Skip to main content

China Turns To Africa For Resources, Jobs And Future Customers

In China's Second Continent, Howard French explores the Chinese presence in 15 African countries. The relationship goes beyond economics: more than a million Chinese citizens have migrated to Africa.


Other segments from the episode on May 27, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 27, 2014: Interview with Howard French; Commentary on the word 'capital'; Obituary for Herb Jeffries.


May 27, 2014

Guest: Howard French - Herb Jeffries

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When crews broke ground on a major airport expansion in Mali funded by American foreign aid, the $71 million contract went to a Chinese construction firm. That's one small measure of China's economic engagement in Africa, where Chinese leaders see arable land and natural resources vital to China's industrial expansion and markets for growing Chinese companies.

Our guest, journalist Howard French, says there's debate about whether China's push into Africa will lead to African development and prosperity, or exploitation reminiscent of 19th century European colonialism. But, he says, it's led to another remarkable development. More than a million Chinese citizens have permanently moved to Africa, buying land, starting businesses and settling among local populations.

In his new book, "China's Second Continent," French explores the Chinese presence in 15 African countries. Howard French spent years reporting on Africa and China for The New York Times and The Washington Post. He speaks Mandarin, French and Portuguese. He's now in the faculty of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Howard French, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's just begin by talking a little bit about China's drive to invest and build economic relationships in the developing world. I mean, how long has this been happening? What drives it?

HOWARD FRENCH: Well, so this has happened really in two phases through two different - very different approaches. In the 1960s, a revolutionary China during the Maoist era tried to forge relations very broadly across the Third World, in a political sense, promoting rebellions and revolutionary movements here and there and trying to unify a coalition of what used to widely be called Third World countries around it in the global South.

China then opens up and begins reforming its economy, going capitalist, to put it simply, in the late 1970s, and subsequently, probably in the early- to mid-1990s, begins to survey the world and understand, I think quite astutely, that huge opportunities for it were opening up in parts of the world that were not being particularly attended to by the West. And the place that stood out first-and-foremost in that regard was Africa.

DAVIES: And their interest was in both raw materials and markets?

FRENCH: So as China began to emerge as this manufacturing superpower in the 1990s in the early phases of this, they saw that they had an advantage or an interest in securing sources of raw materials around the world. And Africa is, was and still remains clearly one of the premier sources for raw materials. So this was the first step of their engagement with Africa. But it didn't by any means end there.

I think already as far back as the mid-1990s, China's political leaders had the foresight to understand that Africa had a great deal of unrecognized economic potential and had a particular kind of demographic profile, meaning that Africa's population was set to increase very rapidly and that there was a great prospect that Africa would also have, along with this demographic rise, growing middle classes.

And so China was, at the same time as it was seeking to secure natural resources, it was beginning to think about Africa as a place where it could develop markets - important markets for itself for the future.

DAVIES: Now, you write in the book that a kind of barter system developed in which the Chinese would provide big projects. Give us some examples of this - big projects in African countries - and what the Chinese got in return.

FRENCH: The kinds of projects could be railways. I was in Kenya just last week where the Chinese premier was visiting to sign a very large deal to develop a national railway - a new national railway system for Kenya that will eventually link up to other landlocked countries in East Africa.

But other sorts of projects include new port systems, new highway systems, airports, stadiums and in some cases, things like smelters or factories of one kind or another. In Angola, it involves the development of a university system and of housing complexes all over the country. And what China has been doing typically has been offering to create these sorts of infrastructure for their African client states in exchange for a secure source of a particular natural resource that will - a contract that will provide China with its needs over a length of 20 or 30 years.

DAVIES: Now, to what extent are these relationships driven by the official Chinese government policy, and to what extent do they represent, you know, entrepreneurial moves by Chinese companies who act as independent actors?

FRENCH: In terms of the movements of people, the first phase of this process is very much the result of Chinese state policy. In the 1990s, Beijing begins to formulate this idea of Going Out - that was the official name of the policy - where a national priority was established to seek business in faraway lands, especially in parts of the world like Africa where China didn't really have much of a history of economic engagement, certainly in a capitalist mode.

