Where are the Black Classical Composers?

While most boys played games in the streets he was touring Europe. He had become internationally known for his ability to compose for someone so young. It had helped that his father was uniquely positioned to help to guide his son along his musical journey, a world-class musician in his own right. By the age of 30, he had composed some of his greatest works, securing himself not only in the annals of music history but ensuring that his name would forever be synonymous with the word prodigy. His final composition entitled The Magic Flute, premiered a few months before his death.

This was Austria. His name was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The year was 1791.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791)

I’ve always wondered why, when studying music in school, we never learnt about music from western Africa or the Caribbean during the generally accepted years of western Classical music (1730-1820). We learnt about many male European composers including Beethoven (1770-1827), Schubert (1797-1828), Hayden (1732-1809) and C.P.E Bach (1714-1788). By contrast, the earliest music the Caribbean we learnt about was reggae and ska which originated in Jamaica in the mid-20th century. When we learnt about ‘West African drumming’, we were merely told that these traditions go back hundreds of years. We were never taught about great African or Caribbean musicians from the 18th century, shown their portraits or listened to their music. Why not?

It was almost as though there were no prominent West African or Caribbean musicians or composers at that time. We were taught that many West African cultures rely on oral traditions. Knowledge was rarely written down but was passed on via griots, through music and stories. How we were taught about oral traditions and customs often implied that these people couldn’t write their music down and that they were too primitive to produce anything close to the level of sophistication of Mozart et al. Where are the composers and musicians of West African and Caribbean descent from 1730-1820?

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The Trans-Atlantic slave trade began to wane during this period with Denmark being the first country to ban it in 1803. What we were failed to have been taught was that the very men who were afforded the luxury to compose and develop their musical craft did so partly because of the resources that were being produced by slaves on the other side of the world. As plantations grew in the Caribbean and West Africans were being shipped in their millions across the Atlantic, the European Classical composers were able to compose, tour and receive critical acclaim for their efforts. Knowing that, will a Mozart concerto ever sound the same to you again?

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For peoples of African extraction, oral musical traditions weren’t born out of choice. They were born out of necessity. Timbuktu was a cultural centre of religion and education in the 16th century with Leo Africanus commenting in c.1526 of the West Africans that, ‘It is their habit to wander into town at night between 10 pm and 1 am, playing instruments and dancing.’ With manuscripts in Timbuktu being destroyed due to fires, the pillaging of towns, cities and villages, and millions of Africans being taken away as slaves to the Americas, it’s no wonder why we find very few tangible traces of music being made in Western Africa and the Caribbean running parallel to the celebrated history of European classical music.

As plantations grew in the Caribbean and West Africans were being shipped in their millions across the Atlantic, the European Classical composers were able to compose, tour and receive critical acclaim for their efforts.

People of African extraction that we read about during 1730-1820 such as Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) and others, are usually brought to our attention because of what they accomplished in the face of adversity rather than what they accomplished out of the luxury of artistic inspiration and expression.

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Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges (December 25, 1745 – June 10, 1799)

Although his father was a musician and he was born near the epicentre of European classical music, Mozart chose to be a musician. He chose to spend almost his entire life writing and performing, with his compositions being safely stored in museums and being recorded by countless performers since the invention of recorded sound. In contrast, the Caribbeans and West Africans we hear about are those who fought against slavery and oppression. We hear of the first doctors, lawyers, nurses and inventors to break colour lines, but rarely musicians. Even exceptions such as John Blanke (fl. 1501-1511), Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1778-1860) and Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) had at least one parent who was born a slave.

Many people of African extraction at that time start their stories with struggle. Where are the black classical composers? It’s not that Africans or Caribbeans were too primitive to write their music down. It’s not that oral traditions are the best or most efficient way to keep information accurate. It’s not even that music stopped being made and performed before the abolition of slavery. It’s that while some had the freedom and luxury to write, compose and travel, others were being transported across the world to be sold into slavery, raped, beaten, killed or all of the above.

The date of his birth is uncertain. No-one really knows about his parents. His education is also a topic for debate. Although he was born a slave, he became a free man at the age of 33 and was able to accumulate some semblance of wealth. A decade later, he participated in and became the leader of the largest successful slave revolt in history.

This was Haiti. His name was Toussaint L’Ouverture. The year was 1791.

