Notes on identity

Soul Music: the Pulse of Race and Music, by Candace Allen, Gibson Square, RRP£11.99, 192 pages

Is there such a thing as “their music” and “our music”? As a middle-class black teenager in 1960s Connecticut, Candace Allen loved Motown and hated the Beatles. “The Beatles could barely carry a tune,” she writes; she and her peers “liked singers who could sing”.

In adult life, she drifted towards classical symphonic music – first tentatively, at home with her record player; later publicly, as the wife of the British conductor Sir Simon Rattle. “It couldn’t continue indefinitely,” she writes of the entrance her marriage, which ended in 2007, gave her to the upper echelons of the music world. “It didn’t; but the extraordinary essence of this beauty, its exploration and propagation, [is] treasured and still mine.”

The young Allen loved music and dance in a voraciously eclectic manner. It was only as an Ivy League student that she moved towards black identity, black music, black dance, black activism, and a sense of “us” and “them”. Later, working as a screenwriter and assistant director in Hollywood, she began to buy records of symphonies. “Did this make me some kind of zombie creature constituted of white aspirations and consequently self-hate?” she asks.

Soul Music argues that it did not. Allen sets out to visit the world’s most formidable programmes of music as a force for social change – among them Venezuela’s El Sistema, Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and the Palestinian Al Kamandjâti music schools – on a quest to demonstrate that western classical music is neither elitist nor necessarily European.

It is a trajectory that I can well understand, having taken my own first encounter with El Sistema, back in 2005, as a call to action. In my case, that meant founding Umculo, a project in the townships around the city of my birth, Cape Town. We maintained contact with Venezuela and participated in international debates. Inevitably, the more deeply you become involved with any such project, the more you bump into its inherent conflicts and paradoxes.

Allen sees some of these. She sets out to be rigorously cerebral, invoking everyone from Theodor Adorno to “French philosopher Jacques Ellul, whose eponymous book had greatly influenced my undergraduate thesis”.

Eponymous in what sense? All too often Allen employs words as blunt instruments, obfuscating more than she illuminates. It is impossible to read more than a couple of pages without snagging in the inaccuracies. This is the greatest defect of Soul Music. Why did Gibson Square put the book on the market without proofreading more rigorously?

Allen’s observations are florid and emotional. She cries when presented with a pair of white gloves by members of the “White Hands” choir of children with disabilities in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. But she does not examine the political challenges posed by the Chávez regime to El Sistema, only citing its place in the presidential portfolio as evidence of the government’s commitment. The reality is more complex.

These are important issues. There is plenty of serious literature on music and race, as there is on music and social change. Allen’s attempt to bring the subjects together in a personal, anecdotal manner must best be read as just that – one woman’s thoughts on the rich soundtrack of her life. Her line of argument lacks clarity, and her prose is hopelessly unkempt. But she has heard and seen a lot, and she has sensed its urgency. That is a message, of a kind.

Shirley Apthorp is an FT music critic

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