Europe’s first all-black dance troupe, Les Ballets Nègres, dazzled audiences for eight years. Founded by the Jamaican dancers and choreographers Richie Riley and Berto Pasuka, the London-based group aimed to create a new dance language, fusing classical ballet’s emphasis on physical and technical discipline with the undulating pelvic movements and relaxed, flexible limbs of black Jamaican traditional dance.
Les Ballets Nègres sought to convey aspects of the Afro-Caribbean experience to a white audience, working with Leonard Salzedo’s scores for piano, tom-toms, and maracas to develop works including Market day, a joyous, dramatic recreation of the Jamaican market-place, and They came, which depicted the racial clash between Christianity and indigenous religion, but advocated the possibility of racial harmony.
Most critics were simultaneously impressed and baffled by the company’s first performances in 1946, and, as if lacking the vocabulary to comment on the dancing, focused more on the “tribal tom-toms”. The public, however, needed no convincing; the group’s first season was such a triumph that Les Ballets Nègres embarked on a tour of Europe. Still, plagued by persistent economic difficulties, the group—in Riley’s words—“went to sleep” in 1953.
This according to “New dawn for the ballet that went to sleep” (unsigned; The telegraph 31 July 1999).
Above, the group performs for the BBC in 1946; below, excerpts from the dances that were filmed that day.
Mark Twain’s reactions to grand opera are epitomized by a passage from A tramp abroad in which he described a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin.
“The banging and slamming and booming and crashing were something beyond belief. The racking and pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time that I had my teeth fixed.”
“There was little of that sort of customary thing where the tenor and the soprano stand down by the footlights, warbling, with blended voices…no, it was every rioter for himself and no blending. Each sang his indictive narrative in turn, accompanied by the whole orchestra of sixty instruments, and when this had continued for some time, and one was hoping they might come to an understanding and modify the noise, a great chorus composed entirely of maniacs would suddenly break forth.”
“We only had one brief little season of heaven and heaven’s sweet ecstasy and peace during all this long and diligent and acrimonious reproduction of the other place. This was while a gorgeous procession of people marched around and around, in the third act, and sang the Wedding Chorus. To my untutored ear that was music—almost divine music. While my seared soul was steeped in the healing balm of those gracious sounds, it seemed to me that I could almost re-suffer the torments which had gone before, in order to be so healed again.”
“There is where the deep ingenuity of the operatic idea is betrayed. It deals so largely in pain that its scattered delights are prodigiously augmented by the contrasts. A pretty air in an opera is prettier there than it could be anywhere else, I suppose, just as an honest man in politics shines more than he would elsewhere.”
Excerpted from “Mark Twain on opera” (The NATS journal XLIII/3 [January–February 1987] pp. 19, 49).
Above, the author around 1880, the year A tramp abroad was published; below, the “little season of heaven” at Bayreuth in 2010.
In 2007 the innovative young Wu-Tang Clan producer Cilvaringz took an incendiary idea to his mentor RZA. They felt that the impact of digitization threatened the sustainability of the record industry and independent artists, while shifting the perception of music from treasured works of art to disposable consumer products.
Together they conceived a statement that would unleash a torrent of global debate–a sole copy of an album in physical form, encased in gleaming silver and sold through an auction house for millions as a work of contemporary art.
The execution of this plan raised a number of questions: Would selling Once upon a time in Shaolin for millions be the ultimate betrayal of Wu-Tang’s fans? And could anyone ever justify the selling of the album to the infamous Martin Shkreli? Opinions were sharply divided over whether this was high art or hucksterism. Was it a subversive act of protest, an act of cultural vandalism, an obscene symbol of greed, or a profound mirror for our time?
The album’s journey from inception to disruption proved to be an extraordinary adventure that veered between outlandish caper and urgent cultural analysis, a story that twists and turns through mayhem and mischief while asking questions about our relationship with art, music, technology, and ultimately ourselves.
This according to Once upon a time in Shaolin: The untold story of Wu-Tang Clan’s million dollar secret album, the devaluation of music, and America’s new public enemy no. 1 by Cyrus Bozorgmehr (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017).
Above and below, the album in question.
In 2018 A-R Editions published a new critical edition of Shuffle along, which premiered on 23 May 1921 and became the first overwhelmingly successful African American musical on Broadway.
Langston Hughes, who saw the production, said that Shuffle along marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Both black and white audiences swarmed to the show, which prompted the integration of subsequent Broadway audiences. The dances were such a smash that choreographers for white Broadway shows hired Shuffle along chorus girls to teach their chorus lines the new steps.
The editors have assembled the full score and libretto for this critical edition from the original performance materials, and the critical report thoroughly explains all sources and editorial decisions. The accompanying scholarly essay examines the music, dances, and script of Shuffle along and places this influential show in its social, racial, and historical context.
Above, a publicity photo from 1921; below, a recording from the production that includes the show’s breakout hit I’m just wild about Harry.
On the coast of Washington and British Columbia sit the misty forests and towering mountains of Cascadia. With archipelagos surrounding its shores and tidal surges of the Salish Sea trundling through the interior, this bioregion has long attracted loggers, fishing fleets, and land developers, each generation seeking successively harder to reach resources as old-growth stands, salmon stocks, and other natural endowments are depleted.