And so once this watchword was established, Chinese provinces then begin to compete among themselves for business in Africa and in other parts of the world that were designated as priorities. Up to that point, this is very much a state-driven process. But then something very interesting begins to happen. Once Chinese companies begin to secure projects in these sorts of places - for example, the construction of a port or an airport or a highway system - they move, let's say, 1,000 or 2000 workers to the target country for a fixed period of time - a year or two - during which time they'll be, you know, building this new infrastructure.

And at the end of that period, a certain percentage of these workers - and it would vary from case to case - decided, well, look, you know, hey, Africa is not such a bad place after all. We may have had very little idea of Africa or perhaps a poor image of Africa. And these workers then discovered, well, you know, this is pretty agreeable. There's lots of opportunity here. I think at the end of my contract, I'll stay behind. I'll just stay here.

That stay-behind phenomenon is very much an individual decision. I see no particular evidence that the Chinese state has been a major factor in encouraging what has ultimately become a kind of, let's say, a form of migration where these people complete their contracts and remain on the ground in the destination country for the medium or longer-term.

DAVIES: You know, it's fascinating in the book that people see economic opportunity in Africa - a lot of Chinese people - but they're also driven by things they don't like about life in China. What are they?

FRENCH: Most of the people we've been talking about so far in terms of migration are what in our country would be called working class or at best, socioeconomically speaking, lower-middle class people. And as such, they tend to come from secondary cities in China, especially cities that are not on the East coast of China, where most wealth is concentrated.

And people in those cities - these secondary cities - they have not benefited from the full blush of the economic growth that China has enjoyed for the last 30 or so years. And so right away, they're seeking - perhaps out of envy of the wealth that has really taken root in the East, they're seeking greater opportunity to catch up. But they find very often that in secondary cities in China, the opportunities to catch up are lacking. And so this drives them to seek opportunity outside.

The things that they complain about in China run from just the sheer crowding of cities in China, to the environment - rampant pollution in many places - to corruption. Corruption is something that many, many of the people I interviewed complained about. The would often say to me, unprompted, that African countries, which we often think of as being, you know, terribly corrupt, were less corrupt in terms of the way they lived their daily lives than China itself.

And then finally something they sometimes were fleeing was a feature of Chinese capitalism that's not widely understood in this country, which is the copycat nature of economic competition in China. If I invent a gewgaw and begin to sort of manufacturer it and sell it on a street corner and somebody notices that it's doing good business, then, you know, in China, very often, it seems like a week later, 10 people have copied that idea and are trying to sell the same gewgaw. Very often, Chinese people would say to me that they were looking for places where there weren't so many Chinese people, which I thought to be amusing.

DAVIES: You spent some time in Mozambique with a Chinese immigrant, Hao Shengli - is that - am I getting close to his name?

FRENCH: Hao Shengli.

DAVIES: Hao Shengli. Just tell us a little bit about how he got there and what kind of farming business he established.

FRENCH: So Hao Shengli had a been sort of a moderately successful businessman back in China who had a peculiar marital history. He had taken on several wives in succession, but after each divorce, had maintained an intimate and financial relationship with the past wife, even as he took on a new wife. And so this led to a need for him to continually amass more and more money. And this drove him eventually to seek opportunity outside of China.

He initially tries to open some businesses in the Middle East. They don't succeed. And he went to a trade fair in southern China where, for the first time, he's exposed to talk about opportunities in Africa. And he decided to try his hand there, and this leads him to go to Mozambique where he believed, because it was a Portuguese-speaking country, he wouldn't find any Chinese people. He -Hao Shengli was driven by this very common motive that we've talked about before, where, you know, he wants to get to a place where there's not going to be any competition from other Chinese people. And so he goes to Mozambique, and I meet him in the capital, Maputo. And he very generously drives me to his farm.

DAVIES: And how is he able to buy so much arable land?

FRENCH: So Hao had come with a certain amount of savings. He was a businessman. In China, he had had a reasonable success. He had saved up - I don't know - over $100,000, which he had arrived with. And he described a process to me where he sort of makes his way from county to county ingratiating himself to local officials. And in the county where he finally settled, he had apparently helped in the construction of some local roads there. And this had won him great favor with local officials. And he ends up using these relationships to secure interest in this land.

