Sound and Vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

07 July 2020

Linton Kwesi Johnson awarded PEN Pinter Prize 2020

Linton Kwesi Johnson has been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2020. He will receive the award in a digital ceremony co-hosted by the British Library on 12 October, where he will deliver an address. To coincide with the award Sarah O’Reilly looks back at Johnson’s career through his life story interview for the National Life Stories oral history project ‘Authors’ Lives’.

Headshot photograph of Linton Kwesi Johnson

Image credit: Maria Nunes Photography

For Linton Kwesi Johnson, the recipient of the 2020 PEN Pinter Prize, writing has always gone hand in hand with political activism. Widely regarded as the first artist to give a voice to second generation black Britons – the children of the West Indian migrants who travelled to England in the postwar period – his poetry articulates the struggle against racial and social injustice that has energised him for fifty years:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on poetry as the cultural side of politics (C1276/60)

Poetry has always been a way of articulating anger, and ideas about injustice and the struggle against it. It was always the cultural dimension of what I was doing on the streets, the demonstration, the picket line. It was always the cultural side of politics.

Whether protesting police brutality in poems such as ‘Sonny’s Lettah’, reacting to the National Front in ‘Fite Dem Back’ or celebrating the 1981 uprisings in Brixton, Liverpool and Bristol in ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’, Johnson’s work stands as an evolving account of race relations in the UK over the past half century. His subjects have included Blair Peach (a teacher killed by police at an anti-racism rally in 1979), George Lindo (framed for robbery in Bradford), and the New Cross Fire of 1981 in which 13 young party-goers lost their lives. For many, Johnson has been an alternative poet laureate, using his experiences to give voice to the pressures and alienation felt by a generation of young black Britons, expressed in a new form, ‘reggae poetry’.

Johnson was born in Chapeltown, Jamaica, in 1952 to Sylvena, a domestic worker, and Eric, a baker and sometime sugar estate worker. At the age of seven, after his parents’ separation, he moved to live with his grandmother, a subsistence farmer in Sandy River. He described the years spent with her as ‘the happiest time of my life’, recalling days spent tending his grandmother’s crops and nights outside in the yard under a full moon listening to her stories and folktales.

In 1961 Sylvena moved to England and two years later Johnson followed in her footsteps. Arriving in the country on a grey November day in 1963, the ugliness of the buildings and the cold were a shock:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on arriving in England (C1276/60)

From the books that you saw at school, you really didn’t know what England was like, but I’d have read the story of Dick Whittington, and you’d see pictures of horse drawn carriages and all that, and you’d imagine that England was something like that. Great big mansions and literally the streets of London paved with gold. It was a bit of a rude awakening when I arrived and saw these grey ugly looking buildings on the drive from the airport to Victoria station where my mother met me. And it was a grey November day. I came here the 8th November 1963 and it was one of those overcast, cold days. I thought to myself my God, is this England? My mother was there to meet me and when I saw her at first I didn’t recognise her. How long had it been since you’d last seen her? It seemed like a long time, but I don’t think it was more than two years. But it seemed like a very long time. And she looked as if she’d changed a lot over that time. But it was my mother. First thing she did was take me to Littlewoods and bought me a duffle coat. Because of the cold? Yeah.

In England, Johnson attended Tulse Hill Comprehensive where he was relegated to the bottom stream in spite of his academic achievements in Jamaica. He had ambitions to become an accountant, though in a sign of the school’s low aspirations for boys from the Caribbean, the idea was greeted with incredulity by his careers adviser. Johnson would later compare the elation of finishing a poem with the pleasure of balancing the books:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on "aspirations above my station" (C1276/60)

