The Colonial Williamsburg | From Ear to Ear

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From Ear to Ear

by The Colonial Williamsburg

The unique rhythm and joyful energy of the diverse musical traditions of the African diaspora are presented by the early songs in West African languages, the folk songs of the Caribbean and mainland North America. Work, children and spirit are celebrated.
Genre: World: World Traditions
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  Song Share Time Download
1. Cou Cou
1:53 $0.99
2. Lamban
0:39 $0.99
3. Yankaday
0:39 $0.99
4. Wasalu
2:29 $0.99
5. Igboland Rhythm
4:13 $0.99
6. Kye Kye Kule
0:58 $0.99
7. Ya Ya Dempo
6:23 $0.99
8. Bahamian Hand Clap
0:42 $0.99
9. Massa Buckra (Me No Law)
2:43 $0.99
10. Massa Buy Me
2:27 $0.99
11. Bring Me Half a Hoe (Field Version)
0:48 $0.99
12. Bring Me Half a Hoe
2:43 $0.99
13. Capy Crow da Come Again
0:31 $0.99
14. You're Wrong
0:53 $0.99
15. Gonna Beat Dis Corn
1:14 $0.99
16. Patting Juba
1:32 $0.99
17. Juba
4:07 $0.99
18. Pompey Ran Away
1:08 $0.99
19. I'm Gwine to Glory
2:01 $0.99
20. Trouble so Hard
4:40 $0.99
21. Field Holler
1:19 $0.99
22. Sit Down Servant, Sit Down
4:14 $0.99
23. Daniel
3:45 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes

If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.
—Zimbabwe Proverb

Powerful and distinctive, improvisational and intricate, the music of Africa calls forth the spirits of the ancestors who greeted the birth of a child and the fruits of the harvest with the sounds of music and song. In all things African, there is music. It is the essence of life from the secular to the sacred.
The legendary African Olaudah Equiano was born in what is now Nigeria. He was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in the 18th century. After careful saving and trading, he purchased his own freedom and became involved in the movement to abolish the trans-Atlantic African slave trade and later wrote in his autobiography of the importance of music in the lives of the people of Africa. For people of African descent, music has forever been an essential feature of culture and tradition.
African music arrived in the Americas during the final decade of the 15th century with the advent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. For the next 400 years, an estimated 11 million captured Africans would be transported to the Americas to be enslaved. In the holds of the slaving vessels, Africans – Ibo, Mende, Yoruba, Fon, Ewe, Akan, Goa, Leele, and people of countless other African ethnicities – endured the dreadful Middle Passage from the African interior to the auction blocks of the Americas. With them traveled the memories of their respective dances, rhythms, songs, melodies, beats, and musical instrumentation.
The music that arrived with these captive Africans survived the trauma and alienation of the Middle Passage intact. On American shores the music would be refashioned by the institution of slavery and influenced by other encounters, too. Collectively, these diverse African musical traditions would blend to create a new musical sound. This African-styled music would mingle with European musical forms and develop into a creole musical sound – uniquely American with a distinctive African essence. This new musical sound could be heard from the sugar plantations of Barbados to the tobacco fields of Virginia. It was the music of the African-born in the Americas. As it had been in Africa, this new music was deeply immersed in everyday African American life.

Velma Maia Thomas-Fann remarks in her book, No Man Can Hinder Me: the Journey from Slavery to Emancipation through Song,
“…just as African women sang while threshing rice in the villages along the River Niger, so too did enslaved African and Afro-American women sing as they performed similar tasks on American plantations. In Africa, men and women formed sacred circles in their rituals. On plantations in the Americas, the enslaved sons and daughters of Africa also formed sacred circles to perform their ring shouts. Only the language was different; the feeling, the power and the emotion was the same. Under the weight of American slavery, it was the music that sustained, encouraged and empowered them. It was this knowledge of the power of music, of ritual, of song, of dance that these [enslaved] Africans gave to the world.”

From Ear to Ear: the Passage of African Music through American Slavery features Colonial Williamsburg musicians performing a sampling of 18th-century African and African American musical interpretations. These artists bring to the ears of the listener the unique rhythm and joyful energy of the diverse musical traditions of the African diaspora. This work presents the music of the African people – from early songs in native West African languages to the folk songs of the Caribbean, work songs, children’s songs, and spirituals. Musical selections from West Africa, the Caribbean, and mainland North America are included on this compact disc.

