2014-02-22 // 16:32

Black Europe Boxset

The roots of pop music

“The 4 Black Diamonds” knew how to enjoy their German success – as this New Years event ticket from 1911 demonstrates.

The monumental edition “Black Europe” traces the sounds of black people in Europe in the early 20th century

By Arndt Peltner

February 7, 2014

At the beginning of the 20th century, European ethnologists, influenced by their countries’ colonial histories, tried to preserve language and songs by African tribes. Among them was the “Königlich Preussische Phonographische Kommission“ in Berlin. Between 1915 and 1918, 2,677 recordings were made of 250 languages, dialects and traditional music in prisoner of war camps of the German Empire. The soldiers were captured while fighting against the Kaiser in the colonies or along the European front and were brought to Germany. For decades this ethnographic material – recorded on wax cylinders – was kept secret.

Now it is available for the first time to the public: The German label Bear Family Records, renowned worldwide for their dedicated archival work, has released the box set “Black Europe – The sounds and images of black people in Europe pre-1927.” This enormous collection, comprising forty-four CDs and two hardcover coffee table books, constitutes the roots of popular music and is the result of several years of research. The box set tells the story of sound recordings by African-Americans and black Africans in Europe before 1927.

Music historian Rainer Lotz headed the three-person research team involved in this monumental work. “I had to make a cut off point somehow,” Lotz said of the decision to stop at 1927. “At first I thought World War I would be a good place to end. But those years were a period of severe radical changes, especially for the development of Blues and Jazz. So I focused on the recording technique. Included are those recordings before the use of microphones.“

Lotz and his two collaborators Jeffrey Green and Howard Rye have scoured through archives and private collections in Europe and overseas for more than ten years. In the accompanying two books, they tell the story behind the featured tracks. The three men had never expected so many sound documents to have survived and in such quality. Photos of artists, poster announcements, record sleeves and advertisements of concerts give a picture of the black entertainment scene in Europe in the first decades of the 20th century.

Europe was a breath of freedom for many African-American artists and musicians. Here they were allowed to record their music and play live. They found work and artistic possibilities that were denied to them back home in a racially divided American society.

Interestingly, Germany at that time was a great place for these early African American recording artists, such as the “The Four Black Diamonds” who toured extensively throughout the country after they arrived in late 1905. They had engagements between Cologne and Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia). Such concerts and events by black artists throughout Europe were widely reported on. The articles made it to the US, where they were reprinted in black newspapers and magazines. This led to more and more African-American musicians taking the long journey across the ocean.

– Bear Family Records also released a 3-CD box with the title “Over There! Sounds And Images From Black Europe.”

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