He made a payment for the land, and then he settles on the land. He begins farming Stevia, which is a plant that produces sweeteners that are used in diet sodas. And his scheme is to become a giant Stevia producer and to export to the likes of Pepsi and Coca-Cola, etc. Hao very quickly, though, runs into trouble with residents of the surrounding villages around his land who are resentful of the fact that he secured this very rich and irrigated valley, which had been years earlier owned and run by Portuguese colonials.

And so he develops this scheme to bring his sons to Mozambique - teenage sons, one of them about 17, one of them a few years younger. And his idea that he comes up with is that if he marries off or at least has his sons procreate with local women, that the children of these couplings will become part of his clan. And as Mozambican citizens, they will be able to own the land legally in perpetuity. And his hold on this rich valley then can't be challenged.

DAVIES: Well that's - that's an entrepreneurial spirit to family building, isn't it?

FRENCH: Absolutely.

DAVIES: This immigrant, Shengli, who had bought this land and was bringing his sons over and had big plans, how exactly did he figure his son would get African wives? I mean, what would they do to get them? Is it a matter of dating? Is it a matter of visiting their parents?

FRENCH: Very good question. I mean, so the exact details are a bit hazy here. But as I began to talk through these questions with Shengli, it emerges that he himself may have had something of a relationship with the girl who ends up being the girlfriend of his first son - either that or he had a relationship with a friend of the girl who becomes the girlfriend of his son.

As we talk these things through, he tells me that through a variety of payments made to essentially the family members of the clan of eligible girls - eligible in his view - girls, he had been able to secure relationships with various local girls. And he exhibited a great deal of impatience for his younger son, who he called Little Fatty. This is a prepubescent - I don't know - I want to say 14-year-old, who had just arrived very recently from China and really had no sort of native interest in girls yet. And Hao was deeply irritated by this, saying, you know, we've got to get on with this, we've got to get on with this. You know, he's thinking about building his clan, and he's paired off the older son with a girl and - who knows? - but they may have had children by now. And he's very anxious to see this happen with the younger boy as well.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Howard French. His book is "China's Second Continent." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is Howard French. His new book is "China's Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire In Africa."

You write about Zambia, a landlocked country in Southern Africa, where there are 100,000 Chinese. The country has some of the world's largest copper deposits. And what's interesting about this, I guess, is that it was ruled by the British. It was Northern Rhodesia that separated and became its own independent country. And the government there began to privatize the copper mines right about the time that China was expanding its economic reach into the world - this Going Out policy of the government. Tell us a bit about what the Chinese bought in Zambia and what kind of economic relationships developed.

FRENCH: So you've got the sense of timing just right. The Chinese come along liberalizing their economy and pursuing business in far-flung places that they had sort of assessed the West to not be terribly attached to. And Zambia comes very prominently on this list because it is a producer of an essential commodity, copper, which goes into every kind of electronic device that you can imagine. And the IMF had just forced the Zambian government to restructure its economy and to sell off state companies in the global economy of the moment. Copper prices were low, historically speaking, and Zambia had to sell off these assets in a sort of fire sale manner.

China, just through dumb luck, stumbles upon these opportunities at that very moment and ends up acquiring some of the best copper mines in the world for just extraordinarily low prices.

DAVIES: And what were the relationships like between the Chinese owner of these mines and, I guess, some smelting operations, too - right? - and the African workers who worked there?

FRENCH: So the acquisition of these big mines at the moment in history we were just talking about was done by big Chinese companies - state companies, typically. And they subsequently run into all sorts of problems in terms of enforcement of safety standards and labor relations. Chinese mines in Zambia become the scene of some very ugly confrontations between Chinese management and African workers, in a few cases leading to the deaths of Africans as they protested or sort of lay siege to the headquarters of the company.

In a couple of instances, there were reprisals or attacks by Chinese on the African workers. The minors that I focused on in my own reporting were private people who had - in the case of the main person who I profiled in my Zambia chapter, had essentially been a translator for a Chinese state company earlier in the Going Out period. And as an English-speaking translator, he had learned on the fly by translating for engineering companies how to build things like smelters.

