Fifty-eight field collections. Thousands of unique audio recordings and interviews, as well as film footage, correspondence and ephemera from Native Alaska to Nigeria, Myanmar to Mexico, from Guatemala to Papua New Guinea. For those fascinated by global music, it’s a gold mine. 

And now the Ethnomusicology: Global Field Recordings project from the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive is opening up a window into musical and cultural traditions that not only spans the world but also decades. Scholars the world over — and anyone with access to a UCLA campus computer or the UCLA computer network, including UCLA Library visitors — can dive headfirst into this hoard of musical treasures online. 

More than 60 years ago, Mantle Hood ’51, M.A. ’52, founded the Institute for Ethnomusicology at UCLA. A year later, the archive was christened as the West Coast home for materials dedicated to the study of music in its social and cultural contexts. Today, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music houses the Department of Ethnomusicology — the nation’s first stand-alone department of its kind and also the largest.

One example of both the utility and beauty of these collections is the folk music of the Naxi people of southwest China. In 1988, Canadian photographer and botanist Norman Track made the recordings while he was on an expedition researching local irises. Enchanted by the festival music he encountered in Lijiang — the ancient center of the Naxi homeland — he decided to document local folk music.

The Naxi number around 325,000, and most speak the Naxi language — of the Tibeto-Burman language branch on the Sino-Tibetan family. Although the language is spoken in daily life throughout the northwest Yunnan province, at the southeast edge of the Himalayas, written literacy in Naxi is very rare.

Enter Naxi folk singer He Jinhua, who was a visiting artist at UCLA in 2018. She translated the Naxi-language folksongs into Mandarin, which were then translated by graduate scholars into English. In addition, He provided contextual information for the materials, including the areas around Lijiang from which different versions of the songs originated. Thanks to these translations, we know “Alili” is a joyous call-and-response song that invites listeners to dance and sing along, while other songs praise the government, celebrate the construction of roads, talk of love and blooming flowers, or mark occasions from ploughing to funerals.

“Alili” from the Norman Track Collection

Many ethnomusicologists are interested in documenting the living musical and cultural traditions of marginalized peoples.

Linda O’Brien-Rothe Ph.D. ’75 first arrived in the Guatemalan highlands on Lake Atitlán as a Catholic nun. In the early ’70s, she returned to that region as a researcher and recorded the Tz’utujil Maya population, as part of what remains the only in-depth ethnomusicology study of a highland Maya people.

Her recordings include marimba bands, brass bands, a flute and drum ensemble, violin, five- and six-string guitars, vocals, shamanic prayers and ritual specialists. The majority of the Tz’utujil music that O’Brien-Rothe collected was performed to coincide with rituals and fiestas — including Semanta Santa (Holy Week), a fruit ceremony, processions, prayers and dances.

“Song of the Drowned” by José Sosof Coo

The O’Brien-Rothe Collection also includes photographs and scans of field notes and transcriptions. As a condition of the collection’s publication, O’Brien-Rothe stipulated that these materials be repatriated back to the community where she recorded nearly 50 years ago. Her publisher, as is common with a collection being digitized and repatriated, asked O’Brien-Rothe for an academic home in Guatemala for the materials.

With the nearest university located more than 50 miles away from the remote highland village of Santiago Atitlán, O’Brien-Rothe suggested an elegant solution: a local archive of Tz’utujil traditions. The audiovisual copies reside there, where the whole village can access them — the photos and notes matched with the sole intent of making the materials more easily accessible to the people who were themselves recorded all those decades ago.

As to why the shaman befriended her and agreed to share the old, esoteric musical traditions with her, O’Brien-Rothe remembers, “He said, ‘Because the truth has two parts. One part is the word of Jesukrista … and the other part is the word of our ancestors. You had the first one and now you’ve come for the other one — and I’ll give it to you.'”

Find the full interview on the Ethnomusicology: Global Field Recordings website.