Hearing Power, Sounding Freedom: Black Practices Of Listening, Ear-Training, And Music-Making In The British Colonial Caribbean

Maria Theresa Norma Ryan, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation explores how African and African-descended people in the British colonial Caribbean, enslaved and free, engaged with music that had its origins in Europe through listening, performance, theorizing, and composition between the banning of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and the granting of unrestricted freedom in 1838. By shifting perspective to how black people heard European music, rather than how white people heard colonized and enslaved black people, this project complicates traditional narratives about race and music in the colonial Caribbean, arguing that black musicians used music and listening as a tool to assert their intellectual and aesthetic capabilities, while simultaneously learning, theorizing, and sometimes subverting the music of their colonizers. I position these modes of performance and listening within a context of increased white anxiety about race in the decades before and after emancipation. Drawing on methodologies from black feminist history, this project focuses on the music lives of the enslaved from scant traces in the archive. Through chapters about enslaved fiddlers, military musicians, Christian converts, and free people of color, this dissertation acknowledges that the multiplicity of ways that enslaved and subjugated Africans and their descendants performed and interacted with European music demonstrate that European music in the colonial Caribbean was not strictly racialized as white.