What is Ringshout?

Ringshout was very different from music heard in America today.  Ring Shout was worship. It was less like performing in a church choir and more like praying.  The singing, clapping and rhythmic movements were an act of prayer.

In the African tribal traditions people sang all the time.  Singing was as common to them as listening to recorded music is to us. It was a part of the simplest daily activities.  Ringshout was not performed for an audience. It was a celebration of God and Freedom and Life in which the entire community participated. In other words, no performance and no audience, so you can't really experience Ring Shout by watching or listening to it, you must do it.

Every single participant was free to contribute according his or her spirit. There was no musical score or recording to imitate, no piano or guitar to follow, and no choir director to tell everyone what do do. If someone felt like singing the tune, fine. If they felt like adding their favorite harmony, fine. If they felt like adding a different rhythm to the mix or yelling a few words or adding in a different melody, fine. If they felt like doubling or echoing the caller or even taking over for the caller, fine. And I mean everyone, not just a few core 'performers'.

Modern singers generally try to modify the timbre and texture of their voices so it fits in with the current modern style of a 'beautiful' voice.  We take voice lessons and try to imitate the recordings of the singers we like. 
In the old traditions of African-American vocal music, people sing with the voices God gave them (and believe me, it's beautiful).

The musical form of Ringshout is call/response, with some songs having a call/response verse and a chorus.

Sounds and body movements used in Ringshout:

  • The human voice.
  • A large stick beat rhythmically against the floor.
  • Heels stamped on the floor.
  • Clapping
  • A movement of the body called ‘Shout’, but referred to in this document as ‘dance’ because ‘Shout’ is also commonly used to refer to the musical portion of Ring Shout as well as the body movements. It very definitely wasn't a dance in the modern since of the word, it was a form of worship, but there is no English word for that, and 'dance' is the closest word I've been able to come up with.

Roles played by participants in Ringshout.
  • Vocal: the caller. Sings the call portion of the vocal melody.
  • Vocal: the basers. The people singing the response and chorus portion of the vocal melody.
  • Vocal: the people singing harmony to the response and chorus.
  • Vocal: singers are free to sing other harmonies or polyphonic parts (echoing the caller for example) according to how their spirit moves them.
  • Sticker: Stickers beat rhythmically on the floor with a stick approximately 4 to 6 feet in length, usually while accompanying the stick beat with a stamping of heals on the floor. (The size and weight of the stick make it difficult to play beats which are very close to one another.) The Stickers provide a heavy base beat which underlies the rest of the rhythms.  As far as I can tell stickers play the same basic beat all the time.  It's a beat where you can add a lot of nuances, but basically it never changes.
  • Dancers: The Dancers perform a personal interpretation of the spiritual message in the words of the call/response. They move in a counterclockwise circle.Their movement is an act of worship as opposed to an ‘entertaining’ secular dance. The legs are never crossed, in order to distinguish the Ringshout movements from the movements of a secular dance. Crossing the legs traditionally resulted in the dancer being ejected from the building where the Ring Shout was being held.
  • Clappers: Clappers may do nothing but clap, or they may also sing or dance or both. Clappers may imitate the rhythms of the Stickers or may clap any rhythm or style that suits their spirit.
A given song may last for minutes or hours.
Songs consist of a melody, the words of the response, and a theme for the caller, but participants are mostly free to improvise their parts including: the words in the call, the harmonies and polyphonies of the singers, the rhythms of the clappers and stickers, and the movements of the dancers.