“Folklore edition”

BLACK EUROPE: The Sounds and Images of Black People in Europe pre-1927

Edited/produced by: Jeffrey Green, Rainer Lotz, and Howard Rye w. Hans-Jürgen Mahrenholz, Konrad Nowakowski, Holger Stoecker, Horst Bergmeier, and Susanne Zeigler.                                                                                                                                                      Bear Family Records BCD 16095 (2013) Hambergen, Germany.                                           295pp/356 pp/44 CDs, with bibliography & acknowledgements                                   €750,00, plus post.

What we have here is a mind-bogglingly monstrous package (in the best sense of that descriptive term) of sight and sound dealing with “Black” people who were acoustically recorded before 1898 until 1927 in Europe. The examples here are taken from commercially recorded material as well as from field recordings done in European cities by various European universities and anthropological organizations. None of the recordings of Africans were recorded in Africa itself which would have been an additional category if included and would have expanded this package even more. Some sort of geographical boundaries had to be decided upon by the compilers to go along with the temporal ones!

The package consists of two 12”x12” hard backed volumes of essays that include recorded musical and filmic listings, with large amounts of ephemeral printed matter. This material is musically “exampled” on 44 CDs of all the acoustic recordings available to them at the time of pre-publication. There are also printed materials from catalogues and/or advertisements and contemporary newspaper articles, plus reviews of at least twice that number of selections. The problem of any lacunae is that many of the listed recordings have never been recovered by current-day collectors, or were in such poor condition when located (many more than a century old!) that they could not be copied.

It was the late Ray Birdwhistell who said in his classes at Penn, “There is no such thing as a good example” (with the emphasis on the singular “a”). This package takes it the other way and is about as totally inclusive as it could be under the 21st Century circumstances of extreme distance from the cultures and time periods included. There’s something for almost anyone here, though, in the anthropological, folkloric, sociological, or ethno-musicological realms of academe, not to mention a certain level of intense record collector.

I first became aware of the commercial recordings by African Americans in Europe via Rainer Lotz’s book BLACK PEOPLE: Entertainers of African American Descent in Europe, and in Germany[1]. It came with a CD of a few tantalizing vintage examples, many from cylinders that indicated that African Americans got into recording studios in Europe (as early as 1898?) well before they did in the United States (1902). His tome whetted my appetite regarding such artists and I hoped that follow-up books or articles would eventuate. There were occasional articles over time (mainly in the jazz record collectors’ press), but nothing prepared me for this effort, as close to “compleat” as one can be today. There may be an “un-found” commercial example or two on 78 or cylinder that could surface now, but the very hard yards have been brilliantly tackled here. Lotz had many hands on board for this project for Bear Family.

Basically, the time-frame for this collection spans (mainly) pre-electrical acoustic recordings done by European record companies and European academics (often missionaries), a time span similarly covered by a recent US publication.[2] This “line in the sand” is a meaningful and useful boundary both for field and commercial recordings. The two books begin with a series of background “Overview” pieces that cover up to WW I[3]: It then moves with Chapter 12 specifically to the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1899, an early “World’s Fair”. The textual portion then continues through ninety-four chapters over the two volumes ending in 1930 with a single cylinder by a group of women of the Sara-Kaba people from what is now part of Chad and The Central African Republic. From one of the latter-day “human zoo” exhibitions, they were recorded in Munich during Oktoberfest(!) by an ethnographer/missionary named Peter Meinulf Küsters for the local ethnological museum. Basically, from that point on, electrical recording predominated (introduced ca. 1925) both commercially and academically. This collection has, then, been set up with a useful and meaningful set of accepted temporal and geographical boundaries. I heartily recommend this collection/publication to all folks interested in African and African American cultural expressions, musical or verbal.

When it comes to negatives, they are only a few. It is very expensive, and it has a few production flaws in the text – it would have been better if more people whose first language was English had been let loose on the books – yet none of them are fatal… merely annoying! It is the sort of thing that one may dip into from time to time just for the fun of it, or in pursuit of something, and the variety of the music is fascinating to me. A very useful reference that any library with interest in the social sciences and music should have in its reference materials: as for personal copies, well that’s between to you and your purse!

[1]Black People                                                                                                                    Rainer Lotz                                                                                                                                Birgit Lotz (1997) Bonn

2 Black Recording Artists, 1877-1926; An Annotated Discography                                                                                                                               Craig Martin Gibbs                                                                                                                       McFarland (2013) Jefferson, NC/London

3 Introduction, Dahomey, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Spirituals, Minstrelsy, Human Zoo,  Dance, Theatrical shows, Recordings, Films, The World War.



p.s. – There is also a 3CD sampler available entitled “Over There!: Sounds and Images from BLACK EUROPE” [BCD 16020]. It does not have an anthological scattering of artists as one would like, but the complete entries for four of them. They are: vaudevillians Pete Hampton & Laura Bowman; ragtime band The Savoy Quartet; Josiah Ransome Kuti (Fela Kuti’s grandfather) doing religious pieces; Josephine Baker, the belle of Paris! How useful this would be as a taster to the series is uncertain to me.

p.p.s. – check out a “flip book” for a more detailed look at the contents: http://www.flipsnack.com/55BE6FCF8D6/fti0gf3n

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