And so he comes to Zambia and sees that the ground is literally - that there are rocks lying about in Zambia that are green and therefore full of copper content. And he figures, well, if I build a smelter here, I can mine these rocks and I can make a fortune for myself. And this man describes how he pulls together this effort. And I visit this immense, very impressive, privately owned smelter that he had built through his own ingenuity.

DAVIES: And what did Zambians that you spoke to tell you about working for him and the Chinese employers generally?

FRENCH: Zambians who worked in the mining industry in that part of northern Zambia for Chinese owners generally had stories, very unhappy stories, of being forced to work, you know, sometimes without gloves, without masks, without helmets, in very unsafe conditions, handling chemicals or very hot materials with high rates of injury. And you receive story after story about this.

The worst of these stories came from other mines, not this person in particular's mine. However, this man led me through his smelter, clearly his pride and joy, the latest of several smelters on this one site. And we entered into a sort of hangar-like building where the furnaces - the latest of his sort of kiln-like furnaces had been built. And the air was so thick with smoke - I'm asthmatic - that I was worried that I was going to be in trouble.

You could barely see in broad daylight in this building because the soot from the smelter was so thick. And you had kind of almost a medieval scene where these African workers were carting coal to keep the furnace stoked to the very precipice of the furnace and throwing it in. You know, you get 10 feet away from the furnace and it's already too hot to stand still. And they would have to walk up to the sort of precipice of the furnace and keep loading it with coal.

DAVIES: And the workers had nothing to protect their breathing from all the stuff in the air, right?

FRENCH: That's correct.

DAVIES: So you have the Zambian government which has labor laws and their health and safety standards of some kind. And as you tell the story, it seems that there's a perception of these foreign owners coming in and getting away with very troubling violations - horrific conditions. How does the government react, and do the Chinese intervene in Zambian politics to protect their interests? You see this in a lot of places.

FRENCH: So they don't really have a lot of leverage with China on these sorts of issues. China is, for the foreseeable future, going to be the one big customer for Zambian copper in the world and the one big, willing investor in new copper production and in copper transformation in the world. And so this new government, for all of its outspokenness on this issue, for all of its apparent desire to change the way the copper industry runs in Zambia, has not proven very able to change the nature of the industry or to get China to behave very differently.

GROSS: Howard French will continue his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. French is the author of the new book "China's Second Continent." I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies reported with journalist Howard French about his new book, "China's Second Continent." It's about how China is increasing its presence in Africa, seeing land and natural resources vital to China's industrial expansion and markets for growing Chinese companies. More than a million Chinese citizens have moved to Africa buying land, starting businesses and settling among local populations.

DAVIES: There are questions raised about whether this enormous Chinese investment and engagement with Africa is in the end good for Africans and African countries and citizens. And before I ask you that question, let me just ask you to compare how this surge of Chinese investment and activity differs from, you know, the Western kind of economic engagement in the continent in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

FRENCH: There's one feature that seems most strikingly similar to me in terms of the kind of empire that we think of - European empire in North and South America and in various parts of Asia and Africa in the 19th century, where the powerful foreign entity comes and establishes its interests in a faraway, much poorer, much weaker part of the world.

And what does it do? Typically, it builds infrastructure to accomplish a few things, notably to secure the supply of the kinds of goods - whether it's gold or copper or iron or bauxite or whatever it needs from the poor target country - and on the other hand, to serve as the conduit for its own manufactured goods, very often manufactured goods which are made with these inputs, these natural resources.

And so, you know, this was seen in the 19th century by European powers establishing these kinds of networks of infrastructure in markets all over the world. Wherever European powers established themselves in an imperial mode, they did these sorts of things. And today you see China reproducing these modes, building as we have discussed earlier, ports and airports and railroads and highway systems that, you know, the soft power, sort of nice face of this is that they're serving Africa's transportation needs - which is indeed partly true - but which also serve the purpose of opening up markets for Chinese goods and of helping evacuate the things that China needs from these target countries for its own economic purposes.

