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  • Retuning Imperial IntentionsThe Gold Coast Police Band, West African Students, and a 1947 Tour of Great Britain
  • Nate Plageman

In December 1947, H. M. Collins of the West Africa Section of the British Colonial Office penned a letter to Tom Stenning, the bandmaster of the Gold Coast Police Band in Accra. The two-page letter, which Collins insisted was long overdue, concerned the Band's recently completed four-month tour of Great Britain. From early May until mid-September, the Band, which comprised 34 members of the colony's police force, had traveled throughout England, Wales, and Scotland, giving dozens of public performances, appearing on British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio and television programs, and gaining great fanfare in the British press. Stenning, who had overseen the ensemble since 1943, had joined Collins as one of the colonial officials charged with ensuring that the tour's audiences obtained an "education" about the Gold Coast and the wider merits of British imperialism. In fact, the Gold Coast government and Colonial Office crafted the Band's tour—likely the longest by a colonial ensemble on British soil—with the hope that its martial appearance and vast repertoire of military music, swing numbers, light operas, and popular tunes would rekindle audiences' enthusiasm for colonialism's ability to benefit and "civilize" African peoples.1 Collins insisted that their efforts had been remarkably successful; the Band, he proclaimed, had enraptured the British public and "made the Gold Coast a household word throughout Britain, the Empire and other parts of the world."2 [End Page 111]

If Collins's letter embodies the unbridled optimism that British officials had in their ability to "anticipate and mould" Empire's future following the Second World War (Pearce, 1982, p. 162), it also reflects the challenge of using colonial records to reconstruct state-sponsored musical events not as acts of prepared propaganda, but as multifaceted and multidirectional popular musical happenings. Because the 1947 tour was an unprecedented imperial initiative, it is the subject of hundreds of administrative reports, circulars, and exchanges now contained in archival files held in the National Archives (TNA) in Kew, England, and, to some extent, the main repository of Ghana's Public Records and Archives Administration Department (PRAAD) in Accra. As I have discussed elsewhere (Plageman, 2016), this extensive paper trail—which constitutes the largest corpus of records on a single musical event in the colony's history—documents the tour British officials wanted to take place far more than that which actually did. Nearly two-thirds of their contents concerns the tour's planning and organization: an imbalance that amplifies officials' ambitions and mutes what occurred once the Band arrived on British soil. Remaining documents perpetuate additional silences, providing almost no insight into the physical or social settings of the Band's performances, the aural or visual aspects of individual concerts, or the songs it played onstage (such records do not, for instance, contain a single program from any of the group's concerts).3Outside of numerical estimates and blanket statements about their enthusiastic responses to the Band, they also say little about the tour's audiences, their demographic makeup, or their actual levels of engagement with the group and its music. Last, documentation offers practically nothing about the bandsmen, omitting basic material such as their full names.4 In short, the tour's vast archival record ignores—even works to erase—the human, sonic, and creative elements that give musical events significance and meaning.

In the pages that follow, I analyze the 1947 tour not as a state-directed showcase of Empire, but as a creative act of Ghanaian popular music. As John Collins has so poignantly revealed, Ghanaian artists and audiences [End Page 112] repeatedly employed popular music as a medium of enjoyment and empowerment; a means of actively shaping, not simply reacting to, the wider transformations of the 20th century. In uncovering their actions and agency, Collins (1994, 1996b, 2005a) has unveiled remarkable insights into how otherwise invisible people decolonized imported cultural resources, recovered lost histories, and outlined imagined futures. Propelled by his groundbreaking work, others have explored how Ghanaians used popular music to define and debate modernity, claim connections to...


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