Black Europe in Sound: African Diasporic Contributions to Art Music in Europe

AHA Session 234
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 1 (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Allison Blakely, Boston University
Allison Blakely, Boston University

Session Abstract

“Black Europe” has emerged as an area of inquiry within African diaspora studies and a “category of historical analysis,” “a lens for thinking comparatively and transnationally about race politics and racial formation” (Hammond Perry and Thurman 2016). Riding a wave of new studies of diasporic communities in specific national and imperial settings, it has provided the organizing theme of notable special issues, edited collections, conferences on both sides of the Atlantic, and a decade-long program of summer schools in the Netherlands. Scholarship on Black Europe has highlighted, on the one hand, the historical and contemporary contributions of people of African descent to culture, society, and politics in Europe and, on the other, the complex and often unbalanced connections among the African diaspora in Europe and Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Histories of the black presence—and black politics—in Europe has transformed our understanding of the histories of empire, decolonization, nations and nationalisms, internationalism, and racism and anti-racism.

Inspired by this growing historiography, this panel brings together historians working on the African diaspora in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Russia to reflect on the history and potential future of Black Europe as both topic and concept. The papers approach Black Europe through the history of black contributions to the development of music and musical cultures in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe. Few, if any, cultural realms are considered more quintessentially “European” than art music. In different ways and from different vantage points, the panelists’ papers call attention to the contributions of people of African descent to this tradition since the nineteenth century. Sally McKee’s paper tells the remarkable and largely-forgotten story of the New Orleans- native and composer, Edmond Dédé, who produced art music and popular songs and managed several dance halls in nineteenth-century France. Kira Thurman’s paper addresses the central paradox in contemporary German public discourse that it is impossible to be black and German by focusing on black performances of German identity in the interwar period. Hearing concert singers such as Marian Anderson take on their most cherished music forced German listeners to reconsider the cultural definitions of blackness and Germanness in 1920s Berlin and Vienna. Marc Matera’s paper centers on black musicians and composers working in the concert music tradition in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century, and explores how transatlantic networks and social world of black London shaped their compositions and performance repertoires. Taken together, these papers suggest certain parallels in the obstacles facing black musicians and composers as well as among the spaces that nurtured the work despite such challenges. They raise broader questions about the contours of Black Europe and the ways that the concept might bring into sharper focus the ways that transatlantic, transnational, and imperial connections shaped understandings of and contests over race, culture, and national and racial identities.

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