We all wanted to make something of our lives, cos we didn’t come to this country to... in Jamaica we say Me no come here for cow, me for come here to drink milk. So we didn’t come here to loaf, we all wanted to make something of our lives and try and get a good education, and me, well I always loved learning, you know, I had a very inquisitive mind, I wanted to know, I had this thirst for knowledge. So I can’t speak for anybody else, but for myself I wanted to become an accountant because I loved the figures. I was good at it, at school, and I was good at economics and commerce. I liked the feeling that you got when your books balanced. And later on, when I started to write verse, I realised that once you struggle with a poem and then the poem is finished it’s the same kind of feeling of elation, the same feeling that you get when you’re doing your accounts and your books balance [laughs]. Strange comparison but there you go. Anyway, within the schooling system, with maybe one or two exceptions, it was understood, it was the general understanding, I think, that boys from the Caribbean, from working class backgrounds, would do a similar job to their parents. Work in the factories, on the buses, in the hospitals and so on. So me wanting to become an accountant, I was having aspirations above my station, or at least that’s the impression I got from the careers teacher. I guess I am a second generation immigrant child, what am I talking about, accountant? The idea must have sounded absurd to him.

It was whilst he was a pupil at Tulse Hill that Johnson first encountered Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the Trinidadian research scientist who played a leading role in the British Black Panther Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Panthers championed racial equality in housing, the justice system, immigrant rights and employment practices, and focused on educating their members in Saturday schools. It was here, in the movement’s Youth League, that Johnson discovered the work of Eric Williams, CLR James and Franz Fanon - ‘an astonishing discovery for me because I didn’t realise that black people even wrote books’. It was in the Panthers’ library that he found ‘the beautiful poetic prose’ of WEB du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. It ‘stirred something within me, and made me want to use language myself’.

If Black Panthers gifted Johnson an intellectual and political education, it was his experiences on the streets of Brixton that gave him something to write about. He recalled a ‘war against the Black youth’ up in the 60s and 70s, facilitated by legislation such as the ‘sus’ laws, which allowed for the arrest and punishment of anyone on the streets suspected of criminal intent. In 1972, he was wrongfully arrested himself, ‘thrown in the Black Maria, kicked all over’ by three police officers and taken to Brixton police station where he was charged with assaulting a police officer and Actual Bodily Harm. His crime had been to note down the details of two officers who were harassing acquaintances from his local club in Brixton Market. The experience ‘certainly didn’t endear the police to me.’ Though the charges against him were later dropped, the experience has a long-lasting impact: ‘Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent a substantial part of my life campaigning against injustice.’ He would later become involved in organising watershed events such as The Black People’s Day of Action in 1981, and working as a campaigning journalist with The Race Today Collective and Channel 4’s Bandung File. Alongside this activism, poetry became his ‘cultural weapon’.

Inspired by the Caribbean poets he discovered in the magazine Savacou 3/4, whose writing was powered by the use of non-standardised English, as well as the music of The Last Poets, Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari and the reggae DJs in Jamaica who declaimed their spontaneously improvised lyrics over dub music mixed down with sound effects, Johnson began writing ‘Jamaican English’ verse. Replacing iambic pentameter with the beat and bassline of reggae music, he created a new poetic form in which to describe the Black experience as he perceived it: ‘I’m writing about the Caribbean experience in Britain, black people’s experience in Britain. Why should I try and do so in the rarified language of English poetry?’:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on finding a language for poetry (C1276/60)

What I took from music was beat and rhythm, I guess the closest thing one gets to beat and metre. And by the time I began to write Jamaican verse, it was the bassline in the reggae that did it for me. I tried to write words that worked against the bassline or words that sounded like a bassline in reggae music, you know? I mean there was this whole idea of ‘blues poetry’ and ‘jazz poetry’, I wanted to write ‘reggae poetry’, so the one drop beat of reggae came into my verse and the bassline, how the bass sounded. And I guess those things, those two things, beat, bassline, determined the structure of the verse I wrote, and that came out of the language itself. I guess what I was trying to do is find the reggae in the Jamaican speech when I was writing the verse.

