Ethnographic Sound Archives Online brings together previously unpublished historic audio recordings and their supporting field materials, opening new paths for the study of music in its cultural context. The collection brings together 2,000 hours of audio recordings from field expeditions around the world, particularly from the 1960s through the 1980s—the dawn of ethnomusicology as a codified discipline.
Building on their predecessors’ early sound collecting methods, ethnomusicologists began to fill in gaps on the world music map, traveling to field sites to record and document music in its broader cultural context. These collectors’ bodies of work contain some of the most comprehensive surveys of regional music on record, including Mark Slobin’s survey of Afghan music, Nazir Jairazbhoy’s survey of classical Indian music, and Hugh Tracey’s survey of southern and central African music.
The practice of going into the field to “collect” music dates to the early 20th century, as innovations like the portable phonograph enabled sounds to be recorded on wax cylinders. In response to a growing commercialized music industry, and tied to the Romantic Era notion of disappearing cultures, early field workers such as Frances Densmore and Alan Lomax traveled to remote areas to document and preserve everyday songs and language. By the 1960s, sound collectors began incorporating theories and methods from cultural anthropology—and ethnomusicology as an academic field of study was born.
Music is tightly woven into society and culture — it accompanies rituals and dances, and fills social spaces. It is the goal of the ethnomusicologist to document sound in this broader context, so field recordings are often accompanied by film footage, photographs, handwritten notes, and records of the larger soundscape. Where possible, the audio in this collection is presented along with its contextual materials, totaling more than 10,000 pages of field notes and 150 hours of film footage, re-creating music’s relationship to its cultural context in a digital space.
Content is published in cooperation with archives such as the World Music Archives at Wesleyan University, the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University, the International Library of African Music, the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford, the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology at the Institute of Indian studies, and the Okinawa Island Archive at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, University of Manchester.
Archival curation is approached as comprehensively as possible, with the inclusion of full boxes, folders and series where possible. The Alexander Street platform enables users to mimic a live archive research experience in a digital space. Content and metadata are presented in original finding aid order, with box, folder and document organization maintained in digital form. In cases of missing documents, dummy records and metadata will point researchers to the original source.
I never returned to Afghanistan [so] the material presented in this project is something of a fly in amber....The tragic history that has flooded Afghanistan with waves of violence, civil war, and external intervention began with the Soviet invasion of 1979 and shows no signs of ending. Some of my collaborators were killed by various regimes, … causing great disruption to a music culture that has only partially rebounded since the defeat of the anti-musical Taliban and the American intervention of 2001.Mark Slobin Professor of Music Emeritus, Wesleyan University
The collection should appeal to students of African American culture, history, literature, folklore, education, and religion. The lack of detailed documentation is frustrating, but also creates an aura of discovery around listening to these recordings, of being forced to decipher the sounds themselves, and of wondering who might still lay claim to these recordings as their family’s or community’s or institution's heritage. Our hope is that by releasing this set of recordings to a broader public, we can 'crowdsource' the work of returning these materials to their diasporic source communities, discovering its connections to living people and communities and institutions and musical practices, and allowing these mysterious old sounds to be reanimated through their rediscovery.Aaron Fox Professor of Ethnomusicology and Director of the Center for Ethnomusicology, Columbia University