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Back to Black

The British Library’s new Beyond the Bassline exhibition is an ambitious attempt to showcase five hundred years of black British music — but fails to do this rich history justice.

Photograph: Adrian Boot

How might it be possible to decolonise a cultural edifice built on entirely colonial foundations? This is a question it would take unlimited political will and huge financial resources to answer. A more pragmatic goal would be to give the impression that such a process is at least underway. The British Library exhibition Beyond The Bassline — ringingly sub-titled ‘500 Years of Black British Music’, and presented in conjunction with the University of Westminster’s Black Music Research Unit — achieves this scaled-down objective in a way which will probably bring more joy to musicians than it does to historians.

The first two-thirds of the stated timeframe are breezed through in a room and a quarter —  in the informative but cursory manner of the catch-up segment people race to skip at the start of a binge-watched Netflix series. A small but significant cache of physical artefacts, including fascinating evidence of Tudor trumpeter John Blanke — Britain’s ‘earliest recorded’ (in the sense of his existence having been recorded, not his music) black musician — successfully petitioning Henry VIII for a backdated pay rise, is all but lost in the sonic backwash of an impressionistic filmed dance project about the significance of ‘the ocean’.

In honour of this first of several specially commissioned supplementary artworks, the exhibition commentary melts down the glittering treasure-trove of ideas that is Paul Gilroy’s book The Black Atlantic into somewhat baser metal. ‘The Atlantic Ocean has come to represent the idea of a shared Black culture that crossed international borders’ is a sentence that ChatGPT might blush at. One of Beyond the Bassline’s several uncomfortable leitmotifs is the tension between the needle-sharp art produced by individuals and groups often operating in hardly bearable socio-economic conditions under constant pressure from iniquitous business practices and racist law enforcement, and the slacker, more self-congratulatory variety accessible on demand to exhibition curators operating within a budget.

Almost before they know it, visitors are looking at a picture of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth-century composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an overlooked figure just a few years ago, whose considerable oeuvre is now threatening to buckle under the strain of multiple Radio 3 retrospectives. Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘mixed Sierra Leonian and English heritage’ is referred to in the context of his daughters, Hiawatha and Avril — the former sharing her name with his best-known work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the latter who became a conductor with the LSO and toured apartheid South Africa in 1952 until the authorities prevented her from touring because of her African ancestry.

This is one of a handful of points in the exhibition at which the particular challenges experienced by those of mixed heritage are referenced. Another is in the brief account of Phil Magbotiwan’s Reno Club in Moss Side, Manchester in 1962 — ‘The club welcomed black and white alike, but was a haven for the mixed-race clientele who often felt excluded elsewhere’.

The ‘clubs, pubs and community hubs’ section of the third room is the point where the exhibition comes alive with the thrill of actual human interaction. Up to that point, it’s been a largely static sequence of capsule descriptions — basically one-paragraph picture captions — introducing a cast of individuals whose stories would reward much deeper investigation. This includes musical pioneers such as London-born Evelyn Dove, the first black singer to appear on BBC radio and star of the sadly long-lost show Rhapsody in Black, or the gay Guyanese swing band leader Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, who was killed in a German air raid while performing at the Cafe De Paris at the age of 26.

With the small and very moving display dedicated to Tony and Lalel Bullimore’s Bamboo Club in the St Paul’s area of Bristol, a sense of what’s missing from some other parts of the exhibition begins to coalesce. A signed photo of US soul singer Joe Tex, thanking the ‘people who frequent the Bamboo Club’ for their hospitality, is counterpointed with the club’s minute book, day-to-day record of administrative detail (incorporating the affiliated dominoes and cricket clubs and dealing with diverse tribulations from disorderly customers to police surveillance), cut short by the fire which destroyed large sections of the club on 18 December 1977, ten days before The Sex Pistols were due to play there. This fragile paper record’s miraculous escape from one of the suspicious blazes, which were the deadly punctuation marks of black life in Britain in that era, gives the exhibit the quality of a holy relic.

That photo of Joe Tex has survived a less drastic but nonetheless still significant act of erasure. The intellectual framework within which Beyond the Bassline presents itself is very much an Afrocentric one — the opening line of the exhibition guide proper is ‘Our story and our music begin in Africa’ — and while that is not a point of origin with which anyone would need to quibble, the curators’ ideological position brings with it some cumbersome dogmatic baggage, notably a marked resistance to acknowledging black American cultural influence.

So while the seismic impacts on homegrown music-making of extended UK stays by the great Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin and Ghana’s King of Highlife ET Mensah are quite properly acknowledged, there is no mention of the equally significant British sojourns of bluesman Big Bill Broonzy (in fact I don’t recall a single mention of that obscure American idiom known as ‘The Blues’ in the whole exhibition) or his flamboyant legatee Jimi Hendrix. It’s still more puzzling that exiled South African jazzmen The Blue Notes — whose time in London had every bit as electrifying an impact on the British jazz scene as Hendrix’s did on his fellow rock guitarists — don’t merit even a respectful nod.

Gospel and Jazz are basically both left to fend for themselves after brief mentions of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ ground-breaking visit to England in 1873 and the tragic demise of nine members of jazz pioneers The Southern Syncopated Orchestra when their boat sank on a crossing to Ireland in 1921. The seismic shifts in British cultural mores initiated by visiting US blues and jazz musicians — the artistic and social revolution so brilliantly captured in Val Wilmer’s memoir Mama Said There’d Be Days Like These — is alluded to only obliquely in ecstatic newsreel footage of dancing couples at Soho’s happening thirties hotspot The Shim Sham Club, and an accompanying letter of complaint to Scotland Yard from an appalled racist living a few doors down Wardour Street.

2022’s The Horror Show! exhibition at Somerset House — widely acclaimed — presented a narrative of half a century of British counter-cultural endeavour from which black people were largely if not almost entirely excluded, and the cultural riches on display in Beyond The Bassline are a valuable corrective to that retrograde step.

The next cab off this particular rank, The Music Is Black: A British Story, the inaugural exhibition at the new V&A East, opening in 2025, seems to promise a more inclusive approach to this history. But who will find room for Southall as well as Brixton, Bhangra as well as Jungle, Streetsounds as well as Melodisc, and Cornershop as well as Labi Siffre?