Hilary Burage, from the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor foundation asked me to write about how I came to know about the great Black British composer and how he impacted me both as a songwriter and as a person. This article was my response to her invitation.
I was born with fingers that suggested a predisposition for playing the piano. So when I saw and touched a piano for the first time, my heartstrings got stuck and my eyes almost came out of their sockets. It is this handicap that made it impossible for me to understand the financial strings that prevented my mother from buying me a piano and enrolling me at the conservatoire.
I knew that this would affect the way I heard and understood music in general and classical music in particular. I also knew that my lazy nature and the remains of a grudge would never allow me to grasp the piano in the same way later on in my life as I would have had right there and then. For one, I was a child brought up to believe that as long as I performed well at school, I could have all that I wanted.
I went to school between France and Cameroon, encountering music as diverse as the musicians’ experience would allow them to report. One of my schools was the lycée Frédéric Chopin where I grew interested in the music of the Polish composer, all the more as I was enrolled in the corresponding boarding school which had… a piano! Under the encouragement of one of my best friends (nicknamed La Thouille), and the instructions of a beginners’ book entitled “La méthode rose” (that La Thouille had bought me), I started practising assiduously for two hours a day, trying to learn as much as I could, under the threat of a new move to Cameroon or elsewhere in France where they would have forgetfully omitted to make a piano available.
Ambidextrous enough within a few months to both read and play my favourite piano piece, the Etude n. 69 op 2 from Chopin, I judged (clearly without the more mature advice of a piano teacher) that I knew enough to do what I truly wanted to do, play the way I felt, understand music the way that my heartstrings and eardrums interpreted it and that all school rules were both too late or too religious to allow me to express.
It is in this quest, that I started serial songwriting, moved to Britain and somewhere in the midst of all that, met with the works of Samuel Coleridge Taylor. You see, hearing of a Black classical composer was as rare in that period (for me at least) as finding a place with a piano readily available and tuned. It felt the same. He became my piano oasis, my hope that, although not a classical musician or a pianist myself, I could establish myself just where I wanted, as the person I wanted to be. Colour (and beyond, gender and education) should never have to matter where the heart is.
I was introduced to Coleridge Taylor via his song “Deep River” (which I endlessly link to on the homepage of one of my websites). It was classical music but it had a familiar depth. Noone could reach my emotions like Chopin but there was always that one set of feelings that was not expressed in Chopin’s works. And there, right in Samuel’s Deep river, it laid, as if it had forever waited for me. I played it over and over and over again (and I still do) as if it were a lost feeling that had finally found its composition, its expression, because it just was acknowledged. In fact, I reckon that half of its plays on YouTube are just from me.
I must say it took me quite some time to acquire anything else that he had created. Just the idea of him was great enough, encouraging enough for me. Then the specific interpretation of Deep River filled any other possible gaps. What if I did not like any of his other works?
We did not really have the same style, far from that. We did not have the same story. Really, we did not have anything in common that we had worked to achieve, except I was hoping, creating our own distinctive works in a style that was not associated with us, in spite of all the prejudice of sarcastic probability. But creativity makes up its own rules where rules fail to encourage creativity.
So here I am now, composing my own music, not classical or other, in fact without the boxes of genres, letting my creativity flow freely in and out of the deep river of my emotions.
This article was first published on on the website of SCTF, “a Community Interest Company, which aims to promote the work of Samuel Coleridge Taylor, and to encourage interest and involvement in classical music using his life and work as an example of excellence in achievement and in overcoming adversity.” and remains available at Tiki Black: Inspiration from Samuel Coleridge Taylor.