We invite you to listen in on a musical gathering that took place in Jamaica in 1688. The pages before you, from Hans Sloane’s 1707 Voyage to the Islands, offer us a set of rich and layered traces from the performance. This document is the earliest transcription of African music in the Caribbean, and indeed, probably in the Americas.
The two pages forming the center of this project are from Hans Sloane’s 1707 Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. This document is the first transcription of African music in the Caribbean. Thanks to this remarkable artifact, we can listen to traces of music performed long ago and begin to imagine what it meant for the people who created it.
Voyage to the Islands was written by an Englishman, Hans Sloane, who traveled to Jamaica to serve as the personal physician of the island’s new governor. At that time, the colony was in full expansion. Previously part of the Spanish empire, Jamaica was conquered by the British in 1655 and by 1688, the colony’s agricultural industry was growing rapidly. Sloane was initially focused on the island’s natural environment, but he soon became interested in the cultural practices of the inhabitants as well, notably the remaining indigenous communities and population of African slaves. There were also large communities of “maroons,” or former slaves and their descendants who established independent societies in the island’s mountains.
The Governor Sloane accompanied to Jamaica soon died, but Sloane -- who had studied natural history in France -- stayed on and increasingly devoted himself to cataloging the plants and animals of the island. He eventually married the widow of a prominent planter, whose fortune -- based on the labor of enslaved people on plantations -- would enable him to become a wealthy property-owner after his return to England. He also began collecting a trove of cultural objects and scientific specimens that became the basis for what is now the British Museum.
Long after his return from Jamaica, Sloane published the results of his research in a very large leather-bound volume, about four times the size of an average modern book. In it, he writes about the history of the English colonies in the Caribbean, his experiences living in Jamaica, and the people who lived there. The book contains hundreds of intricate engravings illustrating the local plants and wildlife. The audience for the book, and its second volume, published nearly 20 years later, were people involved in colonizing Jamaica and enslaving Africans in pursuit of profit. Over the centuries, it has also become an important record of early Caribbean history and ecology.
In 1688, large numbers of Africans were being trafficked to the island through the Middle Passage to carry out the planting, harvesting, and processing of plantation crops. Enslaved people living in Jamaica faced profound challenges to their survival: they were subject to extreme physical labor and exposed to rampant disease. Vast numbers died under these conditions and few lived long lives or bore children surviving to adulthood. When populations dwindled, English planters would replenish their plantations with new imports, considering African lives to be a disposable, if costly, commodity. A regime of punishment and torture aimed to prevent all forms of resistance. The enslaved on many plantations were expected to produce their own food, and were given small plots of land or provisions grounds to do so. The “festival” described by Sloane here was one of many kinds of musical gatherings that took place in colonial towns at the end of market days as well as on plantations, and in the spaces in between. Music provided a rare space of conviviality, a place for the African-born to recall and continue musical traditions, and a space for the creation of new traditions and community.
Enslaved musicians in Jamaica faced a daunting task: creating music that could gather people together across cultural and social boundaries. The population in Jamaica’s plantations and towns was strikingly diverse, bringing together those born in the colony with Africans from throughout the continent, bearing many different languages, cultures, and musical practices. There were free people of African descent, including maroons, who interacted regularly with the enslaved. Among the “Negro musicians” Sloane mentions, some may have learned to play music in the colony, but others likely brought their skills as performers from across the Atlantic. Among these, some musicians may have played songs familiar to others from the same region in Africa. But musicians must have frequently found themselves at gatherings that brought together a diverse range of people, seeking to find a kind of sound and types of songs that could bridge their cultural differences. In such settings, either individually or as groups of performers, they began to innovate new genres. The moment captured in the music here is a snapshot of a remarkable, broader epic of musical creativity. In listening to these songs, we can perhaps strain to hear the much larger soundscape of the early Caribbean. This was a site of tremendous cultural innovation and creativity that was also shaped by movement within the region, as sounds and songs travelled from port to port.
