Michael Nielsen points to a really interesting 2004 post by Ethan Zuckerman at My Heart’s in Accra about the song “Sweet Lullaby,” its tangled origins and history, and the challenge that “field recordings” now present as both cultural and legal objects.
“[F]ield recordings” have gotten a great deal more troublesome in recent years. My friend Bernard Woma is one of West Africa’s leading balafon players…. In the mid-1990s, one of the best ways to hear Bernard play live was to visit him at Nandom House in the Mamobi neighborhood of Accra. After church on Sundays, Bernard and friends would drink pito (a homemade millet beer), eat bean cakes and play traditional Bewaa-style xylophone music. One Sunday in November 1996, Mark Seidenfeld approached Bernard and asked for permission to make a field recording of one of these [informal Sunday afternoon] sessions. Bernard, nice guy that he is, agreed.
On one of his subsequent trips to the US, Bernard’s friends told him how much they’d enjoyed his new CD, “Live at the Pito Bar”. Seidenfeld had gotten in touch with John Zorn’s Avant record label, who, fascinated by the polyrhythms of Bernard’s playing, agreed to release the album. The resulting CD credits Seidenfeld as the producer, Zorn as executive producer, assorted engineers and associate producers… but doesn’t list Bernard or any of the other performers. Oh, and Bernard didn’t get paid, either. Nor did he given permission for the recording to be released commercially.
Perhaps the folks at Avant/Disk Union assumed that, as a “field recording” of “traditional” music, they had no obligations to the performer. But… Bernard’s got a website, a hotmail address and a teaching position at SUNY Fredonia. And while Bernard plays in a traditional style, many of the pieces he plays are original compositions…. And the liner notes imply that the unique sound of Dagara xylophone is the product of pito-fueled drunken frenzy, rather than the product of a sophisticated musical culture.