Wimbush on Gillett, 'At Home in Our Sounds: Music, Race, and Cultural Politics in Interwar Paris'

Rachel Anne Gillett
Antonia Wimbush

Rachel Anne Gillett. At Home in Our Sounds: Music, Race, and Cultural Politics in Interwar Paris. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Illustrations. 260 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-084270-3.

Reviewed by Antonia Wimbush (University of Liverpool) Published on H-Black-Europe (January, 2022) Commissioned by Robbie Aitken (Sheffield Hallam University, Humanities Research Center)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56870

Rachel Anne Gillett’s fascinating new book, At Home in Our Sounds: Music, Race, and Cultural Politics in Interwar Paris, examines the nexus between music, culture, race, politics, and identity as it played out in Paris in the interwar years. Arguing that “music and music making were a key part of anticolonial and antiracist cultural politics in interwar Paris,” Gillett shows how music was a crucial vector that gave Black people cultural recognition, during a period in which advances in social and political equalities for Black communities were somewhat undermined by economic depression and heightened racial antagonism (p. 4). “Black communities” are understood here in a broad sense, as Gillett compares and contrasts the experiences of Black people who are French, and thus products of France’s colonizing mission, which had begun many centuries earlier, with Black Americans who had migrated to France to participate in music-making initiatives in the early twentieth century. The book emphasizes the capacity of music to bring people together in celebration and resistance—and a collective sense of race consciousness did develop in the interwar years among Black performers—yet it also underscores its failure to unite Black people across racial, class, gendered, and national lines.

The book is structured chronologically and charts how music was used for different cultural and political purposes by different groups of Black people throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. Rather unconventionally for an academic monograph, the book opens with an “overture,” in which Gillett poignantly explains how music has been instrumental to her in her own reckoning with issues of national identity. The introduction then begins with anecdotes about two Black jazz performers, Alphonse Kané and Noble Sissle, to begin a broader discussion about the different experiences of jazz musicians during this period. This discussion is centered on three key concepts: representation, belonging, and exclusion. Gillett provides a helpful historical contextualization about the Black presence before, during, and after the interwar years and also briefly touches on debates in musicology about the social implications of music making and the ways music helps to foster a sense of collective identity. Moreover, she draws on theoretical discussions within cultural studies about creolization and cultural mixing to suggest that a shared sentiment of Black cosmopolitanism operated among Black peoples of different cultural and ethnic origins.

The individual chapters offer examples of how this Black cosmopolitanism worked in practice, and where it also fell down. Chapter 1, “The Flip Side of Jazz: Black French Reactions to the Tumulte Noir,” focuses on the immediate aftermath of World War I and traces Europe’s early attraction toward jazz. It argues that jazz played an important role in this fascination with Black culture, and it enabled Black French musicians and performers to gain cultural recognition. However, it also facilitated the dissemination of negative stereotypes about Black people and Black culture. Chapter 2, “Jazzing Around, or ‘How ’Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down?,’” examines the situation of Black American jazz performers, whose experiences in France were quite different to those of Black French musicians analyzed in the previous chapter. For them, France was a land of freedom, particularly in comparison with the United States, and this freedom was particularly felt by women, who had the opportunity through music to become stars. Music thus brought about both their geographic and social mobility, although they were still considered “exotic” and “primitive” beings whose social purpose was to entertain the white French population.

Chapters 3 to 5 reveal how music became a form of political protest for Black musicians. Chapter 3, “Performing Racial Difference at the Colonial Exhibition,” analyzes the Colonial Exhibition of 1931, arguing that racial representations were both performed and challenged through music and dance. Gillett demonstrates how the French created division among different racial and ethnic groups through the hierarchical structure it imposed on them—Antilleans and Madagascans were valued much more highly than North Africans, for instance, and their cultural traditions were thus better respected—and reflects on how these different groups responded to such hierarchical treatment. In the same vein as the previous chapter, chapter 4 argues that performers and music makers did not passively disseminate these stereotypical ways of portraying their culture. Titled “Reclaiming the Biguine,” the chapter discusses the importance of beguine in the French Caribbean and in Paris, demonstrating how both musical performances and literary and journalistic analyses of this music created an anticolonial solidarity among Pan-African groups. In the final chapter, “Clouds Gather, and the Band Plays On,” Gillett argues that Black cultural production was used to combat fascism and racism in the early 1930s. She examines two case studies in detail: the celebration of the tricentenary of France’s colonization of the Antilles and the campaign against Benito Mussoloni’s invasion of Ethiopia. Music and music making, Gillett posits, was used to celebrate France’s colonial project while simulateously condemning the imperialist practices of other European powers. The conclusion reflects briefly on race and identity politics during World War II, which interrupted the progress made by Black men and women in the struggle for political and social equality in France.

The study is very well researched and draws on fascinating material from archives across the world, in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, New York, London, and Atlanta. It taps into the underexplored collections of important cultural figures and also uses newspaper articles and cuttings from the period to contextualize these personal sources. Arguments are backed up with reference to rich historiographical work, and the study combines historical analysis with references to debates in cultural studies and musicology.

One of the strengths of the study is its insistence on the diversity of the Black experience in the interwar era. Throughout the book, Gillett discusses at length the specificities of the North African, Antillean, West African, and African American communities. She is keen to emphasize that “their homelands were not one and the same,” and for this reason, their political and cultural networks took a variety of different forms (p. 154). A further strength is its accessible prose and its detailed contextualization of the period, meaning that both experienced scholars and newcomers to this field of study will be able to gain a lot from the book. In addition, Gillett draws interesting connections between literary and musical networks, providing a fresh perspective on Black France during the 1920s and 30s.

It would have been interesting to explore how music making affected Black identity politics in France more broadly, and not just in Paris. Gillett is aware of the dangers of equating France with Paris, but yet she does not consider in detail how music might have been disseminated by Black musicians across the country during this period. Furthermore, transnational connections could have been considered to further enhance the analysis: how did this music travel across Europe, and how was Black culture received in other European centers? Overall, however, this is a compelling and original study which will be of great interest to scholars and students of French social and cultural history, and those interested in questions of race more broadly. It raises crucial and timely questions about what it means to belong to a nation, and what it means to be French.

Citation: Antonia Wimbush. Review of Gillett, Rachel Anne, At Home in Our Sounds: Music, Race, and Cultural Politics in Interwar Paris. H-Black-Europe, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56870

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