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Retention and Preservation of African Roots in Jamaican Folk Music

Carter R. Stowell

University of Vermont

August 4, 2000



Amid tens of thousands of volumes in this library collection at UVM, the "silence" is in fact a low hum issuing from the vents. I read essay upon essay, ideas and histories of ideas, until I pause in a pensive moment. A thick green binding breaks my meditation. A title, The Power of Sound, fills my mind with music. I consider the power of words.

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The music issuing from the Caribbean island of Jamaica has for decades — and many contend longer — broadcast a uniquely Jamaican identity. This personality arises from a complex intermingling of diverse cultures, unforgivable power structures, passionate religious expressions, not to mention the late twentieth century pressures of global capitalism. Though many characters both principle and complimentary have passed away amid this cultural evolution, a musical lineage bears witness to the island’s history.

This study will focus on cultural themes in Jamaica’s colonial history which contributed to the retention of distinctively African forms of musical expression. The goal of such an approach is to learn something about the process of change itself, an indomitable fact of life which stands in contradiction to all efforts at preservation. The grandeur of such knowledge is appropriately called out by Romanian scholar Constantin Brailoiu who writes, "each time our studies have as an aim a human fact or one tied to human reality, we are bound to conclude that the understanding of any particular aspect of life is only possible if we understand life itself in its entirety." This statement represents a comment on the then emerging field of sociology as a response to what Brailoiu interprets as a "powerful wish for synthesis" in a world of infinite cultural data. In that music is inherently a synthesis and communicator of cultural experience, reflections on the life of music within the island community of Jamaica can only lead to a clearer understanding of cultural phenomena.

In particular, the goal herein is to address issues regarding the persistence of African elements in Jamaican music. This purpose will be accomplished by first addressing the construct referenced by the phrase "African music elements". Then several themes — slavery, resistance and rebellion, religion, preservation — will be discussed as they pertain to a distinctly African heritage resplendent in early Jamaican music.

Approaches to "African" music in Jamaica

References to music dubbed "African" or "European" in studies of the Caribbean are born of practicality. In the case of Jamaica, the generalization applies to musical practices of sub-Saharan West Africa. John Storm Roberts likes to differentiate further by naming two kinds of music with African roots: neo-African music and Euro/African blend. In Roberts’ conception, neo-African music is "largely or totally African". With neo-African music, it would be easy to establish a connection with modern day Africa because practitioners can name the music’s specific geographical or tribal origins. Euro/African blends, largely developed by Afro-Americans, are more difficult to pinpoint. In these cases, the African elements, where they are apparent, are simply "African" rather than Ashanti, Yoruba, Congo-Angolan or whatever. Kenneth Bilby illustrates the challenge of determining musical origins when he writes,

It is pointless to debate, for instance, whether the characteristic driving rhythm played by horns and other instruments in ska (and apparently carried over to the guitar and piano in much reggae) is derived from the handclapping of Revival churches, the beat of the timekeeping Rastafarian funde drum (in one particular early style of nyabinghi drumming), or the strumming of the banjo in mento, all of which display a similar emphasis on the offbeat.

In this case Bilby takes issue with the value of differentiation. However, his analysis references the highly developed Jamaican styles of ska and reggae as they relate to earlier forms which can be more easily connected to their past. So Roberts’ distinction between neo-African and Euro/African music is useful mostly in distinguishing folk music, both secular and religious, which were largely subsumed or overshadowed by popular music like ska which matured in the 1960’s.

The use of the general term "African" also follows the thinking that slave communities combined African peoples from different regions and ethnic groups. In the next stage of the process dubbed "transculturation" by Cuban scholar Fernando Ortíz, European music dilutes African practices. This process of blending is alternately referred to as syncretism or, in the case of Caribbean music, creolization. After the slave trade which ended for Britain in the early 1800’s, contact with Africa stopped; Jamaican musicians applied their own creativity to the music.

What is commonly distinctive of African music to warrant this divisive approach? Foremost, African music is functional. Bilby says, "In Africa, music is not so much ‘good’ as ‘effective’, that is, right for its purpose." The quality of a music, or how "good" it may be, is a purely subjective declaration. For many, music that is not somehow "effective" couldn’t possibly be "good". These discussions rest with critics. What is clear is that the music of Ashanti-Fanti and Yoruba-Ibo peoples who dominate Jamaica’s population is tied inseparably to a broad spectrum of cultural events. Herein lies the gulf between European and African music. Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia, who is based at the University of Ghana, reported in 1961 that "the Ashanti of Ghana have a special song of insult for the habitual bed-wetter." This example emphasizes the degree to which music in integrated in the life of Ashanti people. Music apart from some event or occasion is a conceptual oddity; the language lacks vocabulary to describe it.

