Background Research

An Introduction to Afrobits

Think of Liverpool and the Beatles spring immediately to mind. Their distinctive style and catchy songs have charmed millions of people around the world, and they continue to be one of the world’s most popular bands. AfroBits explores how the Beatles’ music was inspired by the victims of Liverpool’s more notorious history: the 1.3 million enslaved Africans whom the town’s merchants forcibly transported to the Americas. Captive Africans experienced disease, death, and misery during their enslavement. But they also preserved their African cultures wherever they were taken, including their music. This interactive exhibit will let you see and hear how African American music first developed, and then transformed into the styles that influenced the Beatles. By exploring numerous places where enslaved people were taken through the slave trade, you can also hear the diversity of musical forms that people of African descent developed in the Americas and that continue to inspire musicians around the world today.

We chose a series of nine geographical locations to showcase those specific cultural or musical expansions, as well as the iconography to represent them.

Africa 

Symbol: Drum 

Africa is a vast continent inhabited by diverse people, each of whom has their own musical forms and instruments, including strings, winds, and drums. The millions of people shipped into Atlantic slavery carried these different musical styles with them to the Americas. 

Soundtrack: Musical bow lecture examples 1979: Tsongo/ Angola bows

Middle Passage 

Symbol: Ship 

On the Middle Passage, enslaved people sang of their sadness at leaving Africa, their former lives, and the people they had left behind. Singing together allowed powerful musical bonds to form between captive Africans before their arrival in the Americas. 

Soundtrack: Ee wan wabina ikuk and Lukembe tuning

Barbados 

Symbol: Cane Knife 

Enslaved people sang and danced together in the Americas, often using home-made instruments that resembled those they knew in Africa, such as drums, rattles and strings. At such gatherings, different African regional musical forms fused, beginning the process of creating entirely new styles. 

Soundtrack: Yu Wele – Syliphone record label recordings from Guinea (Gbili).

Cuba 

Symbol: Bandana 

Enslaved people combined their African styles with European melodies to create entirely new musical forms. In Cuba, they incorporated Angolan rhythms with traditional Spanish singing to create Rumba, a style that later developed into Son and Mambo—three forms that remain popular today. 

Soundtrack: Candela

Brazil 

Symbol: Carnival Headdress 

Throughout the Americas, enslaved people made European Carnival their own by performing African religious dances accompanied by drums. In Brazil, Samba emerged from these raucous carnival celebrations—a musical style that has its roots firmly in Angola.

Soundtrack: “Seu” doutor

Jamaica 

Symbol: Lion Head 

In the twentieth century, the descendants of enslaved people in Jamaica created Ska and Reggae, both of which had their origins in Mento, a form of music that fused African beats with British folk tunes.

Soundtrack: War

United States South 

Symbol: Banjo 

In the late nineteenth century, formerly enslaved people in North America created the Blues—a combination of African beats and enslaved work songs, played on American instruments. In the same era, African Americans in New Orleans created Jazz, a new style that drew heavily on West African musical expressions 

Soundtrack: Alabama Red

United States North 

Symbol: Electric Guitar 

In the 1920s, African Americans combined blues and jazz to create Rhythm & Blues, a popular new style in northern cities like New York. Black artists drew on Blues, Jazz, and R&B in the 1950s to create Rock ‘n’ Roll, a style that enchanted millions of young listeners on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Soundtrack: Roll Over Beethoven

Liverpool 

Symbol: The Beatles 

Growing up in Liverpool during the 1940s and 50s, the Beatles were inspired to start playing music by listening to American Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll records and copying the performing styles of black artists. Looking back, John Lennon attributed the band’s success to “Black music,” which enslaved people and their descendants had developed over hundreds of years. 

Soundtrack: Penny Lane