To critics who accused him of inciting violence in the streets, Johnson’s response was that he was ‘describing reality as I see it’: ‘I was an activist, I saw myself as being part of a radical and revolutionary struggle of resistance. It was part and parcel of that.’ In the words of Fred D’Aguiar, his poems were ‘a call for fair play on the political level with an accurate rendition of the mood among young people on the psychological level’.

The front cover of the book Dread Beat and Blood

Dread, Beat and Blood, published by Bogle L’Ouverture

Linton Kwesi Johnson on the importance of reciting poems aloud (C1276/60)

When you write a new poem, you know, it’s the saying of it. Although it’s a finished poem it’s not really finished until you hear it properly. When you can hear it properly, all the nuances of inflection, of breathing, of pauses - cos that’s all a part of it you know, it’s not just simple words strung together - it’s the saying of the poem. And for me, poetry doesn’t come alive anyway unless it’s read aloud. It’s just dead words on the page... the hearing of the poem is important.

In subsequent years, Johnson would address increasingly personal subjects in his poetry, from the end of a relationship in ‘Hurricane Blues’ to elegies for his nephew and father, and friends May Ayim and Bernie Grant, a change in direction that reflected both an evolution in race relations in the UK, and his own shifting relationship with his writing:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on moving to the centre ground of poetry (C1276/60)

It’s just what comes along with getting old, it’s the age thing.... I mean in the political poems you want to convey anger, you want to capture the vibes, the mood, the sense of the period and the rage people feel. With the later poems now it’s about remembering, it’s about reverence, it’s about love. Perhaps it’s a way of dealing with your own sadness, a way of coping with one’s own sense of loss and feelings of sadness, or even guilt. It’s a long time now since I’ve understood that that’s the centre ground of poetry, really – it’s the personal.

In 2002 Johnson became only the second living poet to have work published in the Penguin Modern Classics series. With his unique form of language and body of work he has provided a commentary covering over three decades of contemporary history, and used, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech, his ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world to ‘define the real truth of our lives and our societies’ - a force to be reckoned with.

Sarah O’Reilly interviewed Linton Kwesi Johnson in 2014-15 for National Life Stories’ ‘Authors’ Lives’ oral history project at the British Library. The interview can be found by searching the catalogue reference number C1276/60 at sami.bl.uk 

06 July 2020

Recording of the week: Barbara Kruger in conversation

This week's selection comes from Dr Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings and Digital Performance.

Barbara Kruger, ‘You Are Not Yourself’, 1981
Barbara Kruger, ‘You Are Not Yourself’, 1981 © Image: callejero / VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Listen to a recording of visual artist Barbara Kruger in conversation with the art historian Griselda Pollock at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London,1991.

Barbara Kruger ICA London 1991

Barbara Kruger is best known for her found photographs in black-and-white, overlaid with eye-catching text, displayed on billboards, banners, bumper stickers, postcards and the likes. Her work addresses social issues, gender representation, violence against women, misogyny, power politics and the pitfalls of capitalism and consumerism. She deconstructs commonly held assumptions with forthright eloquence, bold humour and open-ended meaning:

‘I shop therefore I am’.

‘Your body is a battleground’

‘It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it’

In addition to her photographic and collage work she makes large-scale immersive installations covering all areas of the exhibition space. She also creates works on film and video.

Kruger has exhibited both outdoors in public spaces and indoors in galleries and museums. Some of her more recent creations include the design of the cover of the New York Magazine pre-election issue (2016 USA elections), published on the 31st October, showing a closely cropped image of Donald Trump’s face overlaid with the word 'LOSER'; an installation entitled Untitled (Skate) at the Coleman Skate Park in New York in 2017; and in 2018, a large-scale mural painted in the colours of the Argentinian flag covering an abandoned grain silo in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, Untitled (No Puedes Vivir Sin Nosotras / You Can’t Live Without Us).

