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Don’t Stop the Carnival: Searching for sounds, finding souls

by Kevin Le Gendre

About eight or nine years ago Kadija George asked me to chair a discussion on Black British music as part of a series of events, Black British Perspectives in the Arts. Participants included Kwame Kwaten and Sheila Chandra, two talented musicians and producers, and the session was inspiring. We talked mostly about artists who were active between the ‘60s and ‘90s. All of which whetted my appetite to go further back in time in order to retrace the fearless footsteps of their numerous predecessors.

Once the idea of a book was set in my mind I made it my mission to identify the first black musicians in Britain and chart their development. I had a rough idea this would lead me to the Middle Ages, and I became increasingly fascinated by the lives of black musicians in a number of circumstances, from buskers, fiddle in hand and peg leg on pavement, to runaway African servants ‘with wooly hair’ who ‘sound a trumpet’, to classical violinists, who played for the great and the good in gilt-edged drawing rooms from Bath to Falmouth to London. It soon became apparent that there was quite simply a whole wealth of stories about musicians who had done incredible work up and down the country. High life and jazz in Manchester; R&B in Liverpool; calypso and steel pan in Leeds; all of the aforementioned in London, and in Cardiff, home to one of the earliest black communities in the UK, whence came a certain Shirley Bassey. Hence the sub-title of the book, Black Music in Britain, is essential. The chronicles are very much national rather than strictly metropolitan.

Of course, the musicians in question came from the former British Empire – Africa and the West Indies – but also America, and the journey of an inspirational figure such as the singer, actor and social activist Paul Robeson, who emerged from the Harlem Renaissance to make his mark in Wales as well as England, was one that had to be documented against the backdrop of others who had commensurate talent and ambition. Robeson’s image in a collector’s book of ‘Variety’ cards given away with packets of cigarettes was a potent symbol of his standing in post-war British culture. He was a household name. He was an international Negro. He was a pioneer.

The text was always going to be about more than music, though. I wanted to give an insight into the lives of these singers and players in order to convey a sense of how they were perceived by the ‘natives’, and what kind of options were open to them in terms of employment. An overarching theme gradually emerged: the presence of black musicians in the military. This is really the backbone of Don’t Stop The Carnival. Drummers, brass players, reed players, string players and singers of African descent dot the history of the British armed services, as well as American units, some of which were posted in the UK. The continuum includes anybody from Sam Manning, Leslie Thompson and Frank Holder to Robbie Robinson, Geno Washington and Jimi Hendrix. These names are not usually linked because they are associated with a range of different genres, namely calypso, jazz, soul and rock, but this band of brothers nonetheless underlines the need for a greater focus not just on blacks who have enriched the musical history of Britain but on those who have helped to shore up the pillars of modern mainstream society.

If, as politicians tell us, the defense of the realm is of the utmost importance, then those who chose to join up, which, in the case of many ‘Colored Colonials’, stemmed from a deep-seated patriotism and loyalty to the ‘mother country’ should really be recognized as a source of national pride. The likes of Manning and Thompson entertained the troops during the First and Second World Wars, thus performing the absolutely invaluable task of keeping morale high. The image of a human being holding a microphone, trumpet or saxophone against the fire and fury of conflict in which the ultimate sacrifice is made many times over is tremendously poignant. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then I hope and pray – and I chose to end the book on this note – that the guitar will one day silence the gun.

Learning more about their lives took on a more personal resonance because my own father, Conrad Zeno Le Gendre, is a West Indian ex-serviceman. I came to realize that I was writing Don’t Stop The Carnival for him as much as I was for the countless musicians who feature in the text. It is the greatest privilege I could have wished for.  

Photo by Leonard Alcira on Unsplash

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