What is cultural inheritance? It is defined as
“Cultural inheritance refers to the storage and transmission of information by communication, imitation, teaching and learning. It is transmitted by the brain rather than by genes. However, it does have a genetic basis, the genes involved determining the structure of the brain.”
That is the medical description of cultural inheritance, I have adapted that definition to musical inheritance in what I think it refers to in terms of music. What is the legacy of music handed down by those same actions of communication, imitation teaching and learning and how that affects music.
In an earlier post I asked the question “what is the musical inheritance of BAME in Britain and America from pre and post colonial territories”
To fully answer this question we’ll have to include the experience of America as this forms a large portion of the development of our own musical inheritance.
Let me explain firstly what I mean by this, in Britain we have a wide range of people who came from former British colonies, from the West Indies, Africa and from Asia from the days of the British Empire. These countries go to make up what is now the Commonwealth. Many of these countries after becoming independent have adopted models of their political, social and economic structures based on the British model that was imported to them during their years of colonialism so it is important to view our musical inheritance as bound up in these structures from the past.
First a quote
“Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition…
Out of imperialism, notions about culture were classified, reinforced, criticised or rejected.”
Taken from Culture and Imperialism, Edward W. Said.
The British/Americans believed Africans were essentially different from Europeans and would stay that way. This point of view had a double effect. Firstly it invited racism and secondly had the effect of implying that Africans were not only different but also an inferior race to Europeans. Just by way of comparison the French, were prepared to treat Africans as equals with the proviso that they learnt the French language properly and adopted French values. If they were successful in this and were educated to an accepted level they could be accepted as citizens of France. However failure to achieve these expectations then this would invite the same view of racial inferiority. When independence was on the horizon for French colonies, the French cultivated an increasing closeness with their colonies and tried to maintain that closeness after Independence. For Britain it was a different matter and their view of countries wanting independence was that the countries would get very limited support in the run up to independence and after. For Britain Independence meant just that.
If we examine the above quote, what we understand is that in the period of imperialism and colonialism there were certain ideas about culture that had to be adjusted so that the subjugated peoples would adopt the culture of their imperial overlords. Music as part of the European culture would have had to have been one of the areas in which there was room for classification. During the slave trade between the 17th and 19th century slaves from mainly West Africa had many things forced upon them, whilst having their own cultural values stripped away. The slaves that were taken to the North, South Americas and the Caribbean mainly came from West Africa.The music of the West African region was made up of highly complex rhythmical patterns. These cross-rhythms known as Polyrhythms (“polyrhythm, also called Cross-rhythm, the simultaneous combination of contrasting rhythms in a musical composition.”) –Encyclopaedia Britannica are mostly found in the musical traditions of Sub-Saharan Africa. Ethnic groups such as the Yoruba people from Nigeria and the Akan people from Ghana transported these rhythms across the Atlantic and these were incorporated through the music of the slave trade. All over North America, the Caribbean and some parts of South America, Africans were exposed to and often without choice, forced into Christianity. From this exposure they developed significant religious beliefs which in turn were able to be expressed in songs.In America theses have been popularly known as Negro Spirituals. These Spirituals are can be described as the “ emotional element” of the violent nature and experience of slavery. What was subsequently developed through these Spirituals was a fusion of traditional African music with the Christian religion and hymns of Europeans. This fusion in the United States later gave rise to new genres of music including classical and blues, jazz, gospel, R & B, Hip Hop and Rap. The experience of Africans transported to the West Indies is fairly similar to that of the slaves in the United States but there are differences. The similarities are the retention of African rhythms and instruments. The diversity of different European cultures who perpetrated slavery in the Caribbean and some parts of South America means that along with these African traditions there are elements of those musical styles and cultures in different islands music.The many styles of music from the Caribbean include Calypso, Merengue, Soca and Reggae. Work songs were also used by the slaves in the Caribbean as means to communicate and to help during their working periods, however these did not develop into the Spirituals of North America.
By looking at these developments what we can see is that today in 2018 as a black musician my musical inheritance comes by way of many influences, from Africa, the Caribbean, and elements of other European countries not only the United Kingdom. I feel that as a black classical musician I am very privileged to have all of these influences to help inform and direct my music making. I believe that as a black classical musician I can rightly claim the musical inheritance of Western European art music as my own, also I can rightly lay claim to the music of West African as my own and finally the fusion of all the different styles from the Caribbean as my own. With all of these influences on black musicians I find it very strange that there are still so few represented in the profession. Is it perhaps because the of imperialism and colonialism the idea that anything culturally significant from an African perspective is not compatible with that idea?
So what are we discussing here, with all of these facts put forward? I would like to think that my musical inheritance is an amalgamation of many different influences, those that I have lived and perceived and those that have been passed down to me from influences of my relations and their experiences from the Caribbean. I would assume that those of us from other backgrounds have similar experiences to my own and are just as enmeshed in the the musical jigsaw of their own lives. Our musical inheritance is what we have now, wherever it came from, it has been internalised, reformed and the output is the music that we deliver today. Whatever genre we are currently performing in it is important for us to recognise the influence and input of our pasts and to acknowledge and embrace that.