From Port to Port

How Colonialism Shaped Music As We Know It

Festival goers dance during the first day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana, April 25, 2014. Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

Between the development of electrical recording in 1925 and the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, the soundscape of modern times unfolded in a series of obscure recording sessions, as hundreds of unknown musicians entered makeshift studios to record the melodies and rhythms of their local streets and dance halls. Virtually all the music the world considers canonical took shape in these recordings of the late 1920s—Havana’s son, Rio’s samba, New Orleans’ jazz, Buenos Aires’ tango, Seville’s flamenco, Cairo’s tarab, Johannesburg’s marabi, Jakarta’s kroncong, and Honolulu’s hula. The new vernacular musics reverberated on the edges and borders of empires, in the barrios, bidonvilles, barrack-yards, arrabales, and favelas of an archipelago of colonial ports, linked by the steamships, railway lines, and telegraph cables that moved commodities, people, and information across and between empires.

History of Music Genres Jazz Colonialism Imperialism Capitalism
Preservation Hall, a historic jazz hall in the French Quarter, is seen in New Orleans, Louisiana September 5, 2005.  Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
Why was such music first heard in these ports? The answer lies in the peculiar social and cultural formation of the colonial port: a volatile mix of millions of new migrants living in waterfront neighborhoods imbricated with the racial and ethnic logics of settler regimes and imperial conquests; a population dense enough to provide the critical mass to support the emerging institutions of commercial musicking, the urban industry of theaters, brothels and dance halls; a physical and cultural distance from the powerful and prestigious capitals; and finally, a peculiar encounter and alliance between the “ear” musicians among the rural migrants—those who played local musics on cheap, mass-produced horns, guitars, and concertinas as well as on hand-crafted drums and fiddles—and the “reading” musicians—those among the port’s subordinated but educated elite, a “talented tenth” playing waltzes and polkas as well as sacred hymns and calls to prayer.

One might see vernacular music as a form of peripheral modernity. It was an artistic culture dramatically unlike that of the learned musics of court and concert hall, the agrarian musicking of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, or even the popular

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