Naresh Fernandes / Taj Mahal Foxtrot:
“Boss, this girl has something,” drummer Chick Webb’s male singer (seated on the left) told him. “You must hear her.” Webb couldn’t see the need for that. Though he cut one of the strangest sights in jazz – a drummer bent over by spinal tuberculosis, with partially paralysed legs – Webb was one of the earliest legends of swing. In 1931, by the time he was 26, he was leading the house band at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and was, in the words of his contemporaries, “the daddy of them all”. He simply couldn’t see why he needed a girl singer.
But his front man was persistent and brought over a singer he’d heard at the Harlem Opera House. The drummer was, of course, bowled over by the 16-year-old Ella Fitzgerald and she spurred the Chick Webb band on to even greater success. Young Bardu Ali, who had discovered Fitzgerald, didn’t do badly either. He would go on to lead his own band, the Bardu Ali Orchestra, and eventually open a rhythm and blues club in Los Angeles. No one could quite have predicted this for the boy who had been born Bahadour Ali, the son of an adventurous embroidery trader from the Hoogly region in India.
I discovered the existence of Bardu Ali last month as I devoured Vivek Bald’s fascinating Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asia, a rigorous, captivating study of early Indian immigrants to the US, More:
Fatima Shaik at In These Times:
The federal census taker comes every 10 years and, for most people in the United States, this has little consequence. But not where I lived, in New Orleans, just outside the historic district of Tremé. There, people talked to each other about whether to lie to the census taker and which lie to tell, and that conversation produced stories about who had disappeared from us and who had stayed, and what was more important: loyalty or money.
That was the mentality in Creole New Orleans from as far back as I can remember—that is, the 1950s—until recently. The lying, the disappearing, the money and lack of it had everything to do with race.
We were part of a mixed-race community of immigrants and Louisiana natives, and there was no place for us in the data tables of the census or in the mind of a black-and-white America. And yet we existed, for generations. Now, in a thoroughly researched new book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Vivek Bald traces one vein of our lineage, from a most distant country.
Bald follows Muslim peddlers and, later, ship workers who journeyed from India to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. As local Indian markets for fabrics lost value in the 1880s, Muslim Bengali men began traveling abroad to find customers for “Oriental” wares—silk and cotton, handkerchiefs, bedspreads and tablecloths, and rugs. More:
From MIT News:
While it is commonly known that a wave of well-educated South Asians arrived in the United States after 1965, this earlier saga of immigration and assimilation has largely been overlooked. Until now, that is: A new book, “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America,” by MIT assistant professor Vivek Bald, illuminates this thread of history in unprecedented detail.
“Without these stories, the history of South Asians in the U.S. is incomplete,” Bald says.
One reason the subject has particular resonance for the present day, Bald believes, is that many of the immigrants in question were Muslim. “I wanted to make clear the depth and the persistence of the South Asian presence in the U.S.,” he says, “and specifically the South Asian Muslim presence in the U.S., at a time when Muslims are being portrayed as newcomers, enemies and outsiders.”
The genesis of “Bengali Harlem,” published this month by Harvard University Press, comes in good measure from conversations Bald had with Alaudin Ullah, a New York-based actor and playwright and the son of Habib Ullah. Hearing about the Ullah family’s odyssey sparked Bald’s curiosity. More: