Blues version

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/356pp/44 CDs, with bibliography & acknowledgements                                              €750,00.

What we have here is a mind-bogglingly-sized package of sound and sight dealing with “Black” people who were acoustically recorded before 1898 through to 1927 in Europe. The examples here are taken not only from rare commercially recorded and released materials, but from academically oriented “field recordings” of Africans done in Europe as well.[1] Some sort of geographical boundaries were decided upon to go along with the temporal ones, and those were what were chosen! Even with those lines of demarcation, it’s an imposing “product” that essentially covers all its parameters in detail. The package itself consists of two well-produced 12”x12” hard backed, and glossy books of essays that include listings of all reported recorded music of the time (as well as of films of that era) that have Black people on/in them, coupled with color reproductions of large amounts of ephemeral printed matter. The printed materials come from catalogues and/or advertisements as well as contemporary newspaper articles (plus occasional record or performance reviews) of at least twice the number of recorded selections on the accompanying CDs.

The sound-recorded material is on 44 of them that collect all the known acoustic recordings available to the compilers at the time of pre-publication. The first 23 CDs are exclusively of European commercial recordings, while the remaining are ethnographic in nature, mainly from institutional collections with some similar items commercially recorded. If any recordings mentioned in the books are lacking on the CDs, it is because they have never been recovered by current-day collectors, or were the few found in such poor condition when located in archives (many more than a century old!) that they could not be copied.

I once had a professor at The University of Pennsylvania (Ray Birdwhistell) who said in his classes that there is no such thing as a good example (with the emphasis on the singular “a”). This package takes that approach in as diametrically opposite a direction as possible (in a good way) and is about as totally inclusive as could be under 21st Century circumstances of extreme distance from the cultures and time periods included. There’s something for almost anyone in the anthropological, folkloric, sociological, or ethno-musicological realms of academe, not to mention a certain level of intense record collector (such as myself, occasionally) who is interested in “proto” jazz, 19th Century vaudeville/music hall, and early jazz “away from home”.

I first became aware of such commercial recordings by African Americans in Europe via Rainer Lotz’s book BLACK PEOPLE: Entertainers of African American Descent in Europe, and in Germany[2]. It came with a single CD of a few tantalizing vintage samples, many from cylinders, that indicated that African Americans and their music got into commercial 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 but nothing prepared me for the magnitude of this set which is as close to “compleat” as can be. There may yet 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 with him for this Bear Family project.

Basically, the time-frame for this collection consists of pre-electrical acoustic recordings done by commercial European companies, or by European academics in Europe (often missionaries) over a time span similarly covered by a recent US publication.[3] This acoustic “line in the sand” boundary is a meaningful, convenient, and useful one both for the field and commercial recordings documented. Many of the artists here recorded commercially once electrical recording techniques predominated in the world, but many did not and therefore are available to us only through this early technology.

The two books in the box begin with a series of background “Overview” essays that cover the presence of Blacks in Europe up to WW I[4]. It then moves with Chapter 12 specifically to the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1899, an early “World’s Fair” and the first “field” recordings of Africans. The textual portion then continues through ninety-four individual chapters over the two volumes ending in 1930 with a piece on 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. Basically, from that point on, electrical recording predominated both commercially and academically.

The recordings themselves are in as good sound as possible with today’s technologies, which is generally excellent. As mentioned already, one will find a great variety of music to listen to here. There are semi-familiar names such as early jazz musicians like the Sam Wooding Orchestra, or trumpeter Arthur Briggs; vaudevillians/music hall artists such as Pete Hampton (including what is probably the first recording of blues harmonica![5]), and Josephine Baker; cabaret ragtime bands like The Savoy Quartet, or Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra; minstrel acts like The Four Black Diamonds, or The Georgia Piccaninnies; classical artists like singer Roland Hayes, or composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; religious singers like J.J. Ransome Kuti (grandfather of Fela Kuti, of Afrobeat fame). And almost everything in between! It’s a feast of riches, indeed, to mangle my metaphors, just no blues as we know it.

When it comes to a few negatives, they are: 1.) It is very expensive; 2.) It has a few production flaws in the text including excessive repetition and an occasional sense of boredom on the part of the writer. It would have also been better if more people whose first language was English had been let loose on the books as proof-readers and editors – yet none of the flaws are fatal… merely annoying; 3.) The organization of the CDs is NOT in complete chronological order in the way that the books are oriented. The first twenty-three discs are of commercial recordings only, roughly in a chronological order; the remaining twenty-one discs contain the aforementioned field recordings done in Europe, plus some commercial recordings of a more ethnographic nature… also roughly chronologically. Once you see what it’s all about, you can make your way through it all with relatively ease.

This package is the sort of thing that one might dip into from time to time just for the fun of it, or in pursuit of something singular. The variety of the music is fascinating to me, but only a masochist would sit down and go through it all in sequence in one sitting, though! Not that there’s anything wrong with that!! And I’ll repeat – the sound quality is amazingly good for the sorts of originals used throughout. Once again, another out-of-the-park-with-the-bases-loaded home run from Bear Family!

This is a very useful, slightly overwhelming, package for any library with interests in any of the social sciences, and/or approaches to music of all sorts should have in its reference section. As for personal copies, well that’s between to you and your wallet – there is nothing like “blues” here, but many examples of precursor materials both secular and religious. I heartily recommend this collection/publication to all who are interested in African and African American cultural expressions, musical, visual, or verbal… it won’t get any better than this! If your tastes do not stray that far from blues, then don’t bother – it’s too expensive and too marginal for you.

[1] None of the recordings were recorded in Africa itself. That would have been an additional category if included and would have expanded this package even more into “pure” ethnography, not to mention door-stop territory!

[2] Black People                                                                                                                       Birgit Lotz (1997) Bonn

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

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

[5] Hampton recorded many versions of his feature song “The Mouth Organ Coon” for different labels back in the day. One has him playing the harp with his nose (there is a photo of him doing so) part of the time, which I recognize from similar nasally-driven performances by Peg Leg Sam. Some shtick goes WAY back in African American performance traditions!

PETER B. LOWRY                                                                                                               unpublished

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; singer Josiah Ransome Kuti doing religious pieces in language; the legendary Josephine Baker, la Belle de 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:

p.p.p.s. – There is an unannounced 45th CD that contains many index listings of the set’s contents (e.g. – sheet music examples) that I just discovered!

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