The fear of music and dance is deeply rooted in the dominant cultures of Western societies. Since Antiquity, religious and political authorities have been actively concerned with regulating and repressing specific sounds and bodily movements performed in social gatherings. A distinct folk culture characterized by song, dance, and ritual festivities developed among peasants during the Middle Ages, in opposition to official culture. With the rise of capitalism and the imperialist conquest of the New World, the repression of music, dancing, sexuality, and ritualized ecstasy intensified. The accumulation of capital and expansion of empire demanded individualized, docile bodies instilled with a work ethic which segmented time into quantifiable units of exchange value. Nevertheless, this imperial project of cultural domination was only partly successful, as key elements of music, dance, and folk culture did manage to survive in the cultures of enslaved and exploited people. These cultural elements took on subversive qualities as they were subject to disciplinary power, so that music and dance developed into not simply means of survival but also weapons of resistance against empire. Among Europeans and their white American descendants, the repression of bodies, sexualities, and ecstatic rituals deepened a widespread sense of alienation, which some sought to remedy through their romantic attachment to various cultures of non-European people, especially African-Americans and their music. Typically, white Americans and Europeans have exaggerated and projected onto black people and “exotic” cultures the very qualities that Western civilization aggressively suppressed: leisureliness and spontaneity, proximity to nature, sexual permissiveness, spiritual consciousness and bodily presence, simple requirements for happiness, etc.
Groups of people all over the world have established rituals that generate what Emile Durkheim called collective effervescence: social gatherings which create altered states of consciousness and intense physical effects among individuals who share beliefs and become engulfed in group activity. In numerous cultures around the world, these ecstatic rites have been integrated into festive celebrations that involve music and dance, food and drink, and the decoration of faces and bodies through masks and dress. These festivals frequently inverted the normal hierarchy of the social order, satirizing the powerful while creating a blissful sense of love and solidarity among the participants. Festivals generally presented a unique moment when the usual inhibitions about sex and bodily functions could be set aside and subverted through humor. The ancient Greeks regularly practiced ecstatic rites, creating the deity of Dionysus to represent the intoxicating pleasure which arose in festivals of music, dance, and collective worship. As Nietzsche argued in The Birth of Tragedy, Greek drama was created through a contentious exchange between Dionysian elements—personified by the singing of a Greek chorus—and the imperatives of order, rationality, and classification personified by Apollo.
The spirit of collective ecstasy and intoxication embodied by Dionysus was met with unease, ambivalence, and a demand for balance in ancient Greece. As inequality grew in Western societies, elites took concerted efforts to control or eliminate these sorts of communal assemblies involving music and dance. Under the Roman Empire, the Dionysian spirit was represented by Bacchus, and the value of collective joy was clearly secondary to that of military might, patriarchal authority, and rational domination. Max Weber examined the differences between the Greek and Roman empires with respect to their response to popular religious rituals which called for rhythmic music and unrestrained dancing. Weber asserted that the ecstatic rituals inspired by Dionysus could be tolerated in the comparatively egalitarian society of ancient Greece:
The Greeks, despite all the misgivings of the urban patriciate in regard to the Dionysiac cult of intoxication, set a positive value upon ecstasy, both the acute orgiastic types of divine intoxication and the milder form of euphoria induced primarily by rhythm and music, as engendering an awareness of the uniquely divine.
By contrast, according to Weber, Roman elites with greater power over people and territory repressed these types of ecstatic rituals containing music and dancing:
In Rome the nobles, who constituted a rational nobility of office of increasing range, and who possessed whole cities and provinces as client holdings of single families, completely rejected ecstasy, like the dance, as utterly unseemly and unworthy of a nobleman’s sense of honor…Most Romans regarded dancing and music as unseemly, and so Rome remained absolutely uncreative in these arts.
It was in the later centuries of the Middle Ages that the Catholic Church expunged dancing and ecstatic behavior from its services. Festivals were confined to times and places outside of the Church, thus erecting a boundary between religious worship and collective celebration, a sort of division that did not exist in African cultures. Church authorities were especially threatened by dancing among women, as Barbara Ehrenreich explained: “[T]he activity that most vexed Church leaders, or at least the more puritanical among them, was dancing. Just as in ancient times, the perpetrators were often female—at least it was women’s dancing that brought down some of the angriest condemnations.” It was also during the Middle Ages that the Church banned the tritone sound of the augmented fourth and diminished fifth notes, an interval thereafter known as Diabolus in Musica, the Devil in music. The tritone is a musical interval composed of three whole tones, creating a sense of tension and dissonance, and it has since become associated with the sound of evil in Western music. Richard Wagner used the augmented forth and the diminished fifth during some of the darker moments in his operas, and the tritone would eventually become a staple of soundtracks for horror movies. Blues guitarists frequently utilized augmented fourths and diminished fifths, and since the late 1960s and early 1970s the tritone has been the primary musical element in heavy metal and its various subgenres.
As the Church created a division between secular and sacred forms of celebration, the control over popular festivals came into the hands of the common people and developed in opposition to official culture. While carnival grew into a special time of celebration in the days before Lent, similar holidays were dispersed throughout the calendar, and their spirit of festivity became the central element of folk culture. During these festivals, people temporarily inverted the dominant social hierarchy and norms surrounding the body. Whereas the official ceremonies of the powerful were serious events which reproduced social hierarchy, festivals drew from the humor of clowns and fools to subvert the symbols of rank and order. The festive inversion of social hierarchy was symbolically linked to an inversion of the human body, as everything associated with the upper spheres of life, from the higher classes to the lofty ideals of the mind, was degraded in these celebrations of the lower classes and the lower half of the body. The distortion and exaggeration of bodies in folk culture, exemplified by the writings of Rabelais, was identified as a form of “grotesque realism” by Bakhtin: “The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of the earth and body in their indissoluble unity.” Grotesque realism brought bodies together in a unified whole that was grounded in nature, where egoistic individuals were not separate from one another or their relationship to nature. The carnival atmosphere embodied a cyclical conception of time where birth and death, growth and decay, and renewal and destruction were indivisible processes.
The “primitive accumulation” of capital demolished the traditional social relations of the peasantry and demanded wage laborers with more self-disciplined bodies and a regimented, quantified sense of time. The unruly and emancipating practices of carnival that developed during the Middle Ages were forcefully repressed, though the disciplinary authorities of capital, the state, and the Church have never succeeded in completely destroying them. As Stallybrass and White noted, “from the 17th to the 20th century…there were literally thousands of acts of legislation introduced which attempted to eliminate carnival and popular festivity from European life.” Capital’s exploitation of labor depended on precise measurements of time that could be converted into money and profit, thus instituting a calculable temporality that was odds with festive celebrations of natural, cyclical time. The Protestant work ethic demanded that individuals use their time to maximize value and defer gratification in the present for the sake of future material gain; leisure and laziness became linked with temptation and sin. Meanwhile, bodies were also remade into instruments of production through techniques of discipline and surveillance, as capitalists and their agents of power attempted to eradicate the perceived frivolity and wantonness of the working class. The transformation of bodies into self-disciplined, individualized units of productivity was as fundamental to capitalism as its equation of time with money. As Foucault wrote in Discipline and Punish, “In fact, the two processes—the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital cannot be separated.”
During the centuries of colonialism and slavery, European authorities sought to repress and control communal celebrations involving music and dance wherever they encountered them, from Australia to Africa to the Americas. Although there were many local variations, indigenous cultures in various parts of the world shared common elements that were typically included in ecstatic rituals and celebrations: music and dance; an abundance of food and drink; masks, fancy dress, and artistic decoration of the body; theatrical performances of drama or satire; and a momentary subversion of the normal social order, often empowering and emboldening women. Colonial authorities, both religious and secular, aggressively sought to control and repress the ecstatic rituals of these indigenous cultures at roughly the same time and in basically the same ways that the carnivalesque cultures of the European peasantry were controlled and repressed. Imperial perceptions of and prejudices against the festivities of indigenous peoples and the lower classes became the Other of European civilization: signs of savagery, devil worship or demonic possession, and a childish inability to outgrow natural being. As the ideal of the bourgeois individual was being constructed, indigenous cultures and the lower classes figured as representations of irrational crowds which dissolved the ego into an uncontrollable mass. Above all, the upper classes and colonial powers lamented the supposed laziness and lack of self-discipline they perceived among indigenous peoples and the lower classes as they sought to remake them into valuable instruments of labor.