The only thing Sloane tells us about Mr. Baptiste, who authored the musical notation, is that he was “the best musician there.” Although some have assumed that Mr. Baptiste was a Anglo-European colonial elite like Sloane, we conjecture that he was actually one of the “Negro musicians” performing that day. Where did Mr. Baptiste learn how to read and write music in the European tradition? His name suggests that he may not have originally been from Jamaica, but instead was a free person of African descent from a French colony, perhaps nearby Saint-Domingue (contemporary Haiti). The last name “Baptiste” was very common among free people of color in both Saint-Domingue and Louisiana. At the time, Saint-Domingue was home to a rich and active theatrical life, and many free men of African descent, along with slaves, performed in the theatre as musicians. Such a background would explain Mr. Baptiste’s ability to hear the music and produce these rare excerpts of notation. He was clearly a skilled listener and musician: each of the pieces here is in a very different style, and showcases careful attention to the intricacies of melody and rhythm. We may even most usefully think of Mr. Baptiste as a composer, someone who was a frequent participant in such gatherings and therefore responded to Sloane’s request -- “to take the words they sung and set them to music” -- by producing pieces of music inspired by and channeling what was performed at this and other “festivals.”
The songs titles appear to refer to African ethnic groups. As historian Richard Rath has argued, they evoke particular traditions from particular regions on the continent. Neither Baptiste or Sloane tell us what instruments these songs were played on. But while he was in Jamaica, Sloane collected three musical instruments. Though they have not survived to this day, the Voyage to the Islands included an engraving depicting some of these instruments.
This engraving offers us the earliest representation of the instrument that came to be known as the "banjo” in the Americas. There is debate about whether the third instrument in the image, the harp mounted on a box resonator, is from Jamaica or elsewhere, since Sloane also had instruments from Africa and other regions in his collection. The interpretations of the songs here are primarily played on a banjo, with Papa also interpreted on an mbira. But there were certainly many kinds of instruments being played in Jamaica at the time.
The recordings we created present interpretations of each piece played in more than one way. We offer one pared down, relatively simple execution of the notation, along with a more fully realized interpretation, that includes supporting instruments, or perhaps a revision to notation. Clearly, we cannot today capture exactly how these songs sounded then. These recordings are invitation to listen and reflect on what you hear. In fact, we feel that a multiplicity of interpretations are warranted and we hope this site will inspire other improvisations. By restoring these pieces to the realm of performance, we aim to give them new life and inspire others to study and improvise with them.
Music was a multi-dimensional type of expression and entertainment that involved body movement, spirituality, and often, political organizing. The notes in Mr. Baptiste’s transcription constitute a mere skeleton for what was likely a complex and dynamic ensemble performance. These pieces almost certainly would have been accompanied by percussion instruments, including drums, shakers made of gourds filled with beans or stones, and instruments that created scraping sounds. In an earlier passage, Sloane notes that at other events revelers attached rattles to their legs and hands to accompany their dancing, and also donned ritual dress, including cow’s tails tied to their backsides. Sloane urges readers to clap their hands “while the base is plaid,” and cry “Alla,” which probably refers to the Muslim deity, since many West Africans practiced Islam. In the notation for “Angola,” furthermore, there are words presented to be sung: “Ho-baognion, Hoba, Hoba, Hoba-ognion.” In “Koromanti,” meanwhile, one phrase is included: “Meri Bonbo mich langa meri wa langa.” There is more work to be done to interpret and analyze the meaning of these words, which may also help us understand how they might have been sung. Taken together, all these clues suggest a rich and complex musical performance whose sounds we must strain to hear.
Angola was the name used for the coastal region of Central Africa, and also sometimes for enslaved people from that region. The song “Angola” stages a lively conversation between the upper and lower registers in a call-and-response pattern. It is the only one of these tunes with lyrics that clearly align with the notes. The vocal melody is placed very high, but we have chosen to sing it down an octave. There are many clues in the notation and in this case, we believe that the high pitches refer to a distinctive style of singing with a reaching quality that is challenging to represent in the notation. The piece has a very decisive ending, unlike many of the other tunes. Listen to the repeated notes in the bass line that out a vivacious rhythm. The pattern recalls a drumming style, but may have been performed on a low pitched stringed instrument, or on a balafon, which is a type of xylophone that has wooden keys with gourd resonators. Balafons were common in parts of West Africa and in many sites within the African diaspora.
