When I say HEY, you say HA! – HEY! — HA! — HEY! — HA! This command might evoke thoughts of 90s Hip-Hop hype men, wedding DJs, or sports stadium jumbotrons, but it also happens to be an example of a definitive Black Music trope; Call & Response. At its simplest, Call & Response is a dialogue between two distinct musical phrases. We can imagine the case above being between the shout of a leading voice and a group’s answer, but Call & Response happens in a variety of ways. It could be between a leading soloist and an answering ensemble, the instrumental version of the shouted version above. It could be an impassioned dialogue between an instrumentalist singing a line and their instrument “responding” to them as a different character. On the other end of the spectrum, it could be as simple as the question and answer of different short phrases on a single instrument. Yet it is always characterized by this same conversational and recurring back and forth between two musical lines.
Call & Response has its earliest roots in the participatory music rituals of sub-Saharan Africa, where music played a role in nearly every major social function, from religious ceremonies to civic gatherings. The straightforward but impactful technique made its way across the Atlantic through the slave trade, and was prominently used in the earliest musical forms of the Black diaspora, from work songs, to spirituals, gospel, and blues. While a question and answer figuration is a primary device of musical style in general, the form and prominence it takes in the Black Music tradition is unique, and reflective of unique aspects of the Black experience.
Were we only to discuss a single trope of Black Music that most fully encapsulates its aesthetics, Call & Response would be the one. Its ubiquity reflects an essential aspect of the tradition; Black Music is a collective experience, not a fixed object – and should be appreciated as such. Take one of the most famous Jazz recordings – the opening bars of which, it turns out, are a great example of Call & Response in action – “So What” by Miles Davis. While one can speak ad infinitum about the innovative genius of Miles as a composer, what comes to mind for most when hearing the title ‘So What’ is what he and his cohort of fellow legends did on that given day in the studio. It’s about the moment. The Black Music tradition is event-based, focused on process and performance. Music in constant motion. While the 1959 version of ‘So What’ which opens Kind of Blue is the most iconic snapshot of that tune in flux, even another recording of the same ensemble performing it will be totally different. That’s saying nothing of the countless performances from other players and groups in entirely different situations and eras. So what is ‘So What’? Like all great works of Black Music, it’s a point of departure.
Black Music exists solely in the moment of performance. The music – whether written down or not – is a vehicle for the individual expression of the performer leading a collective experience, one in which the audience aren’t solely bystanders, but active participants. The audience doesn’t sit quietly waiting to applaud at the end of a multi-movement work, but registers their approval (or disapproval) immediately and vocally. The “Yes Lawd!” interjected during a gospel performance, the hollers of excitement that accompany a big drop during a techno party, or the boos at a weak number on ‘Showtime at the Apollo’ are not merely incidental, but in fact integral parts of the Black Music experience. The performers express themselves with their interpretation of the music, and respond to one another’s musical whims. The audience responds in real time, thereby becoming a part of the music making process.
On a compositional level, Call & Response can take the form of either a representation of this interaction between different voices on a single instrument - like the opening of ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix - or a direct use of the interaction itself, as in ‘Can I Kick it’ by A Tribe Called Quest. Some pieces, like this famous recording of ‘Salt Peanuts’ by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie utilize both approaches. In a performance context, it’s a way for a performer to include the audience in the creative process, and make a deeper connection with their fellow players. It’s a technique that allows the music to refer back to itself and the performance setting, reinforcing the recursive, self-referencing nature of Black Music.
Call & Response therefore represents the aspects of Black Music that most clearly distinguish it as a musical tradition worthy of individual study, one based on its own value system and offering unique experiences wherever its influence is felt. The participatory nature of Black music-making, so deeply rooted in the collective musical forms of African religion and ritual, endured as a fundamental feature of the musical permutations as they spread and evolved in the Americas.
The participatory nature of both music and performance is a key difference between Black Music and for example, European classical music, and perhaps the primary reason that Black Music – at least since the advent of recording – came to soundtrack modern life. Classical music reflects the pre-modern European culture where it developed, centered on hierarchically organized religions and class systems. The music, much like the ritual context from which it emerged, is transmitted through scripture, and devotion to it judged by adherence to an original text. Bach’s works are mainly analyzed at the level of the score, away from the church-like ritual of their being performed. By contrast, there’s a certain ephemeral quality to the Black Music experience. Transcribing the notes doesn’t capture the whole of the music – you just have to be there. But from the moment you are, you’re a part of it.
This “breaking the fourth wall” quality of Black Music accounts for the outsized role that Call & Response plays in the canon. It’s not a matter of the technique having being invented by any given person, but its omnipresent, distinguishing role in the musical aesthetic of a given people and its descendants. The trope can be heard in a range of music as far reaching as the improvisation based Coro-Pregón (choir and caller) sections of salsa and merengue to the opening bars of The Who’s “My Generation”. From DJ Kool’s party rocking “Let Me Clear My Throat” to the barebones alternating patterns of Robert Hood’s “Needs and Wants”. Wherever it shows up, you can be sure that you’ve found an entry point into the lineage of Black Music, and that you’re invited to join the party.
This Spotify playlist, featuring the music mentioned above along with many other examples of Call & Response, is a great place to start.