Tuesday, October 23, 2007

ReServe at Work at the Association for Cultural Equity

“It still remains for us to learn how we can put our magnificent mass communications technology at the service of each and every branch of the human family.”
— Alan Lomax, anthropologist of the performing arts and founder of the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE),1960

“Lomax hoped that cultural equity, the right of every culture to express and develop its distinctive heritage, would become one of the fundamental principles of human rights. ACE’s mission is to facilitate cultural equity through cultural feedback, the lifelong goal that inspired Alan Lomax’s career and for which the Library of Congress called him a Living Legend. Cultural feedback is an approach to research and public use that provides equity for the people whose music and oral traditions were until recently unrecorded and unrecognized. Cultural equity is the end result of collecting, archiving, repatriating and revitalizing the full range and diversity of the expressive traditions of the world’s people — stories, music, dance, cooking, costume.”
—from the ACE mission statement

Susan Tobin sits at a round table at the Association for Cultural Equity offices, located in the MFA building at Hunter College in Manhattan. Measuring her words as she speaks, as if to make sure that each corresponds suitably to her intention:
“Part of it is detective work—I like that.”

She is an Englishwoman, a longtime U.S. resident, and a ReServist. Her accent lends her an air, as accents sometimes can.
Susan is on assignment, contacting former collaborators of the legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, best known for his pioneering field recordings of indigenous music in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. She is archiving their stories for use on the ACE Web site, at the Library of Congress, and elsewhere.

ACE’s Executive Director, Anna Lomax Wood, observes that in the context of her new work here, Susan’s manner is prized as another form of specialized knowledge. “A lot of the people we contact are quite elderly,” Anna explains. “It’s good to have someone like Susan, of a certain experience and manner of address, to be able to talk to them, rather than someone with a tendency to be more casual, or a little brash in their tone. It makes a huge difference.”

Lomax’s collaborators were ethnomusicologists, performers--many of them both, and more. “Some of them might have been professors,” Susan explains, “very well respected in their fields. Some of them were not.”

“These are people who have been unsung, whose contributions can be brought to the forefront,” Anna explains.

A great portion of the profile writing for the Web is done by Peter Stone, another ReServist (pictured). “I was trained as a classical composer. I’ve done professional academic research, I taught music history, I’ve been a freelance writer about music—liner notes, articles for newspapers, magazines, that sort of thing. For ten years I was a production editor at CBS Sony Classical as it morphed through various stages. Researcher . . . musician. Teacher! Both scholarly and popular.”
He pauses. “And editor. That’s about it. And production manager.” He almost picks up listing again, “As well as taxi driver . . ,” then laughs.

“As someone who used to listen to folk songs,” he says, “almost automatically when I hear the term ‘folk song,’ I still think, ‘Oh those English folk songs that come out of the Appalachians.’ But here, it’s not just that, not even just the music of the South, but the Caribbean, Italy . . . it’s broader than it may seem. Someone going to the Web site has these ‘Eureka!’ moments. ‘Oh! There’s so much dance involved!’ When we think of folk songs we normally don’t think of dance.”

Through the work of the Association for Cultural Equity, the ideas and innovations of the elder members of these societies are now being disseminated more freely than at any other time in human history. Through institutions like the Library of Congress and innovations like the Web, Susan and Peter are making sure these performers and storytellers will find their audiences, young and old, at home and abroad. The time has come that the full scope of their accomplishments can be felt all over the world.

“Actually, I was an archivist. If I had all kinds of time and money I would get my Ph.D. in history!” Susan says. Fortunately for culture mavens and just plain music lovers, she passed over dissertating, and went straight into disseminating ideas in the name of cultural equity.