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Exploring the World of Music

Music and Memory

As a dynamic link to the past, music allows us to recall and revive our different cultural heritages through the performances we participate in now. West African griots, the Walbiri people of Australia, folksingers of Ireland and Appalachia, and modern practitioners of early music show us how our musical pasts live again today.

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Exploring The World of Music Program #3 “Music and Memory” Transcript

NARRATOR

Music provides a dynamic linkN with the past. Through song, ceremony and ritual, music maintains tradition, reinforces identity and serves as an important means for storing and sharing memories.

 

ERNEST BROWN

When you want to recount history, one way in which you could do it would be to just talk as I’m talking now. When you use a musical instrument

you focus people’s  attention on the matter that you  have at hand, and you entertain them. So you open them up emotionally. The music has a way of reaching people on a non-verbal, emotional level.

 

MARKSLOBIN

We all have musical memories. They go back to our earliest childhood, they form a large part of how  we feel about  time.  As our life unfolds we connect the dots with musical memories very often. So in the personal sense we stitch together our lives with music in a very direct way.

 

CAROL LEE ESPY

I don’t think that most people can tell you where they were ten years ago, but if you sing a song from that summer, they can tell you exactly where they were, who they were dating, what car they were driving in, and the music can spark those kinds of things.

 

NARRATOR

Musical memory can function at both the personal and cultural levels. While personal memory is unique to individuals, cultural memory is something that is shared by a national, religious or ethnic group. It often plays an important role in defining a culture’s identity and its sense of the past.

 

NARRATOR

In the countries of Mali, Senegal, and the Gambia in West Africa, musicians known as Griots have traditionally played an important role in society as storytellers  and  historians.  The Griots sing songs and proverbs accompanied by an instrument known as a kora, a spiked harp with a gourd resonator.

 

Sub-title

The sun has risen on great people and set on great people.

 

ERNEST BROWN

In many African cultures there aren’t written traditions, I mean traditionally. There weren’t books, there weren’t forms of writing and people needed ways of remembering things, of preserving their history and culture and values. And one of the ways in which they did that was through song.

 

Sub-title

Let’s enjoy this world because this world belongs to everybody and one day we must die.

 

ERNEST BROWN

One example can be seen in the kora and the tradition of music that surrounds it.

 

Sub-title

Ansuma from the riverside is dead and so is his mother.

 

ERNEST BROWN

The kora is always accompanied by song and those songs recount the deeds of heroes, and kings and these days merchants and traders and other important people in the society. It’s a repository of historical knowledge and also of cultural values.

Sub-title

Ansuma’s neighbors killed him. They are his enemies.

 

ERNEST BROWN

The kora tradition goes back several hundred years in West Africa. It basically comes out of the old Mali Empire. The Mali empire was founded in 1235 by Sunjata, the first King of the Mali Empire. And in fact he is one of the people who is remembered in the songs of the kora.

Sub-title

This song is dedicated to Sekou Bah, Darbo’s son.

ERNEST BROWN

If you grow up in a society in West Africa that has the Kora music, you hear this music from the time that you’re a child. And you begin to absorb it little by little by little.  You start  to hear names of  people who are important in your society, historical figures, and you start to learn about some of the things that they have done and the information begins to be passed on to you. And the tradition has changed now. It used to function in a very narrow context for royalty, preserving their story and their history, but now it becomes an icon for the whole society.

 

Sub-title

Let’s respect people to whom God has given respect.

 

NARRATOR

The musical  storyteller is important in many societies around the world. In the rural south of the United States ballad singers share and reinforce cultural memory through song. While many ballads refer to events that occurred centuries ago in Europe, they are often based on timeless themes that are relevant to singers and their communities today.

 

JOHN COHEN

Ballad is a kind of music that tells a story. Almost all ballads tell some kind of story, well there’s lots of stories to tell. And some ballads seem to be very old, they tell very old stories and some of those stories have been handed down from generation to generation.

 

PETE SEEGER

My father took me to a mountain dance festival in North Carolina, I’ve never got over it. There were people singing old ballads that went back hundreds of years, and it seemed to me like the songs, new or old, had the meat of all life, they weren’t just trivial.

 

JOHN COHEN

Back in North Carolina in a little community where I did my film, almost everybody sings. And Berzil Wallin she knew a lot of old ballads and old love songs, and then when she sang this very beautiful song which is a conversation with death, it’s got kind of a moral, moralizing to it, like 18th century, 19th century, I think really 18th century frontier attitude on heaven and hell and of course she was pretty old and feeble about the time she was singing it for me, and you got the feeling in the film that she was going through that struggle herself.

