Normally, it can take weeks (even months) preparing a story for this space. I need time in my attempts to share something imaginative, hopefully insightful — or dare I reach as an offering towards a sliver of enlightenment — in an era when everything and anything is brilliantly rehashed on the Internet.
This week I’ve decided to loose my laundry and dive as rapidly as I can into the Ring of Blogging Fire on a topic surely well written upon. What happened just under two weeks ago (though it’s been quietly going on for sometime) is indeed one of the biggest developments not only in the world of field recording history, it’s also a landmark moment for social documentary photography.
The Alan Lomax collection is now completely accessible online — 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, piles of manuscripts — including 5,000 photographs he took over this astonishing career.
Oh, did I mention the best part…these thousands of hours of audio are not only accessible in their entirety (most of the Lomax collection has been available online for years but as 45 second intro pieces), they are streaming for FREE!
For those who do not know who Alan Lomax was, he was an American folklorist and one of the preeminent ethnomusicologists of our time. Born in Texas in 1915, Alan was the son of John Lomax, a teacher and pioneering folklorist in his own right. By age 17, Alan Lomax began traveling with his father throughout the American south and the Caribbean as his dad made what are considered some of the most important early recordings of American culture while working for the Library of Congress (John Lomax set out in 1933 on the first recording expedition ever undertaken by the Library of Congress with son Alan in tow). According to Don Fleming with the Association for Cultural Equity, Alan primarily traveled with a Ampex 601-2 audio tape recorder and two RCA 77-D microphones — would need a well padder steamer trunk for such a large but truly awesome quality kit. He also traveled with camera, taking photographs that matched his field recordings in places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Scotland, England, Ireland, all over the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain. Here are some photographs of Alan Lomax throughout his 60 years of literally recording our world ~
When the Association for Cultural Equity, a not-for profit Mr. Lomax started, announced that the entire Alan Lomax Collection would be available for streaming, I was beyond thrilled. In my World Music collection I have two or three treasured CD’s of his which are as pure and raw as it gets.
During the last 20 years of his life, Lomax created an interactive multimedia educational computer project he called the Global Jukebox. This recent ability for the entire collection to be accessible to everyone is indeed a dream come true for Alan, who died at the age of 87 in 2002 — he wanted his messages of change, inspiration and education to be available for all.
This is huge on many levels.
Lomax wasn’t only the preeminent and pioneering ethnomusicologist and field recordist of our time, he was social documentarian who used both audio and photography to educate and raise awareness of issues. In many ways, he was a fellow photojournalist.
Take a gander as some of these rare contacts which a young Alan, about 18 years of age, took while he and his father worked for the Library of Congress ~
His microphones and cameras traveled the world during an era when musical traditions were already under pressure due to development and cultural apathy. Lomax knew the importance of creating audio recordings and photographs as a means to make change and raise awareness, well before a drop of notion that a tool called the Internet would arrive, let along recording device that would fit into a shirt pocket. Lomax knew that the musical and cultural traditions which took all of human civilization to develop was under pressure and about to becoming extinct, in the same manner of urgency that the present day preservation of linguistic heritage is sending anthropologists (sadly with scarce funding) to record the last speakers of dying languages on our planet — every two weeks a last speaker dies, taking with them the vestiges of our global language which not only makes up our global cultural heritage, we lose the wisdom of our ancestors.
Lomax was also a social activist, focusing heavily on civil rights issues, once again using music/field recordings and photography as a compendium against social injustice and raising cultural awareness. He was a co-founding member of People’s Songs, with Pete Seeger and others in 1945, with the belief that folk music could be an effective impetus for social change. His recordings from America’s southern states in the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s were key in raising awareness and helping to end racial discrimination while Lomax championed civil rights issues for African Americans.
Alan Lomax used the power of images and the awesome power of sound not just to record history, he used these communication tools to make a difference.
This is one of my favorite Lomax quotes:
“The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice.”—Alan Lomax, 1972
I can type effortlessly for hours on how important Alan Lomax was to the preservation of culture and the weighted issues on a whole host of human rights efforts and activism he was connected to. Given the wealth of the Lomax collection now accessible to all — and the countless books, news articles and whatnot written/recorded about Mr. Lomax — you can easily learn more about this extremely talented and passionate individual yourself by making a simply Google search (click here). Anyone wanting to really delve deep into Lomax’s career and life, make sure to read the book, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.
