The sound world of slaves

IMG_0123It was disturbing to discover that the slave cabins at the McLeod Plantation in Charleston now look so picturesque. Painted white, nestled amongst the shade of South Carolina’s moss-laden Live Oak trees and the odd magnolia bush, they’re little havens of quiet – or, at least they would be, were it not for the nearby road and the noisy resurfacing underway the day Matt and I visited to record. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they would have been awful places. Even now, when we stepped inside, there was no comfort or luxury to be found: just bare, thin, wooden walls and floor, and a small fireplace. Back then, they would have been filled with people, but not much else. Accounts from the time speak of the slaves having only ‘a mat to lie on, a Pot of Earth to boil their Victuals in’, and a hollowed out calabash or two to use ‘for Cups and Spoons’. Each morning the slaves living in these cabins would be summoned to work in the fields by a bell. Matt and I spotted the bell still nestling high on the branch of a nearby tree, though, of course, it’s not been rung for more than 150 years.

The slaves of Charleston had little control over their lives. But occasionally they managed to create sounds of their own – ones capable of striking fear into their white owners. In 1739, just a few miles from the McLeod Plantation, at Stono River, a group of slaves rose up in revolt and marched along the Pon Pon Road beating a drum. They probably drew on skills learned back in West Africa, and maintained through occasional, informal musical performances at the plantation. Whether military in origin or not, these drumbeats struck the slaveholders as ominous. Perhaps they were a form of secret signalling – ‘talking’ drums. At the very least, they seemed to be a useful means of calling fellow slaves to arms. Which is why, after the uprising at Stono River was brutally crushed, all the slaves in South Carolina were banned from using drums. It’s one reason why a central feature of African-American music-making ever since has been the use of fiddle-sticks and bare hands to beat out rhythms.IMG_3852

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