Black Music and Musicians

Welcome to this blog, I am a black professional musician, a horn player, conductor, teacher and researcher. I’m currently completing my Masters in conducting and my current area of research is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 24 Negro melodies. I completed my undergraduate studies at Trinity College of Music. My experience is that my parents came to this country in the 1950’s from the former British Colony British Guiana, now known as Guyana in South America.As a young child, I went to the local Church of England church with my parents and by the age of seven I was singing in the church choir along with my siblings and father. We had a piano at home which we all encouraged to play, and we also had to choose an additional instrument. My oldest brother played the trombone, my middle brother played the clarinet, my sister the violin and I played the French horn. On Sunday afternoons my father played a box set of all of Beethoven’s symphonies which I grew to love. During Easter, Beethoven would be replaced by Bach’s St. Matthews Passion.
I had free instrumental lessons at school, and was involved in all of the local schools’ ensembles. I had choir practice on Friday night, orchestra on Saturday morning, piano lessons Saturday afternoon, church or orchestra on Sunday mornings and orchestra
Sunday evening. I was very fortunate at that time to be the beneficiary of all the opportunities that were available to me and to have teachers who inspired and guided me throughout my formative years. However I was one of only two black people and one Asian person participating in musical activities at that time; it always struck me as confusing and depressing that there were no others taking part. I stopped playing the horn in 1986 and did not play again until 1998. I was unpleasantly surprised that 12 years later I was still the only black face playing in the orchestras that I encountered. Now, in 2016,I am still looking at the same state of affairs; I play in or listen to a concert and I may be the only black face in the entire building, including the audience and sometimes even the bar and catering staff!

The purpose of this blog is multi-faceted, firstly I want to have the discussions out there about the lack of participation by Black and Asian Minority Ethnics in classical music. I would welcome comments from all, if you are a white musician and you have something to contribute I would especially love to hear from you.I also want to explore areas of interest regarding Black Classical Musicians, both performers and composers, past and present.It is not only about recognising the achievements in the world of classical music but also about access, education and opportunities.Finally to provide a forum for discussion on all issues relating to being a black classical musician, to educate and inform people about the valuable contributions black people have made to classical music and to be a repository of knowledge and information for people who want to study and add to the field of black musicology.

Among my many areas of interest I will be using the blog to see if I can find answers to the following questions and others that come up in due course.

  • What is the musical inheritance of BAME in Britain from pre and post-colonial territories? If there is a musical inheritance where did it come from and why has that inheritance not been claimed?

Are there the socio-economic factors that determine why there are so few working class and ethnic minority people in classical music, and if so what are these factors and how do they determine the decisions made?

• Is there an unconscious bias in the world of classical music that precludes the involvement in music of those not from the middle classes? If so, how is this manifest and what can be done to counter it?

• Is there a higher percentage of BAME students enrolled in music colleges that specialise in contemporary music rather than in conservatoires? If so, at what point in the musical education of these students do they decide to move away from classical music and what are their reasons?

• Is the education system susceptible to steering those not of the right background away from studying classical music, bypassing many potentially gifted performers and administrators? If so what recommendations can we gather from the research that could influence music education?
• Do educative strategies and ideas to encourage BAME classical music practitioners arise from the research?

Can the music of African-American composers of the early 20th century be defined as a nationalistic school of music akin to the nationalistic music of some European composers?

To what extent has African music transported via the Slave trade had an effect on the musical landscape of America?

Alongside trying to find answers to these questions I want to promote articles of interest on Black performers and composers, biographies, works of note, upcoming performances, notable recordings and many other areas.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to this journey.

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1 thought on “Black Music and Musicians

  1. James says:

    Looks like the beginning of a fascinating project. Is there a geographical scope to your thoughts and your research – are you talking mostly about black musicians in Britain, in Europe, or globally?

    Since you have set up a nice personal touch by talking about your own upbringing, it would be fascinating to readers if you would delve into that a little more, to start putting up some possible answers to the questions you are posing. You mentioned that your dad had a Beethoven boxed set and that your house had a piano. Why did he have those things? What was it that had made your parents interested in classical music? Pianos were really expensive – what made them prioritise buying a piano above other things that they might have spent the money on? And why do you think they encouraged you so much? Then, thinking of your own experience, you mentioned that very few BME people were taking part in music at that time. Assuming the same opportunities existed for them in their schools as did for you in yours, what was it that set you apart from those who were not participating? What was it that made you feel it was worthwhile putting in the hard work, time commitment, hours of practice, etc that kept you up to speed with what was required to take part? What made you determined to keep on trying – we all know that learning an instrument is a trial-and-error process. Was there something about your upbringing or personality that made you particularly good at trial-and-error?

    If you think that maybe there were not the same opportunities for learning instruments in all schools, could you explore with the policy makers of the time, or people who worked in the music centres? Was it the same in all schools? If not, why not? Was it down to the decisions of individual head teachers, or was there a policy to focus on academic work in some schools rather than arts? Maybe you can find other musicians of our generation and see what the situation was in their boroughs at the time.

    James, musician from same generation


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