Garcia Lorca, also with a lot of the articles on One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of the "Moors" were (still are) Berber, not Arab...

You might also want to check articles on music and culture at

all the best,

Spinning said...

Oh, that was meant to read "long," not "log."

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Thanks, Spinning! I will definitely check out Sinful Times and Spirituals. It's amazing the balafon ever found its way to the US shores! Definitely news to me. Speaking of which, do you have or know where to find any Colombian currulao music?

Thanks for your comments and your blog, which I certainly enjoy, and your posts on SFRP. You always post great stuff!