The real difference is - the most important difference is that in today's world, a feature of imperialism that was common in the past, direct political control of a foreign country, is seen as intolerable and even impractical, that it's costlier than need be when you can get everything you need without having to assume the costs of government.

And so China has settled on this infrastructure approach of opening up hinterland, getting better access to raw materials and providing networks for the diffusion and distribution of its own goods in a way that I think really resembles many of the patterns of the past.

DAVIES: You know, there's a point of view that says, you know, decades ago when the West was investing in Africa, it attached a lot of conditions to grants and aid and insisted upon the development of democratic institutions before the investments would go forward, and as a result, a lot of things didn't happen.

The contrast is China, with its ambition, charges in kind of disinterested in whether there are democratic institutions. They're much more interested in just, you know, doing the work, making money. And the argument is that the Chinese way will, over the long term, generate prosperity, build a middle class. And that it's from that middle class you'll have the basis for the growth of democratic institutions.

FRENCH: I'm very skeptical of this view. The first thing I would say though is that the West's consistency on these sorts of questions is itself highly problematic. The West has indeed very often enunciated principles of various kinds, but they've been mostly respected in the breach. The United States and other Western powers have been strategic partners of long-standing with any number of undemocratic countries and outright dictatorships in Africa. So there's that.

The second thing that I would say, though, is that Africans themselves, in my experience, tend to be skeptical of this view that there's something wonderful about, you know, the expediency of nondemocratic processes - that if we get a benevolent dictator or we get a partner like China that doesn't attach any particular importance to democratic processes or various other sorts of open and transparent procedures, that, you know, at least we can get the ball rolling and a kind of takeoff will occur. I don't think Africans generally buy into this themselves.

You know, it is the governments of many African countries that are against conditionality. They say, you know, they're tired of being talked down to. They don't wish to be lectured to or held to other people's standards or rules of openness or procedure or democracy or fairness, etc., etc. - that they're perfectly capable of establishing their own rules and knowing what's best for them.

But this is a self-serving argument, in my experience. And the view of most African citizens - who have seen predatory government after predatory government and who understand that of course if you are in the position of a predator, you don't want anyone enjoying oversight over you - you want to be able to, you know, feast as freely and as much as you can get away with.

African citizens of the countries that I have visited, by and large, would like to see a more rule-based system, a more equitable system, a more open and transparent system. And they would like to see, I believe, China play within those rules.

DAVIES: Well, Howard French, it's been interesting. Thanks so much.

FRENCH: Thank you.

GROSS: Howard French spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies who is a senior reporter for WHYY. French is the author of the new book, "China's Second Continent."

TERRY GROSS, HOST:The most surprising bestseller of the year has to be "Capital In The Twenty First Century" by the French economist Thomas Piketty who argues that capitalism naturally leads to increasing inequalities of wealth. Last week the Financial Times challenged some of his data, but Piketty stands by his conclusions.

It isn't the data, or the book's conclusions that's grabbed the attention of our linguist Geoff Nunberg. It's the use of the word capital in Piketty's title which seems to be a plain allusion to Carl Marx's classic "Das Kapital," or in English "Capital," which led to the modern use of the words capitalism and capitalist. Here's Geoff.

GEOFF NUNBERG: "Capital In The Twenty First Century" evokes another famous tone with capital in its title. It makes comparisons inevitable. The title's a red flag for the right, in every sense of the term. A Frenchman who alludes to Marx and advocates a global wealth tax to reduce inequality is like shooting poisson in a barrel. And while liberals don't find the book particularly Marxist in its theory or its predictions, they do see it as Marxian in the sweep of its ambition and its ideas.

There's a linguistic link, too. For all their differences, Piketty and Marx talk about capital in the same singular way. Each of them puts it at the center of his narrative, not just as a sum of money and productive assets, but as a historical character in its own right. Piketty sometimes talks about capital as if it were an animate being. Capital is always entrepreneurial. That is its vocation, he says, which echoes Marx's remark that capital throws off living offspring. For both men, in fact, the capitalists themselves figure only as personifications of capitalist extras, neither heroes nor villains, just the supernumeraries who carry capital on stage on her litter.