Excerpts from essays:

In the 18th century right up to modern times, music continues to be an important medium of aesthetic expression for the African diaspora. Music is a common thread that unites people of African descent, whether they live in Accra or Annapolis, Nairobi or Nashville, Los Angeles or Amsterdam, Toronto or Tokyo.
– Robert C. Watson

African features are pervasive in Creole repertoires. Caribbeans share a taste for polytimbric texture and rhythmic complexity, and both are commonly achieved with overlapping rhythmic sequences played on percussion or melodic instruments. In addition, Caribbean drums are often used in sets of two or more and are combined with idiophone instruments and hand clapping.
– Dominique Cyrille

So the enslaved Africans sang of heaven while often meaning Canada – the land that promised freedom. They sang of the Jordan River – code for the Ohio River – and crossing it meant being in the “free” North. They honored Moses who brought the nation of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, and hoped for another savior who would deliver them out of the South.
– Velma Maia Thomas-Fann

The lessons I will teach my son

Today we can reflect on music history and find numerous examples of what some call the source of western music. Scores from Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven survive today (some in the composer’s own hand). But when we examine 18th-century music research, no clear path can be traced from the sound that can arguably be called the greatest influence on modern music – the music of Africa. This path was the basis for rock, jazz, and most styles which pervade the airwaves today.
The concept for the compact disc recording From Ear to Ear was to examine the migration and changes in music as it traveled from generation to generation, and geographically from Africa to the Caribbean, and finally to the East Coast of what was to become the United States of America. During that time, the melodies heard within this forced migration were rarely transcribed, and those that were eventually faded. Lyrics that were written down turned to dust as pages disintegrated over the years. Thankfully in some African American families, a tradition born among earlier generations in Africa continued – the tradition of passing stories and song “from ear to ear.”
At almost every turn, our researchers were told the project was an impossible mission; no documentation of this music existed. Thanks to the determination of those involved in creating this recording and a passion for the importance of the project, the hidden path of the music of Africa has been cleared again. Our researchers gave us more than we could ever have hoped for. They found the melodies. They found the lyrics. They found the stories.
I think about the families who knew the importance of keeping their music, their culture, and their traditions alive throughout centuries of personal and cultural tragedy. This to me is the greatest of the many reasons why we must preserve what we can now and for all time. The project and the story it tells has profoundly affected me and made me more conscious of the lessons I will teach my own son. I am a fan of all kinds of music, and this project reminded me that music is so much more than notes and lyrics. I believe that everyone who listens to the music and explores the resources on From Ear to Ear will have a similar emotional response.

We mourn sounds that have been lost forever, but here we celebrate what we’ve found.

Todd A. Judge, Audio Producer, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The Playlist and Notes on the Music from West Africa, the Carribean, and South America, and mainland North America


Track 1 Cou Cou – instrumental 1:53
Taken from the forest region of Guinea near Beyla, this rhythm style was used to celebrate the harvest and other joyous occasions. Traditionally this rhythm is only played on djembes, while the solo is played on a larger, lower-tuned djembe. Two small drums, called “dunun,” are added to this interpretation of the rhythm to accompany the soloist’s djembe. The three drums combined are called a three-headed drum. As a lead selection, this piece reflects the importance of music in the lives of Africans before, during, and after slavery. The rhythm was likely one heard by European slavers as they searched for their very human cargo.

Track 2 Lamban – balafon solo Rex Ellis :39
Lamban is a traditional balafon piece played by professional African storytellers called “jelis” or “griots” of the Maninka people of Guinea and Mali. Griots were charged with keeping the history of their peoples. The myth and legend of the balafon comes from these griots, and the instrument is considered sacred among many African tribes. This piece celebrates the art of the jeli, for they were among the slaves brought to the Americas and it was likely they who continued to keep the oral histories of a people alive. Bala Dounbouya’s version of this Lamban rhythm was transcribed by Eric S. Charry, associate professor of music, Wesleyan University, and author of the book MANDE MUSIC – Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa, University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Track 3 Yankaday – balafon solo Rex Ellis :39
Yankaday is yet another traditional West African balafon rhythm played in the Malian style. Like the lamban rhythm, yankaday rhythms were traditionally played by griots. This yankaday was taught to Mr. Ellis by Abou Sylla from Mali, making it literally music passed from ear to ear.

