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Survivals from Arabic in Blues Texts as Proof of Influence of Islamic Civilizations in African-American Music

Francesco Martinelli


The question of “origins” has always preoccupied jazz historians, given the difficulty to identify specific elements pertaining to African cultural survivals in the Protestant colonies and in modern USA. (The situation is widely different in Spanish and Portuguese speaking Catholic colonies and later independent states). Studies of material culture, instruments, cultural traditions have been used to approach the much debated problem, compounded by the sheer vastity and diversity of cultural and linguistic African heritage, much ravaged by colonialism and exploitation. A less explored area is the study of the numerous words of uncertain origin associated with jazz and other musics of the African diaspora, of which an organic panorama is still lacking. This article will deal with a series of hypothesis on the origin of such words and to the hitherto unnoticed surfacing of Arabic words in the lyrics of two different commercial recordings of blues from the 1930s.

Jazz Etymologies

The etymology of the word “jazz” has been an area almost as much contested as the definition of the genre itself. Derivations from French (jaser, or a male form Jazzbeau created from Jazzbelle, in itself a reinterpretation on Biblical Jezebel), African languages, personal names (Jasper, or Charles, then Chas), from jasm/jism (sperm, or vital force), the perfume jasmine are among various other hypotheses. In printed documents, according to Gerald Cohen, “...‘jazz’ was a baseball term in 1913 in San Francisco, before being transferred to music, which was first attested in Chicago, 1915.” [1] Certainly early American slang depended also on imported English slang as demonstrated by the quotation from the John Fletcher play The Beggar’s Bush, 1622, where the advice given by the sow-gelder to cure a wife’s concupiscence presents two words frequently encountered in jazz history, “jelly” and “swing", in their sexual meaning: “Give her cold jelly to take up her belly, And once a day swinge her again.” [2]

However, the book by journalist Herbert Asbury — author of The Gangs of New York that inspired Scorsese’s movie — The French Quarter (1936) (now predictably reprinted as The Gangs of New Orleans), mentions New Orleans musicians associating jazz with a series of words — razz, dazz, spasm — used to describe early syncopated dance music around the year 1900. [3] The book being written in the late 1930s after jazz became a fashionable word, despite its references to interviews with musicians would require confirmation. In the extensive oral histories collected in the New Orleans Jazz Archive, apparently the word “jazz” is not mentioned.

In the most discussions of the word, however, a very early etymological proposed is not mentioned, maybe because they are limited to sources from the United States. In 1924, British erudite H.G. Farmer, a bandmaster who studied Arabic, participated to the 1932 Cairo congress, and became an acknowledged expert on Arabic music, published the article “The Arab Influence of Music in the Western Soudan including references to Modern Jazz.” It proposes a strong Islamic influence on the origins of jazz from Sudan via the music of West Africa. As proof, the author first offers the etymology of the word jazz itself: “it is derived from the Arabic jaz’, a term used in the oldest Arabic works on music and prosody,” writes Farmer, “and means ‘the cutting off’, ‘the apocopation’.” He then lists instruments borrowed in West Africa from Sudan, which for those populations was “the closest point of contact with civilization” — implying that civilization at that time was the one from Islam. West Africa, he wrote, then gave America jazz, both the word and the music. This is perfectly coherent with Farmer’s main concern which was to document the extent of Arabic-Islamic music on Western music. [4]

