African music in seventeenth-century Jamaica

koromantiI have been working on three pieces of African music from seventeenth-century Jamaica that are notated in Hans Sloane’s Voyage to the Islands, a rare book published in 1704 about his trip to Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean in 1688. Here is a rough mix of the first and the last items, called “Angola” and “Koromanti.” The transcriptions are interesting because they contain features that were not present in Western music of the time, including particular forms of syncopation and polymeter, microtonal blues scales (which can be heard in the third section of “Koromanti), and more.

Stringed instrumentsThe Angola piece is made of two interlocking parts played in quite different scales. It was most likely played on the banjo-like instrument (bass) and the harp-like instrument on the left. Part of it resembles the music of the Angola region, but the other part does not. Probably this piece was played by two musicians who were from different places. Perhaps neither was entirely pleased with the way things turned out, although to our ears, which have grown used to this particulr combination (It sounds quite good cranked up on an electric guitar and bass actually!), it sounds fine. The musicians in this piece had not internalized the mixing of West African styles as in Koromanti, so my guess is that this piece was played by more recent arrivals. This piece is not in its final form yet…I just sketched it by playing two guitars.

Thumb pianoThe instrumentation in the “Koromanti” piece is more accurate. I made a wooden keyed thumb piano from an old dresser drawer with nice tone and a bunch of the little sticks that used to go in new women’s shoes to hold the paper in the toe and keep the shape (I worked in a shoe store a long time ago). I then tuned it and sampled it, three different velocities for each note, and played the samples in a sequencer, which allowed me to get the music down exactly as transcribed (seeing as I am not much of a mbirist). The microtones are particularly interesting, because they turn up in the third part of “Koromanti” as sometimes one note and sometimes another that make a totally messed up eight note scale. If the notes are instead read as a microtone that the transcriber did not know what to do with, you are left with a seven-note bluesy scale with a slightly flatted major third and a dominant seventh. Koromanti was most likely not an “authentic” (whatever that means) West Ghanaian song as the title would indicate. Rather it was creolized, showing evidence of traits from other parts of west Africa, perhaps indicating that the musician had been in the Americas for some time and heard and absorbed music from other parts of West Africa too. I am pretty sure the instrument was a thumb piano.

There is lot’s more to say on this subject, which I do in the introduction and chapter two of my book, How Early America Sounded, if you are curious for more. Once I finish the rest of the music I’ll post the newer sound files with the completed work. As always, check out the other music on the site from rreplay and on the main way music site.

1 thought on “African music in seventeenth-century Jamaica”

  1. Hi Rich, I began working on Koromanti using clawhammer banjo. I listened to your “rough mixes” and think you did a FANTASTIC job representing the music. I’ve only just begun, but if you ever wanted to hear a clawhammer banjo version I’ll send you an MP3. You mentioned a method by which you were able to interpret the music. What was it?


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