Barbara Kruger started making art in the 1970s leaving behind a successful career as a graphic designer for magazines such as Mademoiselle. She first exhibited in London at the ICA in 1983. Later in 2014, she had a large solo exhibition Untitled (Titled) at the Modern Art Oxford Gallery, and her next show, set to open at the Art Institute of Chicago this November 2020, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You, is expected at the Hayward Gallery in London, in 2021. This will be her biggest exhibition in 20 years, featuring four decades of her work.

In this 1991 recording at the ICA she talks about the importance of making art that is accessible to everyone and why she challenges being called a feminist conceptual artist:

‘I’ve never felt myself defined or defined myself as a maverick girl, feminist artist, and nobody was searching for women artists to take up, you know. Perhaps they are beginning to do it now in NY, but we made our presence known and forced the issue. No one was looking for us, in fact they were looking the other way’ (20:59).

This recording is part of the ICA collection C95, available online on British Library Sounds. It is made up of 889 sound recordings of talks and discussions with prominent writers, artists and filmmakers, which took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, between 1982 and 1993.

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

30 June 2020

The Santals, Scandinavian missionaries, and salvage ethnomusicology: an encounter of three worlds

Since 2015, Christian Poske has conducted his PhD research on the Bengal recordings of the Arnold Bake Collection. A Collaborative Doctoral Scholarship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, situated his PhD within two institutions: the British Library Sound Archive and SOAS, University of London. He conducted his fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Bangladesh from April to October 2017, revisiting the locations of Arnold Bake’s fieldwork. Christian's fieldwork investigated the aims and methods of Bake’s research in the early 1930s and studied the continuity and change in the devotional and folk music and dance documented by Bake. Christian is completing his PhD in Music this year at SOAS and in addition to his research has been engaged as a cataloguer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. He currently works as Bengali Cataloguer at the Department of Asian and African Collections at the British Library.

The audio recordings from the Christian Poske Collection have recently been catalogued and will be available for on-site listening at the British Library when the Reading Rooms re-open. For now, those interested can access the descriptions of the recordings by browsing the Sound and Moving Image catalogue for catalogue entries under collection number C1795. This blog post written by Christian Poske is an insightful introduction to the collection through his fieldwork in Jharkhand and West Bengal.

The restudy of historical sound recordings often gives unexpected results. During my research on the cylinder recordings of the Dutch musicologist Arnold Bake (1899-1963) at the British Library Sound Archive, I came across a number of sparsely documented recordings made at a Christian mission for the Santals, a South Asian aboriginal people centred in the Indian state of Jharkhand today. When I conducted my fieldwork in 2017, I found out that one of the church songs recorded by Bake is still popular among converts in the region.

'Recently, I had the opportunity to start recording Santal music… To really get in touch with the Santals, I have turned to the currently most important authority in this field, Dr Bodding... However, he is a missionary, and as he helped me along, we arrived at a huge boarding school for Santals. But it looks worse than it is. The mission has the policy to change as little as possible. Language, music and customs are, if anyhow possible, retained. All melodies used in the church are pure Santal melodies, although the words were made Christian... The music as such is quite unlike Hindu music, and their whole musical sense is very different. They love polyphony a lot when they get to hear it. I have recorded a sample (which hardly has any scientific value) how the Santal singing master of the school edited a song with four voices without actually ever having a European education, he does not speak a word of English, for example. The boys sing it with passion, which you could never expect from the Hindus…'
(Arnold Bake, letter to Erich M. v. Hornbostel, 15.4.1931, Berlin Phonogram Archive)

With these words, Bake explained his fieldwork at the Kairabani mission to Erich M. v. Hornbostel (1877-1935), the director of the Berlin Phonogram Archive. The Norwegian missionary Paul Olaf Bodding (1865-1938) of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches had arranged Bake’s visit to Kairabani.

