May 22, 2013
Sixty years ago, on May 29, 1953, mountaineers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay set foot atop Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. They were the first ever to reach its 29,029-foot peak, and met instant fame upon their return: today their ascent is considered a great achievement of the 20th century.
In 1974, Hillary, a New Zealander, detailed the perilous climb and his motivations for tackling it on “Interview with Sir Edmund Hillary: Mountain Climbing,” produced by Howard Langer at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The conversation touches topics from Hillary’s preparation for the perilous climb, the thrill of reaching the top and even the abominable snow man (Hillary thought he might have found its tracks while scaling Everest, but later discounted Yeti reports as unreliable).
Sir Edmund, why do you climb mountains?
I think I mainly climb mountains because I get a great deal of enjoyment out of it. I never attempt to analyze these things too thoroughly, but I think that all mountaineers do get a great deal of satisfaction out of overcoming some challenge which they think is very difficult for them, or which perhaps may be a little dangerous. I think that the fact that something has a spice of danger about it can often add to its attraction, and to its fascination.
What would you say are the outstanding characteristics of a good mountaineer?
I think that a good mountaineer is usually a sensible mountaineer. He’s a man that realizes the dangers and difficulties involved, but, due to his experience and his technical skill, he’s able to tackle them calmly, with confidence. And yet you know the really good mountaineers that I know never lose that sense o enthusiasm that motivated them when they first started.
I think the really good mountaineer is the man with the technical ability of the professional, and with the enthusiasm and freshness of approach of the amateur.
How many men took part in the 1953 Everest Expedition?
On this expedition we had altogether 13 western members of the expedition, and then we had, I think, about 30 permanent high-altitude sherpas—these are men who will be carrying loads to high altitudes for us, and who are all hard, efficient performers. So then, altogether some 600 loads were carried into the Mt. Everest region on the backs of Nepalese porters, so we had 600 men who actually carried loads for 17 days, across country into our climbing region. Altogether, I suppose you could say that almost 700 men were involved in one way or the other. . . . It is a team expedition, and it’s very much in the form of a pyramid effort. . . . The two men who reach the summit are completely dependent on the combined effort of all those involved lower down.
How did you feel when you were going up those last several hundred feet?
I’ve often been asked as to whether I was always confident we were going to reach the summit of Everest. I can say no. Not until we were about 50 feet of the top was I ever completely convinced that we were actually going to reach the summit.
On a mountain like this, although the distances may not be so great, you’re so affected by the restrictions of the altitude that you never really can be completely confident that you’re going to be able to overcome the technical difficulties ahead of you.
And when you finally reached the top, what were your thoughts then?
I think my first thought on reaching the summit—of course, I was very, very pleased to be there, naturally—but my first thought was one of a little bit of surprise. I was a little bit surprised that here I was, Ed Hillary on top of Mt. Everest. After all, this is the ambition of most mountaineers.
What was Tensing’s reaction?
Well, Chet Tensing was, I think, on reaching the summit, certainly in many ways more demonstrative than I was. I shook hands with him, rather in British fashion, but this wasn’t enough for Tensing. He threw his arms around my shoulders—we were in oxygen masks and all—and he thumped me on the back and I thumped him on the back, and really it was quite a demonstrative moment. And he certainly was very, very thrilled when we reached the summit of Everest.
May 10, 2013
The drinks were freer, the music brassier and the times, well, Gatsby-er. At least, that’s the picture F. Scott Fitzgerald creates with his tales of high society run wild in his 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby. Now set for yet another screen adaptation, this time thanks to the energetic hands of Baz Luhrmann, the novel continues to resonate today.
Its appeal is a dark but undeniable one, enough to let you weep alongside Daisy as she marvels inside Gatsby’s closet at his exquisite shirts. The clothes, the alcohol, the music–we get it, it’s a heady and seductive mix. So go ahead and throw your Gatsby-themed party (skipping the murder and suicide–oops, spoiler alert) and let the experts at Folkways supply the playlist.
Thanks to David Horgan and Corey Blake of Smithsonian Folkways for the inspired lineup that includes three tracks referenced in the novel itself, including “Three O’clock in the Morning,” which narrator Nick Carraway calls a “neat, sad little waltz.” The novel also mentions “The Sheik of Araby” and “A Love Nest,” which, in some versions, includes the poignant lyric:
Ever comes the question old,
“Shall we build for pride? Or,
Shall brick and mortar hold
worth and love inside?”
April 23, 2013
In the early 20th-century, southern black musicians found the devil in the harmonica. The cheap and portable instrument was made by Germans for use in traditional European waltzes and marches, but when it made its way to America’s Southern neighborhoods, black musicians began to develop a totally new way of playing, which bent the harmonica’s sound (quite literally) to fit the style of the country’s increasingly popular “devil’s music,” or rather, the blues.
In Classic Harmonica Blues, out May 21 on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, producers Barry Lee Pearson and Jeff Place capture the last century’s most talented players on 20 tracks from the Folkways archive and from live recordings made at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Recently we talked to Pearson about the album, and below is an excerpt of our conversation, in which he discusses playing the harmonica backwards, the instrument’s voice-like qualities and the importance of making any instrument speak your own language.
What inspired this album?
As a teacher, I found the harmonica to have one of the most interesting traditions. When African Americans picked up the instrument in the 20th-century, they completely transformed it into something it had never been intended to be played as in Europe. To me, that is such a remarkable demonstration of the power of tradition. You don’t just take and play an instrument the way it was built to be played. The music is inside you, and you take that instrument and you try to recreate the way you think music should be played. That’s what African Americans did.
How was the harmonica originally intended to be played?
The harmonica is a transverse reed instrument that was invented in Germany in the 19th-century by clock makers. There are many different kinds, but the one that took off was made by Hohner, who started to mass produce his models. Harmonicas come in a variety of keys, and they are created to be played in those keys—so if you have a C harmonica, you play in the key of C by blowing through the reeds.
What did African American musicians change?
African American traditions use a different scale than European traditions, so they could not play some of their notes on the harmonica. That is, until someone figured out that you could bend a harmonica’s notes. If you play a harmonica backwards—that is, suck air in, in what is now called “cross harp” or “second position”—you can take notes and force them down a pitch or two. It’s really a completely different technique. It coincides with this love for instruments to sound like the voice, to make the instrument say what you say, and to make it warmer, more expressive of the voice’s emotional timbres. In the blues, a harmonica can cry and whoop and holler.
How did you decide which tracks to put on the album?
I’ve always been interested in the relation of Smithsonian Folkways to our region [the mid-Atlantic]. Other places have better delta blues, but New York really was the center of the local music world, for so many people from North Carolina and places like that. So we’ve got a lot of Piedmont and Appalachian traditions on here. Most importantly, it hit me that a lot of this stuff just hadn’t been heard very much by a new generation. A lot of the folks I hang out with have kind of a jaded attitude towards some of the stars of the past, because they’ve heard them all their lives. But a lot of younger people coming along don’t feel this way at all. So we’ve got the legends on here, like Sonny Terry. Younger listeners will be in awe of these artists, rather than say, “Oh, that’s Sonny Terry, I’ve got all his albums already.” I wanted to put a product out there that would be fresh to a new generation.
What are you hoping this new generation of listeners takes away from these songs?
I hope people might want to think more about the harmonica, and maybe try it out. I also would like them to understand that you can play it in a variety of ways. You can bend an instrument to your cultural preference. If you put your mind to it, you can make an instrument talk for you, in the language that you prefer—in your own cultural idiom.
Any favorite tracks?
I’m very fond of Doctor Ross. I wrote a piece on him in Living Blues back in the 1980s. “Chicago Breakdown,” a Doctor Ross cut [track 17], is one of my all-time favorite songs.
March 28, 2013
Ever wondered what New York City sounded like in the 1950s–from the point of view of a dog? So did Tony Schwartz, a sound recordist living in the city who sought to capture all the many sonic fragments that made up his every day experience. His piece, centered on his own dog, Tina, aired as part of a CBS radio workshop and eventually found its way to the Smithsonian Folkways label. Now Meredith Holmgren, who recently became editor of Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, has highlighted the charming bit of audio in her first issue, “Sounds and Soundscapes.”
“We have a great collection of sounds and soundscapes that have not been highlighted,” says Holmgren. “In fact, Folkways is one of the earliest labels in history to start gathering these recordings; we have office sounds, train sounds, a whole science series.”
Organized around that idea, the Fall/Winter issue includes a feature on sound recordist Tony Schwartz, an opinion column about the idea of a common sound space and a piece about the first time museum content was paired with sound. There’s also an artist profile about Henry Jacobs, who Holmgren describes as, “one of the early pioneers in using technology to imitate sounds and to create synthetic rhythms and to work in ethnomusicological broadcasting.”
All of this comes from the riches of the Folkways collection, the gift that keeps on giving. Moses Asch first founded the label in 1948 in New York City with the mission to “record and document the entire world of sound.” His efforts, as well as those of his colleagues, helped create an invaluable database of recordings that continues to provide the raw material for new releases for the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington D.C. , which acquired Folkways Records in 1987 after Asch’s death.
Established in 2009, Smithsonian Folkways Magazine is meant to bridge the space between academic journals and music journalism. Holmgren says, “Often scholarly music journals, you can’t actually listen to the music. You’ll read hundreds of pages about the music but you can’t hear it. It’s the same with music journalism, although music journalism tends to be a little more photo or image-friendly and so we thought that an online only multimedia publication was really the way to go.”