 

MARKSLOBIN

 

In the ballad tradition, the tune is extremely important. These tunes are usually beautiful and they are hand crafted to stick in the mind.

There seems to be a receptor in the mind for tunes, it just attaches itself to your mind. And because of  that you’ll remember long stretches of text that you could never remember any other way.

 

JOHN COHEN

People sometimes think of ballads, sort of as memory. I like to think of it as, if you’re going to connect to a song because you learned it from your mother and she learned it from her mother and it goes back, then you’re connecting, you’re plugging into something that goes back a long ways. And when you’re connecting to something that goes back a long ways that’s the definition  of  memory.  Of course the ballad, once it got to America, the form of storytelling, it became a standard. You know, think of country music, cowboy ballads, industrial ballads, all kinds of ballads, so the ballad tradition doesn’t stay static.

 

CAROL LEE ESPY

I love to write ballads, I like story songs. It challenges you more as a writer because you have to tell a story, you have to create characters you have to create a place, a time… The civil  war song that I  wrote, it’s actually titled, “Only God Knows His Name”… Growing up in Pennsylvania you have to go to Gettysburg when you go to school. I started to think about that, and I thought how would that be to live in those days and to have to come home to your farm after there had been a battle waged. And the story’s about a woman who comes home to her farm and she finds a fallen rebel soldier in her field and he needs a proper burial.  Then she takes care of him, she buries him and she puts him in  a spot that’s special to her. A ballad also has an element of romance to it, there is a romantic notion about how she takes care of him, and how she’s doing the right thing because as a Christian woman that, that is how she would want someone to treat her. I mean, how can we even imagine what went on in the Civil War, so we have to find the common denominator, which is decency, and let that be the thing that transports us to that time so we can actually feel it. And ballads do that.

 

NARRATOR

Music can also be integral to religious ceremonies or rituals which evoke the past. Among the Australian Aboriginal peoples song is used to recount stories of their origin and the basis of their cultural beliefs.

 

STEPHEN WILD

 

One of the basic elements of aboriginal culture is a belief that the world was created by creative ancestors. During their creation, and as part of it, they also sang and danced and created visual designs which expressed their creation. And aboriginal people since then and still today, in performing songs and dances and creating visual designs are in a real way, are participating in the original creative events. The Walbiri people of central Australia live in the desert, a sandy desert environment. And one of the important ceremonies that they perform is called, generally, a fire ceremony.  And the music that’s performed is  part of the ceremony, consists of singing by a group of men accompanied by clapsticks. The clapsticks in this case are pairs of boomerangs. A group of men sitting in a clump are the main singers, behind the men are women who periodically get up and dance. The creative ancestors took the form of usually animal species but they could be also plant species or fish. Human beings are in fact reincarnations of these creative ancestors. Today when aboriginal people perform songs and dances and create visual designs they are indicating their close association with the species and with the land of which they occupy. And they are helping to maintain its fertility.

 

NARRATOR

Music often serves as an important means of maintaining cultural identity and heritage. Among Irish American immigrants and their descendants the performance of traditional music plays an important role in drawing the community together.

 

PAT KILBRIDE

Obviously there are Irish people all over the world, my own family is a prime example, I’ve a sister in Taiwan, brother in Germany and I live in New York. My father used to say the sun never sets on the Kilbride family. So the Irish… we’re a nation of immigrants.

 

JERRY O’SULLIVAN

The biggest wave happened because of the potato famine. The population of Ireland went from 9 million to 3 million. A lot came to the U.S. to Canada, to Australia, New Zealand, England, those would’ve been mainly where the Irish went. Remember in those days, when people left home they didn’t see their parents again, that was it. Keep in mind that the  people coming here didn’t speak English,  they  were from the poorest parts of Ireland. And it was tough.  Irish Catholics, especially,  they weren’t very welcome, they were considered a lower class. What they did have, in spite of that poverty, they did have their culture, they had this amazingly rich repository of instrumental music, of song, of storytelling, in the Irish language, of dancing.  Having socialization with neighbors, hearing the music, that made up for that loss, that’s what they shared together, that’s what they passed on to their children.

 

BRIAN CONWAY

House sessions are a major component of traditional  Irish  music.  It’s where people would congregate in Ireland and even in my own house when I was growing up, both of my parents were from Ireland and  we had an Irish session almost every Friday in my home. The people would congregate, they’d play tunes, they’d share new tunes or old tunes, it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet with people and people can sit down who have learned tunes from different sources, if it’s the same tune they can sit down and play it together.