Track 4 Wasalu – lead vocal Richard Josey 2:29
This traditional song of the Wasalu peoples of Mali reflects music which would have been sung during festivals and celebrations. The piece heard here is interpreted from the compact disc African Tribal Music and Dances, Delta Music, July 1993. This song celebrates the African tradition of acknowledging life events through music.

Track 5 Igboland Rhythm – instrumental 4:13
Located in southeastern Nigeria, the Igbo region is known for its artisans, its language, and its music. This rhythm is just one of many that permeate the region. The rhythm has a heavy drum base like much of the music of West Africa, but it also includes an instrument called the “ogene” (similar to a double-headed cowbell). The Igbo people were known to be great metal artisans and this particular instrument – formerly made of bronze – was considered to one of its most important.

Track 6 Kye Kye Kule – children’s vocal :58
Though the exact origins of this West African children’s play song are unknown, it is known to have been performed by children from Ghana to Zaire. The song is performed in the traditional African call-and-response style.


Track 7 Ya Ya Dempo – lead vocal Larry Earl Jr. 6:23
This piece, interpreted from the Smithsonian Folkways CD: Drums of Defiance: Jamaican Maroons Music from the Early Free Black Communities issued in 1981 on Folkways 4027, features complex, West African-influenced drumming and dancing. This little-known rural tradition is at the heart of modern, politically charged reggae music, and the conviction heard here reveals a long history of struggle. During the 17th and 18th centuries, some of the Africans brought to Jamaica as slaves escaped to the mountains. Called “Maroons” today, this culture – derived from people who refused to be subjugated – still maintains close ties to its African roots. “Ya Ya Dempo” reflects those African ties. Today, four major Maroon colonies still exist in Jamaica’s rugged western Cockpit Country and in the eastern Blue Mountains.

Track 8 Bahamian Hand Clap – arrangement Adam Canaday :42
A similar hand-clapping pattern was transcribed in the Bahamas in 2004 by Christien Justilien, who notes that the hand-clapping pattern was used extensively throughout the Bahamas in the absence of musical instruments. The complex patterns were brought about as a response to enslaved people being banned from playing drums. During early Christian religious services foot stomping and hand clapping were utilized to add rhythm and feeling to the music. A 1724 account of such practices was described by Pere Labat during his stay in the West Indies. In his book Nouveau Voyage aux Isles de L’Amerique, Labat notes:
“…the ablest person sings a song which he composes on the spot on any subject he considers appropriate. The refrain of this song is sung by everyone and is accompanied by a great hand clapping…”

Track 9 Massa Bucka (Me No Law) – lead vocal Emily James 2:43
Transcribed in 1790 by J.B. Moreton and found in his book West India Customs and Manners written in the early 18th century (precise date unknown), this traditional Jamaican song was chosen for its satirical and humorously subversive edge. It, like many songs created or adapted by slaves, has a double meaning. Likely for most slave owners who heard it, the song would have just been regarded as a lovely – though slightly vulgar – ditty. It was to the slaves that sung it, however, a statement on the hypocrisy of slaveholders’ simultaneous repulsion and sexual attraction to their slaves. The song has lasted far beyond slavery – it has been sung on the island for centuries and is still used during the Junkanoo festival.

Track 10 Massa Buy Me – lead vocal Harvey Bakari 2:27
Transcribed circa 1772, the original transcription notes of this song state that the tune was “taken down in notes from G.S. (Granville Sharp, a British abolitionist) from the information of Dr. Wm Dickson, who lived several years in the West Indies. A Single Negro (while at work with the rest of the gang) leads the song and the others join in chorus at the end of every verse.” Aside from typifying the traditional African call-and-response work style, the song also makes explicit the fears felt by Africans taken from their homes and sold as slaves. A transcribed copy of this piece was published in the 1972 book Aspects of Slave Life in Barbados: Music and Cultural Context, by Jerome S. Handler and Charlotte J. Frisbee.

Track 11 Bring Me Half a Hoe (field version) – lead vocals Harvey Bakari
and Emily James :48
Though the precise date of this traditional Jamaican Maroon song’s creation is unknown, oral history dates it as an early (slave) field work song. Interpreted from a transcription found in Rock It Come Over: the Folk Music of Jamaica by Olive Lewin, University of West Indies Press, 2000, the song exemplifies the spirit with which African traditions transformed slaves and slavers.

