In 1936, in the middle of scouring rural America for folk music that might have vanished forever if not for his efforts, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax traipsed off to Haiti for four months with his 19-year-old fiancée and a 55-pound recording unit. The results are only now available for anyone to hear.
Mr. Lomax was out to document the music of everyday Haitians, in whatever form, and to hunt for the influence of African music, as he had in the U.S. A 10-CD box set, Alan Lomax in Haiti, traces how Mr. Lomax moved from the most accessible sounds, such as the dance bands of Port-au-Prince, who had incorporated New Orleans jazz from records imported by occupying U.S. Marines. Following leads around the country, he acquired celebratory carnival songs, work songs, and eventually the music of officially forbidden Vodou (what is commonly known as voodoo) ceremonies.
As the musicians played for Mr. Lomax (pictured at right), his recording device cut sound grooves onto aluminum discs. He produced some 50 hours of sound. But the music was never publicly released. Mr. Lomax rushed on to other places and projects, and when he did revisit the Haiti recordings in the 1970s, the sound quality disappointed him.
About 10 years ago, daughter Anna Lomax Wood helped launch an effort to clean up the recordings. New software minimized surface noise and enhanced the sound. A nonprofit founded by Mr. Lomax co-produced the 10-CD set, which is also available for download and was released this week. It includes film footage shot by wife Elizabeth, whom he wed in Haiti, and a transcription of Mr. Lomax's field journal. --Wall Street Journal
The estate of Alan Lomax, Haitan scholar, and the Library of Congress have joined forces to produce a chronicle of Lomax's 1936 Haitan recording expedition in collaboration with The Association for Cultural Equity. Along with 10 CDs of recordings of Haitian musicians, the set also includes two books. One, the field journal of Lomax and a hard-bound set of liner notes and essays detailing and translating all the songs in the set. This scholarly collection of the American folklorist and ethnomusicologist's work in Haiti will be a special gift for hard-core folk music fans. --Pop Matters
Lomax sonically documented much of American culture in the 20th century, and his work is well-known to students of history. But in 1936-37 he took off for Haiti, and more than 70 years later, what he discovered is finally available to us. The recordings have been miraculously cleaned up, and the results featuring Mardi Gras and Carnival music, choruses of singing children and Vodou ceremonies is haunting, celebratory and just plain strange to 21st-century ears.
Ten discs might seem like a lot of sound to take in, and to be sure, you should take your time to absorb it all. What a remarkable documentation of a long-lost journey. It's the ideal gift for the armchair ethnomusicologist who thought he knew it all. --Denver Post