1. Kairabani Church 1926
'The new Kairabani Church at the consecration, 1926' (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen/ International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

In the letter to Hornbostel, Bake referred to the church song 'Boge gupi do' ('The Good Shepherd') that had been composed by the Norwegian missionary Lars Olsen Skrefsrud (1840-1910) around 1886 (Gausal 1935: 70). Skrefsrud, one of the founders of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches, settled in India to make sustained efforts to convert the Santals from animist belief to Christianity. He learned Santali language from 1867 onwards and published the first comprehensive grammar of the language a few years later (1873), which introduced a romanisation system providing the language with the first standard script that is still used by converts today, with minor amendments made by Bodding.

Skrefsrud group photo
From left to right: Missionaries H. P. Børresen, H. J. Muston, L. O. Skrefsrud, with Santali hunting priest, chiefs (with turbans), hunters, and musicians (Santal Parganas, 1874) (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen / International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

Bake recorded solo and choral renditions of the song 'Boge gupi do', which is based on a traditional Santali melody, as he correctly noted. However, the choral version had not been arranged by the Santali choir leader of the Kairabani mission, but by an organist of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches (Rạṛ Puthi 1929: preface).

'Boge gupi do' performed by male singer, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/1641)

'Boge gupi do' performed by male choir, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/2128)

Arnold Bake’s views on the Santals and their music and dance were influenced by colonial ethnographic clichés of aboriginal peoples that he replicated in his correspondence and publications (Bake 1936-37: 68), where he portrayed the Santals as a natural and pleasure-loving people, fond of music, dance, and drinking, and overall in a half-civilised state. One month after his visit to Kairabani, he filmed Santali dances at a Hindu festival in the village Kankalitola near Santiniketan. In a letter to his relatives, he described what he had seen in Kankalitola as 'a real nature dance':

'I am so curious what you will think of the films from Kankalitola that we left behind in Calcutta last week to reproduce. It was the typical male and female dances. You will see, I think, why the missionaries are against this dancing, it is very sensuous, yet it has great charm… And so entirely unaffected, a real nature dance.' (Arnold Bake, letter to his mother-in-law, 20.5.1931, Mss Eur F191/8, 191)

In Kairabani, he photographed Santali pupils playing their instruments at the mission, but he seems to have been dissatisfied with the sober ambience of the premises. To also have a picture of a Santali musician in a natural environment, he probably arranged a photo with one of the musicians outside:

Santali flute player by pond
Santali flute player by a pond, photograph by Arnold Bake (Kairabani mission, March 1931)

In this period, Hornbostel and other comparative musicologists collected recordings from musicologists and ethnographers worldwide at the Berlin Phonogram Archive 'to save what can be saved' of the traditional musics of the world threatened by the spread of Western culture (Hornbostel 1904-5: 97). Such recordings were expected to be made in surroundings free from European cultural influences. Therefore, Hornbostel marked all of Bake’s recordings from the mission as “worthless” (Ziegler 2006: 101-2), notwithstanding whether these featured traditional Santali or Christian songs. The reason for Hornbostel’s drastic measure was his suspicion that exposure to western church music had affected the Santals’ renditions of their own traditional songs. In his reply to Bake, he only hinted at his reservations:

'I am already very excited about the recordings and hope that you will have more opportunity for interesting recordings... of the Santals. In general: the more you record, the better, provided that the music is not europeanised yet.'
(Erich M. v. Hornbostel, letter to Arnold Bake, 5.7.1931, BPA)

When I began to evaluate Bake’s recordings at the British Library Sound Archive in 2015, I could not distinguish traditional from Christian songs among the Kairabani recordings due to my lack of knowledge of Santali language. Through my fieldwork, I was able to find out more. In Jharkhand, I visited the Kairabani mission school that still exists today. Here, I met the Santali language teacher Ignatius Besra, who helped me with the evaluation of the recordings at his home in Dumka. As he recognised the song 'Boge gupi do' (C52/2128), he rushed from the desk in the living room to another room to bring the church song book Sereń Puthi. He showed me the lyrics and said it was a 'hit' still popular among converts today. When I left, he gave me his copy on the way. I visited the Kairabani mission for the last time the following day and asked a schoolteacher to sing the song for me:

