A Clickable Tour of Caribbean Musical History

New, interactive project offers a look at a rare piece of African-diasporic sheet music

sloan notation

Hans Sloane's published notations on the music transcribed by a "Mr. Baptiste." Below, this 1707 illustration is one of the earliest representation of a banjo-like instrument.

The sonic precursor to centuries of influential music is a little-known two-page musical score tucked into a travel narrative penned in 1707 by an English explorer.

This aged sheet music is one of the earliest known records of African diasporic music, a genre that would give rise to all manner of popular music generations later.

A new digital project created by three Duke scholars shines a spotlight on this document and investigates the early history of one of the world’s greatest cultural movements. Called “Musical Passage,” the interactive website is a clickable exploration of this sheet music designed to be read, viewed and heard. It was created by Mary Caton Lingold, a doctoral candidate in English; Laurent Dubois, a professor of Romance studies and history; and David K. Garner, a composer with a Ph.D from Duke who will be an assistant professor of music at the University of South Carolina starting this fall.

The project introduces Hans Sloane, an Englishman whose 1707 book tells the story of his trip to Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean. The sheet music was tucked within it; Here, Lingold discusses the project with Duke Today.

Your project shines a light on what is believed to be the earliest example of notation representing African music in the Americas, mentioned almost as an afterthought in a book penned by a British traveler to Jamaica. What is known, and what is unknown, about this music?

In a descriptive passage that precedes the musical notation, Hans Sloane explains that he sent a man named “Mr. Baptiste” to a festival where many African musicians were performing to “take the words they sung and set them to Musick.” Sloane wanted essentially a “recording” of the music to take home with him. In his day, that meant transcribing the sounds into notation. The pieces that came from Mr. Baptiste’s hand are very complex, detailed, and different from one another. This suggests that he was attentive to what he heard and at the very least attempted to portray it with care. Put another way, the music isn’t simply a quick, unstudied, over-generalized representation; the information provided is significant.

There is a lot that remains very mysterious about the music. For one thing, it isn’t very accurate. It can’t be. Western musical notation was designed by and for performers in specific traditions with specific needs. The discrete little notes each corresponding to a given pitch, for instance: that’s a product of a certain kind of musical aesthetic that values well-articulated, distinct pitches. There are a lot of musical traditions in the world that feature bended notes and microtones that don’t fit well in Western notation. So that is all to say that when Mr. Baptiste took what he heard being played live and wrote it down a tremendous amount of detail was lost. And not only that, he was just one person with an individual set of ears, trained in a specific way – definitely in the European tradition, so he may not have been able to hear all the complexity of the music.

So who was this Mr. Baptiste?

We know very little about him except for the fact that Sloane describes him as the ‘best musician there.’ We think that he was probably born in the colonies. His French surname suggests that he may have been from a nearby colony like Saint Domingue (later Haiti), where some professional musicians were free people of color (descendants of Africans) schooled in European musical styles. A background like that would help to explain Baptiste’s facility with both music composition and vernacular Afro-Jamaican traditions.

He was clearly very skilled at writing music because the several pieces here are each very different from one another, unusual, and complex.

banjo

How much (or little) does the world know about early African music compared, for example, to classical music that originated in Europe at roughly the same time period?

Generally speaking, very little is known about the history of early African and African-diasporic music compared with European classical music. We know all about famous composers like Mozart – his influences, his travels, his scandals and legacy – but we know hardly anything about the hundreds of thousands of musicians who played vernacular styles --- you know, “back porch music” in the same era. Historians of music generally study traditions that were written down, not those that were performed in predominately oral traditions.  But if we keep with the Mozart example, we know that he was and is a tremendously influential artist who impacted generations of performers. Compared with enslaved African musicians, his legacy is just a tiny drop in a bucket. [Yet,] His legacy is just a tiny drop in a bucket compared to the impact of enslaved African musicians.

Despite being forced to migrate and to survive under the most brutal circumstances, these performers and their descendants revolutionized global music. You’d be hard pressed to name a living genre of music that enslaved musicians didn’t help to create or transform. Jazz, country, rock, blues, reggae and the list goes on. Turn on the radio and you are hearing these musicians’ story. But we don’t know a lot about their early music because it was not preserved in conventional ways. And that is why a little artifact like this is so important, because it helps us to know more about what their performances may have sounded like.

Mary Caton Lingold
Mary Caton Lingold

What does this digital project offer that a more traditional scholarly explanation — like a journal article or book on the topic — could not?

For one thing it is designed for a much broader audience. We hope that musicians and people interested in the history and culture of Africans in the Americas will find this website insightful. But more than anything, it’s different because it includes sound. In the website, we want to showcase this fascinating document and give it a proper home – and a beautiful one, where it can be appreciated widely, and hopefully someday, absorbed into a richer understanding of American musical history, one that privileges the contributions of enslaved Africans and their descendants.

We also hope that giving this material a life on the web will make it possible for people to speak back to us – to give us feedback and to send their interpretations of the music. We do not offer the musical interpretations here – so beautifully created by David Garner – as the end of the road or a definitive take, but rather an invitation to others to join us in exploring this rich and challenging music.

When you try to perform it yourself you quickly realize the information that’s missing, how perplexing it is to play, but also all that is there and these wonderfully strange and haunting melodies. We took all that we know, collectively, about musical life in slave societies in this part of the colonial Americas and tried to make some sense of the music, but there are many other interpretations to be had. And maybe even some new musical ideas that will emerge from other people’s encounter with the pieces.