Perfect Beat, Vol 17, No 2 (2016)




Stratton, Jon. 2016. When Music Migrates: Crossing British and European Racial Faultlines, 1945–2010. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-47242-978-0 (hbk). 232 pp.

Reviewed by: Rachel Tollett, Truman College – City Colleges of Chicago

Keywords: Britain; Europe; migration; music; popular music; race

Migration, multi-culturalism, race and appropriation swirl through this volume by Jon Stratton. His focus is on music that is identified with certain groups and then, when heard or played by other groups, becomes alternatively identified due to the race of the performer or listener. To structure this text Stratton presents a theoretical introduction and then case studies of minority musics, or associated sound palettes, being incorporated into the popular musical life of postwar Britain and Europe. From the very outset the author is careful to state that his real purpose is to examine the structures of racial difference, and how music crosses these structures and is ‘transformed in the process’ (1). Furthermore, he uses the prevailing concept of the ‘audiotopia’, as articulated by Josh Kun: the idea that music allows us to make new mental geographies of our social world.

After a theoretical introduction the chapters highlight various instances of musical structures and race encountering and being transformed by one another, from ska to reggae and even the Beatles. The author presents very structured and specific evidence of why British, and in one case French, audiences would have heard and interpreted various musics in radically different ways. In the first chapter Stratton very convincingly lays forth the case of Kenny Lynch, and how his blackness was popularized and even mitigated by musical and performance choices. Furthermore Stratton demonstrates the complex reality of race as he keenly details how Jewish, Irish and African heritage became a mélange of blackness as otherness to the British white middle-class. This careful documentation is supported by public statements, newspaper advertisements, and interviews of musicians and managers. The collective effect of this work is to show how minutely racial language and structure permeated the British experience in the mid-twentieth century.

While the evidence Stratton presents is compelling, this book is, by its own admission, about racial structure. As a result a more nuanced and individual understanding of race is lost to larger social structures and racial stereotypes. Furthermore, Stratton is at his core a cultural studies scholar. While this is not a detraction from the text it is imperative to understand that this scholarly orientation makes Stratton far more concerned at uncovering textual, literary and even lyrical evidence of race than analyzing sound. While some of his chapters do discuss sound and mention musical concepts, ideas and styles the text is far more about musicians than music. As a contextualizing work for musicians interested in race or a reading assignment for upperclassmen or graduate students in classes on race, cultural studies or music this book is an excellent choice. Unfortunately, for the non-musician looking to learn more about sound and musical content during this period, the text does lack some of the musical detail and analysis one might expect of a book by a musicologist or ethnomusicologist.

Lastly, this text relies strongly on writings about structural racism by Philip Bohlman and Ron Radano that nicely complement current musicological theory on race and music. This work, and hopefully others in a similar vein, will continue the discussion of race, listeners, and the music industry. For many readers the emphasis on migration versus diaspora will be an interesting distinction. Diaspora studies extensively discussed ethnic and racial fault lines in the context of relocation. In the past ten to fifteen years the shift in musicological and social science discourse towards the concept of migration opens new possibilities for dialogue. In Stratton’s volume the emphasis on migration results in an openness to the idea of flow. Music does not, as an art form, travel from one place to another and remain. This exploration of migration and music might be Stratton’s greatest continuing contribution. Consider how migration and a discussion of race influence our ideas surrounding K-pop in the United States, or the Beatles and Rolling Stones as karaoke favorites in Japan. Migration then can be a theoretical discourse that unveils how music flows and finds new homes and places for listeners, often filtered and interpreted along racial and ethnic fault lines.


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