Alongside encroaching developers and industrialists is the presence of a rich environmental movement that has historically built community through musical activism. From the Wobblies’ Little red songbook (1909) to Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River collection (1941) on through to the Raging Grannies’ formation in 1987, Cascadia’s ecology has inspired legions of songwriters and musicians to advocate for preservation through music.
The divergent strategies—musical, organizational, and technological—used by each musician and group to reach different audiences and to mobilize action suggest directions for applied ecomusicology at the community level.
This according to A song to save the Salish Sea: Musical performance as environmental activism by Mark Pedelty (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).
Above, an orca breaches in the Salish Sea, with Mount Baker in the background; below, Idle no More, one of the groups discussed in the book, at the River People Festival in 2014.
Homer Rodeheaver used his gifts as a trombone player as a tool for evangelism, and is particularly associated with what is known as the third great awakening.
Rodeheaver established a legacy by influencing, inspiring, and encouraging others to use the trombone in large-scale Christian evangelism. His missionary work took him, always with his trombone, to many parts of the world, and included a supposedly successful attempt to preach from an airplane with his trombone in tow.
This according to “Homer Rodeheaver: Reverend Trombone” by Douglas Yeo (Historic Brass Society journal XXVII  pp. 57–88).
You can listen to a recording of Rodeheaver playing the trombone here.
BONUS: Rare footage of Rodeheaver with Billy Sunday; Rodeheaver starts conducting audience hymn singing with his trombone around 2:00.
The performance and reception of post-World War II Filipino American popular music provide crucial tools for composing Pinoy identities, publics, and politics.
Filipino musicians like the Bay Area turntablist DJ group Invisibl Skratch Piklz bear the burden of racialized performers in the U.S. and defy conventions on musical ownership, challenging dominant U.S. imperialist tropes of Filipinos as primitive, childlike, derivative, and mimetic.
On many fronts, Filipino musicians, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers work within and against the legacies of the U.S./Philippine imperial encounter, and in so doing, move beyond preoccupations with authenticity and offer new ways to reimagine tropical places.
This according to Tropical renditions: Making musical scenes in Filipino America by Christine Bacareza Balance (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
Above and below, Invisibl Skratch Piklz in action.
Launched in 2018 by the University of Illinois Press, Jazz & culture is an annual publication devoted to publishing cutting-edge research on jazz from multiple perspectives.
Founded on the principle that both scholars and musicians offer invaluable contributions, the journal juxtaposes groundbreaking work by researchers alongside oral histories and articles written by master artists in the field. All methodological approaches are welcome, including ethnomusicology, music theory, and critical and cultural studies. The journal particularly encourages work relating to jazz’s international scope.
Below, Mandino Reinhardt, the subject of an article in the inaugural issue.
Hip hop teen dance films flourished in the 2000s. Drawing on the dominance of hip hop in the mainstream music industry, films such as Save the last dance, Honey, and Step up combined the teen film genre’s typical social problems and musical narratives, while other tensions were created by interweaving representations of post-industrial city youth with the utopian sensibilities of the classic Hollywood musical.
These narratives celebrated hip hop performance, and depicted dance as a bridge between cultural boundaries, bringing together couples, communities, and cultures, using hip hop to construct filmic spaces and identities while fragmenting hip hop soundscapes, limiting its expressive potential.
These attempts to marry the representational, narrative, and aesthetic meanings of hip hop culture with the form and ideologies of the musical film genre illuminate the tensions and continuities that arise from engagement with musicals’ utopian qualities.
This according to “Space, authenticity and utopia in the hip-hop teen dance film” by Faye Woods, an essay included in Movies, moves and music: The sonic world of dance films (Sheffield: Equinox, 2016, pp 61–77).
Above, a scene from Save the last dance; below, a scene from Honey.
In 1991 the celebrated singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso discussed the legacy of Carmen Miranda:
“She was a typical girl from Rio, born in Portugal, who, using a blatantly vulgar though elegant stylization of the characteristic baiana—Bahian dress—conquered the world and became the highest-paid woman in the United States. Carmen conquered white America as no other South American had done or ever would. She was the only representative of South America who was universally readable, and it is exactly because of this quality that self-parody became her inescapable prison.”
“Nevertheless, in 1967 Carmen Miranda reappeared as a central figure in our aesthetic concerns. A movement that came to be known as Tropicalismo appropriated her as one of its principal signs, capitalizing on the discomfort that her name and the evocation of her gestures could create. We had discovered that she was both our caricature and our X-ray, and we began to take notice of her destiny.”
“In Carmen’s day it was enough to make a percussive din that was recognizably Latin and Negroid. By bringing the musicians from Bando da Lua with her to the United States, however, she represented less the adulteration alleged by her critics than a pioneering role in a history that is still unfolding. It is the history of the relationship between a very rich music from a very poor country and musicians and audiences from the rest of the world.”
Quoted from “Caricature and conqueror, pride and shame” by Caetano Veloso (The New York times 20 October 1991).
Today is Miranda’s 110th birthday! Above, in 1941; below, performing in A date with Judy (yes, that’s 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in the audience).
Related article: Tropicália and Bahia