Harlem Late Night jazz Presents:

Call and Response


Call and Response

The Jazz History Tree

While the European musical tradition emphasizes performing patterned music written by others, the African musical tradition incorporates improvisation and the nuanced and explosive call and response, or participation, as a basis for powerful human expression. Call and response forms, found seemingly everywhere in Africa, entail a caller, or soloist, who “raises the song,” and the community chorus who respond, or “agree underneath the song.” In the case of the Igbo (Nigeria), the storyteller calls out the story in lines; the audience or chorus responds at regular intervals to the storyteller’s calls with a sala (the chorus’ response). In some cases, the Igbo sala is amanye, roughly equivalent to American English expressions of agreement such as “amen” or “right on!”1

On southern plantations, the roots of gospel and blues were introduced in work songs and “field hollers” based on the musical forms and rhythms of Africa. Through singing, call and response, and hollering, slaves coordinated their labor, communicated with one another across adjacent fields, bolstered weary spirits, and commented on the oppressiveness of their masters.2 Spirituality and improvisation (“letting go and letting God”) were integral to the music. Call and response are still firmly entrenched in jazz and Black American culture today—from blues to gospel, to R&B, to bebop, to reggae, to rap music, and more. Virtually every jazz genre has been influenced by these roots.


1 Thirteen/WNET/Kimberly Sambol-Tosco, “Slavery and the Making of America.” PBS.org. Education Broadcasting Inc., 2004. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/experience/education/history.html.

2 Jered Morin, “Blues Storytelling: The African Roots,” Swinginblues.com, http://www.swinginblues.com/blues-is-a-story-african-oral-storytelling-tradition/.

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