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American Songwriter Debuts ‘Rivers Of Rhythm’ Series For Black History Month

Episode 1, ‘The Music of Africa,’ is now available to watch.

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Photo: Bettman collection
Photo: Bettman collection

A new free to view six-part video series titled Rivers of Rhythm has been launched by American Songwriter, which will host the short films at its website, in partnership with Renasant Bank. The series will highlight the work of the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) to celebrate the accomplishments of Black musicians and artists during Black History Month.

The Music of Africa | Rivers of Rhythm - Episode One

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Episode 1, The Music of Africa, is available to watch now. It traces its origins with historians and Black artists discussing the resounding impact and influence the music continues to have. The episode begins with the words: “No matter your race, color, the country you call home, we can all trace our origins clearly to Africa. Just as clear it’s the birthplace of modern music. It’s where the bones of today’s musical brands and breeds can still be found.”

A new episode will premiere at American Songwriter each week for six weeks. Each episode will focus on a particular musical style. Episode 2 is titled Spirituals & Gospel, episode 3 The Blues, episode 4 Jazz, episode 5: Rhythm & Blues, and episode 6 Hip Hop.

‘Different every time you play it’

Says Dr. Steven Lewis of the National Museum of African American Music: “Because African music is based around an oral tradition, in most cases, versus a written tradition, it’s harder to get a clear idea of exactly what people would’ve been playing. Number 1 because there were no recordings, number 2 because there were no written scores, and number 3 because of the importance of improvisation in the music, it’s different every time you play it.”

“So much of today’s popular music is based on certain qualities and attributes that are uniquely African,” says artist and producer Otto Gross in episode 1. “All of it, just about everything comes from African Music. One of those attributes is this idea of call and response.”

Adds Dr. Marquita Reed-Wright, also of the National Museum of African American Music: “In traditional hymns and gospel, you would have someone sing the hymnal ‘Oh happy day, oh happy day,’ that’s call and response. It’s just something traditional that African Americans held onto. It just never went away because it was such a central part of communication.”

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