16. The Endangered Music Project

Endangered Reissues. I recently listened to the six CDs that make up the Endangered Music Project, reissues of historical field recordings. The series was produced by Mickey Hart, drummer from The Grateful Dead and a world music enthusiast, and Alan Jabbour who was then director of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. The CDs first appeared in the 1990s on the Rykodisc label, and in 2011 were reissued by Smithsonian Folkways.

To me, this series trips over the tensions lurking beneath old world music reissues. What was the vision for the set? The foreword to each CD points to the friction between modern technology as both preserver and destroyer of traditional cultures, but concludes that “all too often” technology “endangers precious ways of human life”. The series, in making old recordings available to a contemporary audience, is “dedicated to the hope that with education, empathy, and assistance, imperiled cultures can survive.” A portion of sales is marked for “the performers and their cultures” and to support further reissues.

In one respect, the Endangered Music Project (EMP) was welcome. There remains a mass of field recordings lying silent in institutional archives all over the world. Collating private material is a virtue but too often the archive renders the contents no less obscure. This “people’s music”, as many a tagline would have it, appears both “cultural treasure” and of no interest to anyone but the specialist few. Building on random past reissues, I for one would dearly love to see a series like this start to make sense of the legacy of world music field recordings over time, culture-by-culture and collector-by-collector.

The EMP stumbles rather than soars. First, the series had global pretensions, but with the exception of a Bali CD, everything is confined to West Africa and bits of the Caribbean and Central and South America. Second, the “endangered” branding implied contemporary music and cultures, and the first CD does include some 1980s recordings, but the vast majority of the series hails from the 1940s or earlier. There is very little attempt to connect older recordings to any present day survivals or evolutions. Third, the goal to change hearts and minds is belied by notes that serve to do just the opposite.

Let’s talk about the notes. Small text, pale green in one case, no call-outs or use of bold, and few pictures. It is not clear why particular selections were chosen, or even why certain collectors or regions were prioritized. My biggest criticism is the compiler’s assumption that lots of technical details, and no asserted connection to the modern world in terms of musical resonance or contemporary residue, was key to sales. No question that the historical information is interesting, and highlights peoples and collectors I’d not heard of, but even my mind wanders amid the five local names given to different sizes of hand-drum and discussion of time signatures and chord progressions. The very detail honed in the notes is precisely not what drove the performers themselves. Just as reviews of Taylor Swift do not discuss time signatures and chord progressions, if we are to capture the alleged “magic” of old recordings we have to think like “ordinary” performers and “ordinary” listeners.

Let me be clear- formal study of old recordings is vital, but it is not in short supply nor in demand by the general public whom this series is ostensibly trying to reach. If the “performers and their cultures” were hoping for big bucks from the proceeds I imagine they were disappointed. Better, to my mind, would be notes that discuss selections in terms of contemporary resonance as well as historical interest, seek reactions to the music from descendants, and explore how and why the music has evolved over time. If people in wealthy countries want to support “imperiled” cultures elsewhere, they don’t have to buy a CD to do it. The theory behind the EMP is that music has special power to cross the chasm between cultures and between past and present, but by itself music can also be inscrutable and jarring, not least when it is old and in a foreign tongue. There is no reason a contemporary audience has to “like” or even engage with historical music, however “imperiled”. Academics are there to attend to the unloved but popular attention is by definition instinctive and accessible, giving more than it asks.

If efforts like the EMP are to more fully realize their objectives, compilers must give more thought to what is presented and how presentation occurs, not just the fact of presentation. Simply asserting that music is old and interesting, and listening to it has something to do with helping imperiled cultures, will attract few new ears. The fact that the EMP ceased after a few years, with only six discs to its name from a fraction of the world, was partly due to change of ownership at Rykodisc, but also the overall incoherence of the project. Resurrection under Smithsonian Folkways a decade later, rehashing the same promotional language, still more confines the music to the archive than propels it out into the world. This kind of reissue is just as endangered as the cultures it seeks to aid. 

Verdict: I found only about 10% of the roughly 120 EMP tracks to truly jump the breach between historical curiosity and contemporary musical excitement. Perhaps a single CD featuring only those tracks, or a series spanning a larger number of collections but with today’s general listener in mind, would be have preferable; and might have raised more money for the imperiled cultures.

