The African diaspora — music with horns

Ok, Ok, Ok!!! The next group of music that we are exploring I have dubbed “music with horns”. This, I admit is about the worst genre qualifier ever but nonetheless, we will push forward.

Black Diaspora 3 (music with horns)

Welcome, welcome!! Once again a sentence of summary is perhaps needed for the flocks of new readers that this fascinating article series is sure to attract:

  • I’m traveling for six weeks.
  • I’m writing a series of articles documenting the African Diaspora.
  • If I do my job it should blow your mind.
  • THATS IT!!

Ok, Ok, Ok!!! So, as I’m sure you are aware, the next group of music that we are exploring I have dubbed “music with horns”. This, I admit is about the worst genre qualifier ever but nonetheless, we will push forward. The arrival of horns in the hands of Africans or their scattered descendants marks the entry of Western colonization into this complex process. The influence of western musical aesthetics can, of course, not be denied, and not only did the West provide new instruments, it also had a significantly different sense of harmony (chords, chord progressions) that would become very influential.

This first example, the rawest example of the African and Western synthesis that I have ever found, is my favorite bit of music that I have ever encountered…ever..EVER!!!

Brass band: yesu ye


So using that as a jumping off point, I think the flow of ideas criss-crossing the Atlantic is actually quite fluid. We began with the South, which at this point takes a sort of lead in the development of the music.

The South

I know this sounds so amazingly analog and curious, but the South was inundated with horns following not only the end of the Civil War but also, at the turn of the century the ending of the Spanish-American War. The various military bands that traversed the region often departed with their instruments upon returning home and this left the South, New Orleans in particular, and also the rest of the Caribbean (Cuba being a main battleground of the Spanish-American War) with a surplus of saxophones, clarinets, trombones, trumpets and drums. Following in the military tradition, local brass bands began to spring up everywhere. From this amazing compilation from Smithsonian Folkways entitled “Music from the South: Country Brass Bands,” we hear the beginnings of a century of musical development.

Precious Lord Hold My Hand


This beautiful music evolved quickly and in New Orleans it became much more codified, complex, and began a brass band tradition there, that although was certainly a major precursor to jazz, continues to this day.

Lord Lord Lord


It’s clearly not a major jump to perhaps America’s most significant cultural export. Jazz, also a product of New Orleans, stemmed directly from lively brass bands that were already in place in New Orleans and from 1910 to 1945, grew from the music of ex-slaves to a complex, beautiful, and influential music that at least from 1930 to 1945 was America’s popular music. Those years are what we call the “Swing Era” and though the music was to evolve further, it was then that it reached the peak of its impact on the rest of the world.

Duke Ellington



The development of the recording industry that happened in direct correlation with the rise in popularity of jazz allowed, for the first time, music to be dispersed around the globe. As it was very common for blacks in the Caribbean to travel to the South as migrant workers to work cutting cane in Louisiana and elsewhere in the South, the popular music of the time quickly spread throughout the Caribbean. In addition, New Orleans radio became the radio of choice in a number of Caribbean countries which only worked to increase the demand for this new, curious, and thoroughly black music from the South.

Calypso, a product of Trinidad and Tobago, is an amalgamation of a variety of things of which jazz is certainly not the least.

Lord Kitchener

Coming soon

Though the big band tradition is clearly evident ,you can also hear that the rhythmic sense is a bit different. Among other things, they have kept the “clave” intact. The clave in its strictest sense was lost in the South due to the ban on drums, but in the Caribbean and Brazilian countries this direct link to Africa stayed much more intact.

The following excerpt, from Cuba, is from Arsenio Rodriguez, the archetype and father of salsa music. Once again, the tie to big bands is obvious but as in the music from Trinidad the “clave” stays intact.

Arsenio Rodriguez



Though Africa had supplied the beginnings of this whole thing and can clearly take credit for its inception, what occurs next is a fantastic example of cultural cross pollination. E.T. Mensah, a Ghanian saxophonist and band leader, cultivated a wonderful kind of music that came to be called “Highlife,” culling heavily from calypso as well as the American big band tradition.

E.t. Mensah


In other parts of Africa not only jazz and calypso but the Cuban music of Arsenio Rodriguez began to have a very forceful influence – as seen in this beautiful track from Bembeya Jazz Nation.

Bembeya Jazz National



Without as much direct influence from the South, Brazilian music developed in its own unique way. Unlike the South, Brazilian slaves had been allowed drums and therefore much of their music continued to be intensely rhythmic as well as directly centered around the drum. In addition to a very “pure” African strain that continues to this day, the heavy Portuguese influence on the country allowed even a classical tradition to thrive in the 19th century. The heavy Western influence resulted in distinctly Brazilian sense of harmony and melody which later found its fruition in Bossa Nova. In the early part of the 20th century, samba collided with jazz and developed into a Brazilian pop music that is represented in Brazilian national treasure and part time early Hollywood movie star Carmen Miranda. HERE!!!

Carmen Miranda

Coming soon

A similar aesthetic is found here in the choro music of Jacob e seus Chorões. Beautiful melodies, an embrace of very western harmony, soft textures, and driving rhythms. The choro is actually this little stringed instrument similar to the mandolin and also very similar to the tres that the aforementioned Arsenio Rodriguez is so famous for playing.

Jacob e seus Chorões


There we have it. Music with horns. It bounced all around that little Caribbean sea, back and forth around Africa, and found its way across the equator as well. Jazz, calypso, and salsa were born. Samba developed a soft side and Africa, which had given so much, benefited from it all. There is even a community of ex-slaves from Brazil who, at the end of the 19th century, returned to Benin and currently reside in Ouidah and continue to integrate their Brazilian tradition back into Beninese culture. The cross-pollination continues on and on and on and on. Next week we tackle R & B – a thoroughly American music whose reverberations are endless.

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Matthew E. White

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