Roots of American music

Black History Month concert celebrates African-American composers


Spirituals. Ragtime. Blues. Rhythm & Blues. Jazz. American music is defined by these original genres created by the African-American community. In celebration of Black History Month, tenor Salman Lee and musicologist/pianist Claire Detels team up for their second annual concert honoring “Great Music of African-American Composers.”

The “Great Music of African-American Composers” concert will be presented Sunday (Feb. 11), 3 p.m., at St. James Episcopal Church, 208 Camino Santiago.

Salman Lee is a lyric tenor. He grew up singing Muslim chants and trained in classical singing at the Tanglewood Institute and Westminster Choir College. Lee enjoys singing a wide range of styles including jazz, folk, popular and classical music. He recently was away from Taos for six months and is happy to be back home.

“I feel very supported in this town not only as a person but as a musician,” Lee commented. He said Detels has been “my rock since I’ve come back to performing in a more classical setting.”

“She’s been super, super supportive,” said Lee. “I love working with Claire and she’s very open to new ideas.”

Musicologist and pianist Claire Detels is a Professor Emerita from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. As a professor, she specialized in opera and African-American composers and genres. Detels is the assistant director and pianist of the Taos Community Chorus and founding member and current president of PianoTaos,

The program of “Great Music of African-American Composers” includes Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s arrangement of the traditional spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” William Grant Still’s “Three Visions,” Margaret Bonds’ “Hold On” and “I Got a Home in that Rock.” Also, included are Scott Joplin’s “Weeping Willow,” Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” and Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”

Detels noted that when she was a professor she frequently gave a lecture-recital called “Roots in the Delta.”

“The roots of so many of these genres developed by African-Americans influenced American music and from there world music. They are spirituals, blues, ragtime, jazz and rhythm & blues. All of them have their roots in this Delta area,” Detels explained.

As one example, Detels spoke about the origin of the American blues.

“Blues appeared to have developed in the 1890s at the end of Reconstruction and … all of the horror of Jim Crow,” said Detels. “This new style of folk song was first noticed by W.C. Handy who later became an important publisher in New York City. There was this style of folk song he’d never heard before. He heard it at a railroad station by a gang of workers. What he noticed about it was that instead of the standard four phrases that most songs have, this was based on three phrases, and there was a harmonic structure that was very regular, which was not the typical song structure. And, there were these harmonies that got to be known as blues harmonies, where both the major third of the scale and the minor third of the scale were used back and forth. And, the same thing for the seventh note of the scale. It could be flat, that is low, or high. In these melodies, you heard both of those things present, and it really made them stand out.

“Now, we don’t know how or why this developed, but one theory is that the fusion of pentatonic scale with European major and minor scales led to this unique feature,” Detels said. “It was very distinctive. Ever since, that’s become a key element of American popular music.

Detels explained that the music that Africans brought over from Africa was pentatonic – based on a five-note scale.

“Pentatonic scales are common in other world cultures as well, but not primarily in European-based music. So that really stood out. The rhythm of African music also stood out as something different from white European traditions.”

Asked why he feels it is important to have a concert celebrating African-American composers for Black History Month, Salman Lee responded, “Black people have given so much to society, particularly American society. It’s too important to pass over.”

Tickets are $15; $10 for veterans, students and seniors; and free for children age 12 and under. For more information, call (575) 779-9889.