Quincy Jones Thinks Asian Music Came from Africa, So We Checked

While Vulture’s recent interview with Quincy Jones published on Wednesday may indeed be a mix of all sorts of crazy for many, it was undeniably fascinating. 

cia Twitter / Natalie Tran

In his incredibly candid conversation with David Marchese, the 84-year-old legendary jazz musician and industry icon did not hold back and made some pretty bold claims that many may find ridiculous. Shockingly open, some of his most outrageous pronouncements include Michael Jackson stealing songs, the Beatles being “the worst musicians in the world”, and Jones dating Ivanka Trump over a decade ago. 

But while most of what he claimed can be almost impossible to verify, one particular tidbit from the interview that we found to be easily refutable is this:

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“Q: What’s something positive you’ve been feeling about music lately?

A: Understanding where it comes from. It’s fascinating. I was on a trip with Paul Allen a few years ago, and I went to the bathroom and there were maps on the wall of how the Earth looked a million-and-a-half years ago. Off the coast of South Africa, where Durban is, was the coast of China. The people had to be mixing, and you hear it in the music — in the drums from both places. There are African qualities to Chinese music, Japanese music, too, with the Kodo drumming. It all comes from Africa. It’s a heavy thing to think about.”

As heavy as this may be, let’s try to think about it. Considering the very limited information we have about ancient cultures, we’ll try to base our musings on what is available.

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Homo Sapiens (modern humans) first appeared some 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, so, despite any proximity of South Africa to the coast of China 1.5 million years ago, it’s really of no relevance since there were no Africans or Chinese yet —  at this time, Homo ergaster had just learned how to control fire.

2001 space odyssey

Even during that period, it is highly unlikely that music would be something which early humans would be practicing. Archaeologists have uncovered ancient musical instruments, though, just much, much later than 1.5 million years ago. The first musical instrument was a five-holed flute with a V-shaped mouthpiece made from a vulture wing bone found in Germany, which is believed to be just about 35,000 years old.

In an effort to illustrate where music started and how it evolved, Jones noted that there are elements in the use of drums in early Japanese and Chinese music that may have originated from Africa. He even boldly claimed all music may have originated from Africa. So we decided to research his claims to see if they held any truth.

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The earliest drums in history were found in Neolithic cultures located in China, dating back to a period of 5500 – 2350 BCE.  Made with alligator skins, these Chinese drums were believed to be used mainly in ritual ceremonies. The origin of the Japanese Taiko is largely attributed to the early drum instrument called the kakko, which itself was influenced by instruments from South China. Its earliest recorded use dates back to 588 CE. The “Kodo durmming” Jones references may be the professional drumming group Kodō in Japan, which popularized taiko drumming.

taiko drum
via Wikimedia Commons / Yuvalr (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Meanwhile, Africa’s talking drum, considered as one of the oldest instruments used by West African griots, was used some 2500 – 3000 years ago. Utilized not only for its musical qualities, these drums could emulate the human voice, so they were used as a communication tool over great distances.

So even if there were indeed influences as evidenced by certain qualities imparted on the other’s music, it would happen much, much later than Jones’ assertion. Additionally, one could conclude that the similarities found in the patterns of both cultures, as discovered by scholars in the 1900s, was due to Asia’s influence on Africa.

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Early African music was distinctly highly rhythmic, which consisted of complex rhythmic patterns played via a variety of percussion instruments such as xylophones, djembes, drums, and other instruments like the mbira or “thumb piano.” According to Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and author Gunther Schuller, this African polyrhythmic tradition was the origin of every element found in modern jazz, such as rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, and so forth.

Many of the Latin American music genres we are familiar with today, such as the rumba, conga, bomba, cumbia, salsa, and samba, originated from the music of enslaved Africans. The African diaspora eventually contributed heavily to American music and many Caribbean genres.

But while the enormous contributions of African culture to modern music is indeed remarkable, Jones’ claims of it lending significant influence on Asian music seem to be more of a stretch than actual fact.

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As for him dating President Trump’s daughter 12 years ago? Well, that’s something we’d rather not get into.

Featured Image (left) via Flickr / Canadian Film Centre (CC BY 2.0), (right) via Wikimedia Commons / Yuvalr (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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