UNESCO’s World of Music in Smithsonian Folkways Magazine
By Joan Hua, Smithsonian Folkways Magazine guest editor and web producer
This week, Smithsonian Folkways concludes its 64-week release of 127 archival and new titles in the monumental UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music. To celebrate the occasion, the new issue of Smithsonian Folkways Magazine explores this extraordinary series.
UNESCO’s post-WWII concerns with lasting peace founded on mutual understanding across cultures led to the conception of UNESCO’s world of music, as Fred Gales writes in the cover story. The approach to world’s traditional music was very different then: recording technology had just recently introduced the possibility of hearing sounds from far-flung corners of the world. Unfamiliar cultures invited curiosity and excitement, as well as misunderstanding and prejudice toward musics that have been described as exotic, primitive, unrefined, and out of tune. Scholars were eager to analyze and understand the endless complexity of music cultures; commercial recordings followed the changing tides of popular demand and new technologies.
UNESCO’s role in documenting musical traditions was vital, and it evolved over time. Take recordings of Mongolian music as an example. Fred Gales noted that without UNESCO’s support, publication of the very first recordings of overtone singing would not have been possible. In 1967 Mongolia, Lajos Vargyas faced many obstacles even after obtaining permission to enter the country: he was initially only allowed to record government-selected musicians singing primarily revolutionary songs, for instance. Reflecting on the work of her predecessors, in “Survival of the Fittest: The Urtyn Duu Tradition in Changing Mongolia,” Sunmin Yoon relates her own experience discovering neglected and underrepresented vocal styles in her fieldwork, and the dilemma of having to sacrifice sharing the music’s diversity when making selections for publication.
From its start in the 1960s to its new lease on life at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music is a testament to the process of change in the world’s cultures, the study of traditional music, technology, and the recording industry. When the reputation and longevity of the UNESCO collection faltered in the early 2000s, esteemed scholar Anthony Seeger—who is also Curator and Director, Emeritus, at Smithsonian Folkways—played a key role in Smithsonian’s acquisition of this collection. I was deeply involved in the production work once the collection came to the Smithsonian, and together Seeger and I explain the backstory of the UNESCO collection in “From Analog to Digital: The Story of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music.”
The UNESCO collection continues to inspire creativity in multifaceted ways. Jim Metzner from Pulse of the Planet writes that on-location recordings—like those from the UNESCO collection—“punctured a hole in [his] armor of habitual listening” when he discovered them back in the 1960s and '70s. The astonishing music he heard propelled his own search for sonic treasures in the field—whether that meant in Brazil or his local surroundings—and the launch of an award-winning career in audio production. Christopher Ford, Iowa-based contemporary musician, finds solidarity with traditional musicians and advocates for immediate, undistracted communication of artistic ideas to the audience.
Culled from an enormous body of audio recordings, liner notes, and archival material, the multimedia content in this issue is brimming with playlists and image galleries, occasioning varied encounters with the myriad recordings in the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music. It is admittedly an amazingly dense collection, sometimes seemingly esoteric. So consider starting with an introductory guide compiled by Rob Sevier—the Numero Group’s cofounder and an ardent fan of the UNESCO collection—and listen to his favorite albums!