USC Looks to Preserve Southern Black Music Forms
A new research center for African American music at the University of South Carolina may become a hub for the study of Southern Black music and its effects on American culture.
All genres of traditionally Black music, with the possible exception of hip-hop, can be traced back to the rural South, says Willie Strong, an assistant professor of music and a director of the Center for Southern African-American Music.
Jazz, blues and gospel all have roots in the folk traditions of the Southern United States, Strong said, while hip-hop, with its roots in urban American, has a less direct tie.
“This is the logical place for a center like this to exist,” says Jamal J. Rossi, dean of the university’s music department. “I’m hoping we can really raise the awareness of the region’s musical traditions that I don’t think people understand and appreciate.”
The center is in the process of digitizing its audio collection, which includes a recording of the Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess” set in Charleston, so that it can be accessed via the Web.
South Carolina is particularly important to the development of such music. An estimated 40 percent of African and Caribbean slaves entered the country through Charleston, making the state a “cultural entryway” for many forms of African American music, Strong says. Preserving traditions nurtured in the state, particularly music forms created by the Gullahs, will be just as critical as preserving those nurtured throughout the region, he adds. The Gullah people are descendants of West African slaves who have retained much of their culture, including a distinct language, living in isolation off South Carolina’s coasts.
The center’s kickoff event last month featured The Hallelujah Singers, a local group of Gullah singers who perform plantation songs that date back to the 1660s. The performers combine song and narration to dramatize ceremonies in Gullah culture.
Rossi said part of the institute’s challenge is the race to preserve art forms before they disappear. Some field recordings already are included in the center’s collection, but organizers hope to add more.
He said the music department hopes to work with other departments within the university researching Southern folklore and culture to create a center that is interdisciplinary and not solely focused on the music.
The preservation and research center also aims to take the sometimes under-appreciated music forms public rather than waiting for visitors to come to the college.
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