Sound and vision blog

20 posts categorized "Black & Asian Britain"

08 December 2021

Documenting Bengali music in Britain

Written by Val Harding and Julie Begum from the Swadhinata Trust ahead of their British Library event 'Songs of Freedom: Celebrating Fifty Years of Bangladesh' on 16 December 2021.

In 2016 we set up an oral history project at the Swadhinata Trust aiming to document multi-generational experiences of Bengali music in Britain. The Swadhinata Trust is based in East London and is a secular group that works to promote Bengali history and heritage amongst young people. To date we have collected 30 interviews and various musical recordings that are now available to listen to in British Library Reading Rooms as the 'Bengali music and musicians in the UK Collection' (BL REF C1796).

Swadhinata Trust OrganisationBengali Women and children at Shahid Minar at Altab Ali Park in Tower Hamlets, London, for a trans-national commemoration event © Swadhinata Trust

There has been a South Asian presence in Britain for over 400 years, and music has inevitably played a part in this presence. In the first half of the 20th century lascars and seamen from the north east of India who worked for British owned ships and the Merchant Navy began to settle in London’s East End, the Midlands and Northern cities. The Bangladeshi community of today grew from these roots.

In 1971 the nation of Bangladesh was born after a war of liberation from the rule of West Pakistan, and this year, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of independence. The suppression of Bengali language and culture by West Pakistan was a key trigger in the liberation struggle. The celebration of Bengali language and culture is thus an essential and prominent aspect of Bengali identity in the UK today.

In his interview from our 'Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK' collection, Mahmudur Rahman Benu tells the story of the troupe of artists he led singing liberation songs in 1971. Like many of the interviews in this collection, it is in English and Bengali language and includes many musical demonstrations.

The history of 1971 is again reflected in an interview with singer and songwriter Moushumi Bhowmik who wrote the well known song 'Jessore Road' - inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s 1971 poem 'September on Jessore Road'. Other stories from 1971 come from two sisters, Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair, whose parents were activists in London during 1971.  Yasmin and Rumana sang as children at meetings and rallies supporting the war effort. They describe their experience in this excerpt from an interview:

excerpt of interview with Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair [BL REF C1796/15]

Download Transcript

From the mid-1950s through to the 1970s Bengali migrants to the UK faced many barriers. The late 1970s saw the emergence of community activism to fight racism, and with it, a gradual emergence of music that hitherto had been kept hidden behind closed doors. In her interview, Julie Begum explains how her experience of music started when she was a teenager in London, living in Tower Hamlets in the late 80s and early 90s. She describes how her and her Bengali friends were part of the community around the 'Asian underground sound', going to raves in warehouses where artists such as brothers Farook and Haroon Shamsher began to DJ as 'Joi'.

Since then, there has been a prolific growth of music making. Our interviews document migration and musical development in the UK, annual cultural events such as the Boishaki Mela (Spring Festival), music history from Bangladesh and West Bengal, theatre, and the music of the younger generations in the UK and in Bangladesh itself.

These areas are illustrated across various interviews in the collection. An interview with Mukul Ahmed, director of the theatre group Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers, demonstrates the integration of Bengali music and song into theatre. Present-day interest and innovation from the younger generation is illustrated in the interview with a ten-year-old performer, Anvita Gupta. The sound artist Abdul Shohid Jalil talks about his composition of Bengali inspired electronic music. The history of music in Bengal itself is also reflected in the interview with sarod player Somjit Dasgupta.

Bengali music is a broad term that encompasses musical practices in both Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. Before partition in 1947 this was one region, Bengal, sharing the same language, culture and music. The music of this region includes classical, folk and modern traditions, and notable composers of songs such as Rabindranath Tagore and Kobi Nazrul Islam. Our interviews include those who learn and perform these genres, and even present-day songwriters and composers, and the younger generation who are producing a fusion of music that reflects their Bengali and British backgrounds.

