Tag: field recordings (page 1 of 4)

A Trunk Full of Love Songs: Somali Songs, 1955-1991: The Maryan “Aryette” Omar Ali Collection

♥Happy Valentine’s Day!♥ An appropriate day to highlight a collection of (mostly) love songs in the Archive of World Music:

When the Somali popular music expert Maryan Omar Ali first met historian Lidwien Kapteijns in person, she brought with her a trunk full of love songs and other sung poetry. Maryan spent her life carefully curating this collection to represent the most productive Somali (and some Djiboutian) songwriters and artists from the 1950s, when Somalia was fighting to gain independence, through the 1990s, when political instability and civil war plagued the struggling nation. The tapes collected from this period now form part of the Archive of World Music, where preservation and repatriation efforts are ongoing. Let’s take a glimpse into this important collection of Somali songs.

Some of the tapes in the collection (photo courtesy AWM).

In 2017, Ahmed Samatar, a professor of International Studies at Macalester College, and Lidwien Kapteijns, a professor of history at Wellesley College, began depositing the first batches of around 500 audio cassettes recordings of popular songs recorded in Somalia between 1955 and 1991, collected from radio broadcasts and privately circulated cassettes by the life-long collector of Somali popular songs and leading expert on the subject, Maryan Omar Ali.

Maryan Omar Ali (photo courtesy of Lidwien Kapteijns).

Maryan “Aryette” Omar Ali (1977-2011) spent her life collecting and curating Somali  sung poetry—songs of love, war, despair, and patriotism.  As a child in Somalia, she was immersed in the world of singers, poets, and musicians, growing up in a community with some of Somalia’s most famous artists. She attended rehearsals, brought refreshments, and eventually became a leading advocate for Somali arts and culture, a pursuit that lasted a lifetime.

The primary genre in this collection is known as hees or heello, a modern form of sung poetry accompanied by, depending on the era, hand clapping, frame drums, and other musical instruments, such as the electric piano/synthesizer, organ, guitar, end-blown flute, clarinet, saxophone, violin, and Arab lute (kaman in Somali or ‘ud in Arabic). Other notable genres include qaraami and praise songs for the Prophet. Many of the genre names used to refer to Somali songs overlap in their usage depending on a number of factors, including time period.

Most of these recordings are songs of the nationalist period (1955-1974), a period after which the military regime (1969-1991) became increasingly oppressive. During this time, the emergence and success of the popular song had much to do with the roles the radio stations in cities like Mogadishu and Hargeisa assumed in the period leading up to and following independence, in addition to the Somali government’s investment, albeit meager, in the cultural production of poets, playwrights, singers, and musicians.

Somalia is unique among East African countries, or the rest of the world for that matter, in its cultural unity through language. While the country is and has been fraught with political disunity, culture has bound them together. The songs in this collection reflect this unity and the importance of song in times of political and social struggle.

Maryan Omar Ali was born in Djibouti and grew up in neighboring Somalia.

One of the most important functions of popular music in the tumultuous decades from the 1950s to the 1990s involved the ability of artists to weave together tradition with modernity in the face of change and instability. Many artists used popular songs as a call to action for unity in as a remedy for tribalism.  Some of the songs preached unity through themes of Qaranimo, or Somali nationalism, calling for allegiance to the state. Other songs spread ideas of uniting under Islam, charging individuals to look toward the ‘umma (global Islamic community) as a solution to clan rivalry and civil war.

Photo of Lidwien Kapteijns (courtesy Wellesley College)

Another important component of the songs in this collection is the presence of powerful female voices in a patriarchal society. In her book, Women’s Voices in a Man’s World: Women and the Pastoral Tradition in Northern Somali Orature, c. 1899-1980 (1999), Lidwien Kapteijns writes about the nuanced ways in which poetry, including sung poetry and the popular songs of this collection, give voice to female subversion of this patriarchy, highlighting the importance of women in Somali society.  Many of the love and lament-themed songs that form the qaraami genre were frowned upon by religious authorities and conservative society, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Mixed gender dancing and socialization, women on stage, and themes of love and desire were viewed as irreverent. Thus, the women who made a living performing this music were particularly vulnerable to oppression. Pressing on, many singers throughout the decades, those such as Magool and Sahra Axmed–both featured in this collection–were heroic in their efforts to change conceptions of art, gender relations, and cultural unity. For more on individual artists and songs in the collection, and suggested readings and resources, here is a link to the finding aid to the Maryan “Aryette” Omar Ali Collection.