Another maverick of musicology, Ernest Borneman — novelist, sexologist, and student of Erich Moritz von Hornbostel — began to articulate, thirty years after Farmer, the Arabic-Islamic hypothesis in his articles for the magazine The Jazz Review. In the series “Creole Echoes,” Borneman points to the unifying “latin” influence in New Orleans jazz, defining it as the meeting of the branches (Latin and African) of the same tree. According to Borneman, for about one thousand years, Islamic civilization was an hegemonic culture in both areas involved in the origins of jazz: West Africa and Spain. Its contribution over the centuries became indistinguishable from the original African substrate that in turn influenced the dominant culture itself. “Islamic” music itself is a combination of Arabic music before Islam and external influences, including African. Several key figures in the history of Islamic music had African origins: Bilal, who was born as a slave of Abyssinian (Ethiopian) descent and then emancipated by Abu Bakr due to the Islamic teachings on slavery, was known for his beautiful voice with which he called people to their prayers so establishing the adhan/esan; Ibrahim al-Mahdi, prince at the Abbasid court in Baghdad and son of an African princess, who was deposed and spent the rest of his life as a musician; the oudist Ziryab, brought from Africa to Baghdad, and from there to Moorish Spain by a branch of the same Abbasid dynasty to establish a school of music. “For 800 years before the first slaves where brought to America,” writes Borneman, “Arabic elements were superimposed to the African folk music in the East, West and North of the continent, making the music of all these three region Arabicized.” [5] In his prophetic words, “Jazz is not a form of musical miscegenation but a reunion of two branches of the same family.” [6] In his wide-ranging 1993 article on the small-circulation UK magazine Rubberneck, Afro-British musician Pat Thomas proposed alternative and intriguing Arabic-Islamic etymologies for the word “jazz,” again not mentioned in most USA-originated discussions: “Jass is an Arabic word. The Hans Wehr Dictionary of modern written Arabic (p. 125) has several meanings for the word jass. They are: to touch; feel; to test; probe; sound; to be a spy. Idries Shah in his book The Sufis (p. 180) also mentions the word, defining it as “to scrutinize (hidden things)... this is the root of the word for ‘espionage’ and hence the Sufi is called the Spy of the Heart. To the Sufi the scrutinization for the purpose of ascertaining hidden things is an equivalent, poetically speaking, with the motive for concentrating the mind.” [7]

Ring Shout

In the research of “African” survivals, an area of strong resistance has been identified in the Gullah populations in the Carolinas and in Georgia. Gershwin went there to be inspired by the true “negro” folklore, and compose Porgy and Bess; the first craze of syncopated rhythm, the Charleston, came from the same area, and the similarity between its basic figure and rhythms played by Burundi drums has been widely described. Samuel Floyd proposed the ritual known as “ring shout” as one of the main sources for jazz; [8] early jazz musicians like James P. Johnson (“Carolina Shout” and “Crying for the Carolinas”) as well as free jazzers like Marion Brown (Geechee Recollections; “geechee” is the word used by Gullahs to identify themselves) dedicated compositions to this tradition. Now, “shout” has been associated with “shouting,” but it is not a vocal style or a dance: it is a perambulation around a focal point, performed in churches or in the open air, Christian churches being eminently unsuitable for such a circular ritual. Since 1949, African American researcher Lorenzo Turner, in his book dedicated to the Gullah language, proposed an etymology for it: during haji, the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the most important rituals is a circular perambulation around the temple where the holy stone, the Kaaba, is preserved. Each circumambulation is called in Arabic sha’wt, homophone of “shout” but much better suited to describe the rite found in Georgia. Gullah culture features many other survival of Islamic tradition in religion, language and cuisine. On the island of Sapelo, today one of the centres of its revival, lived in the nineteenth century the enslaved Fulani Bilali Muhammad. During the war with England in 1812, Muhammad led a contingent of eighty people in defending the island. According to his descendants, Bilali (later the family name was anglicized in Bailey) fasted during Ramadan, prayed five times a day in Arabic, wore a fez and a kaftan. In 1829, he wrote a religious text from memory with rules and prayers, including adhan (call to prayer). [9]


Another key component of early jazz has been identified as rag, or ragtime. The common etymology of the term implies an association with “ragging” (as in tearing up) the time, but German scholar Karl Gert zur Heide proposed a different theory, describing another possible Oriental influence on African American and then all American popular music. From the mid-nineteenth century, Oriental dance became a component of vaudeville shows, and from 1865, P.T. Barnum began importing Circassian dancers from the Ottoman empire to perform belly dance: among the first there was the dancer Zalumma Agra. The word “rag” is documented for the first time in print as “dance” in a Topeka [Kansas] newspaper in 1891: “The ‘rags’ at Jordan Hall held in Tennessee Town every week, are a nuisance and should be abated.” [10] In 1893, at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, musicologists John Comfort Fillmore and Benjamin Ives Gilman recorded Oriental music, and, in 1898, African American composer Will Marion Cook identified the source of the “rag” fashion: “This type of movement, unknown in the USA until fifteen years ago, was born from the visits of Black mariners in Asian, especally Ottoman Turkish, harbours. The weird rhythms of belly dance could be heard everywhere on the Midway Plaisance during the 1893 exhibition, and after that the ‘rag’ grew with impressive speed becoming general among Black pianists. In 1896, the first “rag” score “All Coons Look Alike to Me — Choice Chorus, with Negro ‘Rag’ Accompaniment” was printed, and the 1909 “That Teasin’ Rag” by Joe Jordan was played on the first “jazz” record ever published, in 1917, Dixieland Jass Band One-Step Introducing “That Teasin’ Rag”. This continuous association with Oriental dance suggest a simple and logic derivation from the Arabic word for dance, especially erotic, sinful dance: raqs or raks, from a semitic root RQD, already identified in Haccadic, the Assyro-Babylonian language, and now present in Arabic, Turkish and other languages; it might also have contributed to the adaptation of “rock” as a description of dance. [11]


Muslim cults spread in the black communities of USA after 1945, and had a huge impact on jazz musicians. Ahmadiya missionaries from Sudan found fertile ground in a community that had already seen the development of the Moorish Science Temple of America, established in 1913 by Timothy Drew, a Georgia native: a growing body of evidence supports the hypothesis of an uninterrupted underground presence of Islam in the USA since slavery times. And Art Blakey himself was one of the original members of a big band formed by a majority of Muslim musicians who called themselves The Messengers: in the call to prayer itself, Mohamed is the Messenger (Rasul) of Allah: “Eshedü enne Muhammeden Rasulullah.” Pat Thomas wrote in 1993, “Another key jazz term is the jam session. It has always been in jam sessions where new ideas have been tried out. For example, it is inconceivable to imagine bebop happening without the gatherings that took place in Minton’s. Jam sessions have been crucial to the development of jazz. The word jam is Arabic. Among its meanings are: gathering; collection; combination; relax; union (Hans Wehr p. 134—135).” [12]

The circulating unlikely and prosaic etymology based on jam as in marmalade does not justice to the sense of spiritual conversation, meeting of the souls, attached to the jam session. We find the very word used in the Muslim world for the collective prayer, its day, its location and the concept of union. Al-Jami, the one that reconciles and unites, is one of the 99 names of Allah; the 62nd surah, Al Jumah, celebrates “The Congregation” on Fridays. Alevis in Turkey call their rite of worship cem (pronounced “jam” in Turkish).


If not the word, the musical idiom has been certainly associated by researchers and writers to African-Islamic music. Sylviane A. Diouf, researcher at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, outlined elements shared by the blues and the music of Sahel, that huge section of the African continent stretching from Sudan to Senegal. According to Diouf, Sahel’s music, based on string instruments and solo singing, had more chance to survive compared to Central African music, based on groups of drums and collective singing, all forms of expression that scared slave owners and were forbidden — most specifically, playing drums with hands. Early jazz drumming is in fact based much more on military than African instruments and techniques. Sahel musicians were able to more easily adapt their style to violin and guitar, “European” instruments inspired by Moorish music. [13] The blues guitar style, with its independence of the parts, recalls the relations between Mandingo kora playing and singing: it is played, wrote John Storm Roberts, “in a rhythmic-melodic approach that uses constantly changing rhythm, often providing a ground bass overlaid with complex treble patterns, while the voice supplies a third rhythmic layer.” [14] Griots from Senegal and Mali are to this day usually members of the mentioned Sufi brotherhoods. Musicologist Alan Lomax defined solo Sahel vocal music as “the high, lonesome complaint” [15] like the Delta blues, and even before that, the hollers and calls. The actual pitches, the notes of the blues, with their portamentos, glissandos, vibratos, and attacks, directly recall the Islamic components of West African music, as it is clear listening to the melismas and nasal tone in the “Levee Camp Holler” recorded by Lomax in the 1940s [16] or in several blues recordings from the 1920s. Finally, according to Gerhard Kubik, “the vocal style of many blues singers using melisma, wavy intonation, and so forth is a heritage of that large region of West Africa that had been in contact with the Arabic-Islamic world of the Maghreb since the seventh and eighth centuries.” [17] In the celebrated Congo Square gatherings of New Orleans, not only drums in a variety unknown to European observers were played, but also string instruments as described pictorially by architect Benjamin Latrobe. [18]

Islamized Africans were not popular with the slave traders. They were considered rebellious and unbreakable. They could not be isolated linguistically, since they could converse in Arabic with slaves from other areas, instigating revolt. In 1526, King Charles of Spain forbade the importation of “any black slaves, called Gelofes, nor those from the Levant, nor any that have been brought from there, nor any others, raised with Moors, although they be of the race of Guinea Negroes.” [19] Spain had managed to get rid of Moors only thirty years before — they did not want to start all over again. From then on, the majority of Muslim slaves were sold in Protestant dominions; the rest went to Cuba and to South and Central America. [20] This divide profoundly influenced the musical traditions of the African Americans: USA had the highest percentage of slaves imported from Islamized areas, with DNA research establishing a prevalence of Fulani and Wolof, especially in the Southern coastal states and in Mississippi. [21] This seems to provide a reasonable explanation for the fact that such a key constituent of African American music in the USA, the blues, is conspicuously absent from Cuban or Brazilian music — no less African or American than jazz, if not more. Most, of not all, the surviving slave narratives come from Muslims who knew how to read and write, and usually had memorized the Koran. [22]