Our aim is to document music in the community and the culture that surrounds music. Our interviews are with community members and community music schools. The more professional and well-known musicians that we have interviewed are musicians working with the community, running classes and teaching, and involved in everyday community music making, such as Himangshu Goswami, Mahmudur Rahman Benubhai, tabla player Yousuf Ali Khan, singer Alaur Rahman, and teachers at the Udichi School of Performing Arts. Some of our interviewees are also people from other South Asian and non-Bengali backgrounds who participate and enjoy Bengali music.

Amongst those interviewed who migrated to this country, either as children or adults, there is often an expression of the hardship of psychological adjustment to living in the UK. For some who were practicing musicians or students of music back in Bangladesh and or India there was a period of time on arrival here when they could not find their voice and found themselves unable to express themselves through singing or music in the way they did back home. The process of overcoming this has been gradual, and only achieved through the encouragement of friends and family. These processes are succinctly expressed in interviews with Alaur Rahman, Moushumi Bhowmik and Nadia Wahhab.

We hope you will enjoy the interviews in the 'Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK' collection both at the British Library and also at the Swadhinata Trust. Please get in touch as we are always happy to hear from you regarding any aspect of our project.

Follow @BL_WorldTrad@BLSoundHeritage, and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 November 2021

Recording of the week: James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union

By Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

The British Library launches a new web resource this week. It is called 'Speaking Out', and it seeks to explore the spoken word in its most forceful guise: that of the public address.  Through historical archive recordings, together with new essays, we aim to shine a light on the art and power of public speaking in all its forms.

Today's 'Recording of the Week' showcases a landmark speech by the US writer James Baldwin.

On 18 February 1965 Baldwin was invited to speak at the Cambridge University Union. The motion was 'The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro'. His opposite number in the debate was the conservative writer and broadcaster William F. Buckley Jr., a supporter of the racial segregation that existed in the Southern states.

The debate was a significant moment in the story of the US civil rights struggle. Baldwin's speech specifically is among the most celebrated in the history of the Cambridge Union. David Leeming's 1994 biography of Baldwin tells us it received a standing ovation and carried the post-debate vote, receiving 544 votes, as against 184 for Buckley.

Photo of James Baldwin - copyright Getty Images

James Baldwin. Photo copyright © Getty Images. 

Listen to James Baldwin

Audio copyright © James Baldwin Estate

Download Transcript

Founded in 1815, the Cambridge Union Society is the oldest debating society in the world. Speakers are drawn from all walks of public life and include politicians, peers, scientists, journalists, celebrities, experts of all kinds, and student debaters. 

In the summer of 2007, following successful negotiations with the Cambridge Union Society, the collected recordings of more than 600 of the Society's weekly debates were transferred to the care of the British Library. The Society was concerned to find a new permanent home for the collection, lacking the facilities on their own premises for archival storage of the material or the provision of regular public or student access to it.

The period covered is 1963-1999. Although the bulk of the collection is made up of TDK D90 audio cassettes dating from 1983 onwards, there are also many open reel tapes dating from the earlier period (such as the James Baldwin tape, pictured below). 

Photo of James Baldwin tape box

All the recordings are available to listen to at the British Library but you will need to apply for a Reader Pass if you don't already have one.

28 October 2021

Black History Month – Carlisle and Wellmon

Photo of Carlisle and WellmonCarlisle and Wellmon (BL shelfmark 1SS0009976)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

For Black History Month this year, I was delighted to find early recordings of two African American musicians made in London.  The piano duo team of Carlisle and Wellmon made recordings for Columbia over one hundred years ago in November 1912.

Born in North Carolina in 1883, Harry Wellmon was already established in London as a song composer while still in his early twenties in 1906.  He had previously worked at the Harlem River Casino in New York City but, as with many African American performers, found far more job opportunities in Britain and Europe.  In London, from his premises at 47 Oxford Street he wrote songs for famous music hall stars of the day including Victoria Monks. 

Sheet music of I never lose my temperBL shelfmark H.3988.r.(43)

Wellmon returned to the United States in 1909 for a year but was back in England where a son was born on the south coast in Southsea in November 1911 the mother being Lilian Riley, a confectioner’s assistant.  He formed the piano duo Carlisle and Wellmon around 1910 and must have been popular as they recorded for Columbia in November 1912.  However, Wellmon had many pursuits, primarily as a composer and music publisher, and the duo made their last appearance at the Lewisham Hippodrome in December 1915 while Wellmon continued as a solo performer the following week.  In the early 1920s he appeared in Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Bratislava and Zagreb, Bombay, the Netherlands and South America.  He appears to have returned to the United States in 1935.

George Horace Carlisle was born in Minnesota, also in 1883, and had previously toured Britain with another performer as Carlisle and Baker.  It is claimed that he was a pupil of the great piano teacher Theodore Leschetizky (1830-1915) in Vienna - whose pupils include Paderewski and Ignaz Friedman - but Carlisle's name does not appear in Leschetizky’s personal lists of pupils or his diaries. 

Leschetizky did have a few African American students.  One was Raymond Augustus Lawson (1875-1959) who was educated at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee from where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree.  He then studied at the Hartford Conservatory of Music graduating in 1900.  Whilst in Germany he met Ossip Gabrilowitsch (Leschetizky pupil and son in law of Mark Twain) who in the summer of 1911 introduced Lawson to Leschetizky.  After playing for the great master, Leschetizky declared, ‘I know that Americans are great technicians, but Mr Lawson is a poet.’  As was often the way, Leschetizky heard a pianist once, then passed them to one of his assistants for instruction, and this may have happened to George Carlisle.  He seems to have stayed in England and died during a piano audition at the Royal Oak Hotel in Ramsgate in 1963, an obituary claiming he was born in Bermuda and in his sixties: he was actually 80 years of age.

Carlisle and Wellmon made six sides for Columbia in 1912, all of their own compositions, most of which were published between 1910 and 1913.  Four are of their own songs – 'Kiss me Right', 'Go ‘Way Meddlesome Moon', 'A Prescription for Love' and 'Why Do You Wait for Tomorrow?' 

Sheet music of Go way meddlesome moonBL shelfmark H.3990.c.(6)

The remaining two sides are piano only - Chip-Chip Two Step and March, and an arrangement of the Sextette from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti – ‘in Ragtime.’  This disc was issued as Columbia 2054 in 1912 but re-issued on their cheaper Regal label in February 1914 and remained in the catalogue until August 1918.

Label of Regal disc Lucia SextetteRegal Label (BL shelfmark 9CS0000242)

The performance is only in ragtime for the last half of the recording.  The first part is in ‘classical’ style and the switch to ragtime is not such a jolt as one might expect due to the fact that it is played in a strict ragtime style – not too fast, with a firm and controlled rhythm.  With the ragtime revival of the 1970s we learnt that Scott Joplin did not want his rags played fast and directed the player so at the beginning of his scores.  Few solo piano disc recordings of ragtime survive from the era and a recording of Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag played by the United States Marine Band from 1909 is taken at a swift tempo.  Carlisle and Wellmon’s performance has elements of Joplin's direction and even though played at a crowd-pleasing tempo with dazzling contrary motion chromatic scales, there are underlying elements of the strict ragtime style from ten years before.

Sextette from Lucia mp3

Thanks to James Methuen Campbell for the Leschetizky information.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

22 June 2021

Windrush Day: Bristol’s Princess Campbell

Today is Windrush Day, a day which honours the contributions and hardships of the British Caribbean community and those who travelled to the UK after the Second World War to help rebuild Britain and start a new life. To mark the day we have a guest blog from one of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’s (UOSH) hub partners Bristol Archives, to tell the inspiring story of one of Bristol’s members of the Windrush generation, Princess Campbell.

