Soul Music: the Pulse of Race and Music by Candace Allen - review

How it feels to be free

Young musician of Simón Bolívar Youth Symphonic Orchestra. Photo: Getty Images

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

Much has happened since the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, flagship of Venezuela’s El Sistema programme for social cohesion and inclusion through orchestral music education, first visited London in 2007. In the UK, the model has been adopted in Scotland, for the Big Noise project on the Raploch estate in Stirling, as well as more widely in the “In Harmony” initiative. And this should not eclipse the work done by the education departments of our orchestras and opera houses, or by schemes such as Streetwise Opera, an organisation that runs highly successful opera workshops for the homeless.

All of which is excellent. Or is it? Why should homeless people want to participate in an art form created by the wealthy and powerful to dazzle those only slightly less rich and powerful than themselves? Why should kids from the barrios of Caracas, the slums of Kinshasa and Ramallah or the townships of Johannesburg be concerned with retuning their sensibilities so they can move to the sublimated courtly dances from which western art music is largely comprised? Is this simply cultural imperialism in yet another disguise, more enchantment for the disenchanted?

This question is asked by Candace Allen, an African American writer and film-maker whose life has been lived at the centre of the struggle for black rights and equality in the US and also, as the former wife of the British conductor Simon Rattle, among the higher echelons of the classical music establishment. Her new book doesn’t so much attempt a straight answer as share the experiences and insights that make her attempts to grapple with it so powerful and troubling. Although the combination of autobiography and reportage reads oddly at times, it is well suited to the exploration of the borderlands where personal and cultural identity meet.

The daughter of a Connecticut dentist and a social worker, Allen’s childhood was that of a middle-class black girl. The lives of the working-class black minority in her neighbourhood were as invisible to her as those of her white classmates. Harvard, which she attended with 15 other black girls, radicalised her but it was through teenage years lived in the groove of Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone that Allen came to feel the growing power of her voice and position. She hated the Beatles and the challenge they posed to the rising black musical culture. “The Beatles could barely carry a tune. Their beat was simplistic which was just as well because their most sophisticated movements, as far as I could see, involved flipping their hair from side to side.”

Allen’s youth dances past so fast that before we realise it we are racing through her recent encounters with musical regeneration programmes in North and South America, in western Europe and on the West Bank. She is both inspired by the work being done and quietly appalled by the idea that these programmes for social inclusion should have at their heart an art form evolved by European social elites for their advanced aesthetic delectation.

I spent much of this book hanging on to the author’s coat-tails. Allen moves fast and leaves little room in her prose for those with different frames of reference. Every turn of the page brings a new “Who, when, what, how?” But it’s worth persevering. Without giving any particular answer to her conundrum, Allen simply opens her ears and mind in wonder at everything she has seen and heard, rejoicing in and also questioning the values and beliefs that brought her where she is.

She also reveals much about what lies at the heart of any journey into so-called classical music. Though our sense of who we are is bound up with the particular rhythms and colours of our musical heritage, music is much more than the vehicle for personal identification and cultural pageantry for which it is often mistaken. Any music that inspires a deep sense of wonder takes us to the heart of what it is to be human – to a kind of being that overcomes the binary logic of identity and difference. In that sense, one needn’t worry about the music played by the backstreet kids of Caracas. It may not be rich in Latin rhythms but it is good and it is setting them free.

Guy Dammann is music critic of the Times Literary Supplement and teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama