Minority Ethnic and Religious Communities: Cultural and Economic Contribution — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:57 pm on 24th May 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat 12:57 pm, 24th May 2012

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord for securing this important debate, as it gives us an opportunity to celebrate unsung heroes of culturally diverse backgrounds who have made outstanding contributions to our society, making this great country rich, diverse and vibrant.

One such unsung hero is the British composer known as the "black Mahler"-Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was born in London in 1875. He was one of the few mixed-race children in Victorian times. He was regarded by his contemporaries-Elgar, Mahler-and Vaughan Williams as the most talented composer of his generation, both in Britain and America. His best known work, "Hiawatha's Wedding Feast", became a worldwide sensation that captured the public's imagination. For years it was the centrepiece of the Royal Albert Hall's summer programme. The lavish productions were performed to packed audiences, including the Royal Family. At the time, it was more popular than Handel's "Messiah". Coleridge-Taylor became a cultural icon in America and was the first black man to conduct the band of the US Marines.

Interestingly, the only copy of the manuscript of his violin concerto went down with the "Titanic" on its way to America-for use in a concert-in 1912, so he had to rewrite it from memory in a very short time just before he died. His immense talent was never truly given the status that he deserved as a major composer here in Britain. He died tragically at the age of 37, a broken man who passed away sitting up in bed, conducting an imaginary symphony after being attacked by racists thugs on West Croydon station. Happily for his fans, his lost opera "Thelma" was found in the British Library recently, just in time to be performed this year, on the centenary of his death.

In more recent times, Caribbeans who came to Britain brought with them their style, flair and culture. Their music transformed and influenced the British music scene. Ska, bluebeat, rocksteady and reggae are now part of British musical heritage. Carnival, calypso and steel pan music were brought to these shores by people from Trinidad and Tobago, who celebrate their 50th anniversary of independence this year. Steel pan music-which uses the only musical instrument created in the 20th century-also played its part in creating a musical extravaganza. It has become a well established and much loved instrument played by many British school children today.

Calypso music was introduced to London by the arrival in 1948 of two "Empire Windrush" passengers, Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner, who wrote and sang calypsos about the Caribbean immigrants' experiences here in Britain at that time, with songs such as "London Is the Place for Me" and "Cricket lovely Cricket". It was Lord Kitchener who led an impromptu, Trinidad carnival-style musical parade around Hyde Park and down Piccadilly towards Eros, much to the amazement of onlookers. Carnival was embraced, and perhaps this marked the moment when a new, distinctively Caribbean spirit and rhythm started to infiltrate our national culture. The carnival celebrations, fostered by Claudia Jones, became an annual event in 1959, first in St Pancras Town Hall and then in Notting Hill from 1964, where they evolved into the world famous Notting Hill Carnival, the largest in Europe, which attracts millions of visitors every year.

For centuries, this country absorbed into its fabric a melting pot of cultures, religions and races, creating the rich tapestry of our nation; but sadly, the contributions made by black, Asian and Chinese people are often absent from our cultural history. For the sake of our children we need to rectify this, and to create and stimulate national pride and unity among all people. We need to appreciate, celebrate and be proud of all that makes Britain unique and great in the 21st century. Surely this should be the overriding mission of government. I will be interested to hear from my noble friend how the Government intend to encourage these principles.