Princess Campbell was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1939. As a young woman, she became one of the estimated half-a-million people from Commonwealth countries who answered the call for migrant workers in England. She came to Bristol in 1962, where she trained as a nurse and became the city’s first black ward sister.

In recent years, she became one of Bristol’s best-known members of the Windrush generation. Through the UOSH project, we can now hear about Princess’s life in England in her own words.

Photo of Princess Campbell

Pictured above: Princess Campbell in her nurse’s uniform (Bristol Archives, 44459/Ph/2/4).

In 2007, schoolchildren, involved in the ‘Easton and Us’ local heritage project, interviewed local residents to find out about their lives in Easton from the 1930s to the present day.

These oral histories, held at Bristol Archives, were recently made available for research through UOSH. Originally held on minicassettes, the recordings have been digitised so that we can once again hear the voices and experiences of the people who took part.

Princess Campbell was one of those interviewed and her story is compelling, from her experiences of racism to the many ways she fought against discrimination.

Keen to establish herself in a profession, Princess considered becoming a teacher before choosing to train as a nurse. Once qualified, she worked for years but encountered barriers when she sought to progress her career. She tells the children who interviewed her how hard black people have to work to prove themselves; in this clip, she talks about working hard to gain as many qualifications as she could.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip one

Download Princess Campbell clip one transcript

Despite her skills in both general nursing and psychiatric nursing, Princess was passed over for promotion to ward sister. She describes how support from fellow staff helped her to overcome resistance to appointing a black woman and she was eventually appointed to this role.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip two

Download Princess Campbell clip two transcript

Princess also talks about wider problems of discrimination for the growing black community. As she explains in this clip, she arrived in Bristol to find black people had little access to good jobs or decent homes. To solve the housing problem, she was involved in setting up a housing association to help both black and white people to find affordable accommodation.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip three

Download Princess Campbell clip three transcript

Through her determination to bring about change, Princess was also involved in other movements. Soon after her arrival in England, she was involved in the Bristol bus boycott, a campaign against the local bus company’s refusal to employ black drivers and conductors.

The boycott was led by the activist Paul Stephenson but as Princess says, ‘I was one of the protestors - I can't help it... we would have our banners out there and protest peacefully and decently’. Ultimately, the bus company changed their policy and began to recruit black staff, although racism from other passengers was also a common experience.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip four

Download Princess Campbell clip four transcript

Later on, Princess was also active in the aftermath of another high-profile protest. In April 1980, the St Paul’s riots in Bristol were a response to police treatment of young black people. Princess described attending Parliament to lobby MPs for improved facilities to young people, leading to the creation of a new youth centre.

Towards the end of her life, Princess’s achievements were recognised and celebrated. A few years after this interview was recorded, she received an OBE for services to the community. In Bristol, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bristol and a nurses’ training centre was named after her at the University of the West of England. When she died in 2015, crowds lined the streets of Easton for her funeral procession.

This recording complements other material documenting the experiences of black people that can be found in the collections at Bristol Archives. Princess was a founder member of the Bristol Black Archives Partnership. Through this venture, people and organisations from Bristol’s African-Caribbean community - including people involved in the bus boycott - deposited records and personal papers with the archives. Available for research alongside these records, Princess’s interview adds a personal insight into the lives of people from the Windrush generation who made their home here.

Three logos - UOSH - Heritage Fund - Bristol Archives

This post was written by Allie Dillon from Bristol Archives.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @bristolarchives for more updates from the UOSH project teams.

18 June 2021

Walk in their footsteps: Windrush Voices, a new digital education programme at the British Library

I still remember it like it was yesterday. The 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. The level of excitement about us as the host nation was at a fever pitch. There was a lot of talk around Danny Boyle’s plans for an very epic opening ceremony and what an amazing performance it was. There was one particular moment that has stayed with me the most in my memories of that event.

