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Black music: The European connection

Queen Victoria was a fan – and an African superstar’s grandfather an early performer. John Clarke looks back at the hidden history of Europe’s links to black singers and performers

It turns out that black music’s first British fan could have been Queen Victoria. A century or so before Michael Jackson held sway a gospel group of 11 black singers from Fisk University in Tennessee sailed from Boston to Liverpool and gave concerts throughout Europe including one for the Queen in 1874.

So popular were they that they returned the following year and were welcomed back by another fervent admirer, William Gladstone.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were the first of a whole host of Afro-American singers who brought black music to Europe in the years before the First World War.

After the Fisk Jubilee Singers came (in a then very non-PC world) ‘The Jolly Coons’ from Virginia, a company of “freed slaves’ who in an 1882 tour entertained audiences as far afield as Glasgow, Carlisle, Newcastle, Sheffield and Manchester.

More acts followed and by the early 1900s a black musical “Dahomey” wowed audiences in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue. More royal patronage also followed. In June 1903, the entire cast of the show was invited to perform at Buckingham Palace for the ninth birthday of Prince Edward of Wales.

By the end of the First World War, black music’s new and unruly child had arrived on the scene - jazz . In June 1919, 36 members of the Will Cook Orchestra sailed from New York to the UK for a series of concerts including one at London’s Royal Philharmonic Hall.

At the same time, efforts were being made to record African music either in its homeland or by bringing selected performers over to London to record. One such was Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti, born in Nigeria and raised as a pious Christian. He died in 1930, but is probably best remembered now as the grandfather of the man who obviously inherited his musical genes, Fela Ransome-Kuti, the star who created Afrobeat and became one of the continent’s biggest musical stars.

In the US, the world of vaudeville offered an escape route for one Josephine Freda Macdonald who had witnessed the savage East St Louis race riots of 1917 when up to 200 Afro-Americans were killed. She was married at 13 to a musician and then at 16 to a Pullman porter called Baker whose name she used for the rest of her life.

A hit in the States, Josephine Baker was to find her greatest fame in Paris, where she became a huge film and recording star. By the time she died in 1975 she was considered a national heroine for her work with the French Resistance during the war and her work with orphans.

Baker and her fellow black musicians’ stories, largely hidden until now, are told in vivid detail and with impeccable research in a new CD set called Black Europe, a monumental (in every sense of the word) release that chronicles the history of black music in Europe up to 1928.

The scope, variety and qualities revealed by the books and the recordings are immense and almost numbing in impact – an impact that’s all the greater because they tell stories that we’ve never heard before.

Black Europe is available from Bear Family priced £405