February 3rd - Music from Saramaka: A Dynamic Afro-American Tradition

The Saamaka people (their preferred spelling of the name) are the largest of six distinct groups of Maroon people in the Republic of Suriname, all of whom are descended from West and Central African slaves who escaped from bondage in the 17th and 18th centuries and formed communities in the dense rainforest. Winning their freedom from Dutch colonial governors in the 1762, the Saamaka developed an amazing culture; more recently, they won a judgement from the Inter-American Court for Human Rights that affirmed the land rights of indigenous peoples worldwide.

I wanted to listen to their music during Black History Month not because of a perceived pan-African connection but because maroon communities existed and continue to exist as living evidence of resistance to slavery and the ability of enslaved people. By necessity, the maroon communities that sprung up throughout South and North America were in places that were unsettled and difficult to get to - and here escaped slaves, working together despite cultural and language barriers, not only survived but built permanent communities that existed in opposition to the colonial white supremacist settlements around them. They were the freest place for miles.

I've been remiss lately in actually talking about individual tracks rather than what music means to me, so I wanted to write about the amazing first track, Matjàu Bai: Tree-Felling Song. The first thing that comes to mind with this song - and a lot of the Saamaka lyrical music - is how damn fast it is. Words and musical flourishes rush by - the melody leaps all over the place in every verse. The liner notes mention that the Saamakan language itself is tonal, and I wonder if that partially explains the leaps and flourishes. 

Additionally, the liner notes contain an amazing explanation of the song, as well as an extremely startling description of where and when it would be sung:

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Yes - this extremely fast, intricate, Bone Thugs-style song is meant to be sung in a tree as you cut the tree down. I could not hope to sing something that complex while standing completely still.

The rest of the album is similarly great - I'm especially fond of all of the lyrical songs, which have the same twisting style of melody. According to the liner notes these seketi songs are like broadside ballads - recounting the issues of the day, except the issues can also include personal and romantic quarrels that the singer might be having with other people at the moment. The lyrics are incredible and also, in some cases, extremely funny.

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Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways