“Fifteen musicians sat in a crosswise position on both sides, and thus in a broken row divided into two groups; these in turn sounded together a strange tune with reed-instruments, cymbals and various stringed instruments; drums struck with a light finger, and less often the human voice, joined in with them.
Perhaps you expect my opinion about this ensemble? A noise rather than an ensemble, it was unencumbered by any rules of harmony, but nevertheless not confused nor disagreeable; in truth if I except the singer’s voice, it was pleasant enough, and subordinated to the extent that it did not disturb the conversations or the proceedings in the assembly, but rather with a certain strangeness in its varied but low-level sound caressed the ears and spirits of the seated company with its sweetness.”
So wrote Engelbert Kaempfer in Amoenitates Exoticae (1712), which documented his observations in Persia in the late 17th century. Excerpts from the book are translated in Time, place and music: An anthology of ethnomusicological observation c. 1550 to c. 1800 by Frank Harrison (Amsterdam: Fritz Knuf, 1973).
Above, a plate from the original publication; below, a modern-day performance of Persian court music.
Related article: Virtual Assyria
The arc of Kodály’s career as an ethnomusicologist appears to have been a consciously, even artistically, designed path.
In the early 20th century he traveled the Hungarian countryside along with Béla Bartók to document and research Hungarian musical traditions; both composers were influenced tremendously by this pursuit.
After World War II, the focus of Kodály’s ethnomusicological activities was the publication of A magyar népzene tára/Corpus musicae popularis Hungaricae, the critical edition of all Hungarian traditional music. For this undertaking he established the first scientific research group for ethnomusicology in Hungary, the Népzenekutató Csoport, which served as a workshop for the modern Hungarian school of ethnomusicologists.
This according to Kodály, a népzenekutató és tudományos műhelye by Olga Szalay (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2004).
Today is Kodály’s 130th birthday! Below, two of his settings of traditional songs that he collected in Zobor, from 1908.
Related article: Kodály and somatic eruption
Launched in 2012, Síneris is a monthly Spanish online musicology journal born from the experience of some of the members of the now-extinct Jugar con Fuego.
The journal aims to present research papers, essays, literary creations, opinions, interviews, and criticism of recent works, performances, and writings. It casts a wide net, including Western classical music, ethnomusicological topics, popular music, cinema, and dance.
Part of the British Library’s Sounds project, World & traditional music features tens of thousands of recordings by ethnomusicologists and collectors, including those of the pioneering Africanists Peter Cooke (b.1930), Kenneth Gourlay (1919–95), Hans-Joachim Heinz (1917–2000), Arthur Morris Jones (1889–1980), David Rycroft (1924–97), and Klaus Wachsmann (1907–84). This online resource is available free of charge for noncommercial research, study, and private enjoyment.
Established in 2009 by the Archives Internationales de Musique Populaire at the Musée d’Ethnographie in Geneva, Le fonds Brăiloiu is an open-access collection of 3028 recordings by the Romanian ethnomusicologist Constantin Brăiloiu (1893–1958) and his colleagues. The collection has also been issued by VDE-Gallo as Collection universelle de musique populaire/The world collection of folk music: Archives Constantin Brăiloiu, 1913–1953, a set of four CDs.
Above, Brăiloiu records Gheorge Musuleac in Romania in 1928. Below, one of Brăiloiu’s 1941 recordings of the Serbian flute player Milan Trandafir.
The folk revival movement is the result of the common folkness of the folk and the supposedly non-folk surfacing in cities. In the meantime the folk has been doing what it has always done: appropriating all of the non-folkness it could.
Perhaps non-folkness is that which tries not to be folkness, while folkness is that which has not discovered more non-folkness than it could assimilate. The two categories may not be mutually exclusive; they may be two aspects of the same entity.
This according to “The folkness of the non-folk vs. the non-folkness of the folk” by Charles Seeger, an essay included in Folklore and society: Essays in honor of Benj. A. Botkin (Hatboro: Folklore Associates, 1966, pp. 1–9).
Above, Charles plays the harmonium for a family musicale in 1921, with his son Pete on his lap. Below, Pete’s half-sister Peggy Seeger performs The foolish frog, a traditional song with a story that Charles made up to entertain his children.
When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.
The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below right), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.
This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.
This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15). Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.
Robert Garfias: Ethnomusicology is an open-access collection of the digitized field recordings and films of the ethnomusicologist Robert Garfias (b.1932). Over a career spanning nearly seven decades, Garfias has documented musical traditions in Afghanistan, Alaska, Arizona, China, Burma, North and South India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Nubia, The Philippines, Romania, Sweden, Turkey, and Zimbabwe—a strikingly broad range of study.
Above, Garfias records Burmese musicians in 1973; below, one of his 1970 films of the Nubian `ūd player Hamza el Din.
Related post: Afghanistan at peace
Music in the Afghan north, 1967–1972 presents materials from Mark Slobin’s research in Afghanistan before successive waves of war and Islamist rule began to decimate its traditional culture.
The site involves three layers of organization, with increasing access to the study’s technical materials: an introduction to the ideas and topics with capsule summaries; links to excerpts from the book-length study; and the complete book Music in the culture of northern Afghanistan (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976).
Still photography, moving picture clips, and sound clips accompany the written text. Above, a rubāb maker in Mazār-i-Sharīf; below, drums for sale in Istālif, a village renowned for its glazed pottery.
Related post: Robert Garfias: Ethnomusicology
The world knows Pete Seeger as an activist and a performer of traditional and original songs; fewer know of his work as a filmmaker. With his wife Toshi, Seeger documented music and dance performances on hundreds of reels of film between 1955 and 1965.
Having started with a self-produced film of how to play the 5-string banjo, Toshi and Pete branched out into filming the musicians and dancers they came in contact with in their countrywide and worldwide tours. Their subjects include the final performance of Big Bill Broonzy as well as the Irish fiddler John Doherty, the sitār player Imrat Khan, Ghanaian fishermen singing rowing songs, and Indonesian court dancers. The Pete and Toshi Seeger Film Collection was acquired by the American Folklife Center in 2004.
This according to “The incompleat filmmakers: The little-known career of Pete and Toshi Seeger” by Todd Harvey and Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXVIII/28 [winter/spring 2006] pp. 3–8). Above, the Seegers in an interview at the Library of Congress in 2006; inset, at the 2009 Clearwater Festival.
You can watch the Seegers’ film of Ghanaian fishermen here.
- Lead Belly and the folklorists (bibliolore.org)
- Folkstreams (an online streaming archive that includes some of the Seegers’ films).