The functionality of music couples with a theme of collective participation. The audience is active and essential to the music. The music does not exist without significant involvement of work, dance, song or clapping of hands.

African music of Jamaica has been identified with unique sounds. Peter Manuel elaborates, naming an emphasis on rhythm, vocal call-and-response and cellular structure, that is, pieces constructed by repetition and variation on a short musical cell. In contrast, a typical list of European musical features names chordal harmony, sectional musical structures, concepts of orchestration and arrangement and use of notation. African music employs rich singing styles and buzzing sounds. Singing styles exhibit varying vocal tone such as a nasal quality, liberal variation or ornamentation by the lead singer and common use of falsetto. Examples of a buzzing aesthetic are apparent in the practice of attaching bamboo stems, feathers, or pieces of metal to drums and other instruments to create vibrating sounds. Roberts offers, "the African instruments most often used by the greatest number of people in the greatest variety of [African] societies are the human voice and the human hands, used for clapping." Roberts also reports on the observations of Sir Hans Sloan who, writing of Jamaica in 1688 , describes a gourd with a neck strung with horsehair. A common Western misconception traces stringed instruments to European roots. Stringed instruments predate certain drums in Africa. For example, many Bamana rhythms of Mali that are today played on the chalice-shaped jembe drum are adapted from the donso ngoni, a spike-harp with a gourd resonator of purely African origin. Roberts, insightfully contextualizing his own methods, comments that "the struggle to differentiate stems more from cultural and racial politics than from the artifact of tones and pulses." This statement is particularly relevant to Jamaica’s history of colonial rule and slavery beginning shortly after Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1494.


The island of Jamaica is populated overwhelmingly by West African people of the Gold Coast and Nigeria, and Congolese-Angolan people of central Africa. Minority groups of East Indian, Chinese, and Europeans are also found there. The British treatment of Jamaica as a "plantation colony", beginning with cultivation of sugar in the later half of the 17th century, quickly led to dominant numbers of blacks. In 1800, slaves made up 88% of Jamaica’s population. Of course, the Africans are absolutely responsible for any transmission of African music to the island. People were forced onto slave ships in the bleakest of conditions. In Gary Stewart’s recent book — Rumba on the River, a history of the popular music of the two Congos (2000) — he describes the "holocaust of unparalleled proportions… that fractured African institutions and de-humanized both black and white." The harsh conditions of slavery in Jamaica shaped the cultural landscape for hundreds of years, from Columbus’ landing until 1655 under Spanish control and thereafter under British rule which ended with Jamaican independence in 1962. The constant influx of African music and culture — that is, individuals carrying this knowledge — ended in 1807 when the British banned further importation of slaves. However, the institution of slavery continued in Jamaica until emancipation in 1834. These dates provide an essential though cursory framework for understanding the transport of African musical concepts and the persistence of neo-African styles that are manifest in Jamaica to this day. The most significant date, 1807, marks the historical moment when direct contact with Africa is severed. By the late 19th century the black population is almost entirely Jamaican-born. A more thorough study would examine the succession of specific ethnic populations arriving at different times in Jamaica, such as the Ashanti-Fanti groups of the Gold Coast which comprised 70% of the British-imported slaves in the 17th century compared to the Central African Yoruba-Ibo groups arriving in smaller numbers.

With respect to music, the tumult of slave life ultimately blurred ethnic lines. Roberts describes that "differing African tribal musics blended in the New World to form neo-African musics that were almost entirely African-derived, and yet non-African, for they were not to be heard in Africa." Later he asserts the concept that "musical survivals have been associated with social survival." As slaves in rural areas were concentrated in sugar production, port cities bustled with the arrival of slaves and supplies and the departure of agricultural products headed to European markets. Slaves unloaded ships and carried heavy loads from the docks. This work was performed in groups of slaves that for practical reasons, like cooperation, shared ethnic ties. Thus reunited as a tribal group, though in horrific bondage, the slaves would sing; music lived.

