Secrets of Afro-American Music with Aki Spadaro
27th May 2014 was the day Pro keyboard faculty, Aki Spadaro, decided to educate people on the topic of Afro-American music. Given that The True School of Music is a western contemporary music school that offers courses in genres like Jazz, this master class was not just a natural extension of the school’s identity but also a great way to shed light on the roots of a lot of American music.
Aki kicked off the master class clarifying that though this may seem like a history lesson it was more of an interactive session to enlighten students on a topic that dramatically changed his perception of music and has, over the years, helped musicians aided and pushed musicians to do a lot more than they could. The early 20th century saw the largest ever influx of migrants from Europe to America whereas the early 19th century was when African slavery in America was at its peak before being abolished at the end of the century. The crux of the conversation was to show how European and African influences cemented their place in American culture and consequently the music that came from America forever.
Going back in time, Aki explained how European culture was predominantly a Christian culture with the architecture being vertical. The music of Europe also imitated the architecture and a classic example of this is the concept of Polyphany that was described as an attempt by mankind to get closer to god, both spiritually and musically. He played the music of a famous French composer of the era to illustrate the use of this. He further explained that, though this is a master class on music, a discussion on religion is pivotal because spirituality is a great way to understand the cultural lineages of an anthropological group. From there he then took the audience all the way to the goings-on in Central Africa around the same time period. In Africa god is a very different entity than it is in Europe. This is because nature rules the lives and lands of Africa and hence their religious and spiritual beliefs are in unison with nature. And even their music was an extension of this due to which everything they created was in harmony and in time with nature, so to speak. Essentially, Europe and Africa both have very different perceptions of the concept of time. Since both these groups inhabited America, Aki explained that when 2 anthropologically different groups come together there are generally 3 outcomes; they go to war, they avoid each other or they end up following common ground and losing their uniqueness. However, these 2 groups didn’t just co-exist but in fact together created some very unique music, owing to the sharing of influences. Music stopped being purely intellectual (the European way) and became a rather natural and self-fulfilling entity with the confluence of both African and European ideologies.
To Quote Aki, “Afro-American music, once you understand it, allows you to give a very personal touch to the music you play because it is the perfect example of how intention can translate to influence.”
The plot of the story, as Aki referred to this master class, then shifted to New Orleans, to the Africans working in cotton fields and how they eventually started exploring other avenues of revenue, music being the biggest. Afro-Americans began playing their music on western instruments and thus was born a hybrid style. It is rumored that it was during funerals, after the final rites that Afro-American musicians first got the chance to venture into jazz music improvisation. This was because people at the time believed that the final passage of the deceased is incomplete without the celebration of that person’s humanity. This is believed to be the origin of jazz improvisation, a technique integral to jazz music, as we know it today. As an extension of this, TSM faculty and Aki demonstrated how a marching beat can be improvised on to make it more danceable.
Next up was a discussion on gospel singing and how when African Americans started singing in church choirs they expressed their inculcated spirituality into their art. This is where a lot of blues notes were first used to evoke deep emotions in people. A few films were screened to give attendees a context to understand this. From there, the session then moved on to the use of music as a gesture, which basically is a technique where gestures produce certain sounds on an instrument that cannot be produced by simply playing them. In other words, it is not enough to just play notes right, gestures are the emotional aspect of the notes played. He illustrated this with the example of Thelonius Monk. Then Aki dwelled on the origin of the Swing Music era and technically difficult styles of music like bebop and hard bop. Afro-Amercian musicians that were hired to play at parties had to learn on the job and hence they worked very hard which led to the development of these technical styles that are standards today. From Swing the conversation then swung to a discussion on baroque that was followed by a Q&A session. To say that this was one of the most informative and comprehensive master classes TSM had ever seen would be true. Every piece of information was supported either by an audio sample, a video sample or a performance by TSM faculty.
When asked to describe the master class an attendee aptly said, “It was equal parts philosophical and practical”.