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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Toussaint L’Ouverture

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Toussaint L’Ouverture (20 May 1743 – 7 April 1803)

The Atlantic Slave Trade lasted from around the 16th century through to the 19th century. Although much emphasis is placed on the efforts people like Rosa Parks, Olaudah Equiano and Marcus Garvey who helped to end not only slavery, but bring equality, there were people and events which preceded some of the most courageous people celebrated in Black History.
There were the Maroons in Jamaica, led by Nanny, who was born of the Ashanti tribe in Ghana, who helped to free slaves and took control over much of the hilly inlands of Jamaica. Marcos Xiorro was an African slave who led a revolution in 1821 in Puerto Rico. There were also a few different slave revolutions in Mâle, Brazil in 1835. Arguably the most successful slave rebellion in the Americas was led by a man named Toussaint L’Ouverture.

L’Ouverture was born in the country then called Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and was freed from slavery at the age of 33 in 1776. He continued to work but was able to acquire property and some wealth, due to his increased responsibilities as a driver and work force organiser. When the revolution began in 1791, he was placed in charge of a small band of rebels and negotiated with the French Governor to stop the use of whips, and an extra non working day amongst other things. These demands were not met, and the rebels started to increase their alliance with the Spanish. After many years of fighting and treaties with Britain and the US in 1798, L’Ouverture was captured, sent to France and died in 1803, a year before Haiti declared independence and abolished slavery.

These achievements are not to be taken lightly. Haiti was the wealthiest of all the Caribbean colonies in 1789, producing 60% of the world’s coffee and 40% of the worlds sugar. Haiti gained its independence almost 160 years before other Caribbean islands like Guyana and Barbados. In other words, this was not a colony which had no significance. How then has Haiti, along with other Caribbean islands with vast resources, become so poor in the 200 years since independence? It seems as though the UK, France and Spain continue to benefit, almost as though independence and the abolition of slavery signalled a change of oppression rather than an end to it. Has slavery ever really ended?

Olaudah Equiano

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Oluadah Equiano (c.1745 – 31 March 1797)

Even though 12 Years a Slave portrayed the pain and struggles of Solomon Northup, there is another story which predates Northups which in some ways is even more remarkable.
Coming from Igboland, Nigeria, the young Equiano was first taken to Barbados as a slave in 1754, shipped to Virginia, and was fortunate enough to purchase his own freedom in 1766. After travelling and remarkably learning the French horn, he settled in London and wrote his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) which depicted his experiences as a slave, was instrumental in the British Slave Trade Act of 1807. If this rags to riches story wasn’t enough, he married an English woman in 1792, and had two children. One can only imagine what life was like for two mixed race girls growing up in late 1700’s London. He also helped to select slaves in South America for Dr. Charles Irving, and managed them as they worked on sugarcane plantations. He became one of the leading abolitionists of his day, lecturing and touring with his book in the 1780’s, and was appointed to help resettle some of Londons free Black people in Freetown, present day Sierra Leone.

#whatalife

Here’s a link to his epic story:

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15399/15399-h/15399-h.htm