Festival goers dance during the first day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana, April 25, 2014.
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 parlor songs of piano sheet music. Colonial ports embodied the contradictions in globalizing empires: urban country musics, commercial religious musics, professional folk musics, and popular musics celebrated by elite intellectuals. The recorded vernacular musics we have today capture that.

New Orleans Owls (jazz band) at Chess, Checkers and Whist Club, formerly Cosmopolitan Hotel, 1922


The archipelago of colonial ports linked two distinct zones of the emerging world economy: the rapidly expanding settler colonial countries of the Americas, Southern Africa, and Australia, and the overseas colonies and informal spheres of influence of the European and U.S. empires. Settler colonial nations had industrial cities built around metalworking factories and textile mills, as well as vast forests, plains, and mountain ranges with mines and plantations; they each imagined their peoples divided “racially,” with formal and informal distinctions between northern and western European settlers, newly recruited southern and eastern European laborers, indentured Asian workers, indigenous peoples, and the recently emancipated descendants of enslaved Africans. In many ways, Buenos Aires was a cousin to New York, Johannesburg to Chicago, and Rio de Janeiro to New Orleans.

Meanwhile, the overseas colonial zone was based on varieties of direct and indirect rule, backed by warships and, by the 1920s, aerial bombers. These enabled capitalist investments in colonial plantations and mines, supported by an infrastructure of railroads, ports, and telegraph cables. Color lines were firmly drawn between the relatively small European communities and the local populations, as well as between both of these and the growing numbers of indentured and migrant workers recruited from other parts of the colonial world, particularly India and China.

Group of South Sea Islander workers on a property in Cairns, circa 1890.
John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Despite their differences, the two zones were linked by chains of trade and migration. For even if the ports were not all colonized, they were all colonial—part of a maritime network that moved the products and people of empire around the globe. At the center of the industrialization was the steamship. From Buenos Aires to Shanghai, New Orleans to Zanzibar, Marseilles to Singapore, tramp steamers handled “colonial goods,” the agricultural and mineral resources of the rural hinterlands of empire. Lands that had once sustained indigenous communities were seized and put on the market—a worldwide “enclosure” of the commons—for the industrial cultivation of common foods and fibers—wheat, rice, and cotton—as well as a host of tropical plants that became everyday commodities in Europe and North America: rubber, coffee, tea, tobacco, sugar, cocoa, and bananas. The tramp steamers moved people as well. As a result, these colonial ports became crossroads in the imperial trafficking in labor, way stations in the massive migrations that historian Frank Thistlethwaite once called “proletarian globe-hopping.” 

Unlike today’s container ports, the colonial ports of modern times were labor-intensive. Docks depended on a circulating pool of male maritime workers—crews of seamen and stokers who manned the tramp steamers, gangs of longshoremen, and stevedores who loaded and unloaded goods, as well as artisans and machinists who maintained and repaired the ships and trains.

And so, as multitudes of migrants passed through these cities, many stayed. Established ports grew by half over the two decades between 1910 and 1930. This included both the largest ones like Bombay, Buenos Aires, Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro, and Shanghai, which became cities of more than a million, and the medium-sized ones: Batavia and Singapore in the Pacific, Alexandria and Piraeus in the Mediterranean, Havana and New Orleans in the Caribbean. Smaller ports including Algiers, Durban, Honolulu, and Veracruz doubled in population. 

Batavia (Jakarta) in 1897, from Guide to the Dutch East Indies by Dr. J.F. van Bemmelen and G.B. Hoover, Luzac & Co, London 1897.
Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin
Those that didn’t stay continued to circulate around the globe on the ships of the maritime trade were a mix of “lascars” (Indian seamen on British ships), “kanakas” (Pacific Islander sailors), “Krumen” (West African sailors), and “Manilamen” (Filipino sailors). Thus these colonial ports were not only a counterpoint of products but a polyphony of peoples, elaborately distinguished by color, caste, language, and religion. They were a critical mass that enabled the explosion of new music. Young musicians found that they could make a living from music in the proliferating cafés, taverns, shebeens, brothels, cabarets, “black and tans,” dance halls, hotels, and vaudeville theaters catering to waterfront transients as well as well-to-do tourists, to young mill workers as well as students and clerks aspiring to middle-class respectability. Even in elaborate ballrooms that echoed the opulence of the movie palaces of the 1920s, dance orchestras with celebrity leaders alternated established nineteenth-century dances with new sounds.


Across the archipelago of ports, music-making had become a way of making a living, part of the urban division of labor. However, for the most part, music-making in the colonial ports was not yet the routinized job it was becoming in the musical factories in London, Paris, New York, and Berlin, where instrumentalists held regular chairs in dance bands and theater pit orchestras. 

The Orquesta Flor de Cuba, circa 1870.
In many circumstances, these two classes of musicians would have little to do with each other; indeed the early metropolitan musicians’ unions rarely included “unskilled” ear musicians. But in the colonial ports, the artisan “reading” musicians were often themselves part of a subordinated elite, either the “talented tenth” of the city’s colonized or racially subordinated community or members of a mixed-race or ethnically defined in-between community. In some, though not all, cases, this led to collaborations that brought together musical idioms, rough and respectable, rural and urban.

It is not a surprise that the colonial ports, with their mix of classes, races, and ethnicities, are where self-taught ear players and skilled musical artisans came together. But they were also fortuitous places because of their distance from the major cultural capitals, the consecrated hubs of established metropolitan culture such as Berlin, London, New York, and Vienna. Although the new vernacular musics would eventually travel to the cabarets and recording studios of these imperial capitals, they did not take shape in them.

The way the music spread was that, in the colonial ports, the plebeian musical culture that emerged from commercial dance halls and theaters as well as parading associations and street festivals attracted the attention of city elites, who were all too aware of their own distance and isolation from the centers of imperial culture. Although many were repelled by the music of the streets, and allied themselves ever more closely to metropolitan standards of “civilized” and “respectable” culture, they were always aware of the artificial, abstract, and “misplaced” character of the transplanted metropolitan culture. In retrospect, those members of the urban elite who embraced the music of the streets and the dance halls in the name of an independent cultural identity have seemed more significant.

The polyphony of the ports produced a music that was richer and more complex than the segmented high and low musics of the metropolitan capitals, the isolated musics of rural peasantries, or those of the single-class mining and mill towns dominated by an industrial logic. This is the answer to the oft-pondered mysteries of why samba was born in Rio or jazz in New Orleans, as well as the equally mysterious roots of rumba and hula, highlife and marabi. These were the local urban musical cultures that the recording engineers of the great multinational record companies encountered when they began to lug their equipment from port to port in the mid-1920s. Out of the counterpoint of recording engineer and vernacular musician came a worldwide dissemination of vernacular phonograph musics on disc, and a revolutionary remaking of the world’s musical space.

This article is excerpted from Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution (Verso, 2015).

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  • MICHAEL DENNING is an American cultural historian and William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of American Studies at Yale University.
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