Mr. Baptiste was a festival hit in Jamaica in 1688

In the Dutch newspaper NRC, music reviewer Leendert van der Valk recently recommended readers in lockdown to listen to music on the website Musical Passage – A Voyage to 1688 Jamaica. Here is a translation (by Peter Jordens) of the review article.

Of the many musicians present at a festival in Jamaica in 1688, Mr. Baptiste was the best one. In the first piece that he presented there, ‘Angola’, the high and low registers alternate in call-and-response style. More than three centuries later, especially when the piece is played on a fretless banjo and is accompanied by percussion, one can hear that it may have been a hit.

‘Angola’ consists of just a few bars and contains the strange text “Ho-baognion”. To get closer to the sound of 1688, one would have to clap one’s hands upon the bass notes and shout “Alla, Alla” as Mr. Baptiste indicated. He wrote the music down at the request of the British physician Hans Sloane, who published a total of three pieces of music in his Voyage to the Islands in 1707 and whose documents, plants, animals and cultural artifacts from the Caribbean would later form the basis for the British Museum.

Sloane called Mr. Baptiste the best musician of the festival. Chances are that Baptiste was also in charge and wrote down his own interpretation of the music. So, let’s call him a seventeenth-century composer. His music score is the first transcription of African music within the Caribbean and, presumably, both American continents too. In other words, it was the first record of Transatlantic music, a precursor to the countless genres that now color our musical palette: from jazz to tango, from reggae to samba.

One may wander through that world on the website http://www.musicalpassage.org, a wonderful interdisciplinary project by musicians, historians, authors and web developers.

The second piece that Baptiste wrote down was called ‘Papa’; it only contains four bars that can be repeated endlessly. The third piece, ‘Koromanti’, has three parts that appear to be unrelated. It is the most intriguing piece within Baptist’s work, without a clear theme or structure.

While one listens, one travels through time and space, as tends to happen with music. The Musical Passage website supports this by displaying background information while the music plays. The site’s factual description of musical life in the slavery-based British colony reduces the risk that the banjo, shakers and mbira evoke a romantic stay at a holiday resort.

The uprootedness of the musicians in question is evident from the titles of the three pieces. The name ‘Angola’ refers to the Central African coast, ‘Papa’ probably refers to the coast of present-day Benin, and ‘Koromanti’ takes us to Ghana. Then there is the “Alla, Alla”, which may reflect a North African influence. Afro-Caribbean musicians had to play music that would please people from all over the continent. They would also be familiar with the latest European trends, as they played at the behest of the plantation owners.

Mr. Baptiste must have been capable of playing and writing down those different styles of music. His name suggests that he may have been a free person of African descent from a French colony, perhaps Saint-Domingue. He may have learned musical notation in the Catholic Church. One of the Musical Passage researchers has found evidence that Mr. Baptiste was the first published American composer of African descent.

But even without knowing all this context, Baptiste’s work, or in any case the music that he wrote down, is fascinating. To be allowed to ‘travel’ to a festival at the present time is already a treat, and even more so if it is one that took place in Jamaica in 1688.

Experience this journey to the 1688 festival via http://www.musicalpassage.org.

Translation from the Dutch by Peter Jordens. The original newspaper article is located at https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2021/01/18/mr-baptiste-was-festivalhit-in-het-jamaica-van-1688-a4028020.

For some background on the website Musical Passage – A Voyage to 1688 Jamaica, http://www.musicalpassage.org, go to our previous post,

https://repeatingislands.com/2017/06/17/small-axe-presents-musical-passage-a-voyage-to-1688-jamaica and to https://fsp.duke.edu/projects/musical-passage.

The article ‘Who was Mr. Baptiste?’ by Brian McNeill (Virginia Commonwealth University, May 23, 2019), https://news.vcu.edu/article/Who_was_Mr_Baptiste, discusses the evidence that Mr. Baptiste’s was a black musician and composer.

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