Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review--Catch Me if You Can

Song Catchers
In Search of the World’s Music
By Mickey Hart with K.M. Kostyal
National Geographic (2003)

I found this gem at Village Books in Bellingham, Washington. I wasn’t planning on buying any books, but then I made the mistake of checking out the arts section in the store. Tucked in with the music theory and Rough Guide to Classical Music, I found Song Catchers (In Search of the World’s Music). I made the mistake of picking up the book and turning each lovingly crafted page portraying both the history of ethnomusicology and recording devices as seen through the passionate eyes of Mickey Hart.

Grateful Dead drummer/ethnomusicologist, Hart caught the anthropological bug early in life when he found a recording of African pygmies at his family home. He delved into this secret world without knowing where it would lead him later in life. And similar to the other famous song catchers he mentions through the book, (Frances Densmore, John and Alan Lomax, Moses Asch…), he caught himself in a race to save the world’s indigenous music before it disappeared in the din of this technological age. Ironically, technology (digital) is also involved with transferring decaying tapes and wax cylinders for future generations.

Hart writes with both a passionate eye and a compassionate heart. He asks shouldn’t the royalties of recordings go back to the original source, after all he cites that we are stealing other people’s music if we don’t compensate the musicians of that culture. I agree. Hart begins with, “Music expresses who we truly are and links us with the infinite universe; it is the orphan echo of the Big Bang that blew us into existence. It gives shape to our thoughts and feelings, things we can’t express in words, turning spirit into sound. Music is the path the spirit travels between the physical and metaphysical worlds.”

This concept then launches a journey that begins in the Victorian Age with the anthropologists and song collectors of that time, as well as, the newly invented recording equipment of that era. And readers are introduced to key players who invented new technology and who collected songs from people rapidly losing their culture, language and music. As we know some of the song catchers record the original source and archive it, while others such as Kitka (women’s choir from San Francisco specializing in Eastern European polyphony music), collect, preserve and perform music. And it wasn't for musicians such as Hart, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, etc... would we even be listening to world pop?

Most important world music and many traditions we take for granted would not be around if someone had not placed their faith in it, validated its importance and recorded it for posterity. Hart mentions in the book how the Grateful Dead benefited from the Lomaxes preservation of blues and folk music, and so have pop, rock, and other types of musicians. And in fact, the blues can be traced back to West Africa. So can the banjo. Old European dances from the renaissance and baroque periods still exists in the traditional music of Latin America and other former colonies of European nations. When we casts out our nets and dig up the roots, we find that music has a huge universal story to tell us. And Hart and his co-writer Kostyal provide us with a starting point.

The breadth and scope of this book amazes and entices me. There was no way I could walk away leaving that book on the shelf.  I highly recommend this book, which can be purchased at discounted prices.

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