- Jun 2017
It is a wandering and unpredictable piece, and the structure is hard to parse as well.
I think that Baptiste had trouble transcribing a scale that included microtones he was not familiar with The scale is an eight-note scale, not including the octave, which is an unusual occurrence in both Western and African musics. Two of the notes are a semitone apart (adjacent keys on the keyboard), with one of the notes designated as the keynote, which makes for an even stranger structure. I'll just copy from the 1993 article. Sorry for the self-reference, but it addresses this directly:
The first two sections of "Koromanti" use seven notes, the third, eight. The extra note in the third section was probably the result of an attempt by Baptiste to record microtones, which cannot be represented by stan- dard European notation. Many African (as well as other) musical traditions make use of microtones in their tunings. These are notes somewhere between the European semitones; on a piano, they would fall between the keys. An example familiar to Western audiences (albeit one of African ancestry) would be the bending of a string by a blues or rock guitar player to accent a note. Microtones are perceived by the Western ear, accultur- ated to tempered tuning, as being out of tune.
The microtonal section of "Koromanti" has both G and Q, which is highly unlikely because the section uses G as its root note (the fourth mode of the tonality of D major, which the third section is in, begins on G). More likely, the fourth is raised, so that it lies somewhere between a European G and G#. Baptiste probably did not know how to deal with this and rendered some of the notes as G and others as G#. Correction would give a third heptatonic scale for the piece, as the eight notes would then become seven,kith the third and seventh notes partially flatted (Table II).
The use of microtones is not common among the Akan, who show a preference for a heptatonic scale based on the natural overtone series that is equivalent to a nontempered version of a European major scale, where the seventh interval is flatted slightly. This type of scale would not have caused Baptiste any confusion. The Angola region, which is known for its employment of microtones, is not known for its use of heptatonic scales. Although "Koromanti" contains several traditional Akan melodic struc- tures. the musician used these features in unconventional ways."
The upshot of all this is that it fits neatly in none of the boxes here: West African, Central African, European. Nonetheless, it is an immediately recognizable sound as the blues scale originating in African American music, with its microtonally flatted third and seventh (and sometimes fifth): aka the blue notes found in everything from blues and jazz to the horn sections in reggae. The scale in other words is no longer locateable in the traditions that make it up, but is creolized. To me, the fact that Baptiste had so much trouble with this points toward him not being a creole listener. Setting the microtones right yields a D Blues scale with seven notes. The piece then coheres much better. I can provide musical examples, though not as nice as the "Passages" recordings!
I am not familiar with any evidence that the box instrument is not of Jamaican origin. I would posit this instrument as more likely to have been played than a balafo, which Sloane does not mention at all, or a sansa, which Sloane may or may not have heard. I think it belongs with the Angola piece, despite its closer resemblance to West African harps. See that part of the site for why. He does identify one of the Strum Strums as being of Indian origin. I waver between this being the instrument of an indigenous American enslaved in Jamaica and that of a South Asian that Sloane collected for his cabinet of curiosities and placed for comparison.
On the one hand, first generation White South Carolinians encouraged a slave trade with the Indians who came to be known as the Creeks in return for guns and other goods. Creeks pretty much depopulated all the way to northern Florida by the early eighteenth century. In turn, White settlers traded the Indigenous captives to Jamaica and other islands in return for preferred African Slaves (who were preferred in part because of being farther from home) roughly at a rate of two North Americans for one African.
The North American origin story makes sense, but on the other hand, the instrument itself has features more associated with South Asian Indians. While negative arguments are not very strong, I have not seen much of a stringed instrument tradition in sixteenth through eighteenth century Southeastern North American sources. Refer to John Whites drawings and Theodor DeBry's engravings in particular (http://www.virtualjamestown.org/images/white_debry_html/introduction.html). In contrast, the instrument fairly closeley resembles versions of the stringed instruments in the sitar/tanpura family, minus the second resonator and the sympathetic strings, both of which may be modern additions anyway (not sure about that, but you can still obtain single resonator sitars with no sympathetic strings in Kolkata last time I checked in the mid 90s). The key here is an aesthetic one favoring a buzzing sound in many West and Central African as well as South Asian musics. It is demonstrated in the kalimba recordings on this site quite well, but has a correlate in Indian music called jivari. The lack of a bridge on the strum-strumps would create exactly this favored buzzing sound on either of the banjo-like instruments. So on alternate days, I lean toward the South Asian explanation. I spell this out in more detail in a forthcoming article edited by Mary Caton that I'd be happy to share if allowed !
For the furtherance of knowledge, I offer my schoolboy Latin translation of SLoan'es description here. I place no authority on my translation whatsoever, so if anyone wants to improve upon it, please do.
1&2. The small stringed instruments of the the Indians and the Negroes made from diverse gourds, hollowed out, with skins drawn over them, Strum Strumps.
The small stringed instruments, from the the oblong of a hollow tree; finished on top with a skin.
The stalks of a bushy climbing plant , serving as the strings of the musical instruments.
5 the root of a bushy yellow licorice plant that serves the dark-skinned householders to cleanse their teeth.
balafon, which is a type of xylophone common in parts of West Africa and among the African diaspora.
While this is possible, Sloane gave no indication of seeing such an instrument in play, which would be odd, given the keenness of the observation elsewhere.. A balofon would be hard to miss, unlike a sansa (see Koromanti for that).
The song “Angola” stages a lively conversation between the upper and lower registers in a call-and-response pattern.
And indeed, the upper and lower registers are quite distinct in the scales they use as well. The words are not recognizable as any specific Central African language, and the evidence I have found for the words points more to a West African, probably Akan, origin for the lyrics on several grounds recapped in the 1993 article. Nor does the music of the upper register fall into a Central African pattern. It more closely resembles an Akan pattern. For one thing, the musical pattern of the upper registers follows the tonemic pattern of Akan languages like Fanti and Twi. Another is the seven note scale (the eighth being the octave), which is common in Akan music but less favored in the Angola region. In addition, one of the instruments pictured, which I think along with the description of the instrumentation must be taken closely into account, is an eight stringed harp, which is exactly the number of notes in the upper register of the piece. The transcribed notes are probably pitched to the harp, and the vocals an octave lower and matching. The proposed meanings of the lyrics from what I have been able to gather from canvassing language professors and native speakers of the various possible languages point away from Central Africa and toward West Africa. If the Alla, Alla refrain is indicative of Islam, It had reached West Africa by the end of the seventeenth century, but had not made it as far south as Central Africa (i.e., Angola).
The bass does match Central African patterns better. The pentatonic scale in use is prevalent in Central Africa but missing in the Akan context, so I think this was an Angolan bass register accompanying on the banjo-like instrument. The pattern, if playing is limited to two strings of a stringed instrument as in the picture, can be played easily. Perhaps Baptiste, SLoane, or the overseer asked the lower register musician where the piece was from and got "Angola" as the answer.
My thinking is that this combination of two distinct African patterns was a case of pidginization, of African American cultural formation in its nascent stages, where distinct traditions were getting mixed together in a manner perhaps not entirely stisfactory to anyone at the time, but negotiated ad hoc anyway.