I’m leaning on a desk inside the delightfully urbane London bookshop Clerkenwell Tales, talking to tall lanky super intelligent Martin Rynja, Dutch owner of Gibson Square Books. I’ve only just been introduced to Martin, but it’s already a pretty intense conversation. We’re talking about how people who feel injustice can easily become trapped inside, and even consumed by, that feeling. The occasion is the book launch of Candace Allen’s ‘Soul Music, The Pulse of Race and Music’, a story, if you like, of one women’s successful attempt to punch through just such a potential emotional trap. Well done, Candace, I’m thinking, one more person who might easily have been ensnared in unending rounds of bitterness, guilt, and a whole host of other disagreeable emotional states has just made it to the other side. ‘Good for her’ you might be excused for concurring, ‘but big deal’.
Big deal indeed. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Allen has made the crossing by writing the most interesting book to date on the subject of social music projects like El Sistema, Buskaid and the Al Kamandjâti music school, reinforcing the realisation that the really interesting music education projects may no longer be springing from the likes of London, Paris or New York, or even Moscow or Beijing, but from places like Caracas, Jo’burg and Ramallah. Our world is shifting, it really is, and boy does this book tell the story of that shift – warts and all – with passion, zeal and candour.
It’s not perfect, and in terms of page numbers (a mere 188) it’s notably slight, but at least it has voice, a big strong opinionated one, the sort that you can’t avoid even if you want to, a sort of low rumbling Jessie Norman trill but with politics and strong intelligence thrown in for good measure. The result is a polemic telling the double story of Allen’s own upbringing and the relationship she carved through and beyond it with music, dancing through various musical styles and at least four continents, and revealing a fascinating view onto the panoply of the best and worst of the world’s music industry. And all the way through, as she heads towards visceral descriptions of the lives and music of the children of Venezuela, South Africa and the West Bank, is the background and foreground and everywhere inbetween ground constant hum and chorus of race, and of how we treat each other through the distorted lens that race throws up at us. This is a book that will appeal and infuriate in equal and opposite measure.
I turn from my conversation with the gracious Martin Rynja, and survey the room. I guess book launches are a bit like politics: like leaders, you get the guests you deserve. This lot have a real eclectic fascination about them. There is Chi chi Nwanoku, bass player extraordinaire, and here is an Irish film maker whose name I can no longer conjure, even though he wrote it in my crackberry at some point in the evening last night and I feel sure that we have business to continue. There is lovely composer Shirley Thompson, and as I go outside I am waylaid in a fascinating and stimulating series of conversations with Martin Campbell-White, and with the Iranian owner of openvizor, Abbas Nokhasteh, and a man whose father, it turns out, was a peer of mine in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in the 1960s. How time flies.
The man (not his father) is called Simon Hewitt Jones, and I see the next morning that he has written some comments about the book on no less (or perhaps I mean no more) a platform, than Facebook. “Just speedread in one sitting ‘Soul Music’ by Candace Allen.” he breathlessly posts. “Amazing wordcraft, highly personal inter-cultural perspective, devastating throwaway insights into everything that’s wrong with certain cultures, inspiring throwaway insights into everything that’s right with how the generation younger than mine is using musical culture to inspire hope.”
This, it seems to me, says it all. So enough of this. Just go buy it. Whether you like it or not, I can be sure in telling you it will do you good.
Soul Music, The Pulse of Race and Music by Candace Allen