'Boge gupi do' performed by Nalini B. Hansdak Kairabani, May 2017 (C1795/11)

Mansaram Murmu, a doctoral researcher from Visva-Bharati University, translated it for me in Santiniketan two months later:

            Boge gupi do / A good shepherd -
            Ac’ren bhiḍhiko, boeha, / for his sheep, brothers,
            Ạḍiy’ jotonko; / he cares a lot.
            Sahre jaegate / Towards a good place,
            phạria dak’ jharanatey’ / to a spring of clean water,
            Ạyur idiko. / he leads them.

            Mit’ bhiḍiy’ at’len khan, / When a sheep gets lost -
            Ạuri ńame dhạbic’ doe / until he retrieves it,
            Gupi pańjaye. / he searches it.
            Uni ńamkate / When he has found it,
            Tarenrey’ ladeye / he carries it on his shoulder
            Rạskạ monte. / gladly.

            Ac’ak’ oṛak’te / At his home,
            Seṭerkate do boeha / when he has arrived, brothers,
            Peṛae jarwako, / he invites its kin,
            Onkoe metako / and tells them,
            Rạskạk’pe iń tuluc’, / Rejoice with me,
            Bhidin ńamkede. / I have found the lost sheep.

            Tạruc’e hec’len khan /When the tiger comes
            Ṭheṅga epelkate doe / he brandishes the stick
            Teṅgo darame; / and saves them. .
            Ac’ren bhiḍiko / His sheep,
            Maraṅ mũhim khongey’ / from huge danger
            Aḍ bańcaoko. / he saves them.

            Bhiḍi ńutumte / For the sheep,
            Boge gupi do boeha, / a good shepherd, brothers,
            Jiwiy’ alaea; / sacrifices his life.
            Jisui nonkaket’, / Jesus does like this
            Bańcao akat’bonae, / he has saved you
            Soetan tạrup’ khon. / from the grasp of the devil-tiger.

            Sereń Puthi (2015: 168)

Carrying out fieldwork with Bake’s recordings showed me the advantages of reconnecting cultural heritage communities with historical sound recordings that are insufficiently documented. Apart from the ethical imperative of making recordings from the colonial period accessible in countries of origin again, community engagement often brings valuable information to light that makes it possible to enhance the archival documentation of recordings, which ultimately makes the material more meaningful to everyone.

This blog is derived from my PhD research “Continuity and Change: A Restudy of Arnold Adriaan Bake’s research on the devotional and folk music and dance of Bengal 1925-1956”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, Award No. 1664039.

Further Reading:

Rạṛ Puthi: Book of Melodies (Choral Book). 1929. Dumka: The Santal Mission of the Northern Churches.

Sereń Puthi ["Book of Songs"]. 2015. Dumka: Dumka Diocesan Council (NELC).

Bake, Arnold A. 1936-7. ‘Indian Folk-Music’. Proceedings of the Musical Association 63: 65– 77.

Gausdal, Johannes. 1935. Contributions to Santal Hymnology. Bibliotheca Norvegiæ Sacræ 11. Bergen: Lunde.

Hornbostel, Erich Moritz von. 1904-5. ‘Die Probleme Der Vergleichenden Musikwissenschaft’. Zeitschrift Der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft 7: 85-97.

Skrefsrud, Lars Olsen. 1873. A Grammar of the Santhal Language. Calcutta: Calcutta School Book and Vernacular Literature Society.

Ziegler, Susanne. 2006. Die Wachszylinder Des Berliner Phonogramm-Archivs. Veröffentlichungen des Ethnologischen Museums Berlin. Berlin: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.