Live review

Paris-Londres: Music Migrations (1962-1989) at Palais de la Porte Dorée, Paris

Paris-Londres: Music Migrations (1962-1989)
(Palais de la Porte Dorée, Paris, to 5 January 2020. Exhibition review by Dan Bergsagel)

The story goes something like this: jazz came from the African-American community in New Orleans, migrated up to Chicago and New York, and thanks to two world wars and the touring military big bands, took Europe and the world by storm. But if you listened to the contemporary jazz scene in London or Paris, you might suspect that there was more in the music than this blues/big band ancestry. 

According to this exhibition at the Musée Nationale de l’Histoire de l’immigration in the Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris, you’d have good reason to look further afield than the US, and instead at the post-war post-colonial migrations from the Carribbean, North and West Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent, to the struggling seats of Empire of London and Paris. 

It is an enormous exhibition bursting with music memorabilia (album art and posters galore), newspaper clippings, videos and interviews, and shocking internal cabinet letters (“the quality of the immigrants appears to be deteriorating”, “a colour problem approaching that of the United States”). Most importantly, as an exhibition to interact with, it has over 50 audio recordings from across the three decades available to be listened to on headphones, progressing from Les Surfs, Desmond Dekker and Ginger Johnson in the ’60s to West African Cosmos and Alpha Blondy in the ’70s and ’80s. 

The exhibition tracks how the musical traditions of the Windrush and BUMIDOM (Le Bureau pour le développement des migrations dans les départements d’outre-mer) generations flourished, and then influenced other music of the era. The impact reggae, ska and two tone had on punk is covered extensively (Don Letts‘ punky reggae parties and the Clash‘s version of Police and Thieves) but the later impact of Nigerian and Malian immigration with Afrobeat was covered also. 

The story of damaging fickle citizenship and immigration policies, personal and institutional racism in these now-multicultural centres can be hard to read. But the triumphs and attitudes of it can be traced through and listened to in the breakout sounds of London ‘jazz’ today. The exhibition cut off in 1989. But that’s when this current crop were born; the legacy of the Music Migrations is the sound of Nubiyan Twist, Sons of Kemet, Ezra Collective and Kokoroko. 

The exhibition is clearly a labour of love, and tells rough stories which are often overlooked. There are bits which are still hard to watch (for example, a Brian Eno interview where he patronises Seun Kuti about Afrobeat), and one has a feeling that we’re still only seeing these scenes filtered through institutional eyes (watch 1980 Babylon, of soundsystems in Brixton for something rawer, and an excellent soundtrack). But it is a fantastic exhibition to spend a few hours in, and pulls together many of the threads of the exciting music scene we have now.

LINK: Paris-Londres: Music Migrations (1962-1989) 

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