As European states established their colonies in the New World and began to import slaves from Africa, they quickly imposed restrictions on dancing, public assemblies, and the use of musical instruments. Laws prohibiting these activities were enacted starting in the seventeenth century by the French in Martinique and the British in Jamaica and Barbados. Nonetheless, these imperialist efforts to destroy the cultures of African slaves and indigenous people were never entirely successful. West African music, dance, and religion survived within the slave population in the West Indies to a much greater extent than on the mainland of North America, with the important exception of the city of New Orleans. On the Caribbean islands, slaves greatly outnumbered their masters by ratios ranging from 5:1 to 25: 1. European colonists in the Caribbean were mainly motivated by the enormous fortunes to be made from sugar, and therefore they were less invested in long-term control over the slave population outside the workplace. In the colonies established by the Catholic nations of France, Spain, and Portugal, West African religions endured in various forms of syncretism that blended with the symbols, deities, and rituals of Catholicism. Similarly, the affinities between West African and Spanish styles of percussive music enabled hybrids of Afro-Latin music to endure in different parts of the Caribbean as well as Central and South America.
The preservation of West African culture proved more difficult on the mainland of North America, where the ratio of slaves to masters was much smaller in comparison to the West Indies. As a result, West African musical practices and religious beliefs survived much more fully in the West Indies than in North America. Nevertheless, slaves sometimes engaged in open revolt, and when they did they used drums and other musical instruments to communicate and maintain solidarity. During the Stono Rebellion of 1739—one of the largest insurrections in the American colonies—an armed group of African slaves used drums to assemble and recruit other slaves as they made their way through South Carolina, killing slaveholders, militia, and other whites; in the end, 21 whites and 44 blacks were killed. The government’s official account described how slaves identified as “Angolan” assembled in the rebellion through drumming and celebrated their victories with dancing:
Several Negroes joyned them, they calling out Liberty, marched on with Colours displayed, and two Drums beating, pursuing all the white people they met with, and killing Man Woman and Child…They increased every minute by new Negroes coming to them, so that they were above Sixty, some say a hundred, on which they halted in a field, and set to dancing, Singing and beating Drums, to draw more Negroes to them, thinking they were now victorious over the whole Province, having marched ten miles & burnt all before them without opposition.
In response to the uprising, the colonial governments of South Carolina and Georgia passed laws which called for increased surveillance on weekends and holidays while classifying drums and other musical instruments as weapons which slaves were forbidden from owning. The legislation in South Carolina and Georgia used similar wording and was modeled after earlier laws passed by British colonies in the West Indies:
And as it is absolutely necessary to the safety of this province, that all due care be taken to restrain the wandering and meeting of negroes, and other slaves, at all times, and more especially on Saturday nights, Sundays, and other holydays, and their using and carrying mischievous and dangerous weapons, or using or keeping of drums, horns or other loud instruments, which may call together, or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs or intensions.
New Orleans represented an anomaly on the North American mainland because it maintained closer cultural connections with the Caribbean islands while developing into a city where West African music, religion, and culture had a lasting presence. Positioned at a conjunction between the Caribbean and the Mississippi River, New Orleans quickly emerged as a vital center of production and exchange (especially for sugar) after its founding by French colonists in 1718. New Orleans also earned its enduring reputation as a rogue city almost immediately: the earliest forms of travel writing and personal correspondence depicted it as an environment of social disorganization, self-indulgence, and sexual promiscuity. The Spanish empire took possession of New Orleans and the Louisiana territory following the Seven Years War in 1763, and the number of slaves imported into the city increased dramatically during these years of Spanish rule: the slave population increased from 5,600 in 1766 to nearly 25,000 in 1800. The city’s French and Spanish cultural influences distinguished it from the British colonies in North America, and there were significant exchanges between its black and white populations and those in the West Indies. The mixtures of people in New Orleans complicated the binary relations of racism in the rest of North America: substantial mixed-race populations were created by the intermingling of colonists and their African mistresses, and the French empire’s Code Noir allowed for the manumission of slaves, thus creating a sizeable number of free people of color.
