Early Black Musicians, Composers, and Music Scholars (505-1505 CE)

While musing about how exclusion of Blacks is built into music academia as a colonial driven knowledge system, I (as usual) posted those thoughts to a twitter thread

It was obviously not my first. Here’s another one about Anti-Blackness being a feature of Western Music Theory. I decided to make a list of Black Musicians, Composers, and Music Scholars to have a convenient page to link to when I wanted to talk about early Black music, but also to highlight a couple of things.

The first is that I regularly come across these Black musical figures since two of my research projects, the Arabic Music Theory Bibliography and Global Music Notation Systems, deal with music ecosystems that haven’t systematically excluded and erased them from their histories and canons.

The second is that even well-meaning music academics who are concerned with allyship and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) haven’t exactly come to terms with how siloed and segregated knowledge systems are, even while they might already be working cross-disciplinarily in their DEI efforts.

The two Twitter threads (and many of my others) highlight these two things.

While these figures below barely exhaust all the Black Musicians, Composers, and Scholars I’ve come across I hope that it will give some food for thought. Those of us who work in Western and colonialized academic music/sound studies must understand how our fields and knowledge systems have helped to maintain the narratives of exclusion and white supremacy because those are the foundation on which they were built.

I will continue to add figures as I come across them and will go back over my notes of others that I’ve not had the chance to explore more fully. As this list gets more fleshed out I’ll also start building in notes and a reference/bibliography section for those interested in further research. I’ll likely also include a separate paragraph on published works–even those which are no longer extant, which is more often the case than not, sadly.

LAST UPDATED 4/2/2021



An artist rendering of Saint Yared while chanting Zema accompanied by sistrum, tau-cross staff. The three main zema chants of Ge’ez, Izil, and Araray which are represented by three birds. Digua, a book of chant, atronse (book holder), a drum, and a processional cross are also seen here.
Source: Methafe Diggua Zeqidus Yared. Addis Ababa: Tensae Printing Press, 1996.

Saint Yared (505-571 CE); b. Axum, Ethiopia

Ge’ez: ቅዱስ ያሬድ; Also: Qidus Yared, K’idusi Yarēdi, St. Jared

Considered the father of Ethiopian music and chant (Zema), six of the hymnals still in use in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Churches are attributed to Saint Yared, making him the first published Black composer. Saint Yared also created a mensural and music notation system for the hymnals which became the basis for the 14th century Melekket notation still in use by the Orthodox Tewahedo Churches for Zema chant. This paralleled similar co-evolved notations like the 6th century Khaz notation for the Armenian Apostolic Church and 6th Ekphonetic notations for Byzantine and Syriac Chant in Greek Orthodox and Nestorian Syriac Churches.

Works

  • Dəggwā (Ge’ez: ድጓ)
  • s̩oma Dəggwā (Ge’ez: ጾመድጓ)
  • zəmmāre (Ge’ez:ዛማሬ)
  • mawāšə‘ət (Ge’ez: መዋሥእት)
  • mə’ərāf (Ge’ez: ምዔራፍ)


Bilal ibn Rabah (-18 AH|580-640 CE); b. Mecca

Arabic: بِلَال ٱبْن رَبَاح‎; Also: Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ, Bilali Boum Hamama, Bilali Bounam, Bilali Bounama, Bilali ibn Hamama

Bilal ibn Rabah was an aṣ-ṣaḥābah (companion of the prophet) whose mother, Hamamah, was said to be a former Abyssinian princess. He was known for his clear and deep melodic voice which he would use for the adhān (call to prayer) which he is said to have created. The 2015 animated feature, “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero,” was based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah. In many Bambara and Mandinka traditions, Bilal ibn Rabah (see variant names above) is listed in traditional genealogies or descent lists of the griots/bards.


Mabed (d. c. late 1st cent. AH|early 8th cent. CE); b. Medina d. Damascus

Arabic: ; Also: Maabed ibn Wahb, Màbed, Màbed ibn Ouhab, Mabed, Mabed ibn Ouhab, Mabed ibn Ouahb, Ma’bed, Ma’bed ibn Ouahb

Biracial singer and composer most well known for his lahns (melodies) and who is usually ranked within the “top five” singers of pre-Abbasid era. Composer René Lenormand (1846–1932) composed a piece, Le Lahn de Mabed, Op. 31 (1892), for violin and orchestra which is likely based on a Lahn in Christianowitsch’s Esquisse historique de la musique arabe… (1863) attributed to Màbed (pg. 20). One of the few composers where we have a description of his composition process.


