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How the slave trade affected music: an introduction

15th century ship sailing to the Americas

Slaves were shipped to colonies in the ‘New World’ of the Caribbean and the Americas

BETWEEN the15th and 19th centuries the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, Belgian and British used African slaves as a major part of their labour force. The slaves were vital to the economic development of these countries and were shipped to their overseas territories or colonies in the ‘New World’ of the Caribbean and the Americas.

The African slaves brought aspects of their culture with them to the New World. They told stories, danced, sang and kept alive the rhythms of their homeland.

When Western religions such as Christianity were imposed upon the slaves these rhythms would find their way into hymns from Europe. This meeting of African and European musical cultures in the New World has had a major effect on the development of modern music.

Firstly it gave rise to black church songs or ‘Negro spirituals’. This form of music later evolved into gospel, blues, jazz, Rhythm & Blues, rock & roll and soul. All of these genres of music have a connection to Africa.

What’s more today’s African-American and Black British artists such as Pharoah Sanders and Gary Crosby’s Nu Troop celebrate their African heritage through their music.

Sanders sings of the importance of his African origins on ‘Our Roots Began In Africa’.

And Nu Troop’s composition ‘Goree Island’ refers to the strip of land off the coast in Senegal, West Africa where slaves were shipped to the Americas.

References to the slave trade are also made in indirect ways in many forms of modern music. For example the R&B singer Ashanti Douglas has a first name that refers to one of the tribes from West Africa who were taken as slaves to America.

And one of the great groups in the history of reggae, The Congos took their name from the region in central Africa that would later be colonized by Belgium and renamed Zaire. Their name is a tribute to what they consider their spiritual home.

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