February 15, 2012
In an on-going series, ATM will bring you the occasional post from a number of Smithsonian Institution guest bloggers: the historians, researchers and scientists who curate the collections and archives at the museums and research facilities. Today, Michael Pahn, an archivist from the National Museum of the American Indian and a musician, reflects on the universal language of music. In September, Pahn wrote about the fiddle and the violin.
I listen to music because I love rhythm and melodies. But I also love music because it connects me to other people. Music from another culture or part of the world, gives me a sense of what others think is beautiful or meaningful, or at least catchy.
Every culture, everywhere in the world, makes music. Any place on Earth that you go, you can find people singing to themselves whether they are harvesting in fields, rocking their children to sleep or driving to work. We make music when we celebrate or mourn or pray. We make up songs to express our thoughts at the spur of a moment, and we sing songs that have been handed down from generation to generation.
Music is something that we all, as human beings, have in common. While the ubiquity of music is part of the reason the sound recordings collections at the Smithsonian are so vast, it can also make it difficult to know how or where to dig in. My favorite way to find new things is to free associate. I’ll listen to a recording, then go off in search of other music like it. Or music played on similar instruments. Or music from the same part of the world. Or just music that the first recording made me think of. That’s all it takes to start hearing new sounds that I’d probably never find if I deliberately set out looking for them.
The John Marshall Collection, housed within the National Museum of Natural History’s Human Studies Film Archives, is one of the Institution’s great treasures. John Marshall documented the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari desert in southwestern Africa over a 50-year period beginning in 1950 and the results make up an archive that contains more than one million feet of motion picture footage and hundreds of hours of audio recordings. Marshall captured on film the wrenching story of the Ju/’hoansi as their traditional semi-nomadic way of life became increasingly unsustainable, and they struggled to adjust to resettlement. In 2009, his work was recognized by UNESCO, and included on the Memory of the World Register, making it one of only three collections in the United States to carry that honor.
Music is at the heart of the Ju/’hoansi curing ceremony, a central ritual in the tribe’s spiritual life when the community comes together to sing and dance to heal the sick. The tradition continues to this day, but in the 1950s, Marshall was among the first to record footage. The women sing, clap and occasionally dance. The men dance, wearing leg rattles made from dried cocoons that create intricate polyrhythms. The songs themselves, the medicine men, and the fire at the center of the ceremony are believed to contain what the tribe calls n/um, the spiritual energy capable of healing. This ceremony—and the music performed as part of the ceremony—is the most important expression of Ju/’hoansi spirituality, and is deeply ingrained in their cultural identity. It is clear why these ceremonies have continued despite the drastic changes the Ju/’hoansi have experienced, such as access to western medicine. It is also, quite simply, mesmerizing music.
There is a lot to think about in the curing ceremony’s music, but I was most immediately struck by the dried cocoon leg rattles. They sound, and look, beautiful. It also turns out that people all over the world make rattles out of dried cocoons. The Pima Indians of Arizona and the Yaqui Indians of northern Mexico are just two examples. One of my favorites is a really energetic Smithsonian Folkways recording of a Yaqui dance song that features these and other kinds of rattles.
I was interested in hearing other Ju/’hoan music because, as is the case with most people, their music has many contexts, not all of which are ceremonial. In the mid-1950s, when the Ju/’hoansi were still leading a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, their thoughts often turned to the natural world and its inhabitants. In 1955, Marshall filmed three men singing “Red Partridge Song,” which was most likely a composition by the man playing the small stringed instrument in the clip. This instrument is called a //uashi, and the man playing it is /Gao //uashi, a respected healer and virtuoso who was so closely identified with this instrument that his name roughly translates to “/Gao Music.”
I love this song, but the performance in this clip has an odd, detached quality to it, which according to film archivist Karma Foley of the Human Studies Film Archives, is due to the primitive synchronized sound field recording at that time, which required a generator, among other things. “John Marshall had to set up the scene to be filmed, rather than filming and recording the singing as it would have naturally happened,” Foley explained to me. “Normally, people would sit around together, and someone might pick up an instrument and play for a while. The online clip shows a more arranged scene, separated from the rest of the group—I believe this was due to the bulk of the sync sound recording equipment and the desire to record the music without the background noise of the village.”
The first thing that jumped out at me about this song is how relaxed it is. The playing is gentle, and the harmonies seem completely off the cuff. I was interested in hearing other music that sounds like “Red Partridge Song,” but I didn’t find anything that was quite as casual or informal. What I did find, however, is beautiful song called Urai Turuk Titirere, sung by the Bat Rerekat people of the Mentawai islands of Sumatra. This song is sung in praise of the titirere bird, but more interestingly, is associated with a complex healing ritual. I went looking for one commonality, but found a different one!
