Peter Was a Fisherman

by

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from http://www.mustrad.org.uk:

Peter was a Fisherman (Rounder CD 1114)

Melville and Frances Herskovits recorded the selections included on Peter was a Fisherman, in 1939 in a village in Trinidad.  The 34 tracks on the CD include a number of song styles ranging from primarily African songs sung in Yoruba to Creole/European quadrille and reel songs.  The range of songs recorded helped Herskovits to theorize a spectrum of African influence in American music, from music with high African content (usually religious music) to music with only trace African content (usually European forms with some African rhythmic sensibilities).

Listening to this collection of songs, I got the feeling that Herskovits was more interested in how the elements of the music fit into his ideas of African retention in the New World than in the experience of the music itself.  While a number of the songs are pleasing to listen to and most are fascinating examples of early Trinidadian musical traditions, I found the songs lacked the energy, the vibrancy, of those found on the Lomax CDs.

This may in part be due to the poor nature of the recording equipment Herskovits used, but I wonder if there isn’t some other explanation for the monotonous and sparse sound of much of the CD.  Perhaps the musicians felt uncomfortable performing for this foreign couple, or in front of a microphone?  Perhaps Herskovits hoped to isolate certain themes in the music and therefore insisted on a simple presentation?  Who can say?

Five of the more historically important songs on the CD are sung in Yoruba by Margaret Buckley, a 70 year old woman who was the daughter of Yoruba speaking parents.  While these songs are undoubtedly interesting, particularly to linguists, the use of Buckley’s son as a single backup drummer results in the loss of much of the rhythmic complexity that might otherwise have been present if the normal three drum orchestra found in most Yoruba music had been used.

Some life can be heard in the sankeys of the Spiritual Baptists, or Shouters, who are the resident Black Protestants of Trinidad.  Sankeys begin as European style hymns and then transition to an African-American musical style know as ‘trumping’, which is a series of rhythmic groans and shouts – hence the name ‘Shouters’ – that can lead to spirit possession.

The Creole/European music forms, which include a number of reels, quadrilles, and carnival songs, seem to survive the poor technical quality of the recordings a bit better than the forms with greater African content, perhaps because they depended less on drums or large groups of voices, which tended to distort the sound.  Ine Ine Katuke, sung in the untranslatable ‘Wild Indian’ tongue, and When Me Baby Born, O are both nice examples of these Creole forms.

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