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Published: 2004/03/30
by Jesse Jarnow

Caribbean Voyage: The Field Recordings – Alan Lomax/various artists

Rounder Records 82161-1733-2

The most current repackagings of Alan Lomax’s body of mid-20th century field
recordings are homebound projects, accompanied by bulging liner notes
crammed thick with bibliographies, histiographies, and minor dissertations
that barely slide back into the jewel case once removed. They are not, they
seem to say, meant to be taken lightly. They are meant to be listened to in
a comfortable chair in a well-lit room where one can fully pour over the
details that might contextualize these performances back to life. They are
not, on the other hand, meant to be dropped on an iPod and gone waltzing
around town with. But maybe they should be.

"Besides their metrical and strophic forms, they evoke medieval European
themes and characters that never existed per se in St. Barthmy,"
read some of the notes for Caribbean Voyage: The French Antilles,
recordings from St. Barthmy, Guadeloupe, and Martinique that Lomax made
in 1962. These follow a history of drums in the French Antilles. It’s all
very interesting, of course, and even enlightening, but – simply put – it’s
not the way that I (and, I suspect, most people) actually listen to music. I
don’t, for example, think about the technological history of the electric
guitar whenever I listen to a rock band (though maybe I should). Instead,
what I do is listen for hooks, aesthetic moves that plug into interests that
I already have, and try to figure out how the music works within the context
of what I already know.

When I hear "Adolin Do La, Bwa KasWork Song)," recorded in Guadeloupe,
try as I might, I don’t think about it in the context of any work songs that
I know.— either of the historical variety or the ones I sing to myself when
left to my own devices. Instead, I hear it as a multi-part a capella vocal
arrangement, related – distantly – to what The Beach Boys do on "Sloop John
B" (a song, ironically, popularized via another Lomax recording). Likewise,
when I hear "Woulrumming," I don’t count out rhythms (though I’m sure
some people do), but I listen for the sound of the recording, and
unconsciously start comparing it to the dirtily mic’ed beats that Scotty
Hard has skilled up for Medeski, Martin, and Wood.

There is nothing wrong with Rounder’s releases of Alan Lomax’s field
recordings. If anything, they’re entirely right. But their
presentations as definitive objects can be off-putting and frozen-feeling,
implicitly dangling the threat that they will lose all meaning if stripped
of their liner notes. That’s just not true. Watching a foreign movie in dumb
show without subtitles can be enlightening. It’s not a matter of being
culturally naive, either, because we are frequently culturally naive even
about our own country. How much does one really know about what facets of
culture will last and what won’t? The point is, if one really cares about
music, it probably doesn’t matter.
Dissected global histories are important and whatnot – to figure out how
wars started, to figure out where things went wrong (or right) – but, in
terms of art, the best and purest that one can take out of anything is the
personal. Alan Lomax’s recordings are valuable because they can make one
listen to music and understand different things that music can be, different
ways it can push at boundaries (and even perceive those boundaries to begin
with). The most common lullaby in Guadeloupe (such as the 19-second "Dodo")
can be structurally sublime to American ears. And how. One can listen as a
historian, a music fan, or both. In any event, it’s good.

It also leads to the question of just how this music should be
packaged. I have no idea. This information is important and should be
documented, for sure, and there are probably as many ways to represent as
there are people who want to hear it (admittedly a number lower than it
should be, but still surely with some weight). And, hey, that’s okay too.
According to the liner notes, there are over 150 projected releases in
Rounder’s current Lomax program. By the time they get to the end of that
cycle, it’ll be time to start again with even more bitchin’ remastering, new
packaging, and fresh liner notes reflecting the latest scholarship. ‘Til
then, there’s this.

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