 

Written by: Joe Kinzer, Senior Curatorial Assistant, Archive of World Music

Last Chance To See (But You Can Listen Anytime): Indigenous Siberian Fieldwork at the Loeb Music Library

The Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library’s Fall 2019 exhibition, Tree of Life: Cosmology and Environment in Yakutian Epic, features highlights from the Eduard Alekseyev Fieldwork Collection of the Musical Culture of Yakutia, 1957-1990. On display until Friday, January 24th are photographs and personal effects that document fieldwork in Yakutia (also known as the Sakha Republic) in the second half of the twentieth century by the ethnomusicologist Eduard Alekseyev, who was born there in 1937.

Dressed in a grey suit and holding a microphone on an extension stick, Eduard Alekseyev sits in a crowded auditorium. The date and location of this photograph are unknown.

Undated photograph of Eduard Alekseyev performing fieldwork. Image courtesy National Library of Sakha

Yakutia is located in the circumpolar region of Russia, straddling the Arctic Circle. Its capital of Yakutsk has the reputation for being the coldest city on earth. Dr. Alekseyev’s recordings of musical life in the region capture religious and cultural expressions of Sakha identity/nationhood that have survived Soviet repression, urbanization, and climate change. Also on display are musical instruments crafted in Yakutia and other locally made birchbark and metal handcrafts.

The Eduard Alekseyev Fieldwork Collection has been fully digitized and is available to stream. Among the different musical genres represented in the collection is olonkho, sacred epics sung by a narrator who differentiates between characters by alternating song and recitative. The texts traditionally describe a cosmography of lower, middle, and upper worlds, with the sacred tree, or tree of life, characteristically a larch, bridging across the layers. In the recordings, you will hear the khomus (also known as a mouth harp, jawharp, or Jew’s harp), the diungiur (shaman’s drum), and the bayan (button accordion). The collection also features musical traditions of Crimean Tatars recorded in Kiev, Ukraine. Listen here to Yegor Trofimovich Leveriev sing Siine tuhunan Toiuk (Song about the Siine River) in 1979, one of 689 freely available audio tracks in the collection.

Co-curated by Harvard graduate student Diane Oliva and Music Library staff member Christina Linklater, this exhibition marks the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, bringing special attention to indigenous language collections housed at Harvard Library.

The exhibition also details the process of preserving and digitizing sound recordings. Nineteen-sixties recording technologies relied on acetate and polyester audio tape reels and VHS PAL videocassettes: highly vulnerable for decay and breakage, these magnetic media are typically prioritized for preservation and reformatting. The original cases have been retained, which contain Alekseyev’s own annotations.

This reel case features handwritten notes by Eduard Alekseyev.

Loeb Music Library, AWM RL 16254

 

The Music Library holds several other audio and audiovisual fieldwork collections that capture musical expression around the world:

Lowell H. Lybarger Collection of Pakistani Music Materials

Stephen Blum Collection of Music from Iranian Khorāsān

Lara Boulton Collection of Byzantine and Orthodox Musics

James A. Rubin Collection of South Indian Classical Music

Marie-Thérèse, Baroness Ullens de Schooten Collection (Iran)

Kay Shelemay, Collection of Ethiopian Music

Richard Kent Wolf Collection of Fieldwork (India)

Virginia Danielson Collection of Field Recordings of Muslim Calls to Prayer

This post was contributed by Diane Oliva, a candidate for the PhD in historical musicology at Harvard University. Diane Oliva is the May-Crane Fellow of the Loeb Music Library for 2019-2020. 

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