African consciousness in the American context: the RING SHOUT

To talk about cultural blending that became one of the underpinnings of jazz and blues we have to dig a question about actualization of African consciousness in the conditions it was brought to the American continent. The first essential point is the SYNCRETISM African mind deeply possessed. Two most powerful forms of art in Africa were so dissolved in the reality of its people that even some African languages lack these two key words, "music" and "dance", in their vocabulary (as Jackie Malone states). Second essential issue is the POWER of Africa's key art - dance that was the most difficult of all art forms to erase from the slave's memory, in part because the syncretic unity "the body is mind" very nearly made the body to be memory and helped the mind recall the form of dance to come.

This is the subconscious and cultural mechanism that gave birth to the RING SHOUT, a ceremonial ritual practiced by the slaves which moved in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands. The true "Shout" took place on Sundays or on Praise-nights through the week, and either in the praise-house or some cabin in which a regular religious meeting was held.

The Shout in the United Stated was most interesting survival of Africa and is marked by the investigators along with spirituals as a reconciliation phenomenon marking the religious blending between the Africans and white people, and a unique conversion of African religions in a Christian context. The ORIGIN of the name "Shout" puzzled many scholars. Lydia Parrish, for example, states, that Dr. L. D. Turner has discovered that the arabic word "Saut" (pronounced like the word "shout"), in use among the Mohammedans of West Africa, meant to run and walk around the Kaaba [Islamic shrine]. Parrish reported that she had seen "Negroes do the holy dance around the pulpit in their churches in such a manner".

African dance, in their desperate situation, was the slaves' greatest spiritual and political resource, enabling them to recall the traditional African community and to include all Africans in their conception of being African in America. They discovered, despite the presence of different ethnic groups - Ibos, Akans, Bakongo, and Ashantees, among them - that they shared an ancestral dance that was common to them in Africa, and the Ring Shout was the product of this cultural oneness. This dance was known to most slaves, whose people had mainly come from sections of Africa in which, as the Circle Dance, it was associated with ancestral ceremonies.

The Shout took two FORMS, depending on the locale in which it was seen. The first type was the Ring-Shout, found in Georgia and South Carolina. The second one was common in North Carolina and Virginia: a shout performed as a solo.

Normally, the Ring Shout varied depending on the region: in some areas of more rigid white owners it was prohibited to cross the legs while moving, as the ceremonial will be considered as "dance" that was profane in Christian tradition; Fredrika Bremer provides a fine description of the Ring Shouts inscribing in space where it takes place: for example, in New Orleans, where tornadoes are common, solo performances of groups of Africans leaping and spinning in the air (1850s) creates the effect of the whole an "African Tornado". Nevertheless, the individual Ring Shouts also took place, in which the dancer, for example, leaps into the air, turning in a counter-clockwise direction. In the 1850s, the Shout was practiced in Georgia under the very noses of slaveholders at massive camp meetings, it was reported that at meeting near Macon one night, 3000 to 4000 blacks and whites were present as white and black preachers.

The fact that elements basic to jazz dance were in the Ring Shout, awaiting the sounds of jazz music, is astonishing. It is small wonder that generations of jazz artists have borrowed - from the music of the church. Frederick Douglas and James Baldwin have adequately treated the nature of black music that has roots and resonance in Shout: oneness of joy, sadness and memory of the ancestors. The roots of jazz lie in the sacred.

(materials by Thomas de Franz, Jackie Malone, Lynne Fauley Emery, Lydia Parish)