Saturday, February 27, 2021

Rachel Anne Gillett's "At Home in Our Sounds"

Rachel Anne Gillett lectures in cultural history at the University of Utrecht and writes about race, popular culture, and empire. She focuses on the French Empire but her interests range from Marvel movies, to early jazz, to rugby. Her writing appears in blogs and magazines as well as in academic literature and she can be heard on "Unsettling Knowledge," a podcast about how empire shaped European societies. She is deeply interested in how popular culture reflects and influences social and political life and has pursued that theme wherever she has lived and worked, from New Zealand, to America, to the Netherlands.

Gillett applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, At Home in Our Sounds: Music, Race, and Cultural Politics in Interwar Paris, and reported the following:
Page 99 of At Home in Our Sounds describes the impact of the economic depression on Black performers in France, particularly those working in the nightclub scene. This page mostly analyses a long quotation from a lively and opinionated journalist - the self-styled “street-wolf” of Montmartre. Here’s an excerpt with my introduction and that quotation:
In 1922, French musicians had convinced Raymond Poincaré to pre­sent a “10- percent law” to the National Assembly, but it had been more or less ignored until the Depression hit. By 1935, however, Black American reporter Wiggins, the “Street Wolf,” commented on how the tightening up of labor laws had affected Black musicians:
For what seemed an endless period, from June 1, 1933, when the French 10 per cent law (which completely dissolved all foreign orchestras) went into effect until April 20, 1934 ... there was not one Negro jazz orchestra enter­taining in Paris. French jazz orchestras, with one or two exceptions, failed to prove a big attraction and, as the majority of cabaret goers ostensibly preferred the dance music of dark-skinned musicians, Martiniques and Cubans with their rumba and Biguine music became the rage.
The page 99 test delivers a mixed result for my book. It captures my focus on the lived experiences of black musicians in Paris. I insist, throughout the book, on including voices and evidence from musicians themselves and voila, there’s a substantive quotation from a black American, slap bang in the middle of the page. It also captures one of my arguments about music-making and politics – that these are always related. And because they are related we need to think about how music-making is a form of cultural politics. This page’s focus on the experience of Black Americans, however, and quotation from a Black American male reflects but also deviates a bit from the book as a whole.

The rest of the book contrasts and connects the experience of Black Americans with the experience of French individuals and communities who identified – or were identified by others – as Black. We get a hint of that in the closing comment of the quotation – which tells us Black French musicians are now “the rage.” Throughout the book I show how the jazz craze affected Black Americans, French, and also French society and French colonialism more broadly. The other major absence on this page is that there are no women! But throughout the book I include a lot of women because they were there, they were active, and they shaped the music scene. Women participated in the whole complex of cultural, racial and colonial politics that went along with music-making in interwar Paris.

Finally this page, to my delight, reveals some of the strengths of my writing – fascinating quotations, clearly situated in time and place, that give a slice-of-life, and contain loads of evidence to unpack. To my shame, it also reveals my writing weaknesses - which I thought I’d worked hard to remove! Some jargon, some complex sentences, and extensive footnotes that interrupt the flow of reading. All lessons for the next book!
Learn more about At Home in Our Sounds at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue