What Are Call & Response Songs?

by Ocean Malandra Google
Call and response communication is common in many parts of Africa.

Call and response communication is common in many parts of Africa.

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One of the most defining characteristics of much of Sub-Saharan African singing, call and response has influenced musical styles around the world due to the history of the slave trade and the African diaspora. Defined as a distinct communication between two musicians or between the musician and his audience, call and response songs involve an initial phrase and then an answer or response to that phrase by a secondary party.

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African Roots

In many African tribal societies, music and singing is an integral part of everyday existence. Songs celebrating birth, death, marriage, religious holidays, festivals and even the changing of seasons are sung by the tribe as a whole. Most of these songs have a leader who sings, or calls out, a line or phrase that is then repeated or answered by the rest of the audience. Many times the audience repeats a standard response, a chorus, for the whole song while the leader changes the phrase or question each time.

Early America

Call and response found its home in the new world as a result of the massive slave trade that uprooted many Sub-Saharan Africans and placed them in a new setting. Work songs in particular, which helped slaves fill an otherwise grueling day with a bit of musical energy, were based on call and response patterns from Africa. The Gospel church, which was the only place most slaves were allowed to gather in large numbers, also developed a musical style that is based on call and response singing, with the singing waiting for and even relying on approval and emotional responses from the audience.

Modern Influence

Gospel Music and early African American work songs led to the development of American pop musical styles like jazz and blues, in which call and response singing is often used and worked into the composition. In blues music in particular, call and response is even part of the musical framework; most blues songs feature two lines of calling and then a response line (AAB). When Rock and Roll later developed, the call and response structure of both the singing and the melody were heavily influential, and many classic rock songs feature call and response characteristics.

Latin America

Call and response singing also had a profound impact on the musical styles of Latin America, especially in Brazil and in Caribbean nations, where the African influence was the heaviest. In Cuba, the Santeria religion relies on call and response singing in its rituals and has influenced the formation of many local musical forms, including salsa music. In Brazil, many pop musical forms, including forro and Rio funk, use call and response singing and phrasing in the music.

About the Author

Based in San Francisco, Ocean Malandra is a travel writer, author and documentary filmmaker. He runs a major San Francisco travel website, is widely published in both online and print publications and has contributed to several travel guidebooks to South America.

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