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Toussaint L’Ouverture (9 May 1743 – 7 April 1803)

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Lesson #5 – The Beatboxer, the Flute and the Orchestra

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Many children grow up thinking that there are two ways to play an instrument: the right way and the wrong way. Greg Patillo is one of a number of musicians who prove that an instrument can be played in many different ways and combining many different skills.
Click here for the full lesson

Lesson #2 – Adele, The Roots and Classroom Instruments

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Many of us think that instruments like glockenspiels, kazoos and banana shakers aren’t able to make serious music. Professional musicians would never play on such basic instruments would they?
Click here to read more…

Lesson #1 – Smooth Criminal on 2Cellos

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We often assume that violinists only play classical music, saxophonists only play jazz or electric guitarists only play rock music. Wrong! You can play any genre on any instrument…
Click here to read more…

 

How Women Took Over The London Jazz Scene in 2017

2017 saw the beginning of a new generation of young women establish themselves as the new voices and faces of the male dominated UK Jazz scene.

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From left to right: Cassie Kinoshi, Sheila Maurice-Grey, Richie Seivwright (source)

The collective Nérija released their self titled EP in late 2016 and were awarded the Jazz Newcomer Parliamentary Jazz Award 2017 in addition to their Jazz FM Breakthrough Act of the Year 2016 nomination. The eclectic nature of the EP reflects not only the different ethnicities and broad influences that the individuals bring, but showcases writing, arranging and improvisational skills reflective of young musicians who are not just improvisers, but keen students and lovers of the music they play. Though many in the band have studied and performed with some of the best jazz musicians in the country, there seems to be a strong sense of purpose to use those lessons and experiences to push boundaries and create an authentic reflection of the cultures these musicians come from.

‘Making sure that people can view jazz as an accessible, down to earth music that is meant to be relatable is really important to me…’ – Cassie Kinoshi

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Cassie Kinoshi at SEED ensembles EP recording (source)

This thirst for knowledge, exploration and educating their audiences is exemplified in the work of Cassie Kinoshi, the alto saxophonist for Nérija and leader of the 10 piece band SEED Ensemble. Her politically charged music is encased in harmonically complex passages and lively rhythms, with each composition specifically written in response to situations she has either personally encountered or wider issues such as the lack of recognition for the contributions of Caribbean, African and Asian soldiers during both world wars in the UK. She appeared on my podcast earlier this year and spoke about her wide range of influences including Langston Hughes and Jackie McClean, as well as her views on many issues surrounding the state of jazz today. Cassie was joined by other band members including tenor saxophone and flautist Chelsea Carmichael (who could be seen performing at the BBC Proms this year) as well as trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey to recorded SEED’s eagerly anticipated debut EP earlier this year. Don’t be surprised come summer to see them performing at festivals not only across the UK, but hopefully around the world too.

I’ve had the pleasure of performing with Sheila Maurice-Grey for almost two years and I am constantly blown away not only her musicianship, but by her work ethic. Booking, organising, performing, and writing alongside other projects are just some of the activities that these women do almost daily. It’s not just about the ability to perform that separates these musicians from many others, it’s a statement about work ethic that is familiar to many people of colour; you have to be twice as good to get half as much. Sheila performed with rappers Little Simz and Kano this year, as well as with Nérija and leading the band KOKOROKO to cement her place as a musician to keep an eye on in 2018.

KOKOROKO’s front line consists of Cassie Kinoshi and trombonist Richie Seivwright who play music ‘inspired by Fela Kuti, Ebo Taylor, Tony Allen and the great sounds that come out of West Africa’. This cultural influence is not only heard but seen in how many of these musicians present themselves on stage, removing themselves from the traditional aesthetics of suit wearing musicians and cocktail sipping audiences by wearing West African prints, singing, dancing and inviting their audiences to do the same. As Cassie told me, this is not the result of detailed marketing strategies and planning but rather one of comfort and personal taste; headwraps and jazz are no longer mutually exclusive.

