Our songs

The melodies of culture ring out at Museum of Anthropology exhibit

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Now showing:
Ethnomusicology: Exploring the Melodies of Culture, at the Museum of Anthropology through Sept. 29.

Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology
Meriam Library, first floor
Chico State campus
Hours: Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

I was so taken by last spring’s exhibit at Chico State’s Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology—Cradleboards: Carrying on the Traditions—that I was thoroughly looking forward to the museum’s first of the fall semester, Ethnomusicology: Exploring the Melodies of Culture.

I attended the exhibit’s Aug. 30 opening reception, held in the lobby that the museum shares with the Turner Print Museum next door. (It was a school-year opener for both museums, with the Turner celebrating its new exhibit, New View—Janet Turner Paintings & Scratchboards.)

The lobby was packed with folks hobnobbing and snacking on hors d’oeuvres, but, as compelling as the Turner’s exhibit was, most of the people kept heading into the (already crowded) Museum of Anthropology, no doubt drawn in by the lively sounds of live jazz coming from the trio playing inside.

With its ethnomusicology exhibit, the anthropology museum has outdone itself. For starters, the choice of hiring the band Mood: Swing—consisting of Pam Laughlin on clarinet, Robert Laughlin on guitar, and the marvelous Matej Seda on violin—to provide a live soundtrack to the show was sheer genius. As I stood perusing a section of the exhibit titled “The Roots of Jazz—America’s Music,” looking at black-and-white photographs of such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, the sounds of Mood: Swing playing Earl “Fatha” Hines’ “Rosetta” bathed my ears with the perfect complement to what my eyes were taking in. I saved the accompanying listening station—featuring eight seminal jazz songs, such as Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and Oscar “Papa” Celestin’s “When the Saints Go Marching In”—for a later, less crowded visit.

Ethnomusicology, as we are reminded in one section of the installation, “probes the meaning of musical expression in societies and the relationship of sound structures to the social interactions thereby producing societies as it is experienced and observed.” A shorter definition is also included: “The study of people who make music.”

The exhibit indeed covers the gamut of people who make and have made music, from the colorful video called “Discerning Traditional Music of Jaipur, India;” to the fascinating “Field Work” section of the exhibit that takes a look at the pioneering work of Bruno Nettl, the “forefather of ethnomusicology,” and Frances Densmore; to sections on the music of the Chumash and Huichol tribes; to an extensive section devoted to the late, legendary collector of American folk-music field recordings, Alan Lomax.

Lomax, who was blacklisted by the FBI during the McCarthy Era, ended up spending the 1950s in Europe, where he made many field recordings. Included in the Lomax section of the exhibit is an original album cover of Lomax’s Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree (featuring Scottish recordings, 1951-1957), among other captivating images. Another item is a Lomax-compiled book titled Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, a collection of 150 folk songs from the Depression and the 1930s Labor Movement, edited by Pete Seeger, with song notes by Woody Guthrie. The television listening station showing Lomax’s 1980s series American Patchwork, which featured a variety of regional American-music musicians, is must-see-and-hear stuff.

Exhibit co-curators Heather McCafferty and anthropology graduate student (and trumpet player) Niles Reynolds have every reason to be proud of a job well done when it comes to putting together this absorbing, delightfully interactive exhibit. It is so well-rounded and interesting that it is sure to capture the attention of anyone who wants to get lost in the wide range of musical sounds emanating from the many listening stations or the many photographs, books and other artifacts on display, from the rough-hewn Huichol violin to a jaw harp from New Guinea, to little red steel drum with sticks provided so that guests young and old can join the music.