My reason for rapidly writing this piece — and what’s often overlooked in all the writings, reviews and ravings about Alan Lomax — is his eye.
Alan Lomax was a pretty darn good photographer.
I hope these few photographs — and Alan Lomax’s entire archive — inspires you as much as it has me for continuing to use our cameras to make social change for those who cannot themselves, while in compendium, make field recordings, helping to expand the minds and hearts of others through the consciousness arresting power of sound and sight.
These days we tend to call it multimedia.
Fine, though I prefer to call it Visual Audio.
Either way, well before anyone of us were creating such combination storytelling, Alan Lomax was…and most of us weren’t even born yet.
NOTE: An enormous level of gratitude goes to Nathan Salsburg and Don Fleming — both with the Association for Cultural Equity — for allowing me to used un-watermarked photographs taken by Alan Lomax over his amazing career. Nathan had the weighted task of gathering 20+ high res files and helping me source proper captions. A super group of people continue the legacy of Alan Lomax, all of whom I’d be honored to meet on my next visit to New York City.
April 9, 2012 2 Comments
Overcast days = Music
More specifically — Rock n’ Roll.
Reason for starting this blog was to share passions on photography, world music, field recordings and whatnot…hopefully more whatnot then say photography, which is already covered so well by a slew of talented purveyors of bloggerdome — check out Life.com 2011 Photo Blog Awards. With such brilliance, what more could I bring to this already mighty fine table of photographic illumination?!
This week it seemed appropriate then to include some American rock n’ roll.
And if you live in Argentina or Zambia, music from the United States is indeed world music.
When in northern Mississippi two weeks ago there was some downtime before photographing at a local high school. Being in the heart of Delta Blues country one couldn’t help but stumble into the aptly name Blues Town Music store located in the old downtown district of Clarksdale. The welcoming facade with guitars hanging on the outer wall clearly magnetizing the fingerpicker in me to wander in. Sure to it’s name, it was indeed a haven for all things blues.
Ronnie Drew, sporting an amazing ultra-white head of hair, offered an immediate warm greeting in a classic Mississippi drawl that’s audibly synonymous in this part of the United States. Had known about southern warmth from books and films, and by golly it’s completely true. Kindness abounding everywhere, from everyone.
Ronnie’s also the type who let’s you play whatever guitars you fancy and did he have some beauties. Two metal body slide guitars, both made in nearby Memphis, gave off the vibe, “PLAY ME”. Can’t say I know how to play slide all that well but fingering and moving a glass slider along its neck helped strike up a conversation about music from this part of the country with the man in stunning white coif.
Mississippi is indeed all about The Blues, but the surround area, according to Ronnie, is also known for playing a roll in a specific origin of rock n’ roll.
When asking whether he had any CD’s from this region, Mr. Drew immediately steered me towards two CD’s on the disheveled counter next to the cash registered. There, resting amongst various guitar picks, tuning harps and other musical bric a brac were two CD’s titled A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975, Volume 1 and 2.
With Memphis being but an hours drive away, it made sense that Clarksdale and Elvis might have a Kevin Bacon-esque degree of separation.
According to the liner notes:
“The Success of Sun, Stax and Hi Ricords, case a huge shadow over Memphis from the 50′s through the 70′s, influencing every musician who had any inspiration for a song or for ‘making it’ in any way. Stardom could happen — it had happened before…Elvis just walked into the door at 706 Union, but Sam Phillips was there, already recording blues, rock, symphonies and whatever hit his earhole right. The framework was here because the MUSIC was here. But by the mid-60′s, even the kings of the scene felt the heat from oversees. The British Invasion hit and the soul stars saw that these moptop ruffians were driving the kids insane playing American soul and blues music in a new, rougher form. The Animals, the Rolling Stones and early Beatles turned American kids onto music that was all around them but maybe head to hear or to get…Brits like Gerry and the Pacemakers were making it, and killer Memphis acts were ignored”.
