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  • UNESCO Collection Week 15: Sounds of the Earth

    Smithsonian Folkways continues its release of the wide-ranging UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music via digital download, streaming services, and on-demand physical CDs. This week’s releases—Songs of the Earth: Astonishing and Rare Voices and Musics of the Earth: Astonishing and Rare Instrumentscelebrate the Earth in time for Lughnasadh (also called Lammas), a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest season in early August, National Water Quality Month, and Trumpek Kadang festival in Bali, which honors animals.


    by Catherine Grant

    The world is, indeed, an amazing place.

    The experience of listening to these two albums drives home the extraordinary creativity of the human mind and the equally extraordinary richness and diversity of our common human heritage.

    Musics of the Earth
    Musics of the Earth: Astonishing and Rare Instruments takes us on a journey through 19 musical traditions, predominantly in Africa and Asia (one track represents Brazil and one, the Solomon Islands). The album subtitle and liner notes draw our attention to the way these musics are made. The instruments we hear range from bamboo flutes, frame drums, and ankle-rattles of dried husks to gourd trumpets, sixteen-stringed zithers (dan tranh), and the Indian ancestor of the harpsichord (svara mandala).

    By turning our thoughts to the materials these instruments are made from (millet stalks, pawpaw trunk, calabash, antelope horn, the root of the opo tree) and the various functions the instruments are used for, we learn much about the people and cultures the music represents. A man begins to invoke a village guardian spirit at the edge of a forest by striking an iron bell (Cote d’Ivoire, track 1); a bamboo mouth-organ imitates a train pulling out of a station, requiring considerable virtuosity from the performer (Laos, track 13); a fiddle and zither accompany a mountain village harvest ritual dedicated to the rice goddess (Java, track 16).

    Songs of the Earth
    Songs of the Earth: Astonishing and Rare Voices explores the oldest instrument of them all. With 19 tracks gathered from across Asia, the Middle East, Europe, North America, Africa, and Oceania, this album showcases the surprising versatility of the human voice and the myriad ways it can be put to use for the purpose of music-making. We hear millet-grinding songs, songs for warring with a neighboring ethnic group, songs that proclaim the chastity of the village chief’s bride, and songs to accompany the ritual sacrifice of bears—performed, according to the liner notes, by singers “ranging from quiet soloists to a raucous 250-person vocal percussion ensemble.”

    Listening to both these albums—especially one after the other—gives one the sense of being taken on a magnificent world tour, including mild disorientation, culture shock, excitement, and wonder at the utterly new experiences. From Swiss yodeling to Kurdish festival music, Inuit game-playing to Mongolian overtone singing, these compilations are a mosaic for the ear.

    Liner notes in English and French accompany both albums and contain brief information on the musicians, instruments, cultures, and functions of the traditions represented. These notes act as a trusty guidebook, helping steer the listener through unfamiliar territory, and suggesting what to listen for along the way. Just like any guidebook, it’s worthwhile to put it aside now and then, and to see where your senses take you.

    In listening to and enjoying these recordings and the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music as a whole, it’s important to remember that many of these astonishing and rare traditions are in some danger. In 2003, UNESCO called urgent attention to the need for safeguarding intangible expressions of culture across the world, including music. As globalization and other pressures take hold, the sum of human creativity is at risk of diminishing.

    In some ways, Musics of the Earth and Songs of the Earth encapsulate what the UNESCO Collection is all about: celebrating the rich diversity of music we humans make, the planet over. As we listen to, learn about, explore, and enjoy the gems in these 127 albums, let’s also remember our collective responsibility towards them, in the hope that future generations also may enjoy the songs and sounds of our planet as living, vibrant expressions of our common heritage.

    Catherine Grant
    Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Creative Arts, University of Newcastle
    Author, Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help (OUP, 2014)
    University of Newcastle

    UNESCO Collection Week 15: Sounds of the Earth | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings