Q&A: "Songcatcher" Pioneer on Musical Heritage

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 16, 2003
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with audio captions by author target="_new">Mickey Hart >>

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Pioneer ethnomusicologist Henrietta Yurchenco has spent over 60 adventurous years recording songs and stories around the world. She's studied pre-Hispanic music in Mexico and Guatemala, and recorded in Spain, Puerto Rico, Columbia, Ecuador, and Morocco among that nation's Sephardic Jews. Yurchenco herself says of her incredibly long and fruitful career, "You have to understand, I've been around since the Dead Sea was still sick."

Always she has sought not only to preserve world music, but also to explore music's role as an expression of basic human emotions and socio-political issues.

Currently Professor Emerita of the City College of New York, Yurchenco continues to lecture, broadcast, and issue recordings from her collections. Her memoir is entitled Around the World in 80 Years: A Memoir—A Musical Odyssey. Recently she spoke with National Geographic News about her experiences, philosophy, and the crucial importance of preserving the aural heritage of music and song.

You've had such an incredible career, how did it all begin?

To tell you the truth, I think that most of the things that happened to me in life happened with absolutely no plan whatsoever—just a set of funny circumstances.

When I was working at WNYC I was introduced to music from around the world, because everyone came to WNYC. I played artists like Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, and I also played music from all around the world. I was curious, you know, just plain curiosity.

One of our friends, the great Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo, called my husband and I and said 'We're driving to Mexico, do you want to go?' We did. We drove from New York to Mexico and it changed my life

It was in Mexico where you first began field recording of remote tribes?

Yes, because of a chance letter from the Library of Congress. I was doing radio programs for the Inter-American Indian Institute—which was the first with a real commitment to the indigenous populations of the Americas. Dr. (Manuel) Gamio, the head of that institute, said "We've received a letter from the Library of Congress. They'll send equipment and a little money. Are you interested?"

I almost bit his hand off. I said, "I'll do it!" He was telling me about sleeping on the ground, long trips by animals, deadly scorpions, etcetera but I wasn't listening. I didn't care. That's what I did for the next two years in Mexico and Guatemala.

Were the practical aspects as difficult as advertised? Dealing with cumbersome early equipment for example?

My God it was a horror. The machine that the Library of Congress sent me cut discs, because this was pre-tape. People have asked me, "You went so far into those remote areas with just one recording machine?" One machine? I was thankful to have one. Where was I gonna get another one? Or a backup microphone? At one point the cord broke when we were way into the mountains. My photographer was with me on that trip and he just held it together with his hands. He stayed absolutely still, didn't move an inch and it was a perfect recording.

On most of the trips we had a big car motor for power. We had to carry gasoline, the machine, and the aluminum or even steel discs. That's all we had so we just hauled it everywhere. The only thing that really terrified me was deadly scorpions. It's not comfortable sleeping on the ground when you know those things are around—but it was a great adventure.

Some places I had help from missionaries, some places I was alone with 200 pounds of equipment. Don't ask me how it worked sometimes.

How difficult was it for you to understand the culture of these remote communities? The songs don't exist in a vacuum.

When I was in Mexico I visited some very primitive and isolated people who had had no contact with mainstream society for many years. I swear I saw animal sacrifices and curing ceremonies that were thousands of years old. I discovered what there was of pre-Hispanic music and dance at that time among 14 different tribes. After some of the recordings these people died and the younger people did not really learn the stuff.

That's all ritual, that's more public, you understand? People in the field have to be very careful because they're told things but shouldn't believe them. You have to look behind the words. Informants might tell you what you want to hear, or not tell you something that the community won't want you to hear. So you have to be very careful, and really observe. There's an old Spanish saying that if you really want to understand a people you look in two places—the kitchen and the bedroom. That's true.

How are you able to do that as an outsider with a lot of recording equipment?

