Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran said, “Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life, bringing peace, abolishing strife.”
If any group has experienced strife over the last several hundred years, it’s the people of Africa. First they had a significant portion of their population dragged into slavery. Then they had their territory pillaged by European colonials.
How have they managed to keep hope alive?
Music has played a significant role.
African-American historian Jerome LeDoux points out how during slave times people would go to church and then gather at Congo Square in New Orleans on Sundays. There they would sing and dance, remembering their African roots. They also reflected on what they had learned in church, strongly identifying with the people of Israel who endured slavery in Egypt, and the suffering of Jesus Christ.
They sang lyrics like “Let my people go” and “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” LeDoux calls this music the “holy blues.”
Secular musicians heard it and adapted it, creating the blues. This evolved into jazz, rock ’n’ roll and more modern gospel music.
One song that came out of this tradition, Down by the Riverside, first became popular around the time of the Civil War and remains well known.
In 2009, an organization called Playing for Change released its version of Down by the Riverside, featuring musicians from Serbia, Portugal, Brazil, Los Angeles, France, Japan and, of course, New Orleans and the Congo.
What this organization accomplishes by recording artists with differing styles from all over the world, singing and playing in harmony, is a testament not only to the technical skill of the Playing for Change team, but of the amazing gift music is to the world.
Playing in harmony is perhaps the most perfect example of human co-operation at the highest level. It’s what author Stephen Covey refers to as synergy. Each musician and singer has to not only have confidence in their abilities but also listen attentively to the others, thus creating a sound that no one person could produce.
Because Playing for Change draws artists from all over the globe who joyfully share their time and talent, the songs they produce have a richness that perhaps has never been created before. Down by the Riverside is only one example of their amazing work, which includes using the profits from the sale of the music to improve the quality of life in impoverished regions of the world.
It’s been more than 50 years since huge crowds were drawn to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. The anthem of the civil rights movement was also from the holy blues tradition: We Shall Overcome. Masses of people sang this. And they continue to sing, in beautiful harmony.
It’s as if all of these songs of the holy blues contain a very deep and profound truth that we all know. Horrible crimes have been committed. There’s tremendous injustice in the world, not only in Africa and the United States, but in every country. Yet this music demonstrates that we can create harmony and when we do so we’re living the highest essence of humanity.
People have not only survived, we’ve been able to thrive despite horrendous wrongs being institutionalized. And music has touched our hearts and given us hope. We know that better times are coming.
Thus the entire world joins King and sings in beautiful harmony, “Deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome one day.”
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.