Music for Transformation
by John Moat
Cover: Minature steel drums in a craft market Tobago Photograph: Anna Watson/Axiom
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Blackness and the Dreaming Soul Cy Grant Shoving Leopard Productions, UK, 2007, £14.99
WHY IS THIS book compelling, even (or perhaps especially) to Resurgence readers who could be feeling they’ve taken in about all they can hold of books that analyse the flaws in the old paradigm, and propound the mechanics and mysteries of the new? Could it be that it’s the difference between writing that is about, and writing that has seen what it is about from a viewpoint fashioned by a long, extraordinarily engaged and diverse life-adventure?
Simply as autobiography, Cy Grant’s book is irresistible. He was born and brought up in British Guiana (now Guyana) and came to England early in the Second World War to become a rare black commissioned officer in the RAF. Navigator in a Lancaster bomber shot down over Holland, he survived to become a prisoner of war for two years until freed by the Russians. Subsequently, he qualified as a lawyer, only to find that a black man could not make a living in the British legal system. “This was Britain in peacetime and I was no longer useful.” He fell back on another of his gifts, became an actor and immediately was invited to join the Lawrence Olivier Company. He starred in films and became a national celebrity singing topical calypsos on the TV Tonight programme.
But these are in a sense the surface details that barely touch the inner story. At least, not until at a point of recognition the two collide. Success as well as the condescension of an institutionally racist show business brought confidence and anger together and this was channelled into a new determination – maybe one could call it a cultural militancy. In 1974, with John Mapondera, Grant set up Drum Arts Centre in London to platform the skills of black actors. At the same time, he tells, two crucial encounters redirected his energy to exploring and developing his own ‘inner’ life. Reading the Tao Te Ching, with its mysterious propounding of universal balance (he made his own fine translation and recorded parts of it for the BBC), linked with his own discovery of Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land. In this great poem negritude is experienced as the authority of the senses (relating to feeling, the feminine, Nature, ‘might knowledge’) that out of fear is suppressed by and so divided from the dominant mindset of the so-called West. Grant toured his powerful performance of the poem, and its profound effect on him led in large part to all that followed: to the Concord initiative that pioneered multicultural festivals to celebrate in national context the arts of immigrant communities; and also to the quest to establish his own integrative practice and way of seeing.
Into his seventies and now his eighties Grant has never ceased from this exploration, of which the last part of the book gives detailed account – not as an attempt at scholarship, but as experience, story and metaphor.
It seems that the sense of a division worked on Grant from the outset, and fed a unique and intensely receptive pilgrim restlessness. What was at first suffered in, for the most part, a racial context would eventually be seen to reflect that simple fundamental division that is at the heart of our contemporary planetary crisis in all its aspects. And this is something new? Yes, because it here becomes a unique story, with its ending fully resolved, and so heartfelt that it carries its own proof.
John Moat is a painter and writer. His most recent book is Hermes & Magdalen.