Perfect Sound Forever


kora and gravichord
Kora (Senegal, Mandinka peoples, ca. 1955) and Gravichord (made by Bob Grawi, late 20th century)

Interview with curator Ken Moore
by Jason Gross

PSF: What was the intention of the exhibit?

It was to show parallels and adaptation and continuity of African tradition in the Americas- how the Africans managed to adapt and redefine themselves and their music in the various situations that they found themselves in. It might have been that they were escaping or becoming Maroons and going up into the mountains or having to adapt to new materials. It's really showing how these adaptations took place and they continue in history. That's why we have older things appearing next to very, very new things in the exhibit.

PSF: What were the parallels that you found between the societal changes and the changes in music?

Religion changes, for one thing. It's very important to the Africans and they would hold on to certain religious beliefs. Those got changed in the Americas because in the South and in Central America, the Catholic Church believed in the idea of syncretism where they combined 'pagan' (African) deities with Catholic saints and celebrations. A lot of the African musical traditions got associated with some of the Saint days and celebrations that would also take place then. That's an adaptation that's seen specifically in a lot of the Afro-American religion and that's something the show centers around.

PSF: In the African culture, music was an integral part of all aspects of life. How do you think that changed for the Africans when they were brought here (the Americas) as slaves?

It depends where you are. The United States was very different from what was happening in other places. For instance, the Maroons, in Surinam who escaped from the coastal plantations into the interior, were from all over Africa so you had lots of different religions combining. Some religions, especially from West Africa, predominated in the Americas. In these interior communities, you have West African drums used with Central African drums- they were being used in their practice of religion. Certain deities were refined. Certain drums would have decorations of some of the deities on them, like snake designs.

Other than religion, there are military aspects. In South America, Brazilians used the berimbau and the basket that goes with it in a stylized form of a martial arts dance that you would find in Angola. In the New World, it became a dance because martial arts cannot be practiced in these big plantations. So it became a dance that was fooling the plantation owners and giving them a false sense of security. Other than music, there are other traditions that are carried over such as cooking. It's not just music.

PSF: With the recent interest in 'world music,' do you think that there's now more of an interest to study the African traditions that were adapted here?

The music community, specifically ethnomusicologists, has been exploring these things for a long time. Exhibitions of musical instruments are difficult for museums though. Museums are discipline driven. When you study music, you don't study museology, which is the aspect for caring and displaying objects. Art majors and anthropologists don't specifically study music. You have this area where people are collecting musical instruments because it's part of the material culture and because, in many cases, they are beautiful works of art. Yet, they may not know the music and how the instruments relate to the society. Because of that, in the past, it's been difficult to present musical instruments in a contextual way.

Also, musical instruments are not just to be looked at- you want to hear them and play them. That's an interpretative problem that you don't get in other areas. For instance, you see a chair in a museum and you know how that's going to be used. A musical instrument, on the other hand, is used and played a number of ways and in a number of contexts. It might be a symbol of something else like a hunting horn symbolizing a hunt. To help with that, we made the exhibit very text-laden to give context and provide an acoustic (tape) guide also.

In the last few years, those barriers have been broken down. Hopefully my colleagues and myself can make some headway by giving some context of what these objects are about.

PSF: What do you hope that people will come away from the exhibit thinking or getting from it?

My first hope is that people realize that everybody makes music. They make it in their own way and we can all share in the richness of other peoples' musics and share in the richness of our own music. I think that's what 'Enduring Rhythms' shows- how mainstream society has been influenced by a minority society.

Also, hopefully people will understand that cultural diversity is good (laughs). That's something that is one idea that I have as an agenda. That's my own personal way of looking of things. If you just look at construction techniques, that's another thing about musical instruments that's fascinating for people to look at.

There's also the idea that there are wide varieties of possibilities of making sounds that can be used in music. I think when people look at rain sticks or some of the rattles that are in the show or the tap shoes, maybe people wouldn't think of them as musical instruments. But from my point of view, these are musical instruments.

PSF: What's the legacy of these traditions and instruments on today's society?

Certainly the African and African-American influences on the music of the Americas have made themselves known worldwide. Everybody is emulating it. Afro-pop music has a continuous influence on all sorts of music all around the world. It's interesting that in the Americas, that what comes out of what was a totally suppressed environment comes out with such vitality and in such unique and different ways in the Americas. The rhythm and the dance have just really saturated our culture. You can't go anywhere without hearing these African influences whether you're standing in an elevator listening to muzak or if you're going to the Philharmonic and listen to 19th century classical music. You'll hear influences that are African. It's something that in our culture today, you can't get away from. It's always there.

Also see: a tour through Enduring Rhythms and Ken Moore's descriptive notes about the exhibit.