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.