Half-Blood Blues takes on familiar themes in New Terrain

Half-Blood Blues discusses race and belonging in a fascinating read

Janice Mather

Surprising yet familiar, eye-opening but relatable, Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues is a lyrical tale of World War II terrors told through the eyes of young Black jazz musicians in Germany.

Winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Edugyan’s widely praised second book is based on the little-known story of African-Germans under Nazi rule.  As much as this subject matter tells a new-to-most chapter in Black history, Half-Blood Blues reframes familiar issues too, presenting racial and biracial struggles in a new historical context.

Paris, 1940-three young Black jazz musicians have escaped Germany and hide out in squalor with little to do but play. Narrator Sid—light-skinned and from Baltimore; and dark, German-born Hiero—the sax-playing genius of the group—brave the dangerous streets for, of all things, a glass of milk. Caught without papers and betrayed by his heritage (half of it, anyway), Hiero is rounded up by German soldiers, and disappears.

Cut to 1992: Sid, now an old man, returns to Berlin with Chip, the third musician, for the screening of a documentary on Hiero, who is now—amongst a small following of fans—something of a jazz god. There, Sid is publicly accused of envying Hiero’s musical skill, and of ultimately betraying him. And Chip claims Hiero, presumed dead, is still alive. As Sid and Chip journey to Poland to see their old friend, Sid flashes back to 1939 and 1940, and the group’s struggle to flee a suddenly dangerous Berlin, find safety in Paris, feed their passion for jazz, and play with legend Louis Armstrong, a goal as urgent, at times, as that of staying alive.

As well as we think we know the stories of Nazi terror in World War II, Hiero, Sid, and Chip’s story sheds new light on those horrors, and on the convoluted concepts of race and nationality.  Half-Blood Blues, named for the group’s recording made just before Hiero’s capture, also refers to their shared, yet fundamentally different, mixed-race background.

The product of a white German mother and an African father, Hiero is considered a Mischling (crossbreed) whose deep complexion ultimately determines his tragic fate as much as, ironically, his German birth. Also of African descent, Sid’s lighter skin lets him “pass” as an American, and gives him access to protection against the deep racist threats Hiero faces in his own homeland.

Birth dictates Hiero’s status as a Black German and keeps light-skinned Sid safe.

Half-Blood Blues is an amazing story of the human desire for belonging, the artistic urge to create, even in the face of terror, and the lengths jealousy can drive us to.  In shedding new light on the narrative of Africans in Germany, it deepens the discussion of race and mixed race issues, offering vital new perspectives to familiar struggles.  Give it a read.

About the Author

By Excalibur Publications



Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments