What? No Sitars?

Apr 7, 1999 at 12:00 am

Back in the days before the funding of arts research had to pass a Jesse Helms test, Alan Lomax was touring the globe documenting and archiving the folk art music of vanishing traditions. In 1962, Lomax’s travels brought him to the Caribbean where he went island hopping in the Lesser Antilles with his tape recorders, microphones and speaker cabinets, searching for living musical history.

Most of these areas were still part of the British Empire but were preparing for self-government, and Lomax saw this as an opportunity to document a portion of their history and give it to the local powers-that-be as an audio testament to the beginnings of a new alliance, a West Indian federation. The unified government never happened and, until now, the results of Lomax’s work had never been released in their totality.

Rounder Records is to be commended for taking access to this valuable cultural resource out of tight academic circles and making it available for the ethnic history rank and file. The result will be a multivolume set – three discs have been released so far – placing slices of bygone folk traditions into coherent units that, taken together, are a record of what happens when various peoples in diaspora meld traditions to form new ones.

There is a substantial population, in Trinidad and throughout the Lesser Antilles, which is descended from indentured workers brought over from the Indian subcontinent and added to the labor pool. While these people had managed to hold onto many elements of their heritage, there were new strains of music emerging slowly from the mix of cultures blooming in a new homeland. The differences at the time of these recordings were still pretty subtle but, as is made clear in an interview that Lomax had with some local musicians which is tagged to the end of the music selections, they were coming. When he asked if the people still understood the lyrics they were singing, the reply was, "Some of them do."