"Papa” is the shortest of the three songs, just 4 bars long, but it begs to be repeated. When played this way, it has a more circular quality than the straight, square line you see on the page. Whereas notated Western art music generally has a distinctive beginning and end, in many vernacular traditions simple melodies are repeated and improvised ad infinitum in open-ended communal performances. The short two or three note gestures that make up the melody of the piece mostly begin on offbeats, giving Papa a more syncopated feel than the other pieces here. Baptiste’s ability to represent this in his notation is a testament to his ability to both listen carefully and capture key aspects of the music. This piece fits nicely on the banjo and may have been associated with the instrument depicted in Sloane’s book, but it also sounds lovely played on an mbira. The term “Papa” may be a version of the term “Popo,” another ethnic group from West Africa
Although “Koromanti” is printed as a single piece, there are actually three very distinctive sections within the longer work. For this reason, we have chosen to treat each of these sections as single pieces. Koromanti was a term commonly used to describe enslaved people from the Akan ethnic group from West Africa, one of the largest group among the enslaved in Jamaica at the time. The first “Koromanti” piece is strikingly different from “Angola” and “Papa” for several reasons. It is in a major key and it has a 12/8 time signature with a beat divided into 3 parts instead of two. The melody includes a very wide range (an octave and a sixth) making it more likely to be an instrumental rather than vocal song. The tune fits the banjo beautifully. The harmonies, phrasing, and tonality all make this melody seem very much from the European tradition, resembling lute music from the early modern era, but when we add percussion to the melody, it takes on a different character.
This piece is notable for its very rapid scales, which would require a virtuosic performer and a nimble instrument. It draws on a natural minor scale and is divided into two parts. There is an unusual shift in the way the rhythm is notated, possibly because the transcriber wanted to show how the groove shifted into a B section. The structure of this piece has a flexible feel inviting improvisation. Perhaps the rapid scales in the notation represent genre-specific styles of improvisation.
This is the longest (and in some ways the most mystifying) of all the tunes, with fully 26 measures of music. It is a wandering and unpredictable piece, and the structure is hard to parse as well. Each bar has, in a sense, its own sound and unit. This song is ultimately the most open-ended of the group, inviting different interpretations and perhaps incorporation into new musical pieces yet to be born.
Musical Passage tells the story of an important, but little known record of early African diasporic music. This project is a collaborative endeavor by Laurent Dubois, David Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold. We aim to shed light on this unique document and to further the ongoing effort to understand the early history of one of the world’s greatest cultural movements.
Enslaved Africans and their descendants revolutionized global music, but historical records tell us far too little about their earliest practices. In this site we offer a careful interpretation of a single rare artifact, from Hans Sloane’s 1707 Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. Tucked away in this centuries-old book, are several pieces of music that make it possible to hear echoes of performances long past.
The title of our project refers both to the musical transcription at the center of the site, and also to the Middle Passage, a term that describes the Atlantic crossing that enslaved Africans endured while being trafficked from the shores of Africa to New World plantations. The Middle Passage has a longstanding significance within African diasporic history—it signifies both the dramatic severing of personal ties experienced under bondage as well as the enduring legacy of African cultural forms in the Americas.
The performers that Hans Sloane writes about in Voyage to the Islands were probably survivors of the Middle Passage, who may have continued playing music they had learned in the homelands, while also creating new performance traditions. The musical notation is striking in the diversity of styles it represents. Ultimately, we do not know exactly how it was originally played, but given Sloane’s description of musical instruments, and our collective knowledge of the period, we have made a preliminary attempt not to authentically reconstruct, but rather to create an opportunity to reflect on how this early music may have sounded. We offer the recordings here as an invitation for further study of this document and the incredible legacy that it represents. Above all, we are motivated to make audible what otherwise falls silent in the historical record. We intend this site to be of use to wide-ranging scholars of various disciplines, practicing musicians, the general public, and students of all stripes.
This project has been reviewed and published in the inaugural issue of sx archipelagos.
We invite you to speak back to our efforts here, by reaching out on Twitter, following us @musical_passage or contacting us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also stream all of the recordings from the site via Soundcloud. We would be thrilled to hear your musical interpretations of the pieces and add them to our playlist. Do not hesitate to be in touch!
This website was designed in collaboration with Marc Harkness of Harkness Design and developer Dave Mello. It is built using HTML5, CSS, and libraries such as jQuery, Bootstrap, and FullPage.js. The design is optimized for use on laptops and desktops. Some functionality may not be effective on tablets and touchscreens.