Ibn Misjah (c. 43-97 AH|661-715 CE); b. Mecca

Arabic: ; Also: Abū ʿUthmān Saʿīd Ibn Misjaḥ

Ibn Misjah is referred to as the first and greatest Arabic Musician of the Ummayad Caliphate. He is also often referred to as the “Father of Arabic Music.” Said to have traveled widely learning the song repertory of other cultures such as Byzantine, Syrian, and Persian with the purpose of selecting features of musical styles which were compatible with Arabic Music and discarding the rest. Most of these musical innovations, as well as others developed by him, came into common usage for a time. Ibn Misjaḥ is described by Al-Isfahani as being half-African which matches descriptions of him being dark-skinned or black.


Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi (162-224 AH|779-839 CE); b. Baghdad

Arabic: إبراهيم بن المهدي; Also: Ibrahim al-Mahdi, Ibrahim bin Muhammad al-Mahdī, Ibrāhīm ibn alMahdī, al-Mubarak, al-Tinnan

Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi was a prince, musician, composer, and poet whose mother was a Black slave named Shikla or Shakla. Remembered as a gifted musician with a huge vocal range, he sang in the ‘Persian style’ which was fashionable during his time and was said to have created the ‘modern’ mode of Arabic music. He is the half brother of Ulayya bint al-Mahdi who was known for her music and poetry. He reigned from 817-819 during the Great Abassid Civil War but was forced to abdicate and spent the rest of his life as a musician and poet.


Ziryab (172-242 AH|789-859 CE); b. Baghdad. fl. Córdoba

Arabic: أبو الحسن علي ابن نافع, زریاب; Also: Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali Ibn Nafi’, Zaryab, Zeryab

‘Ali Ibn Nafi’ was said to have been given his nickname, Ziryab (Persian for Blackbird) due to his extremely dark complexion, clarity of his voice, and the “sweetness of his character.” Ziryab made improvements to the oud and oud technique and was said to know 10,000 songs, many of which were his own compositions. His performance style is said to have influenced the Andalusī nūbah which would eventually spread throughout the Magreb as the Andalusian Classical multi-movement “suite” form comparable to Egyptian waṣlah and the Ottoman fasıl.


Al-Jahiz (159-232 AH|776-869 CE); b. Basra, Iraq

Arabic: أبو عثمان عمرو بن بحر الكناني البصري‎; Also: Abū ʿUthman ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī al-Baṣrī, الجاحظ

Al-Jahiz was a prolific writer and polymath. His Kitāb al-Ḥayawān (Book on Animals) in seven volumes is probably his most famous work and includes several sections on topics that are now considered part of biomusicology and evolution. He’s written a number of works directly related to music or which give a picture of musicians and performers. For example, his Al-Mughannīyīn (The Singers) and Risala al-Qiyān (Epistle on the Singing Girls) are self explanatory but his Kitāb Mufākharat al-Jawāri wa l’ghilmān (The Dialogue between the Concubines and the Catamites) show us the Mukhannathūn, men or women of ambiguous gender, who were often performing musicians.

Works

  • Al-Mughannīyīn (The Singers)
  • Kitāb al-Ḥayawān (Book on Animals) discussions of music/biomusicology
  • Kitāb Mufākharat al-Jawāri wa l’ghilmān (The Dialogue between the Concubines and the Catamites)
  • Risala al-Qiyān (Epistle on the Singing Girls)

Mahbubah (fl. 9th cent. CE); fl. Baghdad

Arabic: ; Also: Maḥbūbah

Mahbubah was a Qiyān, one of singing women slaves that existed as a pre-Islamic institution in the Arab world and continued into the Abbassid Caliphate and mirrored in the Ottoman Harem. She was known for her quick whit and ability to improvise verses of poetry. Given to the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (206-247 AH|822-861 CE) with 400 other qayna by ibn Tahir she was considered, according to the Arab historian Ibn al-Sāʿī’ (d. 674 AH/1276 CE), the foremost poet and singer of her generation.


Sarirah al-Ra’iqiyyah (d. 348 AH|959 CE); b. ? fl. Baghdad

Arabic: ; Also: “Secret,” Slave of Ibn Rāʾiq, Sarīrah al-Rāʾiqiyyah

Sarirah was a Qiyān, one of the singing women slaves that existed as a pre-Islamic institution in the Arab world and continued into the Abbassid Caliphate and mirrored in the Ottoman Harem. She was freed in 942 upon the assassination of master in 942. Islamic law gives freedom to umm walad (a female slave who bears her master’s child) if the master dies. The institution of the Qiyān is complex and very few of the numerous Arabic books about them are extant. In a biography of women in the court of Baghdad, the Arab historian Ibn al-Sāʿī’ (d. 674 AH/1276 CE) states that Thābit ibn Sinān describes her as dark-skinned, of mixed parentage, and that she sang beautifully.


Jankuma Duga (c. mid 12th c.- early 13th c. CE); b.

