African folk music is as diverse as the landscape and peoples of that vast continent. However, like it's
European cousin, with it's triple-time rhythms, African folk music also shares some common traits.
Firstly, it tends to be circular and repetitive in form, rather than linear and progressive, and usually avoids
leading tones. Often it has a "heterophonic" texture, i.e. several different versions of the same melody
are sung at the same time. It expresses a communal way of life, and the main singer is the mouthpiece for his
people, rather than an individual wishing to express a personal identity. Quite often he or she will lead
the people in a "call and response" routine.
It was these musical traditions which were transported with the captive peoples on slave ships from West Africa into
the New World between the 16th and 19th centuries, and which became a familiar sound in the fields and prison camps of the Old South.
In parts of West Africa, most notably in what is today Mali, Senegal and The Gambia, there were, and still are,
individuals known as griots, the African equivalent of the travelling minstrel.
Griots moved from village to village telling jokes and stories, playing music, and imparting advice and wisdom. Often
they carried a 'banjar', a cruder version of the modern banjo. Griots often came to be regarded as a holy figures because of
their special talent to play songs that could make you laugh or cry.
During the years of forced migration to the Caribbean and North America, a large number of griots are thought to
have been brought over. Now, instead of singing the old village songs, they sang songs that expressed the fear, sadness and
homesickness felt by their people in this unfamiliar new land. These songs and field hollers, modified as they passed through generations,
became the basis of a new North American black music.
Invevitably over time traditional African musical styles came into contact with European music, in the form of hymns, folk ballads and military marches, for example,
introducing new harmonic and rhythmic structures - most notably the strict tempo of march time - and a
cross-fertilisation took place which laid the foundations for new hybrids such as spirituals
and probably the most important single musical style in the development of modern popular
music, the blues