In 1995 Samuel A. Floyd Jr. published his benchmark book The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States.1 Appropriately titled, this work was itself powerful. It was heralded by scholars for recognizing and illustrating the connections between African American musical syntax and its African-based roots. The book's framework contributed to pathbreaking scholarship that transcends disciplinary boundaries. Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., one of the coauthors of the book under review, wrote in 1998 that The Power of Black Music “will be considered a definitive study in black musical aesthetics.”2 According to Ramsey, Floyd's influential work demonstrated that music—more importantly, black music—should “be counted among the most powerful and influential achievements of not only American but also Western culture.”3 Floyd's most recent book, The Transformation of Black Music: The Rhythms, the Songs, and the Ships of the African Diaspora, is in many ways a sequel to The Power of Black Music, or rather a continuation and culmination of over two decades of scholarly reflection and research on black music. Floyd extends the scope of his earlier project by going far beyond the western coast of Africa and the African American tradition, venturing through space and time to explore several centuries of music throughout the continent of Africa, and tracing that music's ubiquitous reach.
Floyd offers a wide range of anecdotes, history, and data extending from ancient Africa to the twentieth century in order to illustrate the musical influence of African-based cultures in the Americas and throughout Europe. Early on in the book he not only engages with his vast research catalog of black music, but interweaves throughout every page a thorough review of scholarship in an effort to introduce the overall field. The book is divided into two very different parts. The first, titled “Black Music and the African Diaspora,” consists of five chapters. The vast geographical and time coverage of Part 1, as well as the wealth of secondary scholarship reviewed, can seem somewhat overwhelming. Floyd skillfully employs two main metaphors that can assist a reader through the considerable amount of information presented in this section. First, the literal and metaphorical concept of the “sailing ship” flows throughout these chapters. According to Floyd, these ships are simultaneously “a symbol of Diasporic, cultural, and musical dynamics” and “real sailing ships and genuine black mariners” (p. xxii) that carried black musical cultures from Africa and throughout the Diaspora. The second metaphor is “Call/Response,” the capitalization being intended to differentiate it from the musical term. For Floyd's purposes, “The Call refers, historically, to African musics (and musical traits) on the continent, while the Response refers to the Diaspora's transformation of these musics and musical traits into new entities” (p. xxiv). Floyd's underlying contribution and analysis fall within these two categories, which in many ways provide a key to the first five chapters.
Chapter 1, titled “Out of Africa: Setting Sail from the Motherland,” lays the historical and anthropological groundwork for the study. From the Stone Age to the twentieth century, Floyd surveys the major cities, dance, and early musical traditions and instruments in an attempt to identify the foundational cultures of the Diaspora. In Chapter 2, “The Making of the African Diaspora: Ships on the Oceans,” he reveals that “over the course of … approximately thirteen centuries … black composers were active, at one time or another, in all parts of the world” (p. 44). He shows that from the Moors in Spain to blacks in Mexico and the Maroons in the Caribbean, black music continued to flourish, even if performed in new languages and in new lands. Chapter 3, “The Diaspora's Concert Worlds: Europe and the Americas,” mainly consists of biographical studies of composers from various parts of the world whose music represents a continuance of African culture. Floyd states, “Over the centuries, these individuals have been connected across time and space, by events and phenomena such as slave trade across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, the Crusades, and Europe as a place of relatively free artistic expression for an oppressed race” (p. 49). Interestingly, many composers identified by Floyd as black musicians were of mixed heritage, such as Angelo Soliman, Vicente Lusitano, and George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, and may not have viewed themselves as producing black music. Although the term “black music” is readily used throughout the text, its definition is neither reviewed nor discussed. The last two chapters in this first part of the book, “Isles of Rhythm: The Cinquillo-Tresillo Complex in the Circum-Caribbean” and “Ties That Bind: Myth and Ritual in the Circum-Caribbean and Beyond,” follow the trajectory of previous chapters. Pursuing the references to “sailing ships,” Floyd illuminates the cultures of the Diaspora with a specific focus in these chapters on the West Indies and Latin America. He reviews the religious rituals and folklore of the region in an examination of dance, in an effort to show that throughout the countries in question the sounds have been “influenced significantly by the music and cultures of African music making” (p. 85).
The book's second part, titled “Case Studies,” brings in two new authors, Guthrie Ramsey Jr. and Melanie Zeck, each of whom contributes a single chapter. While readers may take a moment to adjust to this section of the book, the new authors take great care to use the terms and ideas that have been introduced in Part 1. In its opening chapter, “‘Pip's Tambourine’: Black Music and Sterling Stuckey's Revelations of Herman Melville's Hidden Sources,” Floyd continues to depend heavily on secondary sources, examining the relationship between black music and literature. Like previous chapters, this one incorporates discussion of dance, Floyd pointing out that “[a]nalysis and interpretation of dance and music together have been neglected, and the reason for it is clear: viable analytical theories that might combine the two disciplines do not exist” (p. 121). In this chapter as in several others, he offers some analysis of dance culture in relation to music. Even so, dance is treated as a minor topic throughout the book.
This second part of the book describes the effect of centuries of “sailing ships.” Melanie Zeck contributes Chapter 7, “‘Git on Board, Lil’ Chillun’: Children and Music in the Diaspora,” introducing a new topic, technology, and the manner in which recorded sound distributed black music and influenced the sounds heard and created by black children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the next chapter, “The Movement: Black Identities and the Paths Forward,” focusing mainly on the Harlem Renaissance, Floyd offers a Diasporic view of black music's influence on the other arts, such as poetry and books. The final contributor, Guthrie Ramsey Jr., then continues with the sailing ship metaphor, noting that “as people moved into new circumstances and had access to new resources, they also needed new tools to help navigate their new situation” (p. 155). This statement is well illustrated in his Chapter 9, titled “Afro-modernism and Music: On Science, Community, and Magic in the Black Avant-Garde.” These Part 2 case studies offer micro-surveys of black music and its influences, in contrast to Part 1, which covers several centuries and numerous regions. In the concluding chapter, “Africa and the Trope of the Return,” Samuel Floyd shows how the sailing ship, as described by Ramsey in Chapter 9, was “not a one-way operation”—rather, “Diasporic musics returned to Africa” (p. 155). This final chapter effectively culminates the book as a whole.
The Transformation of Black Music deepens our understanding of black music and culture. In many places it reads as a review of the literature on black music, offering readers an excellent survey of the field. Within these sections, however, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of Floyd's new contribution and indeed his overall argument. Part 2 allows the reader to go beyond the plethora of secondary sources and focus on the primary sources and the application of ideas presented early on in the text. In a sense, the book is dominated by Floyd: he is the main author and several of his discussions are self-reflexive. Transitioning to the first person, he offers fellow music scholars an insider's perspective on his personal reflections, and this aspect of the book is greatly appreciated. Ultimately, its greatest contribution to the fields of music and cultural studies is perhaps not its novel argument but its broad analysis of black music, culture, and influences throughout the Diaspora over many generations.