Malinké/Mandinka/Fulani: ; Also: Jakuma Duga, Gnankouman Doua, Nyamkuma Dookha, Jankuma Doka, Doka the Cat, Kuyatelu mama

Jankuma Duga is a griot (jeliw or djeli) in the Sundiata Epic. Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Malian Empire, has been dated to the first half of the thirteenth-century CE (died 1255). Jankuma Duga, in some versions of the epic, is stated to be the griot of Sundiata and sometimes the griot of Sundiata himself. Jankuma Duga is also considered one of the first-singers, namely one of the (at least three) griots who sang the Epic of Sundiata during his lifetime and are considered the founders of the griot tradition.


Tumu Manian (c. mid 12th c. – early 13th c. CE); b.

Malinké/Mandinka/Fulani: ; Also:  Kuyate matriarch, Kuyatelu bemba, Tumu Maniye, Tumuma Ninyan, Tuntun Manian

Tumu Manian is one of at least three three griots who sang the Sundiata Epic while Sundiata was alive. Kuyatelu bemba means “Kuyate ancestress.”


Kalanjan Sangoyi (c. early 13th c. CE); b.

Malinké/Mandinka/Fulani: ; Also: Jabatelu mama

Kalanjan Sangoyi is one of at least three three griots who sang the Sundiata Epic while Sundiata was alive. Jabatelu mama means “Jabate ancestor.”


Balla Fasseke (c. early 13th c. CE); b.

Malinké/Mandinka/Fulani: ; Also: Bala Fassali Kuyate, Bala Fasseke Kuyate. Bala Faaseega Kuyate, Balla Fassali Kuyate, Balla Faseke Kwate, Balla Fasséké

In some versions of the Sundiata Epic, Balla Fasséké is the son of Jankuma Duga and is offered to Sundiata as his griot by his father. As with Jankuma Duga, Balla Fasséké has different roles/statuses depending on which version of the epic is considered. Some scholars believe Balla Fasseke and Jankuma Duga are the same figure rather than son/father.


Dugha (fl. mid 14th c. CE); b.

Malinké/Mandinka/Fulani: ; Also: Dugha the interpretor, Duga

Dugha is the griot in the court of Mansa Suleyman Keita (ruled 1341-1360) in the Mali Empire. Dugha is described on several occasions in The Riḥla (A Masterpiece to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling) of Ibn Battuta which was written after he returned home to Morocco in 1354. Ibn Battuta had visited the Mali court in 1352-1353 and describes Dugha entertaining Mansa Suleyman every Friday with song while playing the balafon accompanied by singing slave girls.


Abba Giyorgis (c. 1365-1425 CE); fl. Abyssinia (Ethiopia)

Ge’ez: ; Also: Giyorgis Abā, Giyorgis of Gesecha, Giyorgis of Gascha, Giyorgis of Selga, Aba Giyorgis Zegasicha, Abba Giyorgis of Gascha

Ethiopian monk who was one of the important writers of Ge’ez literature in the 15th century. Composed a number of hymns and compiled them into his own hymnal which was in competition with a number of others at the time. Zara Yaqob’s hymnal became the most influential and widely used one. His other writings were influential in calendars and time keeping and he argued for Sabbath to take place on Sunday.

Works

  • Book of Hymns

Abba Sabra (fl. c. 1450); b.

Ge’ez: ; Also: ‘Abba Sabrā, ‘Abba Sebrā, ‘Abba Ṣabrā, ‘Abba Ṣebrā,

Abba Sabra was an Ethiopian Orthodox Monk who joined the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) community. Local Beta Israel oral traditions attribute their chant and hymn traditions to Abba Sabra rather than Saint Yared. He was one of the founders of Beta Israel monasticism with his disciple Abba Sagga who was the son of Zara Yaqob who Abba Sabra also taught/tutored.


Zara Yaqob (1399-1468 CE); b. Telq, Fatajar province

Ge’ez: ዘርአ ያዕቆብ; Also: Zar’ā Yāʿiqōb, Zärʾa Yaʿəqob, Zar’a Ya`qob, Zera Yacob

Zara Yaqob was emperor of Ethiopia from 1434 till his death in 1468. He’s published several books including three important theological ones and an hymnal, ʾƎgziʾabḥer Nägśä (God Reigns). As he employed a royal scriptorium to copy royal texts it is possible that the scriptorium and court clerics may have had a significant hand in composing the texts attributed to him.

Works

  • ʾƎgziʾabḥer Nägśä


Featured Image: Page 22 of Libro de los juegos showing Moors playing chess accompanied by a harp player and attendants. Commissioned by Alfonso X (1221-1284), the King of Castile (Spain). First encyclopedia of games in European literature and the original manuscript is kept in the Library of Philip II (d. 1598) in the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial. It contains 98 pages and over 150 miniatures and was completed in 1283. <<https://www.wga.hu/html_m/zgothic/miniatur/1251-300/4other/05_1253.html>>

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REFERENCES