At the center of the multi-media stage was a recreation of the industrial revolution. Circling the stage were different moving milestones of British history to be proud of. Amongst this comes a large prop of a boat, smoke billowing from its engines and a gathered group of black men and women striding forward:

And others would come from other lands. In particular from the West Indies

These words were said by a BBC commenter as we watched in awe. It felt incredibly significant to include a generation who answered the call of the ‘mother country’‘ in Britain’s hour of need. My grandparents were part of that generation. Travelling from Barbados and Jamaica to Britain during the 1960s. However I found their stories were rarely taught or spoken about in school when I was a student. As a Learning Facilitator and co-ordinator of the Windrush Voices educational programme, I do feel a sense of pride in providing a very unique opportunity for their stories to be heard by a new generation of students.

On Windrush Day as we celebrate the efforts of this generation in our society, the Windrush Voices team will host a special online event perfect for secondary and sixth form history teachers.

Windrush Voices is a digital education programme based on the themes of the exhibition ‘Songs in A Strange Land’ which featured at The British Library in 2018. With the use of oral history, learners are able to analyse and dissect the lived experiences of the Windrush Generation. The event is designed to support and inspire teachers to use the ‘Windrush Voices’ resource in schools with 15-18 year old's. Places are still available to book.

Using stories from the Library’s oral history enables you to share people’s personal stories as they witnessed them. Not only do we hear them in their words but we are able to gain an understanding of what impact this moment has had on them today. With the use of oral history, learners are able to analyse and dissect the lived experiences of the Windrush Generation, perspectives that they may never before have considered.

Our programme breaks down into three areas, so we can focus on the Windrush Generation and the second generation’s lived experiences in regards to childhood, work and activism. By encouraging in-depth listening, we then post these questions to the students:

  • What it was like to arrive in Britain? What was school like?
  • What was it working in Britain?
  • What challenges did the Windrush Generation face in Britain?
  • What steps did Windrush Generation take to make a difference?

As learners are encouraged to dissect personal accounts, there is also space to further understand how oral history is produced and may inspire them to talk more to members of their own families and communities.

Portrait photograph of Vanley Burke in front of framed photographsVanley Burke, Image Courtesy of Birmingham Post & Mail, 2014

Vanley Burke was born in 1951 in Jamaica and came to Britain in 1965 at age of 14. He is considered to be the godfather of black British photography. In his oral history recording about his career as a photographer, he gave a window into what he was going to school in Britain as a child.

Vanley Burke on going to school in Britain as a child (C459/217)

Download Vanley Burke on going to school in Britain as a child Transcript

In this very short account we discover there is quite a lot for us to unpack. Burke’s words paint a very clear picture of a lawless rough environment where he did not feel safe. By noting the silence, the laughter and his choice of words we are able to gain far more than if we simply read Burke’s account.

Portrait image of Sonia McIntosh sitting on a chairSonia McIntosh, Image from Caribeean Social Forum video, a partnership project between the British Library, Caribbean Social Forum and Chocolate Films

Alongside the bad experience of racism and prejudice, we are able to see the resolve many within the Windrush Generation took to make a real systemic change in UK society. Sonia McIntosh began working as a civil servant at Parliament. To combat the fact that not enough black people were ascending to higher positions or work in parliament, she and her colleagues formed a group to encourage black people in the workplace.

Sonia McIntosh on founding ParliREACH

Download Sonia McIntosh on founding ParliREACH Transcript

Sonia McIntosh was one of many traversing uncharted waters to make lasting change for the generations to come.

The lasting impact of the Windrush scandal is also reflected in our final portion of our resources. With the context of the past, learners & educators can see a full picture as to why this betrayal cuts in incredibly deeply for the Windrush Generation. We are hopeful that learning the stories of their personal lived experiences can have a positive impact on future chapters of Windrush Generation’s story.

The Windrush Generation came to Britain at a crucial time. Their efforts have been woven into the fabric of what makes Britain great. It has been an honour and privilege for the team and I to provide a platform for their incredible stories to be heard. We greatly look forward to this event on 22 June, and hope that teachers and students are inspired to use Windrush Stories in the classroom.