It says something that Piketty could write a 700-page book on the concentration of wealth under capitalism without ever using the word greed. William F. Buckley used to say that the trouble with capitalism was capitalists. Piketty would have told him, no, you've got it backwards.

We don't usually think of capitalism actor in itself, which may be why "Das Kapital" is the only classic work of Marx whose title we usually leave in the original German. It makes the concept seem alien, along with those other European words for class and money that we leave untranslated, like ronchiez and bourgeoisie.

But it was Marx's notion of the centrality of capital that led later socialists to use the word capitalism to describe the prevalent economic system. When the term first entered English, it belonged entirely to the left. It conjured up workers bent over their machines, child labor and the plutocrats personified by the top-hatted little man on the Monopoly set - which by the way, was based on a game invented in 1903 to instruct people in the injustices of the capitalist system.

Defenders of the system objected to those connotations and complained that capitalism was a misleading name, which it may very well be. They preferred private enterprise, which focused on the businessman's initiative rather than his inquisitiveness, or better yet, free enterprise, which linked the system to our democratic values. That term caught on in the 1930s when American business launched a concerted PR campaign to add it to Roosevelt's four freedoms as the fifth freedom - freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and from fear, and freedom of enterprise, too.

By the postwar years, free enterprise and free markets were slogans that defined the American way of life. But to some, those phrases suggested Chamber of Commerce boosterism which is what led writers like Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman to try to reclaim capitalism as a positive term that didn't require sweetening. They had some success, particularly among the people who like to dwell on the frontier justice of capitalism's capacity to reward success and punish failure.

Yet even now, the name capitalism can still make its advocates uneasy. The Republican wordsmith Frank Luntz has urged the party to replace it with economic freedom. And not long ago, the conservatives who control the Texas State Board of Education ordered that textbooks should replace the word with free enterprise, which is still a term people prefer to use when they are endowing a foundation or university chair to promote the virtues of the capitalist system.

But if capitalism is still half in the shadows, capitalist is completely out of bounds. You can use the word as an adjective of course - as in capitalist societies - and you can describe somebody as a venture capitalist. But Forbes and The Wall Street Journal almost never used capitalist by itself as a job description, unless they are mocking the jargon of the left. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, the Walden offspring - they're not capitalists but entrepreneurs, investors or just billionaires, depending on how they came by their piles.

There are people who probably describe themselves as capitalist, of course, but usually with a slightly defiant tone. We don't even use capitalist for somebody who advocates the system the way we do with socialist. To call somebody a socialist is to say what he believes. To call him a capitalist is just to tell you what he does.

Capital can't shake off its historical resonances even now which is what gives Piketty's title its power to rouse. That's the real contradiction of capitalism. Even at the moment of its absolute global triumph, it's haunted by the Marxist specters buried in its name.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Herb Jeffries, the smooth baritone who recorded the 1940 hit "Flamingo" with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, was also the movies' first black, singing cowboy. He was nicknamed the Bronze Buckaroo. Jeffries died Sunday at the age of about 100. His exact age is uncertain. He made for Westerns the 1930s - "Harlem Rides The Range," "Harlem On The Prairie," "Two-Gun Man From Harlem" and "The Bronze Buckaroo." And he created the character of Bob Blake.

In each of those films, he sang his theme song, "I'm A Happy Cowboy." Jeffries had wanted to be a cowboy ever since he was a kid. He grew up in Detroit, but he learned to ride a horse at his grandfather's and uncle's farms. It wasn't until he was touring the South with the Earl Hines Orchestra that he saw segregated movie theaters and thought about the need for black cowboy films.

I spoke with Herb Jeffries in 1995. We started with his 1930 a recording of "I'm A Happy Cowboy."


HERB JEFFRIES: (Singing) With my rope and my saddle and my horse and my gun, I'm a happy cowboy. If I'm riding with my cattle, and I'm always on the run, I'm a happy cowboy. You can bet your bottom dollar that you'll never hear me holler 'bout the word on the range. And I love to hit the leather in any sort of weather. And I know I'll never change. With my rope and my saddle and my horse and my gun, I'm a happy cowboy. So when the day is ending 'neath the setting sun, a happy cowboy's work is fun.