Thus slavery, while raping cultural practices, suppressing artistic expression and causing ethnic groups to combine for survival, could not entirely control the succession of music which is woven inseparably with the thought and action of Jamaica’s African population. A history of rebellion contributed immeasurably to this musical retention.

Resistance and Rebellion

As slavery cannot be considered a vibrant vessel of music, rebellions were not literally accompanied by an Ashanti drum corps. However, the impact of struggles for freedom and class justice on Jamaican music cannot be understated. It is helpful then to look into the history of resistance and rebellion in Jamaica to better understand the music and, hopefully, the process of retention of root forms evident only through a broad cultural inquiry.

When the Spanish caved into British conquest in 1655, many slaves on the island seized the transitional period to flee to the hills and fight, to the death, for freedom. These Spanish slaves formed the first Maroon communities, which included what remained of Arawak heritage; the Arawaks were a peaceful, domestic, agricultural people living on the island when the Spanish arrived. The name Maroon, of both Spanish and French derivation, means "hunters of wild animals" and later simply "wildness and fierceness". The Maroons successfully resisted British harassment and attempts at re-enslavement for decades. Their communities became havens for runaway slaves -- mostly Ashanti prisoners-of-war who were sold to British slave ships on the Gold Coast. Though specific musical practices of Maroon communities are largely unknown or undocumented, modern Maroon peoples, living in deep poverty in Jamaica’s western interior "cockpit" country, maintain clearly neo-African practices. It can be assumed that these were passed from the early Maroons through oral histories as is common of both African and European folk traditions. The Maroons, living with a greater measure of freedom than their enslaved brethren and to some degree among fellow tribespeople, were best equipped to steward cultural practices through the hostile environment of colonial Jamaica. French sociologist Roger Bastide (1972) asserts that the bossales — African-born slaves — were the ones "responsible for the preservation of African customs." Further, Maroon efforts set a precedent for attitudes of resistance which sped a deathly slow progress toward greater freedoms for the black population. Freedom appears to play a critical role in the natural preservation of cultural practices, at least in Jamaica.

Leonard Barrett (1997) writes that "not a year passed between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries without a rebellion or at least the threat of one." In the first decades of the 19th century, an anti-slavery debate grew in England while slaves were buying their freedom in Cuba and Haitian slaves had freed themselves following a gruesome struggle with their French oppressors. Jamaican slave Sam Sharpe — an intelligent man and a charismatic speaker — was keen to these events. Literate slaves could catch bits of news from the papers; this news spread conversationally. Sam organized a large-scale revolt which is logged as the Sam Sharpe Rebellion. Though the rebellion was brutally repressed, it likely contributed to the emancipation of Jamaica’s slaves just three years later.

A more subtle rebellion of slave women was the refusal to bear children. This contradicted British preferences. Slave offspring were the most economical source of new workers. Women simply adjusted to avoid pregnancy; no potential parents wanted to bear children into slave conditions where they would be removed from home, sold as children.

With the dawn of freedom, or at the least a transfer from institutionalized slavery to institutionalized classism, a window opened for open practice of culture, manifest overwhelmingly through religious practices. However, it is certain that the end of slavery was not the end of severe struggle in the black community. Barrett (1997) writes, "the pitiful state of [rural Jamaican] housing, cultivable lands, and economic wage differentials… remain the same as that described by Martha Beckwith in her study of 1929." And the period between emancipation and the global depression of the late 1920’s represents incremental progress for Jamaica’s downtrodden.


"Central to every aspect of folk life are the religious overtones which pervade it. People in folk societies have not yet separated their religious beliefs from their secular activities." This quote from Barrett’s 1976 work The Sun and the Drum: African Roots in Jamaican Folk Tradition contends that it is an exercise in abstraction to discuss Jamaica’s blend of African religions as a "component" of some lifestyle. Instead, there exists a peculiar gravity, perhaps a spiritual saturation, without which life itself is inconceivable. Some of the deepest rooted musical traditions are preserved within the context of religious practice, the ritual ceremonies that are part of this particular cosmology. In Jamaica, African folk religions served this purpose, even in combination with certain Christian denominations.

From 1655-1816, the Church of England made no attempt to Christianize the slaves. This policy reflected the hypocrisy of the Church at that time. Barrett writes, "the masters feared that the preachers… would stretch the equality of humanity before God a little too far." However, Christianity found its way into slave communities through the so-called nonconformist denominations — the Moravians in 1734, the Methodists in 1736, the Baptists in 1783, and the Presbyterians in 1823.

At the same time, a folk religion evolved out of a blend of African religions. The cult of Kumina was most affected by the Ashanti, the dominant ethnic group among the slaves. Kumina ceremonies which are called for births, deaths, marriages and other occasions involve vigorous dancing, drumming, a sacrifice, alcohol (typically rum) and ancestor-spirit possession. The spirit possession is critical. In this state, the possessed becomes a medium for a revelation communicated by an ancestor of the dancer or of the person who called the Kumina. The revelation is taken very seriously. In this way, neo-African cults and religions were a main preserver of music. The spirits are summoned by specific drum rhythms. This major role of music persists in Afro-American cults though the music itself may venture in new directions. As Roberts puts it, "slaves were not musically conservative or unenterprising." The result was a spirit-filled amalgam of Christianity and African folk religions invoking persecution by a fearful, established Church of England.

Christian fervor grew infectiously among Jamaica’s African population from emancipation through 1860 when a social phenomena dubbed the Great Revival swept across the island and across the Western world. Barrett writes, "The Great Revival allowed the African religious dynamic — long repressed — to assert itself in a Christian guise and capture what might have been a missionary victory." The Afro-Christian Revivalist sects used guitar, drums, cymbals and handclapping in emotionally charged worship services. At this point the music is essentially Jamaican, formed through a syncretism of African concepts, dynamism and sounds with European style verses and longer melody lines. So the overall sound might be called Euro/African in Roberts’ system. On the other hand, the energy of the worship service and ultimately the practice of the faith overwhelmingly favors the African contribution.

There is a symbolic element carried by the presence of the drum. The Church of England , had they encouraged Christianity among the slaves, would certainly have prohibited drumming at a worship service. For the Ashanti, the drum is among the tangible connections to an African heritage. The drum is the voice of God and a medium of worship. R.S. Rattray in his 1923 book Ashanti recounts the Ashanti story about the origins of drumming:

The Kokokyinaka is a beautiful dark bird that frequents the forest… Its call is not unlike the notes of the drums. It is every drummer’s totem, they claim clanship with it and would not eat or kill it. Its call is something like Kro kro kro kro ko kyini kyini kyini kro kyini ka ka ka kyini kyini kyini ka. The Ashanti say is taught them to drum.

Drumming is sacred to the Ashanti like the bird to the forest. Its voice called from Jamaica’s Revival yards, open courtyard spaces where worship services convened. Thus African traditions were reformulated, becoming truly Jamaican, and survived with remarkable clarity in the carriage of worship.

Preservation and Letting Go

Why does music die? Musical practices of West African nations and their Caribbean descendants, as discussed previously, are associated with specific functions. As a musical tradition loses its original function, crucial motivation is lost in participants. The music may find a new function or perish. Changes in music or the passage of a form can happen slowly and quite noticeably. For instance, when the younger generations in a culture fail to accept the traditions of their elders, a music which may have been significant in worship or folk medicine is bound for extinction. In the late nineteenth century, these extinctions were globally recognized; academics rushed in to observe and catalogue.

The effort did not begin in Jamaica, of course. Czechoslovakian-born, American academic Bruno Nettl, in his essay "The Concept of Preservation in Ethnomusicology" (1985), clarifies that 19th century collectors of non-Western music were not initially concerned with preservation. Not until students of European folk music wanted to preserve their own folk heritage did it become a practice. Scholars in Britain compiled an immense collection of Child Ballads. In North America, the Works Progress Administration sponsored publications of folk songs. By the late 19th century, music publications emerged to address the needs of the amateur musician. Books were published for teaching while people were urged to play and to dance to keep their heritage alive.

Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton’s Reggae: The Rough Guide (1997) — an anthology of Jamaica’s audio recordings — notes that musicologists recorded albums of Revival Zion music, work songs (called ring play or the ring game), and Jonkanoo. These efforts are generally considered "too little too late". Many of the forms were recorded post-mortem, the music’s function having turned entirely to self-preservation. However, recordings capture just a piece of musical culture: the artifact of sound, of tones and pulses.