These proposals rely mostly on the historic fact that most of the people reduced in slavery and sold in the USA came from areas of Africa, especially Sahel, whose contact with Islam and diffusion of Arabic remounted to several centuries before the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. A reasonable objection concerns the survival of Arabic words in an hostile linguistic and religious environment. An independent proof of Arabic survival in African American music in the USA would strengthen considerably these hypothesis. In order to find possible survival, however, one must examine “mysterious” words found in the blues against non-western languages. This has been hitherto not practiced by blues scholars.

In 1936, the famous Peetie Wheatstraw, born William Bunch in Arkansas or in St. Louis, aka The Devil’s Son-in-Law or The High Sheriff of Hell, recorded “Fairasee Woman (Memphis Woman).” [23] The word “fairasee” appears in one of the alternative titles and in the song text:

Now my woman is from Memphis
and she’s sure good to me
So I’m gonna keep her
and make her my fairasee.

Paul Garon, in his excellent book about Peetie, reports that no blues singer he interviewed knew the word or its meaning, and tries to explain the word with the Biblical “Pharisee.” [24]

Dan Pickett, born James Founty in Pike County, Alabama on August 31, 1907, was one of the best exponent of the Piedmont-style blues. His post-war Gotham records are a throwback to earlier styles. In “Something’s Gone Wrong” [25] he sings:

Bye Bye Roll Mister
Farewell to the state of Tennessee
If I don’t come home
on that milk train
Ooh well I’ll be on that fairasee.

Blues historians have again tried several explanations including the Bible association, which here makes even less sense. The inability to look outside the Western world while analyzing the culture of a population forcibly imported from the continent with the oldest civilizations on Earth continually amazes.

“Farasi” is a Swahili word loaned from Arabic (originally faras). In Arabic it means “mare” specifically, not “horse,” and it is part of the musical culture through the traditional “faras dance” or songs like “Faras Faras” [26] by Hussein Al Jassmi (surely an interesting name in this context):

faras faras min hasaniha alhasan ankharas
tatazaham qulub albashar biqibaliha
waqfat faras mushiat faras laftatan faras
A mare, a mare, from her beauty,
beauty itself became speechless
In front of her a crowd of hearts

Contrary to our culture, “In general, for a female to be compared to a faras is a compliment” writes Lisa Urkevich, “as it means that she has a thin waist, a high chest and a good posture.” [27] From Arabic it entered Swahili, the language of the Bantu family used in a wide area of East Africa by a population who converted to Islam as early as the eleventh century, as farasi and today retains the generic meaning of “horse.”

The word in these two blues is in fact used in both meanings: by Wheatstraw as a compliment to a woman with a sexual innuendo — one may think of the many “riding” allusions in the blues, and by Pickett in its original meaning of horse in a funny turn of events — “If I miss the train, you’ll see me coming on a horse.” Interestingly, both texts feature a connection to women from Memphis, Tennessee.

This proves that Arabic/Swahili words could survive in blues recorded in the 1900s, centuries after the ancestors of singers were part of any African culture or even had regular contacts with it, hinting to a world of oral transmission of language, proverbs, stories, songs. In fact, it is hardly surprising that blues singers should speak in the King’s English and be deprived of that lingo impenetrable to the outside used by many other popular musicians of the early recording era, including tangueros (Lunfardo) and rebetes (Turkish). One can only wonder what is lost or hidden in the recordings of blues and general African American musics in the USA. How many “incomprehensible” or “weird” words remain in the recorded corpus of the blues?



[1] Peter Ehrhard, “Missouri S&T professor’s book uncovers the origin of ‘jazz’.” Missouri S&T — News and Events, Accessed November 27, 2019. See also Lewis Porter, “Where Did ‘Jazz,’ the Word, Come From? Follow a Trail of Clues, in Deep Dive with Lewis Porter,” 88.3 fm Accessed November 27, 2019.

[2] Beggar’s Bush, edited by P.A. Daniel in The Works of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, volume II, (London: George Bell and Sons & A.H. Bullen, 1905), 389.

[3] Herbert Asbury, The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld, New York: Knopf, 1936).

[4] H.G. Farmer, “The Arab Influence of Music in the Western Soudan including references to Modern Jazz,” in The Musical Standard, 15 Novembre 1924: 158–159.

[5] Ernest Borneman, “Creole Echoes,” Jazz Review 2, no. 8 (September 1959): 14–15.

[6] Ibid, 14.

[7] Pat Thomas, “Islam’s contribution to Jazz and Improvised musics,” Rubberneck 15 (November 1993): 8–15.

[8] Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., “Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry.” Black Music Research Journal 22 (2002): 49–70.

[9] Lorenzo Dow Turner, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, (1949, reprint New York: Arno Press, 1969).

[10] “City News,” Topeka Weekly Call August 16, 1891, quoted in Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889–1895 (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), 201.

[11] Karl Gert zur Heide, “Chicago, 1893 (Part 2),” Doctor Jazz 188 (March 2005).

[12] Pat Thomas, “Islam’s contribution to Jazz and Improvised musics,” Rubberneck 15 (November 1993): 8–15.

[13] Sylviane A. Diouf, “African Muslims and American Blues.” Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas, Accessed November 27, 2019.

[14] John Storm Roberts, Black Music of Two Worlds, (New York: Praeger, 1972), 185–186.

[15] Alan Lomax, The Land Where The Blues Began, (New York: Pantheon, 1993), 233–234.

[16] “Levee Camp Holler,” Tradition TLP 120, 1957, 33 1/3 rpm.

[17] Gerhard Kubik, Africa and the Blues, (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 93.

[18] Benjamin Henry Latrobe, The Journal of Latrobe, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1905), 180–181.

[19] Quoted in Ned Sublette, Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2007), 77.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Antonio Salas, Martin Richards, María-Victoria Lareu, Rosaria Scozzari, Alfredo Coppa, Antonio Torroni, Vincent Macaulay, Ángel Carracedo, “The African Diaspora: Mitochondrial DNA and the Atlantic Slave Trade,” American Journal of Human Genetics 74, no. 3 (March 2004), 454–465.

[22] Muhammad A Al-Ahari; Selim Aga; Job Ben Sulaiman; Nicholas Said; Omar ibn Said; Five classic Muslim slave narratives: Selim Aga, Job Ben Sulaiman, Nicholas Said, Omar ibn Said, Abu Bakr Sadiq, Chicago, IL: Magribine Press, 2006.

[23] Peetie Wheatstraw, “Fairasee Woman (Memphis Woman),” Decca 7272, 1936, 78 rpm.

[24] Paul Garon, The Devil’s Son-in-Law: The Story of Peetie Wheatstraw, (London: Studio Vista, 1971).

[25] Dan Pickett, “Something’s Gone Wrong,” Gotham G-512, 1951, 78 rpm.

[26] Hussain Al Jassmi, “Faras Faras,”, 2011. Accessed November 27, 2019.

[27] Lisa Urkevic, Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, (New York: Routledge, 2015), 38.

Author Information: 
Francesco Martinelli is a jazz promoter, journalist, lecturer, translator and author. He is editor of The History of European Jazz: The Music, Musicians and Audience in Context (Equinox, 2018) and author of magazine articles and monographs about Evan Parker, Joelle Léandre, and Mario Schiano. Since 1999 he has taught the history of jazz and related subjects at the Siena Jazz Foundation courses as well as in other conservatories in Italy. He has lectured at NYU, Wesleyan and Columbia Universities in USA, at Bilgi and ITU in Istanbul, at the Paris Conservatoire Nationale, and many other institutions. His main research interests include the history of jazz in Italy, jazz’s relationships with visual arts, traditional musics from the Near East, discography, and the preservation and restoration of sound carriers. Martinelli is currently consultant for the Izmir European Jazz Festival and Director of the Arrigo Polillo Center for Jazz Studies in Siena, Italy’s most important jazz archive. He has translated more than ten reference jazz books into Italian and is a contributor to The Rough Guide to the Music of Turkey (World Music Network, 2003).

The article discusses the various etymologies proposed for the word “jazz” including a rarely-mentioned Arabic thesis proposed in 1924, and the concurrent etymologies from Arabic proposed by various scholars for other key words in jazz history (ring shout, jam, rag) in the framework of Islamized African cultural survivals in North America, proved by the identification of an Arabic word, hitherto unexplained, in two separate blues lyrics from the 1930s.

etymology, jazz, Arabic

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