GROSS: Tell us about your character. What kind of a cowboy was he?

JEFFRIES: Well, my character, Terry, was not a unique idea. It was that in most of the cowboy pictures that were being made at that time - which were the Roy Rogers, Ken Maynard, Gene Autry, Duke Wayne - those pictures that were being made at that time were five-day quickies. They were made in five to seven days. And they were a C-class picture - a, rather, B-class picture. Mine was C because we didn't have the money. I guess they classified it on how much it cost for your production. Ours were very cheap. I think our pictures ran somewhere between $65,000 to $70,000 to make.

And of course we couldn't afford stuntmen. We couldn't afford a lot of the unique ideas that other production companies were doing. So the idea of these pictures and the character in the picture was just more or less copied after the other characters. We had a high morale, our principles of being moral about it. We didn't do anything that we would want to be - not proper for children to look at, such as drinking. I didn't drink in the picture. I didn't smoke in the picture. It was a sort of a formula that was being used. Bob Blake did not ever use his guns against anyone unless it was in self-defense. So this was a formula that was set up by other cowboys.

GROSS: Now, although you were the only singing black cowboy, it sounds from what I read about you that you grew up in a very kind of racially ambiguous environment. Let me ask you to describe your own ethnic background for us, which is really very mixed.

JEFFRIES: Well, my mother was Irish. My grandmother and my grandfather were O'Dells (ph) from County Cork, Ireland. My mother was 100 percent Irish. My father was the mongrel. He was Italian, French Canadian and - let me see - Ethiopian, yeah. My great-grandmother, Carey (ph), who I did meet and did know, she was a full-blooded Ethiopian. And that is my ethnic background. So, you know, actually I could, if I wanted to be a chameleon, I could identify with about five different races.

GROSS: Did you identify as black or white when you were young?

JEFFRIES: No, not in my school. I had no identity. I was just, you know, as I said, I was a mongrel. And I had many different bloods in my vein. And I was a little bit - probably had a little bit of egotism about it because I felt that, as a chameleon, I could celebrate anything. I could celebrate Saint Patty's Day. I could celebrate Hanukkah. I could celebrate - oh, and I did - Pesach, Passover and...

GROSS: Yeah, I understand you speak a lot of Yiddish.

JEFFRIES: Yes, I do. I speak Yiddish. I was raised in a heavy-Yiddish neighborhood. Most of our merchants were Yiddish. And as a matter of fact, I worked in a grocery store where the owner was the cantor at our school on Frederick Street. And my two dearest friends were his son and daughter.

And of course when they studied at night, I would sometimes go upstairs and study with them, the Hebrew as well as - I learned to speak Yiddish because we had many Yiddish customers. Little ladies would come into the store that didn't speak English. And so if you wanted to wait on them, you had to know what they were saying, and you had to answer them back.

GROSS: So it was when you started singing with Earl Hines and traveling through the South that you decide to identify more black. Tell me a little bit more about what that experience was like of understanding the discrimination in America and being exposed for it in a major way for the first time.

JEFFRIES: Well, Terry, it was very difficult for me because I am - probably if I were identified, they would more look at me as an Italian or Middle Eastern. It was difficult. It was very difficult because while I traveled with Earl Hines' band, I never had a problem performing in front of it. Yet if I went out into the street sometimes - when they couldn't stay in a hotel or they couldn't eat at restaurants, we would go out, my sub, Barney Bigard, who was Creole, and Juan Tizol, who was Puerto Rican. We would go to the stores and bring things back for the guys in the band. And we could do that.

It was an emotional, difficult thing for me to realize that I had an advantage over people who were supporting me in music, which I love more than life itself. And I couldn't do anything that would reflect against their feelings towards me. And I wouldn't stay at white hotels, even though I could have.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1995 interview with Herb Jeffries. He died Sunday. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Let's get back to our 1995 interview with Herb Jeffries who died Sunday. He sang with Duke Ellington and Earl Hines and was a singing cowboy in black Western movies of the 1930s.