Track 12 Bring Me Half a Hoe – lead vocal Emily James 2:43
This spirited rendition by Colonial Williamsburg interpreters exemplifies how the song was used to simultaneously keep the pace of work steady and serve as a distraction. Peter Marsden described such singing in the fields of Jamaica in 1788. His account can be found on page 70 of Dena Epstein’s Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, University of Chicago Press, 1977:
“…all the time that the [N]egros are busy with the crop, they make so much noise singing that they may be heard a great way off.”

Track 13 Capy Crow Da Come Again – children’s vocal :31
This song was originally annotated as a traditional Jamaican Kingstonian boat song but is performed here as a children’s song to illustrate the progression of music from adults to children.

Track 14 You’re Wrong – lead vocal Richard Josey :53

This traditional Jamaican mourning song was sung during an Afro-Jamaican funeral ritual known as the “Nine Night” – a ceremony of passage where people met to give comfort and support to the relatives of the deceased and to wish the departed one a safe journey to life’s next stage. During this passage ceremony, songs are sung to usher the spirit to the other side. Songs such as these are prevalent – as is the strongly held belief that the spirit of the dead can do harm. The deceased’s house is also rearranged in an effort to confuse the spirit in case it attempts to come home again.


Track 15 Gonna Beat Dis Corn – lead vocal Robert M. Watson 1:14
Found in Harold Courlander’s Negro Folk Music USA, Chicago Press, 1983, the date of this tune’s origin is unknown. This “mortar and pestle” song would have been traditionally sung by a group of women as they pounded rice to remove their husks; however it has been arranged here to feature a prominent male voice as a practicality for performance. Although the original version made reference to rice, corn was the staple crop of Virginia, so the words have been changed to suit the geography. The prominence of such mortar and pestle songs was referenced by Dena Epstein in her work Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, University of Chicago Press, 1977: “…Even the songs used by the slaves who threshed and pounded the rice may have retained African elements.”

Track 16 Patting Juba (children) 1:32
The African roots of this song can be traced by its very name. Juba (sometimes spelled “giuba”) is a region in Somalia. And, it is also a word in Swahili, Zulu, and Italian with meanings that vary from “king” to “dove.” Most importantly, Juba was a dance which featured hand clapping and foot stomping – and, as the children perform on this recording – was known as “patting the juba.” Like the Bahamian handclapping pattern, this song is just one of many created as a response to the banning of drums by slave owners. Its often complex rhythm of clapping and body percussion was described by Solomon Northrup (born 1808) in his 1841 slave narrative as: “striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other – all the while keeping time with the feet, and singing…”

Track 17 Juba – lead vocals Larry Earl Jr. and Kathaleen Getward-Holiday 4:07
Sung to the tune of “Panlogo,” this song is a Colonial Williamsburg rendition typical of a rhythmic call-and-response song that might have been sung by 18th-century slaves. As was the case with many slave spirituals, this song was created by combining the features of songs taken from Africa, Europe, and America.

Track 18 Pompey Ran Away (Interlude) – banjo solo Rex Ellis 1:08
This selection is an example of African instrumentation blending with European Airs. Found in A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs adapted to the Fife, Violin, or German-Flute, which was transcribed and sold by James Aird [ca. 1789], the piece features a banjo tune created by 18th-century slaves. The modern banjo evolved from an African gourd instrument called a “banjar” – an instrument that was so familiar to European slavers that we find numerous historical references to it. “Pompey Ran Away” has obvious ties to modern bluegrass music.

Track 19 I’m Gwine to Glory – lead vocal Kathleen Getward-Holiday 2:01
Interpreted from lyrics found in Dena Epstein’s Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, University of Chicago Press, 1977, the street call “I’m Gwine to Glory” was a song sung by pre-Civil War free blacks and antebellum freed slaves selling their wares in the marketplace. Accounts of such songs date back to 1686. In 1747 in Charleston, South Carolina, a petition was presented before the Charleston assembly seeking to curb the practice.

Track 20 Trouble So Hard – lead vocal Greg James 4:40
Adapted from field recordings by John and Alan Lomax’s Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads, ed. Alan Lomax (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song, AFS L3) and transcribed by John Work in American Negro Songs and Spirituals, Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola, N.Y.; 1998, “Trouble So Hard” is one of the most recognizable Negro spirituals. Like many songs of this genre, this seemingly sacred song has some overt secular lyrics. Given the context, the words can be taken quite literally.

Track 21 Field Holler – lead vocals Greg James and Bridgette Houston 1:19
Interpreted from descriptions found in Dena Epstein’s Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, University of Chicago Press, 1977, these haunting sounds of slaves calling to each other in the fields was a way of communicating everything from a quick hello to a warning for runaway slaves. Slaves used field hollers as a coded language and their use is considered by many to be a precursor to the sound of the blues.
Track 22 Sit Down Servant, Sit Down – lead vocal Marsha Howell-Jones 4:14
Adapted from field recordings by John and Alan Lomax’s Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads, ed. Alan Lomax (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song, AFS L3) and transcribed by John Work in American Negro Songs and Spirituals, Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola, N.Y.; 1998. This song was known to have been sung by the 1871 Fisk University Jubilee Singers. Much can be said about this song’s sacred and secular connotations. At first glance, one might assume that the song speaks to its religious roots; however, given the environment in which the song was created, the song can be taken literally.

Track 23 Daniel – lead vocal Greg James 3:45
“Daniel” is a traditional West African “ring shout,” with performers standing in a circle facing each other and remaining in nearly constant counterclockwise motion as they sing and call out. Ring shouts are typically performed during religious worship and combine Christian lyrics with West African traditions. Hand clapping and foot stomping add rhythmic percussion responses to the sound of one person keeping time by beating a stick on a wooden floor.

Harvey Bakari Percussion, vocal
Narissa Bond Vocal
Adam Canaday Percussion, vocal
Janice Canady Percussion
Dmitri Clawson Percussion
Larry Earl Jr. Vocal
Rex Ellis Percussion
Monique Ford Percussion
Kathaleen Getward-Holiday Percussion, vocal
Bridgette Houston Vocal
Marsha Howell-Jones Vocal
Brittany Jackson Vocal
Emily James Vocal
Greg James Vocal
Priscilla Jewell Percussion
Richard Josey Vocal
Christina Lane Vocal
Rose McAphee Vocal
Dylan Pritchett Percussion, vocal
Hope Smith Vocal
Robert M. Watson Percussion, vocal

Youth Performers
Micah Canaday Maya Canaday
Rhaney Canaday Brandy Diggs
Andrew Holiday Keonte Getward-Holiday
Jasmine Green Malachi Gumbs
Danielle James Garrett Jewell
Ty Jewell Aria Johnson
Teryn Langford Shauna Livingston
Elizabeth Mieghan D’Andre Parker
Karl Reid Kiata Roby
Olivia Spry Dominique Washington

A Colonial Williamsburg Production
Executive Producers
Richard L. McCluney, Jr.
Rex Ellis
William G. Wagner

Producer, Engineer, Mastering
Todd A. Judge, MPSE
Project Manager
Linda Randulfe
Musical Directors
Larry Earl, Jr.
Priscilla Jewell

Associate Producers
Priscilla Jewell
Abigail Schumann

Art Director/Designer
Elizabeth Eaton

Assistant Engineer
Chuck Smith, C.A.S.

Text Editor
Barbara Rust Brown

Tom Green

Cover Illustration
Leo and Diane Dillon


Berlin, I. (1988). Many thousands gone: the first two centuries of slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Eltis, D. (2000). The rise of African slavery in the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The trans-Atlantic slave, 1567 – 1867: a database CD-ROM. (1999). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Epstein, D. J. (1977). Sinful tunes and spirituals: black music to the Civil War. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Gomez, M. A. (1998). Exchanging our county marks: the transformation of African identities in the colonial and antebellum south. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Morgan, P. D. (1998). Slave counterpoint: black culture in the eighteenth century Chesapeake and low country. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Thomas-Fann, V.M. (2001). No man can hinder me: the journey from slavery to emancipation through song. New York: Crown Publishers.

Walsh, L.S. (1997). From Calabar to Carter’s Grove: the history of a Virginia slave community. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.

Support for the African American Research Center and African American programming has been provided by Douglas N. Morton and Marilyn L. Brown, Mr. and Mrs. Richard D. Parsons, Norfolk Southern Corporation, and the Charles E. Culpeper Endowments in Arts and Culture of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.



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