Our own interpretations of the pages in Sloane’s narrative have come from very careful attention to the words in his description as well as the musical meanings conveyed in the notation. We designed the site in such a way to provide visitors with a similar experience of closely engaging with the rich, although mediated and multi-layered information on the page. By hovering, listening, and reading, we hope invite you to slow down, listen, and engage with the document carefully.
We are grateful to the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University for permission to use images of Voyage to the Islands from their collection. We also wish to thank the editorial team behind sx archipelagos, a new digital wing of the Small Axe Project, especially Kaiama Glover, Alex Gil, and Kelly Baker Josephs. We are thankful also to our co-panelists at Caribbean Digital II, Vincent Brown and Jennifer Morgan, and many members of the audience who offered us insightful feedback on the project-in-progress. At Duke, we are grateful to Lou Brown and Natalie Robles of the Forum for Scholars and Publics, for their ongoing assistance and support. We are grateful also to Ian Baucom, who helped to support Black Atlantic digital scholarship at Duke during his tenure at the Franklin Humanities Institute. The project is funded jointly by the Franklin Humanities Institute and the Forum for Scholars and Publics. Finally, we wish to thank Rich Rath for his groundbreaking research on the musical notation in Sloane. You can listen to his interpretations of the pieces here.
In the course of our collaboration, we have each taken the lead on different aspects of the project’s execution. Laurent Dubois has been responsible for securing institutional resources to support the project’s development and publication. David K. Garner is performer and artistic director of the musical interpretation of the pieces. Mary Caton Lingold has helmed project management and collaboration with our web designer. She also provided vocals for “Angola.” Together, we previously joined forces in the creation of Banjology, a site that explores some of the lesser known aspects of banjo history.
Laurent Dubois is Professor of Romance Studies and History and the Faculty Director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics at Duke University. He is the author of six books, including A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean (winner of four book prizes including the Frederick Douglass Prize), Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year) and most recently, The Banjo: America’s African Instrument.
David K. Garner is Assistant Professor of Composition and Theory at the University of South Carolina in Fall, 2016. He is a composer whose works often draw on other music as a point of departure, from Beethoven to bluegrass. A frequent source of inspiration is the music of the American South, and he is especially interested in aspects of performance surrounding the tunes themselves including style, technique, tuning, timbre, instrumentation, and improvisation. Garner has worked with world-renowned ensembles including the Kronos Quartet, which commissioned a work based on the music of the Scottish diaspora. Awards include a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, an ASCAP Young Composer Award, and first prizes in the OSSIA, Red Note, and NACUSA competitions.
Mary Caton Lingold is Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is writing a book on representations of early Afro-Atlantic musical life in literature (1650-1850). She is the co-editor of both Provoke!: Digital Sound Studies, a web collection of innovative sound scholarship, and a collection of essays on Digital Sound Studies under production at Duke University Press (Fall 2018). She is founder and creator of the Sonic Dictionary, a crowdsourced database of audio recordings. Her article on representations of African diasporic music in eighteenth-century Caribbean travel narratives is forthcoming in the Winter 2017 issue of Early American Literature.
Our work draws on the innovations of much rich digital scholarship on the Afro-Atlantic world, as well as projects on music and sonic culture. For example, see:
African Diaspora, Ph.D
Digital Library of the Caribbean
Early Caribbean Digital Archive
Le Marronnage á Saint-Domingue
Provoke!: Digital Sound Studies
Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database
Many scholars have informed our understanding of both Sloane’s travel narrative and specifically the music therein. We recommend the following for information about the Middle Passage, Jamaican History, Hans Sloane, and Early African-diasporic music.
Bilby, Kenneth M. True-Born Maroons. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.
Brown, Vincent. The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Delbourgo, James. “Divers Things: Collecting the World under Water.” History of Science 49, no. 2 (June 1, 2011): 149–85.
Dubois, Laurent. The Banjo: America’s African Instrument. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016.
Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Kriz, Kay Dian. “Curiosities, Commodities, and Transplanted Bodies in Hans Sloane’s ‘Natural History of Jamaica.’” The William and Mary Quarterly 57, no. 1 (2000): 35–78.
Rath, Richard Cullen. “African Music in Seventeenth-Century Jamaica: Cultural Transit and Transition.” The William and Mary Quarterly 50, no. 4 (1993): 700–726.
Rath, Richard Cullen. How Early America Sounded. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003.
Smallwood, Stephanie E. Saltwater Slaver: A Middle Passage from African to the American Diaspora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.