I want to talk with you a little bit more about music. You know, you started off music - in music singing with Earl Hines. And then - I believe then you make your movies and then sang with Ellington.


GROSS: How did you join Ellington's band? How did he hear you?

JEFFRIES: During that period of time, they had what they called four-a-day. That was, Duke Ellington was at the Apollo Theater doing a variety show, a stage show. Then they'd play a picture. Then he'd come back and do another show, and they'd a picture. And that went on four times a day. It was called four-a-day.

And he happened to be playing with my picture "The Bronze Buckaroo" at the Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem. And I went to a dance in Detroit that he was at. And he saw me there and introduced me and then asked me if I'd like to join his band and do some theater engagements with him and record. And so I took that opportunity because I thought this was the greatest band in the world.

GROSS: Your biggest hit was the song you recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, "Flamingo." How did Ellington end up giving you "Flamingo" to sing?

JEFFRIES: (Laughing) Ellington didn't give it to me. A man by the name of Ted Grouya handed it to me at the stage door because he was unable to get in to see Duke. And I was going out for lunch, and he said, I can't see Mr. Ellington, will you give this to him? And so I put it in my pocket and went on and had my lunch.

And then when I came back, I threw it up on my dressing table in my dressing room. And Billy Strayhorn came in. He said, what is this? And I said, oh, it's a song a guy gave me to give to see if Duke would like it. And so he said, let's take it down into the rehearsal room and see what sounds like.

So we went downstairs into the rehearsal room, and Strayhorn played it. And while he was playing it, Duke stuck his head in the door. He said, what is that? And I said, oh, it's a song about a bird. And we're going over it, he says, hey, that sounds pretty good. So when he went on and when we finished, Strayhorn told him. He says, hey, that's a great song. So he said, well, make an arrangement on it, and we'll try it on stage.

You see Ellington was clever that way. Most of his song hits, he pretty well knew when he recorded them that they were going to be successful because he got the reaction from personal appearances when we were on stage. If the audience really liked the songs that he played, then he would record them. So that was his testing ground. And so it worked, and we recorded it.

GROSS: Well, why don't I play that first recording that you made of "Flamingo" with the Duke Ellington Orchestra? This was in 1940.


JEFFRIES: (Singing) Flamingo, like a flame in the sky flying over the islands to my lover nearby. Flamingo, with your tropical hue, for it's you I rely on and the love that is true.

GROSS: Did Ellington or Strayhorn give you any advice about singing?

JEFFRIES: (Laughing) Yes, indeed they did because, if you don't notice, in my Western pictures, I was singing very, very high.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

JEFFRIES: Yeah, I had a very high voice. And I was a boy soprano in the choir in my church, and I sang high. And somehow as I grew to the size that I finally became, it sort of didn't fit my image - a big guy, 6-foot-2-and-a-half shouldn't really be singing up in a high voice like that. And I did in my Western pictures.

But when I went with Ellington, I used to - for fun around the backstage, I would imitate Bing Crosby. And I was clowning around one time imitating Crosby, who was really my idol, and they heard me. And Strayhorn said, that's voice. And he said, come on, do that for the Duke. And I did, and Duke said, absolutely. We're going to record in that voice from now on.

GROSS: Herb Jeffries, recorded in 1995. He died Sunday at the age of about 100. The exact date of his birth is uncertain. This is FRESH AIR.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Did the Trump camp help far-right militia groups plan the Jan. 6 attack?

New York Times journalist Alan Feuer says some members of Trump's inner circle have close ties to the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, whose leaders have been charged with seditious conspiracy.


Real life or satire? Novelist Mat Johnson says it can be hard to tell the difference

Novelist Mat Johnson believes that America has its own unique "flavor" of apocalypse. "It's hard not seeing the possible end of things in a variety of different ways," he says. Johnson's new satirical novel, Invisible Things, serves up one of those apocalyptic flavors.


A novelist's time in the MMA cage informed his book on memory loss and identity

"Really, the heart of the story is about misplaced loyalty and what we can do with memory and how fluid and malleable memory can be when we ... use it to fit the narrative that we've created in our mind," says novelist John Vercher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue