20 September 2023
Unlocking Our Hidden Collections: Sue Steward and Edmundo Ros
Above: Edmundo Ros in Amsterdam, 1957. Photo by Harry Pot.
The Unlocking Our Hidden Collections initiative is the British Library challenging itself. With over 170 million items in the Library’s collections and an average of over 8,000 new items added every day, it is impossible to keep up. Processing and cataloguing backlogs mean that there are so many treasures that are ‘hidden’ from view and unable to be searched in any of the Library’s catalogues.
Unlocking Our Hidden Collections is a concerted effort to bring some of these to light. We are targeting specific collections across the Library’s many curatorial areas for detailed cataloguing where previously there was none at all. Collections in this initiative include manuscripts from the medieval to contemporary periods, charters, censuses, photographs, correspondences and music manuscripts. They also include recordings from the British Library sound archive. The project that I work on within Unlocking Our Hidden Collections is entitled ‘Rare and Unpublished World and Traditional Music’, which catalogues and ultimately makes publically available collections of sound recordings that would otherwise remain obscure.
As a cataloguer in this process, I have the absolute pleasure of listening to wonderful recordings of some of the most interesting musical cultures in the world, researching their context and diving into the recordists’ own experiences through their documentation and other material. So far, I’ve worked with collections of recorded music from Thailand, Malaysia, India, Nepal and Kenya from the 1960s to the 2000s, but today I want to highlight one specific collection, the Sue Steward Collection, which has the reference C1984 in our catalogue.
Sue Steward was a British journalist and DJ with a passion for the music of Latin America. Her British Library collection is composed of interviews that she made throughout her career from 1980 to 2005. Her coverage of Latin American musicians spans those of the classic dance styles of son, merengue and mambo and the pan-Latin styles of salsa, jazz and pop, including interviews with huge stars such as Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan and Tito Puente. Many of her recordings were made in the UK, but she also recorded on her travels to the USA (particularly in the Latin American hotspots of New York City and Miami), Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Colombia, and the interviews became a significant part of the research for Steward’s book Salsa: Musical Heartbeat of Latin America (1999). Her renown and the fondness in which she was held within the world of Latin American music led to her being affectionately known as ‘La Reina’ and ‘La Stewarda’.
Her music interests were wider than just Latin music, however, and her collection reflects that, with interviews with musicians from the worlds of punk, post-punk and new wave, free jazz, sound art and the avant-garde (her interview with Diamanda Galás - see Diamanda Galás catalogue entry - is a particular highlight), African and Middle Eastern music – sprinkled with recordings of live performances and radio clips too. And it doesn’t stop there – an interesting thread of interviews with visual artists becomes apparent, with sculptors, photographers, painters, ceramicists and art dealers all represented in the collection.
Above: The tapes of the C1984 Sue Steward Collection at the British Library. Photo by Jim Hickson.
The jewel of Sue Steward’s collection, however, has to be her extended interviews of Edmundo Ros. These have the British Library reference C1984/1-30. This is an example of one of the many Edmundo Ross catalogue entries.
Ros was a Trinidadian-Venezuelan musician who became famous as a bandleader and club proprietor in London in the 1940s. Through both his dance bands and his clubs, Ros was the first to bring Latin American music to wide appeal in the UK, performing arrangements of cha-chas, sambas, rumbas, mambos and tangos tempered with big band swing and light music to suit the tastes of a British audience unused to such exotic sounds. As well as his music, Ros also became famous as a respected member of high society, a rarity for a Black man at that time.
Intending to write an exhaustive biography of Ros, Steward recorded multiple interviews with him at his home in Xàbia, Spain between 2000 and 2005, when Ros was between 89 and 94 years old. These interviews are so detailed, thorough and lengthy that they essentially represent an oral history. All told, Steward recorded over 27 hours of interview, including sections where the two of them look through old photographs, watch video tapes and listen to his old records.
What becomes clear is Ros’s abilities as a storyteller, his flair for the dramatic, and a playful enjoyment of his own self-mythology. Together, Ros and Steward discuss his musical life, including his time as a student at the Royal Academy of Music (where he was later made a fellow); performing at clubs during the height of the Blitz; the ins-and-outs of running a high-class ‘dinner and supper club’ from the 1940s to the 1960s; his fame, struggles and the eventual dissolution of his band.
They also talk about his (just as explosive) personal life such growing up in Trinidad and Venezuela, and his endeavours to become a perfect English gent, which led to many encounters within high society, including performing at the personal invitations of George IV, Elizabeth II and Rainier III of Monaco, his run-ins with Prince Philip, future Duke of Edinburgh, and his part in the first great post-war sex scandal. Clearly opinionated, Ros always seemed keen to give his strong (and perhaps, at times, controversial) thoughts on race, status, music and politics.
Although Steward’s biography of Ros was never completed before her sudden death in 2017, these interviews amount to Ros’s own autobiography, his stories told in his own words. Through the diligent work of Sue Steward, and now through the activities of the Unlocking Our Hidden Collections initiative, those stories – and those of many other musicians, artists and arts professionals – are now discoverable to the world through the British Library.
By Jim Hickson, Hidden Collections Audio Cataloguer, World and Traditional Music