Ship Ahoy, Sailor Boy! It must have been hugely exciting, back in the day when a steamer arrived in port from a faraway land. There would be old lovers returning home. There would be new products available for sale in the local markets, new spices or cloth, perhaps. A new tool or idea direct from the minds of far-flung inventors.
There would also undoubtedly be musicians on those ships. Maybe it would be a voyaging virtuoso, or just a ships’ mate well versed in the folk styles of a faraway land? Perhaps some cat with an altogether new instrument from Africa, the Occident or the Antipodes. A treat for the ears was at hand.
You would find these itinerant minstrels a few nights later joining some mad, port-side jam session with said instrument. Maybe they’re going to be laughed at, or maybe they shout out, in a drunken state, that they know how to do it better…
You can easily imagine that these late-night port-town shindigs were where opposing musical styles first laid down together in sin: Irish jigs accompanied by African rhythm, Colombian fishing shanties played on the flamenco guitar. These were lullabies of love played for lust. Salacious sing-a-longs to solicit sex. Ribald reels and raunchy rhythms for the sole purpose of pertaining prostitutes without paying the price.
This was how folk styles must have traveled around the world for thousands of years. From port to port, rhythms and tunes, carried in the wind-blasted minds of sea dogs, adventurers, slaves, immigrants and ne’er-do-wells were, upon arrival, shared at will to all with a receptive ear.
There’s no doubt that this is why ports are the greatest musical cities: From Bristol to Barcelona to Bahia, from Casablanca to Charleston to Cartageña, from Lagos to Liverpool, Marseille to Mumbai, and New York to New Orleans, these are the cities that time and again have defined the new popular music forms and styles of the day.
As you trace the trade routes from Colombia to America, you find Colombian syncopation relating directly to Jamaican Ska and further afield to the marching songs of New Orleans. You see the same instruments crop up time and again in this area. Brass and woodwind sections, a commonality across the Caribbean.
Elsewhere Rumba becomes trans-atlantic, carried by slavery from it’s home in North Africa to find new form and importantly, new expression in Cuba. Again in northern Brazil, the capoeira dances of Angola find their way to Bahia and perhaps on to New York to influence Breakdancing.
There’s no doubt that throughout history. as humans travelled around the world, the trade routes have directly related to and inspired new musical spheres of influence.
It’s musical fusion, sure, but not the wishy-washy kind we think of when we hear that word. This is a fiery mix where the styles ain’t going down without a fight. If you are the solitary player of a new style of music in a strange town, you better be good to avoid a slap… even if the slap is a figurative or rhythmic one. The thing is though, you’ve probably had the best part of 3 months ship-bound to refine that sound until it’s fair springing out of your fingers. Your melodies are on fire!
These seafaring strains from faraway lands are a music of the world, carried on the wind. They brought together slave songs with Welsh and Irish gospel music to form the blues. They brought African and European music together throughout South America. They brought East and West together as the English took Indian wives and brought them home by packet ship.
At the advent of the Second World War, when humanity was at it’s darkest hour, culturally speaking, it’s no coincidence that the Calypsoes of Wilmoth Houdini were influenced by the gypsy sounds of the Eastern Europeans fleeing Hitler and arriving in New York.
You could almost hear Hitler spelling out his own downfall by causing the flight of so many intellectuals, musicians philosophers artists and writers to America. That exodus created the hotbed of ideas that became Jazz, Modern Humanitarianism, The Peace Movement and the search for freedom of ideas and expression in 60’s America.
So where are we now in this great to-ing and fro-ing of music around the world. What once took 3 months now takes three milliseconds. What’s cool in Kenya today is kool in Chicago tomorrow. Musical expression is mathematically manipulated and superficially summed up into the neat algorhythm of the MP3. The trade winds have become great information superhighways with data perfectly packaged for cross continental communication. The idea is immediately available but poorly formed and the arguments and fights that could make it great, seldom happen.
I can’t say really where it will end however I do reckon we should stop shipping our goods around the world with diesel. We could save a lot of fuel and develop a lot of great tunes by taking up sailing again me hearty!