What spawned from this British Invasion were a whole slew of musicians who dove into their garages and jammed. Few if any made it out of their parents carports or beyond gigs at frat parties. Nor would their band names ever become part of rock n’ roll lexicon — The Yo-Yo’s, The Jades or Lawson & Four More. But what did come out was a collection of rare recordings found likely only on this unique small label out of Memphis called Shangri-La Projects.
These CD’s were sealed in plastic, making a purchase of such collective music a leap of faith — unlike books, with world music it’s possible to literally know a label (Smithsonian Folkways, World Music Library, Elektra Nonsuch, etc) and buy anything from their collection, knowing they only produce the music of amazing musicians. But Ronnie was so convincing this was a great music set, I bought Volume I then bid ado to the man with awesome blanco tresses.
While heading to photograph at the nearby high school, I ripped off the cellophane, popped the disc into the rental cars CD slot and was utterly blown away, immediately realizing I’d made the mistake repeated on numerous occasions — buying only one disc of a multi-disc set.
The Le Sabres style of guitar, sax, bass and piano — well mixed above the scratches of old vinyl — rocked on their instrumental track, Rising Mercury Twist. The raw sound quality with great horns by Shadden and the King Leers’ in their song, All I Want Is You, placed me smack in the Memphis garage where this song was likely recorded back in 1967.
This CD is a mix of psychedelic rock and moody rock-blues generally associated to the Memphis sounds of this time.
Photographing at the school went well, however, I couldn’t wait to finish and rush back to Blues Town Music to get the companion CD before Ronnie shut the doors — if I hadn’t, he’d not be open when leaving Clarksdale at 6am the next day for the long drive south to the airport in Jackson.
Even though my heart is far more connected to global music than say Western rock n’ roll, these two CD’s are now a prized part of the Vintage Collection on the CD shelf. If you’re wanting to experience what is truly some of the most raw versions of American rock and roll trippy garage band funk, these two CD’s (and a compendium book — chockablock full of brilliant historical detail) are not to be missed.
Couldn’t find these CD’s on iTunes but they are available through Amazon by clicking on the album or book covers above.
These discs, containing an excellent selection of early North American rock n’ roll, performed by (quoting the liner notes) “The deserving ones left behind”, are worth their weight in history.
And if ever you end up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, (population 21,000), it’s here you’ll find one of the few remaining Bluesmobile‘s driven by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the movie, The Blues Brothers. It’s located at the equally funky blues bar cum bed and breakfast called, Hopson Plantation
By the way, here’s an interesting story on how allegedly Dan Aykroyd drove this car to Clarksdale.
Never heard nor been to Clarksdale until this National Geographic assignment took me there. After this visit — along with some insanely tasty southern cuisine from The Dutch Oven and some staggeringly delicious ribs at Abe’s Barbecue (opened in 1924), I think it might be worth a revisit…especially for the annual Sunflower River Blues Festival, which takes place between August 12-14, 2011.
June 7, 2011 5 Comments
Rushing out the door to catch a flight out of Hartford this past Sunday it hit me — music was needed for the trip through Mississippi. 400 miles of driving lay ahead.
A few days earlier a good friend and photographer I work with through the VII mentor program, Peter DiCampo, had recently emailed the following when chatting about trying to find traditional Ghanaian music, even within Ghana:
“Frankly in Ghana, most of the music on the radio/for sale is so heavily influenced by reggae or western music that it doesn’t interest me much…harder to find real ‘traditional’ music other than my own village recordings.”
Tragically too true.
Across the planet, it’s become increasingly difficult to find music of a country’s cultural fingerprint. Throughout most of Africa, traditional music is being smothered by influences of rap, reggae and electronic instruments. In Asia, Western pop continues to steamroller over more richer, layered forms of cultural music.
Peter’s question reminded me that there is indeed some excellent traditional music out there on CD. Only problem is finding it amongst the clutter of gobbledygook.
While driving from Jackson north to Clarksdale, the Mississippi River was overflowing so much it was literally lapping up to the highway. Nearly three years ago I’d seen some of the same devastation from the mighty river while working on a story in Iowa. Tragic what can happen when weather patterns change, ruining the lives of so many people, along with countless acres of food.
