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Archivist Michael Pahn Free Associates Among the Smithsonian’s Music and Film Collections

On a search through the Smithsonian archives, Pahn follows one tradition after another to find that music is the connective thread that binds many cultures

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Michael Pahn, photo courtesy of R.A. Whiteside/NMAI

In an on-going series, ATM will bring you the occasional post from a number of Smithsonian Institution guest bloggers: the historians, researchers and scientists who curate the collections and archives at the museums and research facilities. Today, Michael Pahn, an archivist from the National Museum of the American Indian and a musician, reflects on the universal language of music. In September, Pahn wrote about the fiddle and the violin.

I listen to music because I love rhythm and melodies.  But I also love music because it connects me to other people.  Music from another culture or part of the world, gives me a sense of what others think is beautiful or meaningful, or at least catchy.

Every culture, everywhere in the world, makes music.  Any place on Earth that you go, you can find people singing to themselves whether they are harvesting in fields, rocking their children to sleep or driving to work.  We make music when we celebrate or mourn or pray.  We make up songs to express our thoughts at the spur of a moment, and we sing songs that have been handed down from generation to generation.

Music is something that we all, as human beings, have in common. While the ubiquity of music is part of the reason the sound recordings collections at the Smithsonian are so vast, it can also make it difficult to know how or where to dig in. My favorite way to find new things is to free associate. I’ll listen to a recording, then go off in search of other music like it. Or music played on similar instruments.  Or music from the same part of the world. Or just music that the first recording made me think of. That’s all it takes to start hearing new sounds that I’d probably never find if I deliberately set out looking for them.

The John Marshall Collection, housed within the National Museum of Natural History’s Human Studies Film Archives, is one of the Institution’s great treasures.  John Marshall documented the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari desert in southwestern Africa over a 50-year period beginning in 1950 and the results make up an archive that contains more than one million feet of motion picture footage and hundreds of hours of audio recordings. Marshall captured on film the wrenching story of the Ju/’hoansi  as their traditional semi-nomadic way of life became increasingly unsustainable, and they struggled to adjust to resettlement.  In 2009, his work was recognized by UNESCO, and included on the Memory of the World Register, making it one of only three collections in the United States to carry that honor.

Music is at the heart of the Ju/’hoansi curing ceremony, a central ritual in the tribe’s spiritual life when the community comes together to sing and dance to heal the sick. The tradition continues to this day, but in the 1950s, Marshall was among the first to record footage.  The women sing, clap and occasionally dance.  The men dance, wearing leg rattles made from dried cocoons that create intricate polyrhythms.  The songs themselves, the medicine men, and the fire at the center of the ceremony are believed to contain what the tribe calls n/um, the spiritual energy capable of healing.  This ceremony—and the music performed as part of the ceremony—is the most important expression of Ju/’hoansi spirituality, and is deeply ingrained in their cultural identity. It is clear why these ceremonies have continued despite the drastic changes the Ju/’hoansi have experienced, such as access to western medicine.  It is  also, quite simply, mesmerizing music.

There is a lot to think about in the curing ceremony’s music, but I was most immediately struck by the dried cocoon leg rattles. They sound, and look, beautiful. It also turns out that people all over the world make rattles out of dried cocoons. The Pima Indians of Arizona and the Yaqui Indians of northern Mexico are just two examples. One of my favorites is a really energetic Smithsonian Folkways recording of a Yaqui dance song that features these and other kinds of rattles.

I was interested in hearing other Ju/’hoan music because, as is the case with most people, their music has many contexts, not all of which are ceremonial. In the mid-1950s, when the Ju/’hoansi were still leading a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, their thoughts often turned to the natural world and its inhabitants. In 1955, Marshall filmed three men singing “Red Partridge Song,” which was most likely a composition by the man playing the small stringed instrument in the clip.  This instrument is called a //uashi, and the man playing it is /Gao //uashi, a respected healer and virtuoso who was so closely identified with this instrument that his name roughly translates to “/Gao Music.”

I love this song, but the performance in this clip has an odd, detached quality to it, which according to film archivist Karma Foley of the Human Studies Film Archives, is due to the primitive synchronized sound field recording at that time, which required a generator, among other things. “John Marshall had to set up the scene to be filmed, rather than filming and recording the singing as it would have naturally happened,” Foley explained to me. “Normally, people would sit around together, and someone might pick up an instrument and play for a while. The online clip shows a more arranged scene, separated from the rest of the group—I believe this was due to the bulk of the sync sound recording equipment and the desire to record the music without the background noise of the village.”

The first thing that jumped out at me about this song is how relaxed it is.  The playing is gentle, and the harmonies seem completely off the cuff. I was interested in hearing other music that sounds like “Red Partridge Song,” but I didn’t find anything that was quite as casual or informal. What I did find, however, is beautiful song called Urai Turuk Titirere, sung by the Bat Rerekat people of the Mentawai islands of Sumatra. This song is sung in praise of the titirere bird, but more interestingly, is associated with a complex healing ritual.  I went looking for one commonality, but found a different one!

Contrast the pastoral peace of “Red Partridge Song” with the raw pain of N!ai’s song. This was recorded in 1978, when N!ai’s community of Ju/’hoansi were living in a government settlement called Tsumkwe.  The transition from semi-nomadic to settled life had major health implications for them, and tuberculosis had quickly spread throughout Tsumkwe.  There was a great deal of tension within the community, which had not existed prior to settlement.  In their old life, sharing was commonplace, and large groups rarely lived together for extended periods of time. When tensions did erupt, groups would simply move apart until things calmed down.  Living at Tsunkwe and being on government assistance created poverty and jealousy. N!ai touches on all of this in her song, which is beautiful and heartbreaking.

As I listened to N!ai’s song I immediately thought of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die Blues.”  Both are startlingly frank and bleak.  Illness, in particular tuberculosis, was a frequent subject of American country and blues music in the first half of the 20th century. Jimmie Rodgers sang frequently about the disease, which ultimately killed him. “T.B. Blues” is a standard, and different versions have been performed over the years by Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. Sadly, sickness and pain are as universal as music.

Over the course of the fifty or so years that John Marshall documented their lives, the Ju/’hoansi lost much of their ancestral hunting grounds and were displaced to reservation-like homelands.  They had to adopt completely new, settled lifestyles. Disease and poverty devastated the tribe, but they also adapted to their new realities, and created conservancies and social institutions that help preserve their traditions. In many ways, the Ju/’hoansi experienced in a 50-year period what Native Americans experienced over the course of 200 years, as European settlement completely displaced many of their traditional lifestyles. And like Native Americans and other people all over the world, music has both connected the Ju/’hoansi to their past, and offered an outlet for expressing their anxieties, and joys, about their present and future.

It is hard for me to imagine people whose lives are more different from mine than the Ju/’hoansi, whose lives, in turn, are very different for the Yaqui’s, and the Pima’s, and the Bar Rerekat. And yet, by listening to their music and learning about what it means to them, while reflecting on what music means to me, I feel a connection to all of them.

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About Michael Pahn

Michael Pahn is the Media Archivist, specializing in audio, video, and motion picture film, at the National Museum of the American Indian, a position he has held since 2003. Prior to that he worked at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage on the Save Our Sounds audio preservation project. Pahn has a BA in Anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh and an MLS from the University of Maryland.

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