Rare Indigenous Music Recordings Go Home Again

Gary Shapiro
June 18, 2013

Most archives are designed to accumulate material. One collection at Columbia is working to give some of its holdings away. In a twist on the sometimes bitter disputes over cultural repatriation, Columbia’s Center for Ethnomusicology is enthusiastically returning a rare trove of traditional music to a Native American community where it was recorded decades ago.

The return of recordings and publication rights to the Hopi community in northeastern Arizona is part of a larger effort by the Center to work with indigenous communities including the Hopi, Iñupiaq and Navajo tribes, to develop new resources from Columbia’s archival materials. “Unlike repatriation that is treated as a transaction where something wrongly taken is given back, we treat repatriation as a relationship of reciprocity that should continue indefinitely in a spirit of respect, gratitude and mutual interest,” said Aaron Fox, an associate professor of music and the center’s archivist. It is directed by Ana Maria Ochoa, who is also an associate professor of music. The Hopi recordings were made in the 1930s and ’40s by Laura Boulton, who traveled the world for 50 years recording the music of tribal peoples. Her four decades of field recordings, contained on over 2,500 tapes, were purchased by Columbia in 1964. They make up the bulk of the Center for Ethnomusicology’s holdings and are housed at its Laura Boulton Collection of Traditional Music, with copies at the Library of Congress and Indiana University.

Boulton died in 1980. “Songs are containers of knowledge,” said Trevor Reed, a Ph.D. student in ethnomusicology in the music department and a member of the Hopi tribe, who is leading the Hopi repatriation project. “Seeing indigenous people connecting with voices they never thought they would hear is part of what makes this the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.” So far, Columbia has returned more than 100 songs to Hopi descendants. Many in the Hopi and in other Native communities trace their ancestry to performers whom Boulton recorded decades ago. In recent decades, battles have raged involving the return of looted artwork and artifacts or human remains to indigenous owners or places of origin. Songs and dances, since they can be recorded and shared, present different issues. “Everyone can benefit,” said Fox, who called the process of repatriating songs one of “collaborative curation.”

Columbia is developing a digital platform to work in partnership with Native communities to decide how the archival material will be used and preserved. Supported by a $136,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Fox has worked with elders, artists and educators of the Iñupiaq on the North Slope of Alaska to repatriate Boulton’s recordings, photographs, and field notes. Fox and his colleagues have sent CDs of Iñupiaq songs to numerous descendants of the original performers, which in turn has set off a remarkable burst of creative activity. The recordings inspired a group of young musicians and dancers in Barrow, Alaska, to learn and perform the traditional songs. Their group, the Tagiugmiut Dancers, has gone on to become a very large and successful dance group with over 70 members winning the 2007 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics contest for drum-dance groups. And the Iñupiaq rapper Aku-Matu (Allison Warden) has sampled the field recordings to make beats for contemporary performances with animal masks, including one she did last year at Davis Auditorium on Columbia’s Morningside campus. Repatriation of Columbia’s Navajo recordings came about through an unusual coincidence.

The sister of a Columbia M.F.A. film student, Nanobah Becker, bought a Folkways recording of Navajo songs and took it to a family gathering in Albuquerque, N.M. The family recognized their ancestor’s voices, and looking at the liner notes and conducting Internet research, they learned that Columbia housed one set of the recordings. After the family contacted the Center, Fox emailed Becker—who was working in the same building that he was. He went down-stairs to meet her and recalls her saying, “My grandfather and great-grandfather are on your shelves.” Becker told The Record, “I feel very lucky and blessed that these songs aren’t lost.” She has played them on her laptop for her young nephew, who is able to sing along.

With his Native American background, Reed is ideally suited to bridge the gap between the Morningside classroom and the Hopi community. He is Hopi on his father’s side and a mix of Welsh, Irish and Swiss on his mother’s. “Repatriation is a way to reclaim our ancestors voices and allow them to speak in a new context for the benefit, this time, of our people,” he said. Nevertheless, Reed said he sometimes feels more distant from his Hopi community than he’d like. This summer he is back in the Southwest working to repatriate additional recordings to Hopi villages and the Zuni Pueblo. (Some Zuni songs are on the Hopi recordings.) He may also teach music composition at the local high school and hopes to host a Hopi call-in radio show. He’ll have little competition: “There’s only one station.”