Soul Music: The Pulse of Race and Music, By Candace Allen

For all its brave themes, some false notes limit the impact of this musical odyssey.

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The Independent Culture

Candace Allen poses some interesting questions. What is culture? Who sets the rules? And can classical music find a way of connecting with audiences and performers beyond a middle-class enclave? Unfortunately, her book, part-travelogue, part-memoir, part-manifesto, never comes close to providing satisfactory answers.

An African-American expatriate who has published a novel inspired by the career of the jazz trumpeter Valaida Snow, Allen worked in the film industry before entering another, even more rarefied world as the wife of the conductor Simon Rattle. (They have since divorced.) Soul Music seems to have been conceived while she was struggling in "second novel purgatory". A child of the radical Sixties, raised in a conventional, middle-class home in Connecticut and educated at Harvard, she sets out to discover to what extent ethnic and national identities are shaped by music in the supposedly post-racial 21st century.

Her odyssey includes a visit to Caracas to learn about the El Sistema education programme, as well as encounters with embattled practitioners of classical music in Kinshasa and the West Bank. In a homeless centre in London's East End she encounters a vocal workshop. There is, too, a fleeting reference to Wynton Marsalis's Jazz at Lincoln Centre organisation, which seeks to confer on jazz the kind of prestige that classical music takes for granted. Allen does an impressive amount of meeting and greeting, but the result is a series of well-meaning but curiously diffuse sketches.

What makes her "idiosyncratic perambulation" even harder to follow is that her writing is an uncomfortable mix of stream-of-consciousness confessional and radical-chic rhetoric. The more engaging sections deal with her childhood and coming of age. When she describes her exasperation at how, in the dawn of Beatlemania, her white peers treated black music as a mere footnote, some of us know exactly how she felt. Still, as she grows older, Allen learns to accept that her own tastes do not have to be defined by her background. Her marriage helps open a door to classical music, and she peers inside. All the same, she is bafflingly coy at times. We are told that Miles Davis was a friend of her father's, yet learn nothing about their relationship. Simon Rattle himself is a ghostly presence, and while Allen uses quotes from Nina Simone's songs as epigraphs, her own activist past is largely left unexplored.

She is honest enough to admit that she enjoyed a relatively cloistered existence as "a smart bourgeois girl". And ultimately, the ex-wife of one of the world's most glamorous conductors is going to have a very different take on music to a busker on the Tube. Money occasionally trumps race.