“No matter your race, color, the country you call home, we can all trace our origins clearly to Africa. Just as clear it’s the birthplace of modern music. It’s where the bones of today’s musical brands and breeds can still be found.” These are the words that kick off the first episode of Rivers of Rhythm, a six-part video series that explores and celebrates the music genres and styles created, influenced, and inspired by African Americans.
Highlighting the work of the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) to celebrate the accomplishments of Black musicians and artists during Black History Month, American Songwriter and Renasant Bank have joined forces to launch the premiere episode of Rivers of Rhythm.
The series features interviews with some of today’s artists, alongside perspectives from leading historians and curators. Each episode will focus on a particular musical style: spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, and hip hop.
“Because African music is based around an oral tradition, in most cases, versus a written tradition, it’s harder to get a clear idea of exactly what people would’ve been playing. Number 1 because there were no recordings, number 2 because there were no written scores, and number 3 because of the importance of improvisation in the music, it’s different every time you play it,” says Dr. Stven Lewis of the National Museum of African American Music.
Episode 1, titled The Music of Africa, focuses on the origin of music in Africa. Historians and Black artists listen to the early music of Africa while diving into the resounding impact the music continues to have. One of the topics the episode breaks down is the timeless tool of call and response in music.
“So much of today’s popular music is based on certain qualities and attributes that are uniquely African,” says artist and producer Otto Gross in the episode. “All of it, just about everything comes from African Music. One of those attributes is this idea of call and response.”
“In traditional hymns and gospel, you would have someone sing the hymnal ‘Oh happy day, oh happy day,’ that’s call and response. It’s just something traditional that African Americans held onto,” explains Dr. Marquita Reed-Wright of the National Museum of African American Music. “It just never went away because it was such a central part of communication.”
Watch episode 1 of Rivers of Rhythm below.
A new episode of Rivers of Rhythm will premiere here at American Songwriter each week for 6 weeks.
Episode 2: Spirituals & Gospel
Episode 3: The Blues
Episode 4: Jazz
Episode 5: Rhythm & Blues
Episode 6: Hip Hop