Blog by Reuben Massiah, Learning Facilitator and co-ordinator of Windrush Voices, British Library Learning

13 May 2021

Eid Mubarak: Celebrations marking the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a new month

In today’s blog, Charlotte Wardley, Project Support Officer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH), shares some recordings from our sound archive related to Eid. Charlotte is joined by Saba Syed, Chair of the British Library’s BAME Network, to talk about Ramadan and Eid.

Today is Eid, marking the end of Ramadan. Eid Mubarak!

The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar and each month is 29 or 30 days long. Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is observed by Muslims across the UK and worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, community and reflection.

Eid al-Fitr is the celebratory festival which marks the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a new month. That makes ‘Eid eve’, otherwise called ‘Chand Raat’ (meaning ‘night of the moon’) in the Indian sub-continent, an exciting time. Everyone checks in with each other to see whether a new moon - which marks the new month and start of Eid - has been sighted.

New moon at sunset - photo by bartb_pt

Above: New moon at sunset,  'Ramadan رمضان' by bartb_pt  - licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In some Islamic communities you will find people on the rooftops, eagerly scouting the sky for signs of a thin new crescent moon. If it is sighted, then Eid is declared for the following day by local mosques. If a new moon hasn’t been sighted, then it’s another day of fasting with confirmation that Eid will follow the day after.

In the following recording from 2008 from the Moroccan Memories in Britain collection (C1237), interviewee Fatima Serroukh recalls how Ramadan was an exciting time for her as a young girl and she describes the traditional Moroccan foods her family would eat during Iftar. These include dishes such as ‘harira’, which is a soup with lentils, tomato and chickpeas, and ‘chebakia’ which are sesame and honey cookies. Iftar is the meal served after sunset during Ramadan, to break the day’s fast. Iftar is often a social event where many friends and family come together.

Listen to Fatima Serroukh interview - clip 1

Shelfmark: C1237/118 © Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, now called Migrants Organise. Download Transcript - clip 1

Fatima then describes the anticipation of Eid and how her family would prepare for celebrations. She describes the traditional Moroccan outfit called ‘takchita’ that she would plan on wearing. Then on the day of Eid her family would celebrate together by eating breakfast and going to meet friends and family.

Listen to Fatima Serroukh interview - clip 2

Shelfmark: C1237/118 © Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, now called Migrants Organise. Download Transcript - clip 2

Saba recalls similar feelings of excitement ahead of Eid and when the new moon sighting was finally announced and celebrations would begin:

Growing up, I remember the flurry of activity and excitement that would follow the declaration of the sighting of the moon. My sister and I would pull out new clothes and set about ironing them for the family. My mum would be in the kitchen preparing favourite food items for the next day. New outfit, new underwear and bangles, and anything else festive would be laid out in preparation. Then we would sit down to apply henna on each other’s hands. My dad would be liaising with friends as to which morning service we would all aim for. When I was younger, we would all attend Eid prayer at London Central Mosque on Regent Street, and the car journey there would be an event in itself. More recently, we coordinate and attend one of the hourly services at Harrow mosque, or one of the prayers organised in a local park.

Following the prayer we gather and meet other friends and families, enjoy the food stalls and ice cream. Then we head off to the graveyard, to pay our respects and offer a prayer to the recently deceased, followed by visiting loads of people and eating lots of lovely delicious food. As children we would also look forward to ‘Eidi’ – money handed out by the elders. Now our tradition has shifted and my family buys each other gifts, and so there will be one point in the day when immediate family will get together, hand out gifts and enjoy watching everyone rip off the wrapping and delight in their new presents.

The final recording featured on this blog comes from our Head of Sound and Vision, Janet Topp Fargion’s collection, which was recently digitised by the UOSH project. It was recorded at a fairground in Zanzibar in 1989 during Iddi Mossi (Eid al-Fitr) celebrations, where many people from the town and rural areas gathered for festivities, food and lots of fun. You can hear the celebratory atmosphere, with the adhan in the background, which is the Islamic call to prayer, and the Beni brass band in procession around the fairground. Beni is one of Zanzibar’s best-loved celebratory musics and is performed at special occasions.