Contrast the pastoral peace of “Red Partridge Song” with the raw pain of N!ai’s song. This was recorded in 1978, when N!ai’s community of Ju/’hoansi were living in a government settlement called Tsumkwe. The transition from semi-nomadic to settled life had major health implications for them, and tuberculosis had quickly spread throughout Tsumkwe. There was a great deal of tension within the community, which had not existed prior to settlement. In their old life, sharing was commonplace, and large groups rarely lived together for extended periods of time. When tensions did erupt, groups would simply move apart until things calmed down. Living at Tsunkwe and being on government assistance created poverty and jealousy. N!ai touches on all of this in her song, which is beautiful and heartbreaking.
As I listened to N!ai’s song I immediately thought of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die Blues.” Both are startlingly frank and bleak. Illness, in particular tuberculosis, was a frequent subject of American country and blues music in the first half of the 20th century. Jimmie Rodgers sang frequently about the disease, which ultimately killed him. “T.B. Blues” is a standard, and different versions have been performed over the years by Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. Sadly, sickness and pain are as universal as music.
Over the course of the fifty or so years that John Marshall documented their lives, the Ju/’hoansi lost much of their ancestral hunting grounds and were displaced to reservation-like homelands. They had to adopt completely new, settled lifestyles. Disease and poverty devastated the tribe, but they also adapted to their new realities, and created conservancies and social institutions that help preserve their traditions. In many ways, the Ju/’hoansi experienced in a 50-year period what Native Americans experienced over the course of 200 years, as European settlement completely displaced many of their traditional lifestyles. And like Native Americans and other people all over the world, music has both connected the Ju/’hoansi to their past, and offered an outlet for expressing their anxieties, and joys, about their present and future.
It is hard for me to imagine people whose lives are more different from mine than the Ju/’hoansi, whose lives, in turn, are very different for the Yaqui’s, and the Pima’s, and the Bar Rerekat. And yet, by listening to their music and learning about what it means to them, while reflecting on what music means to me, I feel a connection to all of them.
Michael Pahn is the Media Archivist, specializing in audio, video, and motion picture film, at the National Museum of the American Indian. Currently, he is at work on a project that preserves ethnographic films of American Indians of North America, funded by Save America’s Treasures, the National Film Preservation Foundation, and internal Smithsonian funds.
September 21, 2011
In an on-going series, ATM will bring you the occasional post from a number of Smithsonian Institution guest bloggers: the historians, researchers and scientists who curate the collections and archives at the museums and research facilities. Today, Michael Pahn, an archivist from the National Museum of the American Indian and a musician, reflects on how one instrument delivers either the raw, expressive twang of the fiddle or the pure, sustained vibrato of a violin.
I play old time country music. I find it fun, social and very democratic. I’ve played gigs with a string band before a crowd of strangers, but just as much I enjoy playing impromptu at parties with friends. People of all different skill levels come together, and the number of musicians can just grow and grow. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of tunes; and as long as someone knows the melody, eventually everyone can play along.
There is, however, one thing that can break the mood faster than a Texas quickstep—when someone shows up playing violin.
So what is the difference between the violin and the fiddle? Ken Slowik, curator of musical instruments at the National Museum of American History, puts it this way: “They are like identical twins, only one has dyed his hair green.” In other words, they are literally the same instrument, But depending on the venue, one sounds perfect and the other completely wrong.
Many would argue that it’s a matter of technique or style, but I would say the difference boils down to how emotion is conveyed. In my observations, violinists invest incredible amounts of time and effort perfecting refined expressive techniques. From the way they pull the bow across the strings to the deep vibrato on sustained notes, everything is about clarity and pureness of tone. These are precisely the same characteristics that sound so wrong in old time music. Fiddlers are expressive in a much more raw, and less refined, way. Of course, these are both equally valid and beautiful ways of playing music. But they are different and inevitably, this difference is reflected in the instruments themselves.
Two amazing instruments, both held in the collections of the National Museum of American History, illustrate this diversity. One is an ornate Stradivarius violin, one of the most beautiful, priceless instruments ever made. The other is an old, beat up fiddle that looks like it could stand a good cleaning.
The “Ole Bull” Stradivarius violin is a tour de force of craftsmanship, made by one of the most respected instrument makers in Europe. Antonio Stradivari’s instruments were highly prized from the moment they were made, and quickly found their way into the hands of royalty and the wealthy. It is not simply that Stradivari made exemplary violins—he and his predecessors created and refined the violin into the instrument we think of today. They created a small stringed instrument capable of more expression and nuance than any that had come before, and composers embraced it. Stradivari was part of an ecosystem of instrument makers, composers and musicians who, through patronage from the church and royalty, transformed music into high art during the Baroque Period.
Others have written eloquently about what makes Stradivarius instruments special. The “Ole Bull” violin is particularly extraordinary, being one of only 11 highly decorated instruments built by Stradivari that are known to still exist. It is part of the Axelrod Quartet of decorated Stradivarius instruments played by the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society, and it is called “Ole Bull” after the common practice of referring to Stradivarius instruments by the name of a significant past owner.
