John Storm Roberts: Writer and recordist who helped popularise new areas of world music
Wednesday 03 February 2010
The writer John Storm Roberts opened up new vistas of music, notably with his books Black Music of Two Worlds (1972) and The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States (1979). In their way they were as ground-breaking and revelatory as A.H. Fox-Strangways' The Music of Hindostan must have been in 1914 for India's music traditions.
Eventually based in Rhinebeck, New York, he enabled us to understand what had seemed recondite musical forms. By placing value on general descriptive books with a point of view, and on music that had been relegated to the fringes, seen as having marginal academic worth or as music only worth dancing to, he opened new vistas of appreciation. A polyglot, he also placed great emphasis on understanding the words.
Sam Charters and Harold Courlander had taken a step further the John and Alan Lomax approach to tradition-based black music like the blues, while Peter Siegel and Jody Stecher had recorded The Real Bahamas in 1965. Roberts advanced those principles by taking in calypso, salsa, meringue, East African-India diaspora hybrids and more, as well as what might be called proto-hip-hop. He also saw his own recordings released, such as Caribbean Island Music: Songs and Dances of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica (1972) and several on his Original Music label. He also kept writing: for example, Latin Jazz: The First of the Fusions, 1880s to Today (1999).
He became one of my mentors, articulating truths nobody had ever expressed to me. Talking to Jason Gross in 1997, he evoked that glossed-over truth: "Music isn't a universal language at all, even if one's language or one area's music dominates."
When writing, as in speaking, Roberts had an English patrician voice that his time spent living in the US never quite homogenised. He came across as of indeterminate age because his enthusiasms were so embracing and infectious, though tempered with experience. He made connections. He was the first person with whom I explored links between the Egyptian and Bombay film industries and cross-cultural phenomena like the singers Umm Kalthum, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. He appreciated that local musics change and can weather changes, like Congolese music affecting Ghanaian music or James Brown influencing Nigerian highlife music. Not for nothing did Black Music of Two Worlds have Ornette Coleman on its jacket.
He was born in London "of comfortably off but honest parents"; travel, living abroad and languages broadened his mind. At Oxford he studied Modern Languages and attended the Heritage Society, the breakaway folk music stomping ground that seceded from the University's Cecil Sharp Society in 1956; its other alumni include Alasdair Clayre, Louis Killen, Liz Lewis (later Peta Webb), Tony Rose and June Tabor. Roberts would go on to gain varying degrees of competence in six languages.
In his three years in East Africa he became fluent in Swahili and worked on Kenya's East African Standard, one of the country's two main English-language newspapers. Working as a grubbing journalist there – or, once back in London, on the Times Literary Supplement and on the BBC World Service as radio producer – gave him a profound appreciation of the freelance life, such as when he called his line of work "non-profit". It made him a joy to work with or for. We worked on a biographically based world music encyclopaedia. As is the nature of such reference works, glaring omissions kept jack-in-a-boxing out and he kept accommodating them. It never was published but it was a wonderful journey for us both.
John Storm Roberts, music writer, archivist and recordist: born London 24 February 1936; married firstly Jane Lloyd (divorced; one son, one daughter), secondly Anne Needham (two stepdaughters, one stepson); died Kingston, New York 29 November 2009.
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