Alan Merriam contributed a measure of rigor to the ill-defined field of ethnomusicology in his 1960 article "Ethnomusicology: Discussion and Definition of the Field". Merriam offers a definition — "the study of music in culture or as culture" — with a model of music having three components: concept, behavior and sound. Nettl observes an overwhelming concentration on sound: archives of transcription and recording lacking a sufficient compliment of documentation regarding the when, where, how and why of performances or the styles they have created or represented. To this day, there is no consensus regarding methodologies of musical preservation.

The issue of preservation is further complicated by a search for identity and reclamation of dignity. This dynamic, in Jamaica and also in Caribbean studies in general, leads to an emphasis on the differences between two musical macrosystems, Africa and Europe. While this pragmatic approach is arguably oversimplified, it hopefully lends insight and context to more granular approaches. Nettl’s 1985 essay offers a summarized history of preservation:

Perhaps the history of preservation travels along a continuum, beginning with attempts to make large authentic collections, just for the record, to practical collecting for educational use (in a broad sense), then to the urgent efforts to preserve what would soon disappear, and finally to a realistic, if resigned, way of looking at music as such an enormous quantity of cultural data that only selective samples can be taken and preserved.

The urgency for preservation, manifest in non-Jamaicans, did eventually touch the island. In successive visits during 1919 and 1921, Martha Warren Beckwith collected Jamaican "Anansi" stories from over sixty native informants. Miss Helen Roberts accompanied Beckwith in 1921 to record the music and the "magical effect of song which, at least in the old witch tales, far surpasses that in the action of the story." Among the Ashanti of Ghana, anansi is a spider. Beckwith, in her preface, compares the Anansi stories to the Hare of Bantu lore which became Brer Rabbit in the United States. These folk tales have been interpreted to represent the power of the ancestors to take on animal forms. The exposure of these stories through publication has offered the outsider one more clue reflecting the complexity of Jamaican folk culture which developed with a keen spiritual awareness originating in West Africa.

Closing Thoughts

Hundreds of Twi words of the Ashanti remain in the dialects of Jamaican peasants. A few elderly people sing Yoruba songs in the parish of Westmoreland. Folk forms of the lower class have percolated upward through societal classes, taking on more sophisticated musical elements. As a music is enjoyed by the upper class or the elite, a creole form may be tied to nationalism, evidenced by Jamaican reggae music. No effort at preservation has suspended the rapid transformation of Jamaican culture and music though archetypal connections to the past are concocted, enshrined and challenged.

In the later studies of Captain Rattray (1881-1938), published as Religion and Art in Ashanti (1954), he recounts this Ashanti tale,

Many Ashanti think that the ‘man in the moon’ is a drummer; children are warned not to watch him too long lest they should see him lay his drumsticks upon his drums, when it is thought they would die.

The same moon this evening might stand as a reminder of what is distant and practically imaginary in contrast to what is palpable. Landing on the moon and tasting its soil is not the same as knowing or even understanding it. Similarly, the conclusions of a cultural examination lacking direct experience is, at best, supplementary to voices of the culture itself. Mindful of this predicament, a world community can still benefit from such discourse so long as the ‘man in the moon’, like the Kumina drummers of Jamaica, maintains the rhythm.




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Barrett, Leonard E., Sr. The Sun and the Drum, African Roots in Jamaican Folk Tradition (Kingston, Jamaica : Sangster's Book Stores in association with Heinemann, 1976).

Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton. Reggae: The Rough Guide (London: Rough Guides Ltd.,1997).

Bastide, Roger. African Civilization in the New World (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1972).

Brailoiu, Constantin. Problems of Ethnomusicology, edited and translated by A.L. Lloyd (Cambridge: University Press, 1984).

Manuel, Peter, with Kenneth Bilby and Michael Largey. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995).

Merriam, Alan P. The Anthropology of Music (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1964).

Merriam, Alan P. "Ethnomusicology: Discussion and Definition of the Field." Ethnomusicology 4 (1960): 107-14.

Nettl, Bruno. "The Concept of Preservation in Ethnomusicology" in More Than Drumming, Essays on African and Afro-Latin American Music and Musicians edited by Irene V. Jackson (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985).

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Rattray, Robert Sutherland. Ashanti (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923).

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Stewart, Gary. Rumba on the River, a history of the popular music of the two Congos (London: Verso, 2000).

Waterman, Christopher A. "The Uneven Development of Africanist Ethnomusicology: Three Issues and a Critique" in Comparative Musicology and Antrhropology of Music edited by Bruno Nettl and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 169-186.