It also gives her a chance to publish unreleased material, including Schwartz’s Out My Window, a collection of sounds heard from his new York City apartment as he sits by his back window. “Looking at it in the present,” she says, “it’s a very unique documentation of cityscapes and human interaction only a few decades ago. He was documenting things that were underrepresented or neglected.”
Projects like his The World In My Mail Box looked beyond the city as well. Collecting sounds sent to him from all around the world, Schwartz became “the best pen pal ever,” says Holmgren. “He didn’t travel much because he had agoraphobia, which he spun in a way that became an advantage to him actually; looking in great detail to things that were around him,” she explains. “World In My Mailbox is this kind of interesting collection of sharing recordings with people and places where he knows he will never go.”
Avid sound collectors like Schwartz and Folkways Records founder Moses Asch, provide the perfect analogy for the magazine’s mission as well: to highlight the sonic diversity of the world we live in and share it with as many people as possible. Holmgren says, “I really hope that the magazine can contextualize our collection, talk a little bit about the history of the recordings, the context in which they were made, but also highlight new music that other people may not know about.”
March 21, 2013
On September 11, 2001, Ugandan coffee farmer J.J. Keki was visiting Manhattan on a lecture tour to talk about the Abayudaya, his Jewish community in Uganda. After the terrorist attacks that day, he returned home and organized Jewish, Christian and Muslim neighbors into a fair-trade coffee cooperative, Mirembe Kawomera (“Delicious Peace”), with the belief that in a time of war and violence, people must do everything they can to spread messages of peace. Music is an essential part of Ugandan culture and coffee growers often sing about their experiences in the field, so the cooperative began composing songs that extolled the social and economic virtues of their interfaith project. Soon guitar groups and choirs of farmers around the region were singing the benefits of their collective efforts.
Jeffrey A. Summit, a music professor at Tufts university, traveled to Mbale to record the cooperative’s songs, 16 of which he has compiled on Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music & Interfaith Harmony in Uganda, out April 9 on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. In the interview below, Summit discusses the messages of peace, and what the growers have to teach every coffee-drinking American.
How did this album come together?
I started working with the Abayudaya (Jewish) community in Uganda in 2000. After I finished the Smithsonian Folkways album Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda, I went back for three additional research trips that specifically concentrated on Mbale’s Delicious Peace Fair Trade cooperative. All the tracks were live field recordings in the deepest sense of the word, taken in the middle of coffee fields, or in little villages or religious buildings.
What styles of music are represented on the album?
The collection represents a range of musical styles, from women’s choirs to village guitar music to traditional Ugandan music, which uses instruments like the endingiri, a one-string tube fiddle.
What are these songs about?
In East Africa, as in much of Africa, music plays an essential role in community education. These songs are used to spread specific messages. Many of the songs teach people how to plant and process coffee. The quality of coffee very much depends on the careful way that it’s picked and harvested, so the songs stress things like “put the coffee up on a raised stand to dry so the goats won’t pee on it.” The farmers also sing about the economic benefits of fair trade to get more farmers to join them. Increasing the production power of the cooperative helps them get money to send kids to school, to buy clothes, to get medical treatment. And a third part of the message is about the benefits of interfaith cooperation. Delicious Peace is a Jewish, Muslim and Christian cooperative, and the farmers sing about how respect between these different religions brought peace and prosperity to their community.
What do you hope listeners will take away from this record?
Americans are so strongly connected to the coffee they drink in the morning, but they don’t see the human beings behind their cup of coffee. One of the things I learned again and again in the course of my research was that there’s no mechanized way to harvest good quality coffee. A coffee farmer has to walk into the fields, look at the coffee tree, discern what cherries are ripe that day, pick them, and then go through a whole complex process of sorting, pulping and drying them, in addition to transporting them many kilometers on their backs or on a bicycle to offices. I hope this music will be a way for us to experience the humanity of the people without whose labor there wouldn’t be a cup of coffee in front of us in the morning.
Also, the music rocks. Lots of people don’t listen to this kind of traditional music, so I hope the fact that the album has a compelling story around it brings people to these wonderful songs, which are really very typical to the styles of music played in this part of Uganda.
What is your personal connection to the music?
Being connected to this cooperative and understanding its farmers’ lives through these songs has given me real sense of hope that people are able to bridge differences to address very difficult issues. So many people responded to 9/11 with xenophobia or a sense of powerlessness. Yet you had these Ugandan coffee farmers coming forward to say, “our response to 9/11 is that we have to use whatever we have to teach the world to live in peace. We have coffee, so we’ll use coffee to teach peace to the world.” This tremendously creative, hopeful and empowering message has had a great impact on me.
CORRECTION 3/25/2013: Delicious Peace will be released on April 9, not March 26 as this article previously stated.