THE ROOTS OF THE BLUES: An African Search by Samuel Charters


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Jazz historian Charters (Sweet as the Showers of Rain, etc.) went to West Africa a few years ago ""to find the roots of the blues."" He didn't find them--not really. But the search piqued his interest in other African questions and took him to some odd places; and this modestly engaging book recounts his journey, with stops along the way for agreeable bits of musicology and less agreeable bits of sociological meditation. Charters started out in The Gambia, a past center of slave trade, hoping that the songs of the tribal singer-historians there (griots) would resemble the blues songs created by American slaves who came from those same tribes. When he managed to tape some of the griots' long, historical sagas, however, the resemblances were only slight--a way of picking a banjo-like instrument, a vocal quality--though a local street celebration did offer some startling similarities to Mardi Gras and to the plantation ""juba"" dance. No wonder, then, with such slim musicological pickings, that Charters found himself following other curious trails relating to slavery: he trekked out to a village where ancient, pre-European slavery was still being practiced; he went to Freetown in Sierra Leone and pondered the strange situation of the Creoles, freed slaves (from Britain) whose proud apartness was now threatened by independence; and he journeyed inland to Mall (in search of an older Africa), finding himself on a rail trip worthy of Paul Theroux--a virtual traveling market of a train, with guavas pouring in through the doors and windows. His conclusions? Only that African music and the blues have common roots (Arabic, Spanish) and that Africa is different from what he expected. Far from earthshaking--but the dusty travelogue is spare, evocative, and drily amusing.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1980
ISBN: 030680445X
Publisher: Marian Boyars (99 Main St., Salem, NH 03079)