The six CDs were scored as follows, all between roughly the 40th and 80th percentiles:

  • The Spirit Cries: Music from the Rainforests of South America & The Caribbean- 1.78
  • Music for the Gods- The Fahnestock South Sea Expedition: Indonesia- 1.65
  • The Discoteca Collection: Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas- 1.66
  • L. H. Correa de Azevedo: Music of Ceara and Minas Gerais- 1.84
  • The Yoruba/Dahomean Collection: Orishas Across the Ocean- 1.73
  • The Arthur S. Alberts Collection: More Tribal, Folk & Café Music of West Africa- 1.87

The best tracks, in my view, include Tracks 1 and 7 on the Alberts Collection (tracks are not named), Rojão by Rouxinol and Chico Pepueno (Track 5 on L. H. Correa) and Marajó já teve fama by Satiro Ferreira de Barros (Track 8 on Discoteca). All six sets are now available from Smithsonian Folkways in digital form and as on-demand CDs.

6. Opika Pende- Africa at 78 RPM

I Want a Grand Narrative. Opika Pende, the 4-CD set of 78s from Africa, released in 2011 on Dust-to-Digital, is perhaps the most sumptuous of a long line of bold reissues of folk and traditional music from around the world. Evocative old photographs and odes to neglected musical glories go without saying. Opika Pende attempt to capture an entire continent, staking out a middle ground between more straightforward national retrospectives and somewhat random “global” collections. The book-like presentation is also tellingly ambitious.

But in another sense, Opika Pende is as hesitant as others. So many introductions to old world music reissues are quick to cast aside any impression that a “grand narrative” is being attempted, and Opika Pende is no exception. Compilers note that the assembled recordings are no more than an incomplete picture of the whole, and fall back on value as simply musical enjoyment and rarity, alongside some fleeting remarks on what may be gleaned about style, location and recording.

It is certainly true that any geographically or culturally bound survey must contend with  meager original recordings, limited space, or both. Opika Pende divides Africa into four regions and tries to hit as many countries as possible. A plethora of traditions, countries, peoples, art music, religious, ceremonial and popular styles, settings, time periods and intentions vie for real estate, with “Africa” and “this stuff is neglected/important” the only unifying forces. Imagine the oddity of an equivalent collection on “North America” or “Europe”. The exhibition is rich, but meaning is slight. We are back to the fundamental tension at the heart of old world music reissues, between representation of the subject and reception by the contemporary listener.

In my view, it’s time to take it to the next level. Old record aficionados complain that aural history never gets its fair share of attention- museums are stuffed with books and artifacts, but old records are tottering in uncertain private collections. Old man record collector has amassed the cultural equivalent of a branch of the Smithsonian but institutions say “no interest.” The missing piece, it seems to me, is context and perspective. In one sense, the last thing we need is another isolated, picturesque reissue of yet more random old records.

Jonathan Ward, the collector and compiler of Opika Pende, and curator of Excavated Shellac, spent countless hours tracking down every scrap of meager information on each track, for which he is to be congratulated. But can we go further, and in other directions? I want to see how all reissues fit together, what remains to be reissued, and what appears lost. I want to know what came before. I want to have a clearer sense of what has happened to each showcased tradition, and the extent to which it influenced modern styles. I want to know about related reissues. I want the social, economic and political back story. This bigger canvas, which is less about scant details on specific recordings and more about a different perspective, will thrill the enthusiast and open a new door for the contemporary listener.

The ultimate need of the contemporary listener is a way to evaluate the music itself- to see a path other than enthnomusicology, a path that allows the music to live fully in its new circumstances, disembodied yes, but capable of new connections and meaning alongside all other music and amid life. Collections like Opika Pende try to straddle this divide but end up both insufficiently academic and unnoticed by music lovers.

The “grand narrative” I want is a tall order, not just a lack of imagination on the part of reissue compilers. Neglect of old world music, and old recordings generally, is a vicious circle, but we have to start somewhere. Attempts at grand narrative are how more established cultural segments attained their contemporary standing, and their evolution and dissolution spur more sophisticated interpretation and wider understanding. Grand narratives, by definition, are to be challenged as much as embraced. Opika Pende’s hesitancy is understandable, but now is the time to push forward.

Verdict: 2.04 (top 19%). In my view, the best tracks include Track 12 on CD1 (Ahlen Bikoum), Track 11 on CD 2 (Kenssa) and Track 9 on CD3 (Ja Bane). Opika Pende is available from Dust-to-Digital.