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Nubya Garcia’s 5ive album artwork (source)

Saxophonist Nubya Garcia appears in a headwrap on the artwork of her EP entitled 5ive which also features Sheila Maurice-Grey on the track Lost Kingdoms, a tune which has over 200,000 plays on Spotify alone to date. Since the release in May 2017, she has gone on to perform in Brazil, appear on BBC Radio 6 with Gilles Peterson, headline at Ronnie Scotts as well as playing in the band, you guessed it – Nérija. She has appeared in numerous articles detailing her work and career path, all seemingly vying to speak to one of the faces of the new London jazz scene before she becomes an international star. Her EP reflects her eclectic influences, with her laid-back style of improvisation and rhythmical interaction with her band engaging the listener without the use of clichéd licks and phrases. Like the music of her contemporaries, you can hear an underpinning of a solid jazz theory education, but diffused into the many different styles personal to members of Nérija, SEED and KOKOROKO. Nubya received a British Jazz Rising Star nomination in 2017, a category which also included fellow saxophonist Camilla George. Camilla’s debut album Isang earned her glowing reviews in the Evening Standard and The Guardian, paving the way for her to support legendary singer Dee Dee Bridgewater at the EFG Jazz festival in November 2017 amongst numerous other gigs up and down the country. Next year promises to be another fruitful one Camilla who Jane Cornwell referred to as ‘the girl with the golden touch’.

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Camilla George (source)

#jazzmum was a hashtag used by Nubya herself to describe pianist Nikki Yeoh who won Jazz FM Instrumentalist of the year in 2017. Although she is not new to the scene having performed with the likes of Chick Corea and Courtney Pine, I’m excited to hear great things from her in 2018, having seen her live with Denys Baptiste earlier this year. Honourable mentions go to Yazz Ahmed who released her album La Saboteuse this year to critical acclaim, guitarist Shirley Tettah who is one of the driving forces in Nérija and pianist Sarah Tandy who features in the Guardians top 40 newcomers of 2018.

One of the most striking aspects about all of these musicians’ success is the sense of community. Most of these musicians mentioned have played together either with Tomorrows Warriors or Jazz Jamaica, and still supporting each others’ projects, contributing to the London sound which is gaining international attention. It’s encouraging to see these women utilise the resources available to them and producing music which is able to speak to so many people on a multitude of different emotional and intellectual levels.

It’s not hard to see that Jazz in 2017 belonged to these remarkable women. In addition to creating great music, they carry a sense of humility that seems to acknowledge what they are doing, but realise that the possibilities are endless, and that 2018 looks set to see a continuation of the new London jazz sound as led by these talented and hard working women. 

#Saxthem

It’s the NFC Championship game on the 22nd Jan 2017 between the Atlanta Falcons and the Green Bay Packers. As traditional before a sporting event in the US, the national anthem was performed. This was a special one with saxophonist Mike Phillips stealing the show before the opening kickoff. 0
Hear how he uses the blues scale at 0:44 add a different ‘flavour’ to the anthem. He doesn’t play the anthem in strict time but instead emphasises different parts of the melody (0:37 for example) by adding extra notes and using particular saxophone techniques. He builds the anthem at 1:06 and uses a technique called circular breathing to extended the note on the word ‘free’. One of the reasons Mike Phillips’ version is so special is because you can hear that this is his clear interpretation of it. He isn’t trying to copy anyone else. He’s played with the late great Prince,  Stevie Wonder and countless other superstars but always retains his unique sound and energy.
National anthems, hymns or other songs with deep meaning do not have to be played in a solemn or sombre way. By watching this video and others like it, children can begin to understand that any song can be interpreted by a performer in any way, and like Mike Phillips demonstrated, if you can do this well, people will remember it forever.

Go Falcons!!

Reblogged from www.nateholdermusic.com

 

Pops Is Still Hot After All These Years

Miriam Makeba

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Miriam Makeba (4 March 1932 – 9 Nov 2008)

Miriam Makeba was born in South Africa, but spent the first 6 months of her life in jail after her mother was arrested and sentenced for selling homemade beer. She first started singing in her primary school choir, and was due to sing for the visit of King George VI, but he drove by her and her choir while they stood waiting for him in the rain. At the age of 18, not only gave birth to her daughter, but was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, she was treated successfully by her mother who was a traditional healer-herbalist.

Her musical career got a big break when she was first featured on a poster, and sang with the South African jazz group called the Manhatten Brothers. In 1956, she recorded and released the song Pata Pata, which made her a household name in South Africa, and over 10 years later, her album Pata Pata peaked at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US in 1967. She recorded over 100 songs with the Manhattans, which allowed her to sing with artists like Dorothy Masuka, Abigail Kubeka and Mary Rabatobi. She toured Africa for 18 months after being recruited as a soloist in the African Jazz and Variety Review and became the female lead role in the South African musical named King Kong.

Her career continued to take off and she appeared in a film entitled Come back Africa. She was invited to the screening at the 1959 Venice film festival, and later flew to New York and played the Village Vanguard jazz club. She met and sang with Harry Belafonte at John F. Kennedy’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden and met the President later that night. her South African passport was cancelled and she testified against apartheid at the United Nations, with Guinea, Belgium and Ghana offering her passports. She won a Grammy in 1966 for her album with Belafone called An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, and other songs such as The Click Song and Malaika became famous worldwide.
This all came to an abrupt end when she married the Black Panther Stokely Carmichael in 1968 as her record contracts and tours were cancelled. She relocated to Guinea where she became their official delegate to the United nations, and in 1975, addressed the United Nations for the second time.

Everybody now admits that apartheid was wrong, and all I did was tell the people who wanted to know where I come from how we lived in South Africa. I just told the world the truth. And if my truth then becomes political, I can’t do anything about that.

Her career includes performances at the Rumble in the Jungle fight between Ali and Foreman in 1974, and the Graceland Tour. She went on to record with artists such as Dissy Gillespie, Hugh Masekela and Nina Simone, performing at Nelson Mandelas 70th birthday tribute, and even appeared in an episode of The Cosby Show in 1991. She was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the FAO of the United Nations in 1999, and won the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold by the United National Association of Germany in 2001. When she died in 2008, she the world mourned a woman who had stood up against apartheid, one of the first internationally famous African vocalists ever, and recorded music that still has relevance today.

And why is our music called world music? I think people are being polite. What they want to say is that it’s third world music. Like they use to call us under developed countries, not it has changed to developing countries, it’s much more polite – Miriam Makeba

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Bob Marley – Redemption Song

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Redemption Song – Bob Marley

There aren’t many songs or artists for that matter, whose music and messages have stood for something much more than music to dance or sing along to. Bob Marley’s Redemption Song was written c.1979 and was part-inspired by a speech by Marcus Garvey. Although much more can be said about the man, his music and this song in particular, in this case, the lyrics say it all.

Redemption Song

Old pirates, yes, they rob I,
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.

But my ‘and was made strong
By the ‘and of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation
Triumphantly.

Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever have,
Redemption songs,
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but our self can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
‘Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it’s just a part of it,
We’ve got to fulfill de book.

Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever have,
Redemption songs,
Redemption songs,
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but our self can free our mind.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
‘Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall dey kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it’s just a part of it,
We’ve got to fulfill de book.

Won’t you help to sing,
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever had,
Redemption songs.
All I ever had,
Redemption songs
These songs of freedom
Songs of freedom

Watch the great man sing and play it here

Lord Kitchener

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Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts)  (18 April 1922 – 11 Feb 2000)

Even as the Trinidadian Lord Kitchener stepped off the Empire Windrush in 1948, he was singing the song he wrote on the famous boat, ‘London is the place for me’. Kitch brought a twist to the calypso that already existed in London, with the likes of Sam Manning and Rudolph Dunbar already plying their trade in the capital. The difference was, that fresh from his 6 month tour of Jamaica, he was already adapting his music to his surroundings.

London is the place for me
London, this lovely city
You can go to France or America
India Asia or Australia,But you must come back to London city.

Kitch’s lyrics, instead of conforming to the norm and singing for pure entertainment, he took Calypso’s original meaning (coming from the word ‘kaiso’ in the Hausa language) by acting as a contemporary griot, commenting on social events and criticism of government. he wrote songs such as Cricket, Lovely Cricket to celebrate the West Indies beating England in 1950, My Landlady which spoke about struggles to pay rent, and If You’re Not White, You’re Black.

Your Negro hair is obvious,
You make it more conspicuous,
You use all sort of Vaseline,
To make out you are European…

He also commemorated Ghana’s Independence with the song Birth Of Ghana:

This day will never be forgotten,
The 6th of March 1957,
When the Gold Coast successfully,
Get their independence officially,
Ghana…

He also paid homage to some of the bebop artists of the day on Bebop Calypso and the jovial Love in the Cemetery. His most successfully commercial song was Sugar Bum Bum which was written in 1978. He made some of the funniest, introspective and historically significant calypso of his time, and had an influence on Ghanaian highlife music due to his tours there, and won many awards in his native Trinidad all the way into the 90’s.