First of all it was easy because, as you've no doubt noticed, I'm a woman. So I'm not threatening and they did not regard a woman as threatening. Secondly, I never asked direct questions. Anthropologists go into the field with questions. I didn't, I just went with hugs and kisses and asked "Will you please sing for me?" When you ask about music it means, "She's interested, she likes me, she respects me." And I've never met a people who didn't respond to that.

The Yaquis for example, who were known as very warlike tribe, were absolutely marvelous. They were poets; their stuff was gorgeous. I said to the chieftain, "I want to get the words for all these songs"; he said, "We'll come together before you leave and we'll write it all down so you get it right." Well the entire tribe came to this little community center, babies, women, grandparents, everyone. We sweltered in there, it was 100 degrees, but we got it all down.

You had to be a good listener. I've sat on many, many a porch with women of all kinds and colors and just asked "So what happened after that?"

Was the lack of a common language a problem?

I never found that there was a distance between them and me, because I didn't understand their language. To this day I travel to one area of Mexico that has a rich musical heritage. I've been going there since 1942 and the wife of the main Indian composer there doesn't speak Spanish. Every time she sees me we just hug and she kisses me and cries. They know whether you respect them and you don't need words.

It's better to use music than bombs to win friendships. When we were in Morocco the last time most of the Jews had left for other countries. We were sitting in Tangier in a café and a little ensemble was playing Arabic music. I went up to them and I said, "We are musicians from New York." They got up, gave us hugs and kisses, and said, "Please sit down and we'll play for you." It's a wonderful bond. There's nothing more emotional than the arts and music.

There's a voice to be heard through that emotion as well?

The song to me is the basic human expression. It tells you things, or avoids telling you things, or disguises things, but you have to look at what it means.

There's so much study of folk music and typically there's not much study of the words. It's like going to the opera for many people and they don't have the ghost of an idea what it's about. They just hear the music. But if that's what the composer had meant he would have just written, you know, 'Blah, blah, blah." Music itself tells you things but so do the words. You have to look at the meaning.

There's a very famous series of folks song which (Spanish composer) Manuel de Falla arranged for the piano and for voice. He tampered with them and made them into a concert series. The first song talks about a piece of cloth in a store that has a stain on it, and for this reason it will have little value. Now, the song is not really talking about a piece of cloth but a woman who loses her virginity and has no value in the marriage market. You say to yourself, "Ah, ah that's what they are talking about."

You've always been attuned to the political aspect of music as well.

I'm concerned with more than music. I'm concerned with the society, with the people more than anything. When I hear popular music I have to consider the social and political things that are going on in order to understand it. It's the same with any music around the world but that fact is very often neglected.

I'm not a romantic; I'm political. These romantics say "We must preserve the precious culture." But at the cost of poverty and ignorance? Is that what you want? That's what it means. Life changes and with modern communications, roads and infrastructure a lot of things will disappear, of course. But maybe people's lives will be better—I don't just talk about music as if it were surrounded by a moat or something.

Why is the work of field recordings important, and why is it important to preserve and distribute these voices of the past 100 odd years?

It's our history. We have a written history. There are books for political history, the formation of nations, political and social struggles. But music is one of the most intimate expressions. Through music you become knowledgeable of the intimate aspects of life that aren't told in books. It's important because the people themselves tell you; it's not someone's interpretation. History books are written by the victors, but songs are the people's own words and melodies. That what makes music a very powerful tool to understand people.

Related Web sites:

Mickey Hart's Web site
Save Our Sounds: America's Recorded Sound Heritage Project
The Library of Congress American Folklife Center: The Center and its collections encompass all aspects of folklore and folklife from this country and around the world.
Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage: The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage promotes the understanding and continuity of contemporary grassroots cultures in the United States and abroad.

Related Stories:

"Songcatchers" Document World Music
Q&A: Mickey Hart on New Songcatchers Book
Rural Irish Speakers Fight Influx of English
Explorer on Initiative to Document Cultures on the Edge

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