Essay on African American Call and Response Music



Essay on African American Call and Response Music

As Miller and Sharhriari (2009) denote, call and response singing is a musical form whereby one caller gives a prompt or question in the form of a song or chant and this is followed by a response from the group. Call and response style of music originated from Sub-Saharan Africa where the tradition continues to be employed efficiently during tribal convocations and large gatherings. Slaves transported from Africa took the tradition of call and response with them to other continents and was one of the ways of communication they used with each other. Black communities determined call and response singing to be a formidable mode of eradicating illiteracy in that a lead singer would sing the main lines which were responded by the congregation. Thus, in the process, they eliminated the need of people using any hymn books. Call and response is not only present but also deeply embedded into African American musical traditions including gospel, blues, hip-hop, jazz, soul and R&B. Call and response came into the United States from Sub-Saharan African cultures and was developed through field hollers and slave work songs, as well as, blues and spirituals. A good example of call and response music is the song “Rosie” that has a call and response antiphony throughout the whole song with a slight wooden sound. The speaker is an older man with many years of experience working and the people responding are his fellow workmen who are not as old as the speaker.

Apart from being utilized in various African American-oriented music genres, call and response is also used as a mode of communication in rituals and routines, for instance, hymn singing in churches. While most of call and response music exists in verbal format, there are also nonverbal formats that are equally intriguing to hear. It is not necessary that a person has to discern the language of the music or song to enjoy it. The melody and tone of the rhythm normally explain the nature of the song and as such, it can be enjoyed across various cultures. A good example of nonverbal format of call and response music is African American jazz where musicians can formulate vivid conversational phrases and interact with other musicians on the bandstand. In the “Call and response – Jazz demonstration,” Reggie Thomas on the piano and Alvin Atkinson on the drums demonstrate call and response in jazz.

The beauty about call and response is that it does not always conform to formal structure and as such, it enhances creativity and improvisation in the African American culture. It may lack preordained or predetermined structure, but sound like a melodious communication with the musicians or participants exchanging information and ideas through their performance of the music. Such kind of improvisation is prevalent in jazz, where discordant instruments are utilized to improvise a musical exchange of melodies. Occasions whereby call and response has a more structured form include hymn singing in the church whereby singers follow a specific musical format by relying on hymn books to know, discern and follow the sequence of the text.Essay on African American Call and Response Music

One of the most defining moments for African American call and response music was when James Brown released his anthem song “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” This was a public statement by the musician of his political alignment. However, an even bigger statement was his use of call and response in this song. This is because it acted as a reminder to everyone of James Brown’s black gospel roots even though most of the children responding were mostly white and Asian and from a nearby Los Angeles suburb.

As far back as African American history stretches, there have always been soundtracks of incredible music present. Some of the most timeless songs of perseverance and empowerment emanate from the American slave communities and fields. During this period, most of the music among the slaves comprised of a series of calls they would make to each other in the fields. It was these early call and response hollers that would later be translated by people and echoed by street peddlers. Work songs composed by slaves provided the rhythm compulsion that kept them hoeing, pounding grain, threshing and doing other forms of labor at a steady pace, thus, making the task a dance or song. The lead would sing a line and the rest of the group would answer. The lead had the liberty of improvising, but the response remained the most important component of the tune and made the call and response music effective and successful.Essay on African American Call and Response Music

When call and response was not being utilized by slaves in their work songs, it was being used by African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement. Most of the songs sang during the time of the Civil Rights Movement were spiritual or gospel songs. When Martin Luther King Junior and other African Americans were matching, they utilized call and response music to unite them in their protest against Jim Crow laws and social injustice against the black community. While in today’s society call and response is mostly prevalent in jazz and hip-hop, it builds on the rich cultural heritage of African American artist expressions throughout history. Moreover, call and response enhances creation of new work through the combined participation of artists, musicians or participants. Improvisation may result in diverse calls or lead lines, but participants are able to create creative responses to this diversity in musical expression, making call and response quite enjoyable and insightful.Essay on African American Call and Response Music










Work Cited

Miller, Terry E, and Andrew C Shahriari. World Music: A Global Journey. 2nd ed., NY: Routledge., 2009.