Q&A: "Songcatcher" Pioneer on Musical Heritage

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 16, 2003

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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?

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