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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Should we still have Black History Month? Part 2

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Following on from Part 1

The history is predominantly to do with slavery and fighting for civil rights. There is hardly any mention of the kingdoms of Mali and Cush. No mention of the history of Black people throughout the world before slavery apart from Egypt. Considering that we often go into English history to 1066 and beyond, there is rarely any mention of successful Black people before the 1800’s.
It should come as no surprise as there is only a particular part of British (or English) history taught anyway. Triumphs in war and the Industrial Revolution are taught rather than the horrors of the Crusades, wars in Ireland and the colonisation of India. In short, we don’t learn about anything negative in British history. And if slavery is brought up, it’s framed as ‘history’, rather than a series of events which influence how we live today. We learn about how the Industrial Revolution affected us directly, but as for slavery – everything is ok now. Look, there’s a Black President! What about Sir Trevor McDonald?!

In the clammer for equality and integration, it seems as though Black people want their history to be recognised as just as important as British history. All of the arguments for an integrated Black history range from examples of the contributions to history, to the social influence that Black people have had. Could it be that that notion in itself is actually quite selfish? If it is really true equality we are after, what about an Asian history month or even integrating Asian history into education?
There are over twice as many Asians in the UK as Black people, as they make up 7.8% of the population of Britain. Large parts of India were effectively ruled by the East India Company, and the British took direct control of India in 1858. There was a genocide before the Partition of India in 1947 which killed between 200,000-500,000 people, and displaced almost 14 million people. Prior to this, the region had one of the richest and advanced cultures in the world, with some of the oldest sacred texts in the world (the Vedas) found there. Asians don’t even get a week. Maybe there are more similarities to Asian and Black history than we realise. For example, the fact that the Caribbean is known as the WEST Indies, and India is part of the EAST Indies, shows that the names were given by Europeans, who produced the maps we use today. Notice how the most used maps have Europe at the center? I digress…

Of course there are so many positives to having a Black History Month, and if it was absorbed into mainstream history, perhaps the many debates, discussions and events could die out too. Should Black people stop arguing about integrating their history into this society and focus energies on setting up centers which teach this history to children and people who are interested? There are so many people researching into the history we aren’t told about, and so much more is out there to be discovered. If Black history is integrated or not, what shouldn’t stop is the quest for knowledge and the truth. The schooling system will never give you all you need to know. I mean, there should be more lobbying for things like mortgages, growing your own food, nutrition and money management to be taught in schools? Media analysis: why is Islam always mentioned when someone who happens to be a Muslim commits a crime, but there are never headlines about the Christian male who raped and killed, with pictures of him proudly displaying a cross tattooed onto his arm?

Ok I’m going so far off topic now.

Let’s stop waiting for information to come to us, and let’s go and get it, regardless of the time of year.

Make Black History every day, I don’t need a month – Kanye West

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?

Aunt Jemima

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Many people know and love Aunt Jemima Pancake mix , but the history behind the brand and others like Uncle Ben, is a little less known.

The figure of Aunt Jemima is one that began with caricatures of African women namely Saartji Baartman, and was popularised through minstrel shows, memorabilia and even cartoons. Ne t time you watch a Tom and Jerry cartoon, the large Black woman who screams and lifts up her many colourful frocks is just that. A ‘mammy’.
Like Aunt Chloe in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a mammy was a jolly, head tie wearing, illiterate, overweight motherly black slave who would perform much of the childcare duties of a household or plantation. She’ll cook for you, wash your clothes, clean your mess and do it all with a smile and a song. Together with the archetypal submissive and exaggerated language, the mammy archetype helped to form the basis of many people’s attitudes to Black women in the early 20th century. The first Black person to win an Oscar went to Hattie McDaniels in 1939 whose character in Gone With the Wind was actually called Mammy.

The Aunt Jemima which is advertised today is slightly different. She has been given earrings and hair, but bares the same wide thick red lipped smile and dark complexion which was a feature of minstrels the minstrels in the 1800’s. The figure of Uncle Ben falls under the same category, the submissive older Black servant, ready to serve you that good southern cooking. Uncle Ben is more closely associated with the term Uncle Tom, or someone who will say or do anything to find favor with White people.

Are they good logos? Or  throwbacks to minstral shows? Racist? Acceptable? Maybe. Money making? Obviously.

 

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#spotthedifference

The Black Poor of London

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150 years before Marcus Garveys plan for people of African ancestry in the diaspora to return to Africa, there were a group of Blacks based in London who managed to do just that.

In the 18th century, The Black Poor were a group of people living in London, who for different reasons, were unable find work or who simply couldn’t find it. They generally lived around Covent Garden, the East End and Marlybone, and Eliabeth I on more than one occasion referred to the ‘great numbers of negars and blackamoors’ she wanted to be deported. God save the Queen. The funny thing is, they actually weren’t all Black. Originally, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor was set up for Lascars (Indian sailors) who were sometimes abandoned in England by the East India Company. In 1786, The Committee found that there were about 250 Black and Indian people who needed help and some of the most prominent figures of London’s financial elite began to plan. Ironically, these abolitionists and members such as Thomas Boddington and John Angerstein, while raising money for aid, were themselves slave owners and benefited from the slave trade.

Whether it was in an effort to remove Blacks and Indians from London, or a purely altruistic endeavour, on 9th April 1787, 3 ships left Portsmouth bound for Sierra Leone. Even Olaudah Equiano was employed to help arrange supplies for the long journey. They arrived on May 5th and their descendents are called the Krio, and make up approximately 4% of Sierra Leone’s population.

#UKIP

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

A Lesson in Reparations

Matt Kenyon for Seumas Milne on world war one

Learning history in school was pretty boring. I remember being in Year 6 and having to learn all of the Kings and Queens of England, from William the Conqueror all the way up to Queen Lizzie verbatim. We constructed model Tudor houses and begrudingly wrote our own Magna Cartas (burnt paper edges and tea stains for those who remember). In secondary school we learnt about World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement and the abolition of Slavery amongst other things. To be honest, most of the information wasn‘t so interesting and even up until GCSEs, didn‘t make me really think about how history had an impact on my own life. Maybe I was just too much into football and girls to think really clearly about the subject, and so for a long time, history was ‘history’ and wasn‘t going to let it affect my life.

One day, our teacher wheeled in the cumbersome Sony TV and VCR player (remember that feeling when you walked into class and saw that?!) and announced that we were going to watch a movie called Schindlers List. We started watching it and quickly grew bored. Maybe because it was in black and white or maybe because some friends and I were sitting at the back, but at any rate, we were talking and laughing about goodness knows what. At the end of class something happened that forever changed how I saw history. One of the Jewish guys in the class was crying and even though I didn‘t ask why, somehow I understood why. That movie had a special significance for him because maybe some of his ancestors were amongst those who weren‘t so lucky to survive The Final Solution. He had a personal connection to what some of us had just watched. That’s when history became real to me. All prior experiences in history involved the class turning to look at me when our teacher asked us a question about the Civil Rights Movement or the Atlantic Slave Trade, and me cringing when I didn‘t know the answer.

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Fast forward to 2014 and I read that Caricom are now seeking reparations from England, France, the Netherlands and other countries. At first I was confused. Why after all this time? Wouldn‘t the best time to have asked been soon after many countries won Independence in the 60’s? There must be a reason why this is happening now as opposed to 10, 25 or 40 years ago. But it is happening. There will be a formal complaint by the end of April, with plans to take the cases to the International Court of Justice if rejected.  Whether or not reparations are granted, I think that this is a great oppurtunity to change the way we learn and teach world history.

I would guess that my year group was made up of about 45% from Asia (Subcontinent and East) 40% White (including Jews) and 5% Black. Roughly. This was my school on the outskirts of East London 10 years ago, but all over London, schools are fast becoming more and more mixed and maybe what is taught in history lessons should reflect this change.
First of all, there was no real sense of shame or embarrassment about what the British Empire actually represente when we were taught. The Empire raped, pillaged and destroyed its way through every continent on earth (save Antarctica) and left not only death and poverty in its wake, but religious ideologies, and divide and conquer techniques which leave us today debating good vs bad hair and people all around the world wanting to become lighter to fit in with a European aesthetic of beauty. Currently the way children are learning directly and indirectly about the Empire in schools, implicitly teaches students merely to accept it for what it was, and not bring into question what the legacy of the Empire still is.
Secondly, the history which we learnt was not mine or many of the other kids in my class. It was almost as though there was no modern day Bangladesh, Jamaica or Togo before the British invaded. We didn’t learn that calculus from the Kerala School of Mathematics in India predates European calculus by over a century. The city of IIe-Ife in Nigeria was paved with decorations that originated in America in 1000 AD (and they say Colombus discovered America?!). Mali was one of the most advanced and thriving cities in the world, with a population 5 times the size of London by the 14 century. Toilet paper was invented in China in the 1300‘s. All of the history of pre-colonial earth seems as though it was and still is reserved for those who choose to go and read history at university or educate themselves outside of formal education. That means that unlike my Jewish friends, in school (thankfully many of us were taught these things outside of school), we were never connected to our history; to learn that whether we were from St Lucia, Pakistan or Ghana, we come from rich cultures and wonderful histories which were either destroyed or simply archived until we decided to search for ourselves. We grew up knowing certain things but viewing our history as inferior and not important to be discussed in class, let alone write an exam on.

‘…accept it for what it was, and not bring into question what the legacy of the Empire still is.’

By Caricom asking for reparations, maybe we can all use this stand as catalyst for us not to simply accept the cards that were dealt us, but to ask to see what the dealer is holding behind his/her back. To demand that children are taught the whole grizzly truth about the Empire and teach them just how ignorant and unacceptable it is for people to demand for immigrants to go back to where they came from. After all, these attitudes start with what is taught in schools and is perpetuated through silence – by not showing dark side of the Empire and the civilisations it destroyed. Maybe if children are taught a wider range of facts, groups like the EDL and NF will slowly die out as children learn that Englands wealth and status was built on the back of slaves and should be held accountable by displaying its history for all to see. Winston Churchill once said that ‘History is written by the victors’. Perhaps it is time for the losers to start blogging, facebooking, tweeting and teaching theirs in mainstream society and not rely on the odd BBC documentary to provide us with knowledge.

I hope Caricom is successful but even if they are not, we shouldn‘t wait 10, 25 or 40 years before we demand that our Middle Eastern, Eastern European, African and Asian histories are taught, and the Empire finally held accountable.

Step up Mr.Gove.

Peace and Blessings