A Musical Passage Across Time and Place
August 4, 2016
In Musical Passage: Voyage to 1688 Jamaica, historian Laurent Dubois, composer David K. Garner, and literary scholar Mary Caton Lingold tell the story of a travel document and provide recordings that interpret the fascinating music unexpectedly found within its pages. They highlight the role of “Mr. Baptiste,” the unknown musician tasked with the writing of the notation, arguing that he may have been a freed black performer native to the colonies, and a composer.
By Mary Caton Lingold
The Musical Passage website makes it possible to engage with the music of New World Africans whose enduring legacy fell silent in the historical record for far too long. Through a close reading of this text combined with additional archival research, guest contributor Mary Caton Lingold demonstrates the power of centuries-old texts to generate new insights as she traces paths of connections between past and present.
It has been less than two months since we launched Musical Passage: Voyage to 1688 Jamaica, and a lot has happened in the world.
“Brexit” happened, as anti-immigrant isolationism swayed voters in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination for president of the United States on a platform rife with thinly veiled racism and outright Islamophobia. Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, and Korryn Gaines all lost their lives at the hands of police. Police were gunned-down in Dallas and Baton Rouge and terror attacks in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, and North Africa have rocked the world. These events have all caused me to reflect anew on Hans Sloane’s depiction of African music. While his book, A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, written over 300 years ago, may seem at first to have little to do with today’s political crises, the common thread of colonialism and slavery binds Sloane’s history to our current moment.
If you are in the U.S. right now, you may be living in what seems a deeply historied world, maybe even in a building over 100 years old, surrounded by a grid of well-worn streets and established government institutions, in a community in which American English is the predominant language. But consider that several centuries ago, none of the entrenched social orders in which we all dwell existed. The American nations—their economies, culture, and history—came to be out of a political movement of a massive scale: the vast exploration of land and rush to lay claim to territories in the name of Empire.
During the roughly 300 years between Columbus’ arrival in the Western hemisphere and the creation of the United States of America, a lot had to happen to establish “successful” American colonies. Chief among them was the growth of plantation economies, and with them, the enslavement and mass forced migration of Africans. And in order to mobilize the “triangular trade,” a cultural investment in the enterprise had to take place. People in Europe, particularly in the seats of power—be they kings, queens, popes, or wealthy financiers of slave ships—they all had to learn how and what to think about the far-flung places to which their resources went. So emerged an important genre of literature, a kind of reportage in which travellers who had been to distant places would come home and hand over their journals or write up their experiences. Much of the writing was initially for private audiences, but an appetite for this information grew along with the efficiencies of the printing press, and soon books of this nature were being published and translated at an astonishing scale.
Hans Sloane was one such travel writer and he wrote his book about Jamaica and nearby islands. Like the other authors, he provided a history of the territories he visited, described their geography, and wrote about his impressions of the inhabitants: indigenous, African, and European. Typically, travel writers rehearsed their observations with an air of both suspicion and fascination. In these stories an “us” and a “them” emerged, one which still has incredible power today, in the way racial, national, religious, and ethnic differences are construed in both Europe and the Americas. In the following passage, Sloane exemplifies the blinders such thinking imposes: he declares that the enslaved and indigenous people of Jamaica have no religion, but in the very next sentence documents their extensive religious practices.
The Indians and Negros have no manner of Religion by what I could observe of them.
‘Tis true they have several Ceremonies, as Dances, Playing, &c. but these for the most
part are so far from being Acts of Adoration of a God, that they are for the most part mixt
with a great deal of Bawdry and Lewdness (lvi).
This is just one example of the way travel writers portrayed cultural differences with astounding cognitive dissonance. Sloane’s depictions are actually more neutral in tone than many of his contemporaries — he was a physician and scientist and, on the whole, more interested in what people ate and drank, how they treated diseases, and the island’s ecology.
It is, therefore, somewhat surprising how much attention he pays to the music in Jamaica. He may have been keeping with tradition -- many other travel narratives about the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia describe music. But of all the examples that I have seen (and I have seen many) Sloane’s is by far the most extensive and lavish portrayal. I say lavish because the cost of printing and binding books in his era was enormous, and his is a huge and very elegant book, with two full pages of music totaling six pieces. Not to mention, the notation written down by Mr. Baptiste (you can learn more about him on the Musical Passage website) would have been very challenging logistically to print within the larger text.
Sloane’s book tells us a lot about the evolution of anti-black racism in the British colonies. A practitioner of “natural history” who helped establish the British museum, Sloane was a key figure in the development of Enlightenment-era science, part of a shift in thinking that produced biological racism, which would flourish during the founding of the U.S., and leave a lasting mark on many of institutions. In the early years of European exploration in Africa, skin color was a marker of cultural difference, but over time, beliefs about “race” began to be explicitly tied to biology, i.e., the notion that people of color are naturally inferior to white people. Sloane’s cultural observations and artifacts are presented alongside hundreds of elaborate illustrations of natural specimens like lists documenting the weather, and detailed notes from his medical practice. Even the binding reads “Natural History of Jamaica” although the book’s title, Voyage to the Islands, reflects the travel genre.
Tucked in Sloane’s book of science is the earliest known image of a banjo, and it is inscribed with a Latinate name translating to “lutes of the Indians and Blacks,” a subtle link between the emergent scientizing of Blackness and the project of empire.
It wasn’t long before music itself became a marker of racial difference in the Atlantic imaginary. During the antebellum era in the U.S., for instance, blackface minstrelsy soared into popularity by playing upon white fantasies of Black performances, amid a spectacle of difference and denigration. That story, too, is long and complicated, but minstrelsy created a straightforward script for mimicking and appropriating the music of African-diasporans that has profoundly influenced popular culture ever since.
But the music at the heart of Musical Passage tells a different story, too. It asks us to imagine the history of colonization and slavery from the perspective of Africans and their descendants, who endured horrifying conditions while creating some of the most influential art in the world. To say that enslaved musicians changed global music is no grandiosity. You cannot turn on the radio without hearing the legacy of their performances, from the “blue” notes dotting the Western scale, to the ubiquity of syncopated rhythms, and the popularity of African-diasporic instruments like the banjo. What Sloane witnessed at the “festival” in Jamaica—a musical gathering and celebration—was a counter-cultural movement that gave voice to the cultural, religious, and artistic expression of people whose place in the political order was otherwise violently regulated.
What, then, does this music say to our current political moment? To my mind, it reminds us that knowledge traditions marked by difference have always played a vital role in our master narratives. When I read about the anti-immigrant, anti-black and -brown rhetoric coming from the political right in England, the United States, and elsewhere, I remember this earlier history, through which whiteness became universalized in the European and American imagination. Being white eventually came to stand in for what it means to belong in the global North. In the United States, police violence against Black men, women, and children bears a harrowing resemblance to forms of discipline developed as a means to regulate and sustain slave societies. The parallels and the historical ties are too obvious to ignore. Less obvious, perhaps, is how conflicts between Muslims and Christians helped to set the stage for the cultural encounters that took place between Europeans and Africans, before and during the emergence of Atlantic slavery.
During the medieval period, trade routes kept the Iberian peninsula and North Africa in contact, spreading the stuff of culture from the Middle East to Africa and Europe, and back again. Later, Europeans explored the Western coasts and inlands of Africa more extensively, and eventually the Atlantic slave trade boomed to fuel the conquests in the Americas. I am spending a month at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota, where I have been poring over travel narratives similar to Sloane’s, particularly those written about Africa in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Islam was practiced in numerous African societies during the period and many enslaved people brought the religion with them to the Americas. A trace of this history may be present in the music in Sloane’s book. He writes that “you must clap hands when the bass is plaid and cry Alla, Alla.”
One travel narrative writer, describing life along the Gambia River in the 1690s, describes a society where music accompanies the practice of Islam. He writes: “The most part of the Negroes divert themselves therein, with discoursing about the Alcoran, or with playing on a certain Musical Instrument, which they call Balafo, whilst their Wives are employ’d in tilling the Ground” (35). The author, François Froger, was a young sailor from France who traveled in a fleet of ships to overtake an English fort on the Gambia before journeying on to sell slaves slaves and battle ships in Brazil, Cayenne, Suriname, and Barbados. His French ship would string up English colors at times to alternatively escape or attack enemy vessels while they traversed the territories of multiple empires. The maritime community he was a part of contained a swirling mix of cultures, languages, and ethnic identities. This “Atlantic world” bore the imprint of Islamic Africa across its many shores, a piece of the puzzle that must be taken into account in understanding the creation of American societies.
Many different ideologies can co-exist within a single culture, and that’s why it matters to study colonial travel narratives. Without these stories we wouldn’t be able to understand how we got where we are today, insights that might help change the course of the future. The website Musical Passage is an effort to examine Sloane’s book in a new way – through the lens of African-diasporic performance. The music of enslaved people pulsed within but also against the dominant story of their day. You can hear echoes of their story in the chants of Black Lives Matter protesters, and the generations of activist that came before them. By making noise—both literal and figurative—the movement has brought national and global attention to racial violence in the U.S. and particularly its criminal justice system. History ties this movement to the legacy of its forbearers—the enslaved performers whose art forms drew the attention of observers like Sloane.
Our website is an homage to the musicians, and an attempt to refurbish the print archive for the digital age. Generally, the colonial documents housed in archives were written by elites who told their side of the story and obscured the perspectives of people like those enslaved in Jamaica in 1688. In the digital medium, the small trace of African diasporic culture in Sloane’s book can be given new weight, and stand out from behind the pages of the volume. The music you hear on our website is an interpretation of what their performances may have sounded like and an invitation to listen to the songs and stories that have always been present among us.