The Influence of Africa:
Syncopation, Call & Response, and Timbre

"a black musical spirit (involving rhythm and melody) was bursting out
of the confines of European musical tradition, even though the performers
were using European styled instruments, This African-American feel for
re-phrasing melodies and re-shaping rhythm created the embryo from
which many great black jazz musicians were to emerge."

The music of Africa informed the music of Charleston in a very central way; it is impossible to quantify the many influences, but it is possible to highlight three of the most recognizable and important contributions. Talk of syncopation, call & response, and timbre can get complex and technical, but on a basic level, they are the soul of this new African American music: they give the music "looseness" and excitement, relaxation and drive.


Listen to an un-syncopated example The choosing of where to place melodic elements over the underlying beats is another striking difference between European and African music. In most European music, the music falls right on the beats: 1 2 3 4.
Listen to the same example, but syncopated

Syncopation is simply the shifting of accents to where they are not "supposed" to be (normally unaccented beats). It can be thought of as emphasizing the area in between the beats (emphasizing the &'s of beats). Playing off the beat, syncopating, is what gives the music the drive and excitement.

Call and Response

African example of call and response
Call and response in religous music
Call and response in a jazz big band
The alternation between leader and chorus, often called call-and-response, is a defining characteristic of African music and became an important element of African American music.
Call and Response Call and response is also crucial because it involves the audience; it transcends the seperation of audience and performers so common in the west. The music is participatory in nature, it is not meant to be watched from afar.
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Timbre (sound quality)

The traditional music from the Shona of Zimbabwe is known as mbira music. The metal-keyed instrument (sometimes Americanized to a 'thumb piano') is decorated with shells or bottle caps to give it a buzzing, noisy timbre. African music values dense, noisy sound textures, also known as the timbre (pronounced tam-ber). Noisy timbres and complex, interweaving parts give the music a dense, rich quality.

   Mbira music
This affinity for noisy timbres and dense sounds fit well with the cheap brass instruments available in the late 19th and early 20th century. Lieutenant James Europe's "Marching Hell-Fighters" band exemplifies this sound.
Listen to the Marching Hellfighters

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