Don't Stop the Carnival: Black British Music

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This ambitious odyssey traces the start of black music in the UK from the 11th century onwards. From the point when knights return from the crusades with African instruments (such as the oud and tabour) Le Gendre takes us on an epic journey of triumph over prejudice culminating in the ubiquity of black and black-influenced music in the 1960s.

It’s a painful and complex journey running parallel with the slave trade and the subsequent long fight for the liberation of black people. Slaves working in Elizabethan England “employed as servants, prostitutes and court entertainers” were seemingly given similar treatment to asylum seekers today.

The same fallacy with regard to white culture being “swamped” by an ethnic population is shown in 1601 when Elizabeth I ordered the expulsion of “the great numbers of negars and blackamoors which are crept into the realm…to the great annoyance of her own liege people.”

Le Gendre reminds us that Shakespeare’s Othello (1604) was not criticised for being racist but for being unrealistic. Thomas Rhymer (a critic of the time) said, “a black-a-moor might rise to be a trumpeter but Shakespeare would not have him less than a lieutenant general”. Rhymer unwittingly predicts areas that would prove valuable as gateways for black people in Britain — music and the military.

This book pays tribute to the many incredible musicians who survived and honed their craft through their capacity to adapt and improvise, far too many to attempt a list here. What the author does very effectively is celebrate individual (heretofore unknown) musicians and link these to the larger struggle.

One example is J Alexander, who travelled to England from St Vincent in the late 19th century and learnt Welsh from the ship’s captain. He ended up making a living singing popular Welsh ballads in Liverpool. We thus encounter the Liverpool-Wales-Caribbean connection. We are told: “Cardiff, like Liverpool, is home to one of the oldest African-Caribbean and mixed communities in the United Kingdom”. Swansea had long welcomed black Vaudeville acts from the US and the Colwyn Bay African Institute encouraged black students to settle in North Wales. Paul Robeson has a chapter to himself in deference to his solidarity with struggling British workers.

Conflicts are also shown to be catalysts for greater creative unity. The race riots that broke out in 1919 in Tiger Bay, Cardiff (the biggest black community in the UK at the time) that were started by local white racists, served to crystallise solidarity via the phenomenon of rent parties. This was a practice imported from Harlem in which musicians would play at house parties in exchange for food and drink, thus engendering generations of accomplished musicians.

In the case of Notting Hill, Le Gendre looks further back than the triumph that became the Notting Hill Carnival and points to the detestable slums owned by Peter Rachman in which dozens of families were squashed into crumbling tenements, exacerbated by the “colour bar” in place in the local pubs.

Clearly in this situation shebeens proliferated and fulfilled more than a social need: “These pop-up social clubs were nothing more than a makeshift bar in a basement or a front room…a willing disc-jockey who would spin the latest blues, jazz and calypso…there might be a singer, guitarist or horn player. The music had to be good and the drinks cheap”

In total, the author manages the impossible, amassing the solidarity, adamantine determination and trickster-like opportunism that has given so much to our best contemporary music.

This book ranks with Black Music of Two Worlds (by John Storm Roberts) as a scholarly and important work.