The black history of the United Kingdom is as old as the country itself. One could discuss the ‘division of Moors’ that arrived with the Roman army in the third century AD, or the enterprising Africans employed by the monarchy in Tudor times, or the degrading human exhibits from the ‘dark continent’ in the Victorian age, or the West Indians and Indians who made a vital contribution to the Allies in both world wars. In every era one would find many black musicians in the military. Whether this is in our consciousness and curriculums is a moot point.
London Unwrapped: Sounds of A Migrant City is a meaningful title, because it reinforces this essential point: the need to draw back the veil on a number of bejeweled musical histories that have been in the shadows for far too long. There are still new ‘old’ works to discover.
Given that the presence of people of colour in Britain is such an epic story, which includes the murky chapter of slavery as well as recurrent patterns of political asylum and economic migration, it is not surprising that exponents of modern black music can take pride in countless pioneers. Sounds have travelled with whoever dared cross the waters.
‘In every era one would find many black musicians in the military’
One of the most important early breakthroughs came in the field of classical music. African-Caribbean composers such as Joseph Emidy and George Bridgetower were active in the 18th and 19th century, while Samuel Coleridge-Taylor made a huge contribution to mainstream arts and entertainment in the first part of the 20th by way of his Hiawatha seasons that drew an audience of thousands to the Royal Albert Hall.
Thereafter musicians made their mark in a wide variety of genres. From folk to gospel to blues, calypso, jazz, R&B, rock, soul, funk, hip hop and grime, a broad sweep of our musical heritage has been significantly shaped by people who were either born abroad or who can trace their ancestry to other parts of the world. A term such as foreigner can be casually neutral or contemptuously negative insofar as, in the latter case, it designates an outsider, a counterfeit to the real embodiment of a nation. Yet former imperial powers such as Great Britain have been continually shaped by extensive trans-continental movement, which has led to Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas intermingling and resurfacing in anything from the food we eat to the words we use to the sounds we hear. What is ours is also theirs.
Indeed, could there be anything more British than the odd couple who shared the same famous address – 25 Brook street, Mayfair, London – at very different moments in the march of time? Georg Frideric Handel was the German expatriate composer whose 1740s oratorios have become an integral part of the classical canon, and Jimi Hendrix, the African-American songwriter-singer-guitarist who changed the face of rock in the 1960s. There are many points of divergence between these two icons, from what is an acceptable definition of volume to sartorial taste and passable ideas of family friendly showmanship, yet they are inextricably linked by the courage they both had – and that is not a quality that should be played down as we rush to big up their talents – to start a new life away from their place of birth, and boldly create music that now belongs in our core cultural repository. Handel’s Messiah is the soundtrack to prime time football matches. Hendrix’s Voodoo Child has cast a spell on every new generation of artists and listeners unable to resist its magical concoction of futuristic blues.
‘Hendrix’s Voodoo Child has cast a spell on every new generation of artists’
There are many other game-changer artists to mention. Britain’s post-war jazz hall of fame boasts the legendary Africans, Ginger Johnson and Dudu Pukwana, West Indians, Dizzy Reece, Joe Harriott and Shake Keane, and Indians, John Mayer and Diwan Motihar. As for the visionary collaboration of Harriott and Mayer, which yielded the 1960s masterwork Indo-Jazz Fusions, it stands for unity that transcends cultural borders. At roughly the same time an important musical alliance was built between Jewish and Caribbean artists, as typified by bands led by Ronnie Scott, Ray Ellington and John Dankworth, who would form a gilded musical dynasty with his Anglo-Jamaican wife, the singer Cleo Laine, that continues to flourish with their children, Jacqui and Alec, and granddaughter Emily. They are part of a living history.
London Unwrapped shows how these deep roots still grow. Taking part in the season are contemporary artists such as Elaine Mitchener, a fearless musical and choreographic adventurer whose work broaches all manner of traditions, Cassie Kinoshi, a saxophonist and composer who has made a sizeable impact on the British music scene with her Mercury Music Prize-nominated band Seed Ensemble, and Tomorrow’s Warriors, the inspirational workshop-development programme that has nurtured scores of players. New British jazz has a solid foundation.
Of no less significance is the pairing of guitarist Shirley Tetteh and sound designer-producer Pouya Eshaei, who, with roots in Ghana and Iran, respectively, uphold the lineage of London as a meeting place for talents from around the world that harks back to the famous Harriott-Mayer union. The great symbolism of such collaborations is not to be underestimated. At a time when populations often fracture along the lines of race and religion the creative bond between artists based in the capital who can trace their heritage to other parts of the world sends a message of inclusion. British music is open to unheard voices.
‘A multicultural society is nothing new at all, and has never been alien to “our way of life”’
A multicultural society, despite the impression given by some illiberal commentators, is nothing new at all, and it has never been alien to any putative idea of ‘our way of life.’ The significant two-way traffic between the Empire and its former colonies has meant that so-called ethnic minorities have had a cultural impact on the majority that, as the Two Tone movement demonstrated in the 1980s, is simply a rallying cry for whosoever has the imagination and desire to see beyond entities as superficial as skin colour. Artistic evolution never runs along a smooth road primarily because it has economic, social and political obstacles to negotiate, but a programme such as London Unwrapped reminds us that a migrant city stands for creativity above conflict, and fresh, dynamic realities rather than stale, static nostalgia.
About the author:
Kevin Le Gendre is a writer, broadcaster and author of ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival: Black Music in Britain, Vol. 1’