Choosing country roads to avoid all the closed highway signs, I listened to three CD’s that hadn’t been spin in recent years. First was a magnificent set of recordings on the Smithsonian Folkways label titled Rhythms of Life, Songs of Wisdom – Akan Music from Ghana, recorded by Roger Vetter between 1992-93 while on a Fulbright at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana.
These recordings, made outdoors during live performances, contain intense percussions from the central region of Ghana. Like all Smithsonian Folkways CD’s, the liner notes are like research textbooks, chockablock full of excellent details on Ghana, the Akan people, along with extensive insight into the backgrounds of each song. This is a must have CD for traditional West African music.
After that intense session, something more mellow was called for: Xylophone Music from Ghana, by Joseph Kobom. This CD is interesting because it’s difficult to find an entire album devoted to gyil, or traditional Ghanaian balaphon.
Mr Kombom, well known throughout Ghana, plays twelve songs twice, for a total of 24 tracks — one on a high-pitched xylophone, then repeats the song on a lower-pitched xylophone. The results are nearly two completely different songs yet their rthyms remain the same.
The only drawback of this CD is that it seems Mr. Kobom just had his xylophone mic’ed. He sings on some of the songs and speaks a brief intro to each initial track, however you can hardly hear what he’s saying. Even so, his performance is splendid, calming, educational and truly enjoyable.
This is a hard to find CD on an obscure label called White Cliffs Media — think I found my copy in a used CD store in Washington, DC, a few years back — but I have been able to track down two used copies through Amazon. They are a bit expensive but worth it. Also available through Amazon is a compendium book which looks very interesting.
Before arriving late to the hotel in Clarksdale — and trying not to get a speeding ticket — I jammed to Obo Addy’s 1989 release, Okopong. It’s a studio produced album but feels raw, with heavy precessions, great signing and overall extremely enjoyable.
Obo Addy has a slew of CD’s available through the iTunes store. Most are excellent, however Okopong is fantastic, especially when driving long hours through the Mississippi Delta.
Thanks, Peter, for the inspiration.
May 20, 2011 2 Comments
Some elements in life are in states of disarray.
In the closet, shirts at times are hung between pants. Kitchen spice rack seems to keep most flavor makers tidy, however the cinnamon tends to goes astray. So does the thyme and bottle of Maggi. Tool room is a navigational hazzard. Don’t even ask about the sock drawer. When misplacing reading glasses (which happens all too often), they inevitably are tilted up upon the head.
What has been put under a decent state of organizational control is both the photography and audio archives.
Without these two vital factors in life proper organized, I’d be a mess.
A few years ago I took on the wrestling task of organizing the music CD collection, a vast majority being world music. Having begun collecting in a fevered state around 20 years ago, this section of the library is rather significant.
It became apparent early on that the music needed to be cataloged, no differently then photographic slides and negatives.
First thing required, a place to keep them so none could be damaged. While living in Indonesia, a fantastic carpenter created two wooden cases with glass doors made from old recycled teak wood, each to hold more CD’s then one could ever try carrying.
Next came the decision on how to organize the music.
With my name retention about as water tight as pasta strainer, I had to come up with a better solution.
Both my analogue film and digital archives are organized by country. Seemed to make sense for a continuum, organizing on the shelves first by region of the world, then by country. If there was a large collection by one artist — there are 40-50 CD’s just of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (I’m nutty for Nusrat), 10 or so of the amazing tabla player, Zakir Hussain, etc — they would receive a specific section within their country region, e.g., Pakistan for Nusrat, India for Zakir and so on.
Then the plan hit a snag; Where do early and mid century recordings of traditional music go?
In the last seven or eight years I’ve become mesmerize by the origins of music. Vintage recordings of a culture, tribe, area, country, in an attempt to understand what they sounded like (musically) before being effected by the importation of foreign musical styles and instruments.
What does the original music of the Yi people in Yunnan sound like?
How much of Balinese gamelan has been altered (if at all) by pop music?
Not only are we loosing last speakers of language at an alarming rate (a language is lost ever two weeks), what musical traditions have we also lost but are able to be heard on period recordings?
By the 20′s and 30′s, recorders, just like computers, began to shrink — from chest of drawer sized units, down to scale which could at least fit comfortably on a table.
There were a number of pioneers in the ethnomusicology world who immediately realized the importance of recording traditional music, both for sharing to others but also as a means to document what was already traditional culture under stress due to colonialism, development and the growing ease of travel. By the 20′s and 30′s, musical influences would soon forever be alter from what took generations of natural and creative evolution, often in a somewhat isolated state due to geography.
Hugh Tracey was one of these ethnomusicologist.
Hugh and his wife, Ursula Campbell Tracey, moved from England to Rhodesia (now, Zimbabwe) in the 1920′s. Immediately he was enthralled by traditional African music. Hugh converted a truck into a mobile recording studio and headed across the central and southern part of the continent between the 1920′s until the 1970′s (his most prolific recording period was in the 1950′s), creating what is considered the most important collection of traditional African music ever recorded.
To learn more about the importance of Dr. Hugh Tracey’s audio legacy, you can click on the image above or here for more details.
In the CD library in the studio — having finally deciding a few years ago to have all recordings created before the 1970′s organized in their own sub-sections within each relevant country — there rests one of my favorite Tracey recordings.
The CD, At the Court of the Mwami, Rwanda, is an excellent example of the importance of such early recordings. Like vanishing languages, we’re also loosing certain forms of traditional music.
Unlike Mozart or Bach — whose musical compositions were often transposed to paper — most traditional music from around the world is oral, memorized to perfection and pass down from generation to generation. If there’s no one willing to learn the specific musical style or knows how to sing the words, the music, like a language, will vanish.
In 1962, the Republic of Rwanda was established and five centuries of rule by the Tutsi Banyiginya dynasty came to an end. King Mwami fled the country and the symbol of power, the royal drums, vanished. According to Hugh’s notes, this music, exclusive to this court, was never heard again other then in “a diluted form”. In 1952. Hugh Tracey was given permission to make what is truly some amazing recordings. They are still available through his International Library of African Music label as well as in the iTunes store. This album is a hardcore series of recordings. Not necessarily candlelight dinner music. A journey in time to a musical tradition which is no longer with us.
While writing I listened once more to this entire album. Whoooow. All tracks are excellent however the four Twa Women songs are stunning, and vocal style of track 15, Rukanga Rwamajana by singer Ntamakiriro, is over the top.
Every album in Tracey’s historic collection is brilliant — just buy any one or all. You won’t be disappointed.
By the way, not ever field recording Tracey made is available through iTunes. You can see most of Dr. Hugh Tracey’s complete archive through the International Library of African Music label which is affiliated with Rhodes University in South Africa.
May 11, 2011 11 Comments
The first time my musical interest veered from the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; James Taylor and even compilation K-Tel Records (can’t believe K-Tel is still in business), it had to be when I met Andy’s father.
Over the course of a weekend, my friend Andy Adams and I, had collected genips from trees in our neighborhood of Blair, selling them on the side of the road to passing cars…the Bahamian version of a roadside lemonade stand. We were likely 9 or 10 years old.
Andy’s father was a drummer in a band called the King of Knights, which also owned a club by the same name. His father was extremely talented, blasting Junkanoo style rhymes and 70′s Bahamian calypso at their house and in the dimly lit club. Around the same time, the local radio station was playing a version of Brown Girl in the Ring by an artist named Exuma. It was brilliant rendition of the Caribbean standard. Mr. Adams also had a copy — its cover depicting Exuma in a stunning set of wings dressed in island garb, which to a preadolescence boy was enthralling. Exuma (whose real name was Macfarlane Gregory Anthony Mackey) brought this classic version of Brown Girl in the Ring to life.
With the money earned from genips, I went to the local music shop and picked up a copy, playing it repeatedly on an avocado-green plastic General Electric turntable that pumped (more like squeaked) sound through a 3-inch mono speaker, until I knew instinctually every word of every song.
And so began my obsession for world music.
Amazingly, I still have this album. There are 11 tracks. Here are three of my favorites — tracks 1, 9 and 11.
If you’re interested in buying this very rare album, I’ve found a few here on Amazon. Worth having in the collection, highlighting one of the more unique Bahamian artists of the 60′s and 70′s.
Here’s an excellent review of Exuma’s influence on Bahamian culture.
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May 1, 2011 1 Comment