Ole Borneman Bull (1810-1880) was a Norwegian violin virtuoso who toured the United States five times in the 1840s and 1850s. Arguably Norway’s first international celebrity, Bull was one of many European musicians to tour the United States and bring classical and romantic music to American audiences. He loved America, and America loved him and he performed before sold out audiences and earned rave reviews all over the country. Bull was a fascinating character, a shameless self-promoter and patriot who advocated for Norway’s independence from Sweden and established the short-lived (and failed) Norwegian settlement of Oleana in Pennsylvania. Bull was also an avid violin collector, and in addition to the Stradivarius owned an extraordinary and ornate Gasparo da Salo violin made in 1562. Interestingly, fine violins went in and out of fashion like so many other things, and was not until Bull’s time that Stradivari’s instruments came to be more regarded than those made by other masters such as Nicolò Amati or Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri.
After its development in Baroque Italy by Stradivari and others, the violin quickly spread across Europe, and became a popular folk instrument. It came to North America with European settlers, and over time a new folk music developed, based primarily on Scotch Irish melodies with a heavy dose of African American syncopation. This fiddle and string band music became the soundtrack of people’s lives in rural America, especially prior to the advent of the phonograph and broadcast radio.
Tommy Jarrell was born into a family of musicians, and had an especially deep memory for tunes. He grew up near Round Peak, North Carolina, where fiddles and banjos played every dance, every party, every cornshucking and cattle auction. Jarrell learned the way practically every other fiddler and banjo player did—by ear, at the knee of older musicians. Music accompanied every social gathering, and Jarrell played all the time.
Jarrell’s fiddle, just as an instrument, is pretty, but unremarkable. It was made by an unknown luthier in Mittenwald, Germany in the 1880s, and at the time it was imported to the United States it sold for around $6. It is a nice enough instrument, and was no doubt appealing when it was sold. Somewhere along the way, it was decorated with inexpensive inlays in the back, probably with the same spirit that motivated Stradivari to decorate the “Ole Bull” – to make something special. What makes this fiddle truly special, though, is its owner. It played hundreds of tunes thousands of times, was heard by tens of thousands of listeners, and provided a link between rural and urban audiences of American traditional music. Covered in rosin from Jarrell’s bow, it developed a patina from years of parties, dances and festivals.
After retiring from a 40-year career driving a road grader for the North Carolina Department of Transportation in the 1960s, Jarrell began playing more dances and festivals, and was able to continue the tradition of sharing old melodies and techniques with younger musicians. Many of these musicians were urban Folk Revivalists, who brought field recording equipment to Jarrell’s home, the commercial releases of which brought his music to an entirely new audience. Generous with his time, his talent and his melodies, he was among the first to be awarded a National Heritage Fellowship. Jarrell’s many connections to the Smithsonian include performances at several Festivals of American Folklife and his recordings are available on Smithsonian Folkways Records.
Of course, violinists and fiddlers make little changes to their instruments that reflect their taste and the music they play. Fiddlers often play more than one string at a time, creating droning harmonies. Tommy Jarrell sanded down the bridge of his fiddle, where the strings rest above the body of the instrument, making it easier to bow two strings at once. He put a dried rattlesnake rattle inside his fiddle, which vibrated when he played, and installed geared tuners, like those on a guitar, that made it easier for Jarrell to retune his instrument. Not even Stradivari’s instruments have remained untouched. Almost every violin he and other Baroque masters made has been modified to reflect changes in style. The most significant alterations have been to the length and angle of the neck, in part to accommodate the shift from the gut of the past to the metal strings that violinists use now.
Ole Bull was a virtuoso, and I think of his Stradivarius as a tool of incredible craftsmanship with which he created music as high art. Tommy Jarrell’s fiddle, on the other hand, makes me think of the social context in which he played music—as a joyous part of everyday life for people who often struggled. I feel so fortunate to be able to experience music from both contexts, and I appreciate how these two instruments reflect how music can mean so many different things to different people. And I can’t help but think of how each man must have identified with his instrument. I can imagine a meeting between Ole Bull and Tommy Jarrell in which they admire one another’s violins, swap, play their respective music, and maybe cringe just a little before swapping back. While each would have undoubtedly been able to play the other’s instrument, I doubt either would have felt quite right.
Michael Pahn is the Media Archivist, specializing in audio, video, and motion picture film, at the National Museum of the American Indian, a position he has held since 2003. Prior to that he worked at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage on the Save Our Sounds audio preservation project. Pahn has a BA in Anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh and an MLS from the University of Maryland. Currently, he is at work on a project that preserves ethnographic films of American Indians of North America, funded by Save America’s Treasures, the National Film Preservation Foundation, and internal Smithsonian funds.