If you want to change the world, start with the young and malleable. This must have been the thought of Nathan Holder when he decided to write a book about black female composers. Instead of adding yet another exposé to the scholarly literature on the (in)visibility of women composers, he decided to write a book for children. – And call it Where are all the Black Female Composers? A strong and provocative title, because in the struggle for gender equality in music most researchers zoom in on white women composers.
In a mere 79 pages, Holder introduces over 30 composers of colour, arranged in chronological order. Starting with the Brazilian Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935) and ending with the British Cassie Kinoshi (1993). In compact, Wikipedia style texts Holder describes their place of birth, education and achievements and sums up some of their most important works.
After the entries on the featured composers, Holder sometimes lists a few contemporaries, with or without dates or further explanation. Each lemma also offers a music note and three titles (haphazardly placed in inverted comma’s) that seem to refer to the online playlist on page 75, though underneath the QR-code there we find a different set of titles.
Red thread through the book are four children – Phoebe, Callum, Olivia and Zaki – who give ‘fun facts’ or pose questions to which the answers can be found at the end of the book. Olivia shares the fact that Florence Price (1887-1953) composed Rhapsody on Negro Themes for an orchestra of 100 musicians; Callum suggests the kids might recognize the surname of Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977) ‘because she was married to the author W.E.B. Du Bois’. But how familiar is Du Bois to the average adolescent?
Zaki recounts how Irene Britton Smith (1907-1999) was ‘too nervous to accept the offer’ of Florence Price to help her with her compositions. Phoebe informs us that in 1988 Jeanne Lee was named one of the 100 most influential people in jazz in Jazzis, as shown on page 44, where she holds up the cover of this jazz magazine. The booklet is lavishly illustrated, with drawings by Charity Russell of different instruments, the four ‘guides’ in all kinds of postures and lifelike portraits of the composers.
One does wonder what particular kids Holder had in mind while writing. At the start of his book he asks a very relevant question: ‘What is a composer?’ For indeed, many young people are mystified by this concept. It seems unlikely, however they will feel enlightened by his answer that ‘a composer is someone who organizes sounds’. In the next paragraph he takes it for granted the kids are versed in musicological terms when explaining he will focus on black women composers ‘who have written in a classical or neo-classical style’.
Despite these incongruities and its somewhat erratic set-up Where are all the Women Composer provides a lot of valuable information. Composers such as Price, Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), Tania León (1943) and Eleanor Alberga (1949) are fairly well-known, but the names of Dorothy Rudd Moore (1940), Regina Harris Baiocchi (1956) and Nkeiru Okoye (1972) don’t immediately ring a bell’ with a general audience – nor with me for that matter.
By completely focusing on female composers of colour in a book for adolescents Nathan Holder really sticks his neck out. He offers a useful tool for further discoveries into a field that is still largely unexplored in the mainstream music world. His booklet has the impact of a proud banner: Here are all the black female composers!
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