The Roots of American Blues

The first time I heard Suley blasting from Alidu’s speakers in Tamale, though I did not know it was Suley at the time, there was something that drew me to the music. I was unable to properly identify what it was about the music until I really started researching it and talking to others about it. And then one day, Panji Anoff opened my eyes and I realized why I had been so drawn to kologo music. He said, “This music is the roots of the blues, because you sing what you feel” (Personal Communication, Panji Anoff, 14 November 2008). A conversation with John Collins made it even more clear: “The origin of American blues is Sahelian music, who slaves were from Senegal…jazz might come from African drumming, but Blues, in singing, is more originated in Sahelian music” (Personal Communication, John Collins, 15 November 2008). It was a subconscious recognition that the musical genre I had come to love in America was in fact rooted right here West Africa. When I listened to a second Suley album I had bought and heard the repetition and humming on “Asaala handeri yine te zogine bahe”, the connection between American blues and kologo music as indistinguishable. Oliver supports this hypothesis, writing, “The use of drone or continuous humming between sung phrases is also a vocal feature shared by Voltaic peoples and some blues singers” (Oliver, 1970, p.65-66). The song structure is basically the same as well as the style of singing. By song structure, in this case, I mean both song formulas are built around a riff and the riff’s relation to the vocals. When a guitarist plays “Bad to the Bone” on an American guitar, he is just playing a simple riff and singing on top of it. In the same way, the ostinado pattern of playing acts as just that in kologo music. The mimicking pattern is more obscure but is certainly present in some blues. However, Paul Oliver’s Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues truly connects the two genres. Describing the music of two Frafra men, Kunaal and Sosira, Oliver writes,
here “was the combination of vocal, rhythm, and stringed instruments which hinted at a link with the blues; here, too, I heard in person for the first time an African music which could be said to ‘swing in the jazz sense, where the singer and his accompanist seemed free to improvise and where the combination of instruments had a certain felling of syncopation” (Oliver, 1970, p.38).

But the most direct connection Oliver makes to the history of blues in comparison with Sahelian music is the style of singing. The singer sings loud and with passion because “in the marketplace or beneath the shade tree he needs to be heard” (Oliver, 1970, p.63). He continues, “In vocal quality it would appear that they employment of high voices among certain blues singers…are closer to vocal practices in West Africa than are others” (Oliver, 1970, p. 64). Additional support for similarities and connections in singing style is given by Samuel Charters, writing about his journey to West Africa. He writes,
The voices themselves had a great deal of similarity in tone and texture…there was the same kind of tone productions, the same forcing of higher notes. In the gruffness of the lower range and the strong expressiveness of the middle voice, I could hear stylistic similarities to singing I had heard in many part of the South” (Charters, 1981, p.119).

Both authors describe what is easy to hear in kologo music and in much of blues music, especially the older, classical blues. Often thought of as the godfather of the blues, Robert Johnson even gets a mention in Oliver’s book, in which he writes, “The strained and constricted character of the higher, tenser singers heard throughout the Sudan…[is also] reflected most dramatically in the singing of Robert Johnson” (Oliver, 1970, p. 64). These connections of West African music to roots of the blues are incredibly interesting and one could even connect it to what Panji Anoff says about why pidgin music is so unique. Oliver discusses the fiddle, writing that it was ostracized by White Protestants in the Great Awakening for being “the instrument of the devil. There could have been relatively little opposition to the playing of the instrument by Negro slaves, whose very blackness would have accorded with the folk image of the fiddler” (Oliver, 1970, p.25). In a continuation of this legacy, pidgin music and language adopts the antihero, one that is cast out by white society. Therefore music has always played a part in intercultural relations and definitions.
In layman’s terms, the connection in vocal style is so relevant for the following reasons. First, it is highly possible and likely that the slaves that brought the banjar with them from Senegambia also brought the tradition of Sahelian singing that, towards the end of the 19th century, would be identified as the Blues. This tradition is exactly the same amongst the Frafra as it is across the savannas of West Africa. In American colloquialism, one would say they sing with ‘passion, with feeling, like they mean it!’ People often describe gospel singers in Black American churches in this way, praising them for their soulfulness. I would imagine that this also is rooted in Africa. Yet what is so compelling about kologo music’s singing style is that even if one does not understand the words, most of which I did not, it is still possible to hear raw emotion in the voice of the singer. For me, that is why I am drawn to kologo music and the Blues and why it is perfectly obvious to me that the two share a linked musical heritage. Or as Panji Anoff eloquently put it, “Playing music is about what you feel, feeling the music” (Personal Communication, Panji Anoff, 14 November 2008).