Gullah Music

In order to begin understanding Gullah music, it is important to think about the origins of Gullah culture. Though sources differ on the exact origin of the word Gullah, most agree that the African Americans called Gullah are descended from enslaved West Africans brought to the American Southeast for the purpose of cultivating rice. West Africa is a rice growing region, so slaves were sought from these particular countries specifically for their agricultural expertise.

The sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina were largely inaccessible except by boat and therefore very isolated. As a result of a malaria outbreak, plantation owners only came to the islands to supervise during working hours and returned to the mainland at night leaving the Gullah to develop their distinct culture (language, food, and music) after the work day was done. Though these slaves came from the same region of Africa they did not all speak the same language. As a language, Gullah is based on English but includes vocabulary and grammatical elements common to several West African languages.

President hunts from ox cart in dixie wilds—outtakes (edited content). Sapelo Sea Island, GA (December 29, 1928). From the Fox Movietone News Collection. Video courtesy of Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC). This scene was staged for a visit by President Calvin Coolidge and features Sea Island residents singing spirituals.

In Music Education through Gullah, Marianne Rice explains that Gullah music is rhythmic in nature and because drumming was not allowed by plantation owners, several techniques of clapping were used to take the place of drums. The bass tone clapping is created by cupping both hands together, whereas the baritone clap is created by having one hand flat and cupping the palm with the other hand. A tenor clap is created by clapping with both hands flat.

“Plantation melodies were the first-known songs of the Gullah,” Rice writes. They are work songs about daily life on the plantation, and they varied from plantation to plantation. Work songs were sung a capella and had 3-4 lines. Call and response was often utilized with a phrase sung by a soloist that was echoed by the group. Spirituals emerged in the 1800s when African slaves began converting to Christianity. Spirituals share several characteristics with Gullah plantation songs such as the inclusion of syncopation and hand clapping and foot stomping.