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Folk songs of historical value recovered
Recordings from Trinidad Village
By KIM JOHNSON
September 20, 1998
THE most comprehensive record of Trinidad folk music in the late 1930s was recently released on CD titled Peter Was A Fisherman, and sub-titled The 1939 Trinidad Field Recordings of Melville and Frances Herskovits, Vol. I.
Melville Herskovits who died in 1963 was born in 1895 to Jewish parents in Ohio. Though interested in music as a child, he studied history at Chicago University and anthropology at Columbia. He married Francis Shapiro in 1924, and in 1935 the couple had a daughter Jean Francis (who subsequently became a professor of African History). And over the 30 years of their life together Melville and Francis Herskovits wrote many books and articles on African culture in the motherland and amongst the disaspora, including The Myth of the Negro Past (1941) which, in demonstrating how much of African culture had survived into the present, founded the discipline of Afro-American studies.
And although Trinidad Village was published in 1947, the research he conducted in Toco in 1939 and the songs he collected then contributed greatly to the ground-breaking Myth of the Negro Past. Those are the songs from which were drawn the 34 tracks on Peter Was A Fisherman.
They range from Carnival music (calypsoes, lavways, Wild Indian songs) to
Baptist hymns (one of which provided the title of the collection). There are bongos, reels, quadrilles and sentimental songs, Yoruba songs and Orisha songs, making collection perhaps the most comprehensive record of Trinidad folk music in the late 1930s.
For all their historical fascination the songs on Peter are not for the music-lover as such. The Herskovits's field recordings were for academic, not aesthetic, purposes. The songs are unadorned, often, hand clapping was their only accompaniment. They weren't performed by singers but by whosoever knew them, usually aged informants, men and women with thin, frail voices. The first song, for instance, "Joseph Keeba" is sung by Margaret Wright, their cook.
"It caters for a specialised market," said Lise Winer. "There would be those interested in the roots of Trinidad music, as well as those in specific areas such as drumologists and Africanists interested in the Shango material. The Baptists should be interested in the hymns. The love songs and ballads might be helpful to best village people who want new material or people wanting to do plays with an historical setting.
"It would be useful for schools to hear some of these things. You read about kalenda and bongo but there are no available recordings. If you want to give a lecture it's almost impossible to get authentic recordings of these types of songs."
Winer, herself of Canadian-Jewish background, stumbled upon the recordings while doing research for her magnum opus, the dictionary of Trinidadian.
Studying Herskovits's field notes a decade ago, she discovered his recordings of 532 songs in the Library of Congress. She contacted Don Hill, author of Calypso Callaloo: Early Carnival Music in Trinidad.
The project grew, drawing in English music historian John Cowley, the author of Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso; and Trinidadian linguist Maureen Warner-Lewis, author of Trinidad Yoruba and Guinea's Other Suns. Consequently, Peter contains detailed liner notes and accurate historical annotation and translation of the songs, including those in French patois and Yoruba.
And that's just the start-four other CDs are planned.
"Volume Two will be all Baptist hymns-Don Hill is doing that; I'm doing songs of love and trouble; Cowley is looking at roots of Carnival, including kalendas and bongos; and Maureen Warner-Lewis is doing all the Yoruba stuff, all the Shango chants," says Winer. "The idea is to restore the songs that the Herskovits recorded in 1939 and make them accessible because they were never released publicly."
Indeed, it was probably unfeasible to release them before modern digital technology made possible the reconstruction of the original sound, for the
recordings were made under very difficult circumstances.
In 1939 Herskovits used to two-turntable Soundscriber recorder, a Western
Electric "salt-shaker" microphone and 201 12-inch acetate discs, one spare cutting head, three Sapphire cutters for the acetates and steel needles for the playback. It all was powered by a 300-watt belt driven generator. Back in New York he was been advised to take some time to learn to use the apparatus but Herskovits had been too rushed. To make things worse, they forgot the instructions book.
Arriving in Trinidad on June 14, 1939, the Herskovits were recommended to go to Toco, and on July 1 they made their first recording. "In the afternoon the four women came again, and this time everything worked, except that occasionally a particularly loud note would cause the needle to jump and on replaying go back into the same grove," he noted in his diary. "We did three records, both sides, for a total of nine songs-bele, sentimental songs, reels."
Most recordings were done in the house, the equipment being too heavy to lug
around. But the recorder gave continuous trouble. "Lovey Gilman and her three comrades appeared," he noted for June 29. "Alas, the recording machine wasn't willing. Apparently the spring that controls the depth of cut has gone bad again, despite Phillips' doctoring it at the house before we left, and before darkness set in I had got myself into a grand stew and a fine sweat trying to repair the trouble. I was finally defeated, but it was good to learn that there are plenty of African-like songs besides the hymns to which everyone seems to be addicted."
The generator gave constant trouble, it spluttered, varying the speed of the recordings. The volume and pitch changed. When a loud note was sung the cutting head jumped. Herskovits turned down the volume when the singer was loud, and turned it up when for quiet passages. He set the turntable speed at an estimated 78 rpm.
Made under particularly bad circumstances-an untrained recordist, primitive field conditions, a decaying medium-the Herskovits recordings could only have been "recoverd" with the use of modern digital technology. "Extraneous ticks, pops, and thumps were removed by manual digital editing, and missing sound was carefully spliced from other portions of the performance," explains the liner notes. "All tracks were equalized to restore as much of the ambiance and sparkle of the original performances as possible.
"They have not been heard as clearly since they were performed."