Listen to Iddi Mossi fairground - Janet Topp Fargion collection

Shelfmark: C724/2/6 © Janet Topp Fargion.

It is the second year Eid celebrations will be different for many Muslims across the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. Here, Saba reflects on the ways in which her family have been finding moments to celebrate together during the lockdown:

This is the second year Ramadan has passed during lockdown, and last year there was no congregational prayers in mosques. Instead, we had our own family prayer with our immediate families socially distanced in the garden. Last year, my parents stayed indoors and observed us in the garden through the window of their house, until the final moment when they came out to pray before dashing back inside afterwards. My mum had prepared her usual feast for us, which was laid out in the conservatory, and we all helped ourselves and sat in the garden to eat as she watched us through the window, happy in the knowledge that her children were still with her on Eid, even with social distancing.

We wish our Muslim friends and family Eid Mubarak and despite the sadness, loss and difficulties many have experienced since last Eid, we hope those of you reading this blog and listening to these recordings will come together in a moment of celebration.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage for updates from the UOSH Project team.

Thank you to Saba Syed for generously sharing her memories and knowledge, to those who feature in the sound recordings, and thank you to Jonnie Robinson, Andrea Zarza, Janet Topp Fargion and Mary Stewart for their help preparing this blog.

17 December 2020

Oral History of Jazz in Britain: Max Jones interviews Adelaide Hall

By Sarah Coggrave, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) Project.

In 1988, jazz author, radio host and journalist Max Jones (1917–1993) interviewed jazz singer Adelaide Hall (1901–1993) for the British Library project Oral History of Jazz in Britain (British Library ref. C122). The audio recording of this interview has recently been cleared for online release as part of our National Lottery Heritage Fund-supported Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project. Previous blogs about this collection focused on Kathy Stobart, Major James Howe and Champion Jack Dupree.

Adelaide Hall was born in 1901, in Brooklyn, New York, where her father, a piano teacher, introduced her to music from an early age. Hall describes an upbringing filled with musicians, instruments and music. Sadly she lost both her father and sister at a young age, and sought out work to support her mother. Her early successes in theatre enabled her to do this, and more.

In her interview with Max Jones, Hall describes three of the professional jobs that kick-started her career. The first, Shuffle Along, was a hit Broadway musical by Noble Sissie and Eubie Blake, which according to Hall, involved some dancing and a few leading parts. This was performed in New York in 1921. She later became part of an all-black revue called Chocolate Kiddies, and the group toured Europe in 1925. Some of the songs were written by Duke Ellington, with whom she would later collaborate on a career-defining recording of the song Creole Love Call in 1927. In this excerpt from the interview, she describes how this came about.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 1

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 1

The third show that helped to cement Hall’s reputation as a performer was the Blackbirds production of 1928. Based on a production staged in London in 1926, starring Florence Mills, Blackbirds was created by Lew Leslie, who planned to develop the show on Broadway. However, his main star, Mills, died in 1927, aged just 31. Adelaide Hall took her place and became one of the show’s biggest stars in 1928, along with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who she is pictured with below.

Adelaide Hall and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson

Adelaide Hall with Bill Robinson. Image from the Richmond Planet, 15 November 1930, sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Blackbirds, like Chocolate Kiddies, took Hall back to Europe. This time her destination was the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris, France, where the show was a great success. She then spent much of the early 1930s on tour, both in Europe and in the U.S.A. on the RKO circuit. During this period Hall performed at the renowned Cotton Club, as well as being accompanied by a young Art Tatum on the piano, before he found fame. She recalls encouraging Tatum to accept his first big offer, in spite of knowing that she would lose a fine accompanist in the process.

Hall's accompanists also included Francis Carter and Bernard Edison, and the piano, as an object, became an important stage prop, when Hall began to request not one, but two pianos on stage when she performed.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 2

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 2

Adelaide Hall cites her husband Bert Hicks (1924-1963), a British sailor born in Trinidad and Tobago, as a major support and collaborator in her career. Together they devised clever, creative ways to present her performances, and thanks to his language skills (which included French), they were able to buy and run a club called the Big Apple (La Grosse Pomme) in France. Between 1935 and 1938 the couple made this venue into a success with visitors and locals alike. Hall was the resident star, performing a cabaret show nightly. Here she describes making a dramatic entrance, from a spiral staircase repurposed by her husband:

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 3

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 3

Such was Hall's popularity, it would not have been practical to keep the club open without her, so when she decided to take up performance opportunities in the U.K., her husband came with her and they closed the club in 1938. They soon found a new home in the Old Havana Club in London, which they took over and renamed the Florida Club.

However, this new life in the UK had a turbulent start, and coincided with the start of the Second World War. The couple’s club was destroyed by a landmine in 1939, and Hall remembers an eerie premonition before the event, which earned her the nickname 'Miss Ouija Board'. Feeling somehow that something bad was about to happen, she told everyone to leave the club. Her husband Bert was in the cellar when the explosion occurred, although miraculously survived.

In spite of the war, Hall’s career continued to go from strength to strength, with recordings, performances, broadcasts and even her own radio show with the BBC. She appeared in an Oscar-winning film (The Thief of Baghdad), and later added television appearances to her credits. The interview also covers her stage performances in the 1950s, including Kiss Me Kate and Love From Judy, as well as the Duke Ellington Memorial and Eubie Blake's 99th birthday. She describes visiting Billie Holiday shortly before the talented singer’s premature death, as well as her friendship with Louis Armstrong and his then wife Lil.

At the time of the interview, conducted in 1988, Hall would have been in her eighties, and was still actively performing, with plans to record an album the following year. She describes having to take more care with health and sleep, but otherwise feeling as fit as a woman in her fifties!

The interview reveals a warm, funny and talented artist, with a great zest for life. In one of many touching moments she sings a song with friend and interviewer Max Jones and suggests they have a drink together.

I would like to thank Nick Jones for help with the rights to this collection (you can read more about Max Jones’s work on the Max Jones Archive web site), and would encourage everyone to check out Adelaide Hall's remarkable career. The British Library’s collections include other interviews, copies of Hall’s many recordings and even some recordings of live performances, as well as Iain Cameron Williams’s book Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall (2002). Materials about her life and work can be found in various archives, including Indiana University (U.S.), Yale University Library and Archives (U.S.) and the National Jazz Archives in the U.K.

16 November 2020

Recording of the week: Music and singing for the Tihar Festival in Nepal

This week's selection comes from Catherine Smith, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Tihar (Diwali) festival celebrations in Pokhara, Nepal
"20121113-Nepal-trekking-5-Pokhara-ARZH5002E" by zhushman is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tihar (also called Diwali) is a five day Hindu festival celebrated in Nepal. It usually takes place in the Nepali month, Kartik (end of October to November). The festival is in honour of Laksmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Good Fortune. Animals including crows, dogs, cows are also worshipped. Tihar is known as the festival of lights, as diyas (oil lamps) and festive lanterns are lit, illuminating homes and temples.

In this recording, we hear a group of campus students and staff in the small Nepali town of Gorkha Bajar, performing a Deusire song. They are singing and playing instruments including harmonium, madal and kartal. Deusire (or Deusi Re), are traditional call-and-response songs that are sung during the Tihar festival celebrations in Nepal. Traditionally, troupes of children and teenagers sing the songs and dance as they visit homes in their community, giving blessings for prosperity and collecting money, sweets and food.

Tihar git (deusire) (BL REF C1465/44)

This recording was made October 29th 1987 and is part of the Carol Tingey Collection (C1465/44). You can listen to more recordings from this collection on British Library Sounds.

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