Under both French and Spanish rule, slaves in New Orleans were relieved of their work on Sundays. North of the French Quarter just behind Rampart Street, hundreds of African slaves congregated every Sunday to trade goods, socialize, play music, dance, and practice their religion. It was in this vital space, originally called Place des Négres but later known as Congo Square, that African traditions of music, dance, and religion were able to survive and adapt to new conditions. Hundreds of African slaves would assemble on Sundays in a large circle, with musicians playing drums or banjo-like stringed instruments and dancers alternately stepping inside the circle. Congo Square also proved to be a crucial space for the survival of voodoo in America, a place where “gris-gris” could be exchanged and rites were practiced as integral parts of the music and dancing. Still, these gatherings were closely monitored by the slaveholding class and periodically aroused their fears of rebellion. Le Page Du Pratz, Louisiana’s earliest historian writing in 1774, was among those who feared the link between rhythm and revolt:
Nothing is to be more dreaded than to see the Negroes assemble together on Sundays, since, under the pretense of Calinda, or the dance, they sometimes get together to the number of three or four hundred. It is in these tumultuous meetings that they…plot their rebellion.
Racist paranoia surely magnified the anxieties of Du Pratz and other elites, but a deep connection between resistance and the hybrid cultures of the African diaspora had indeed developed throughout the New World by the end of the late 18th century. West African cultural practices survived in hybrid forms by selectively absorbing and concealing themselves in the religion of their masters, in varieties of song, dance, and ritual which developed into weapons of resistance under slavery. The pivotal event was the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803, carried out by African slaves in the French colony then known as Saint-Domingue. The initial insurrection of August 1791 began in Bois Caïman with a ceremony led by a High Priest of Vodou named Boukman, which included dancing, chanting, prayer, and animal sacrifice. As C.L.R. James described it in The Black Jacobins, “Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy. In spite of all prohibitions, the slaves travelled miles to sing and dance and practice the rites and talk; and now, since the revolution, to hear the political news and make their plans.” As a direct consequence of the Haitian revolution, there was a mass migration to New Orleans of thousands of white planters, free people of color, and the last legally imported African slaves. Zora Neale Hurston explained the lasting cultural impact of this immigration from Haiti to New Orleans:
Thousands of mulattoes and blacks, along with their ex-masters were driven out, and the nearest French refuge was the province of Louisiana. They brought with them their hoodoo rituals, modified of course by contact with white civilization and the Catholic church, but predominantly African. These island Negroes had retained far more of their West African background than the continental blacks.
Just as Western African religion endured in syncretic forms like Vodou, Santeria, and Candomblé, slaves also appropriated the festive celebrations of their European masters and periodically made them into occasions for revolt. The most famous and significant examples are the syncretized, creolized Carnival parades in Trinidad and Brazil, where music and dancing became integral parts of festivities in which white elites and the militia were openly mocked. Whites reacted to the black and indigenous appropriations of their festivals by moving their celebrations to strictly indoor locations, in masquerade balls and dinner parties. In the United States, the largest slave revolt in American history began with a plan to ambush the New Orleans planters during their preparations for Carnival and Mardis Gras. Starting on January 8, 1811 along the east bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, a party of slaves rose up against their masters and began burning crops and plantations as they marched, eventually growing into a group of hundreds. The revolutionary victory in Haiti had certainly been an inspiration for the slave population in New Orleans, and thousands of slaves and free people of color had recently come to the city from the West Indies as a result of the revolution. The 1811 revolt was suppressed before reaching New Orleans, however, and the decapitated heads of rebel slaves were prominently placed atop pikes on plantations and inside the city.