 

JERRY O’SULLIVAN

Basically it’s an Irish jam session, its just everybody gets  together and plays a common repertoire. It’s very relaxing, there’s no pressure, you keep going for as long as you feel like going, if you feel like stopping you stop and you know, people come and go and if the atmosphere and the spirit is good it can go on for hours and hours, days in some cases.

 

NARRATOR

Many musical traditions have rich histories of their own. In the twentieth century musicians have been drawn to European music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. A repertoire  commonly  referred to as Early Music. Because this music hasn’t been performed for centuries, playing it today involves research, recreation and imagination.

 

TOM ZAJAC

I always felt that Early Music was the music that’s never made it to the twentieth century  as a performing  tradition.  It’s  important  to keep this music alive because it’s fantastic music. It’s beautiful in its own way just like music from other cultures is beautiful in it’s own way. It’s very different from modem Western music.

 

GRANT HERREID

I was struck right away by something in the music, it really resonated inside me somehow. The music was so often sparse, it was very pure, I had never heard anything like it.

 

TOM ZAJAC

 

I think one of the big challenges  of  performing  Early Music is that it’s a broken tradition. If  you’re a pianist  today  you may have a teacher who had a teacher who had a teacher who studied with Franz Liszt, and there’s received knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation. In the performance of Early Music there were centuries in between what people performed back then and what they’re trying to do today.

GRANT HERREID

Manuscripts from before the 16th century do not indicate the instrumentation. A piece might have four parts, with no words, maybe meant for instruments but it won’t  say.  The composers  either didn’t care what instruments it was played on or it was so obvious to the people at the time that it  would  be appropriate  for recorders,  say, or for viols or for a lute ensemble, that this information just doesn’t come to us.

 

TOM ZAJAC

One of the most important sources of information is iconographical sources, meaning paintings, illuminations and manuscripts,  sculptures from the time, which show actual musicians from the Middle Ages and Renaissance playing music. And by looking at these we can gain a lot of information about how instruments were being held, what the instruments actually looked like cause many of these instruments, especially from earlier periods, don’t survive as museum instruments.

 

GRANT HERREID

The intended audience of a given piece of music is crucial in to understanding why it was performed and how it was performed. One of the great lute virtuosos of the Renaissance  was playing lullabies for a four year old heir to a throne. And that obviously gives you an insight as to what maybe this person would have played, you know. Oy Comamos is all about let us eat and drink and be merry my friends today, lent starts tomorrow so let’s live it up while we can today.

 

TOM ZAJAC

We don’t want to just play it straight the way you see it in the manuscript, it’s in four voices, and all four voices are texted. So the

most obvious way to perform it would be to have four singers, a soprano, alto, tenor, and base, sing the song very straight forward.

 

PAUL SHIPPER

I just could not hear a piece like that just sort of sung straight and isn’t that nice. I mean it’s a Fat Tuesday piece, right? It’s like let’s eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow it is all over. There are a lot of interesting descriptions of performance practice, and of goings on at court, feast, there are diaries there are poems which describe instruments playing together.

 

TOM ZAJAC

There are a lot of paintings that show people playing tambourines  and they always show them playing with the instrument held upward like that, with the head facing out towards the audience. And so that’s how Paul plays tambourine in this performance  rather than sort of  slapping  it on it’s knee. We know that the guitar was of great importance in Spanish culture and we know that from iconographical evidence and also from literary sources.

 

GRANT HERREID

We’ve found that we can infuse this music with more life by looking at surviving popular traditions in Spain or folk traditions  where they  use a lot of strumming on guitars, a lot of percussion, castanets, tambourines.

 

PAUL SHIPPER

If you’re talking about achieving authenticity in performance, you cannot do it because we just don’t really know. You can go with your instincts, you can go with the evidence that you’ve discovered, things you’ve learned from playing with other people and again whatever research you’ve done.

 

TOM ZAJAC

There’s sort of two different types of authenticity, I think. There’s the authenticity  where  you’re trying to find out as much as possible

about how that music was played so you can play it in the same way that it was performed in the Middle Ages or Renaissance.  There’s  also sort of what I think of as an authenticity of spirit where you’re trying to present the music in a way that it was presented at the time, even if

it’s not done in exactly the same way.

 

GRANT HERREID

It’s not important that people played this music 400 years ago and we should play it now because it was done then, but we really believe that this music is important of itself.

 

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