In this episode of Material Memory, we talk to experts at the Amistad Research Center who are working to digitize the audio field recordings of African-American academic and linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner. His work established a connection between the languages of West Africa and African Americans living in the low countries and sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia. We listen to some of these recordings, discuss their importance, and hear how they bridge the distance between time and place.
Photo: Lorenzo Dow Turner makes recordings in African village. Lorenzo Dow Turner papers, Anacostia Community Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Lois Turner Williams.
Joy Banks: Hello and welcome. I’m Joy Banks and I’ll be your host today on episode two of Material Memory. We hope that you’ve been enjoying our season so far. This season, we’re talking with a variety of individuals working to provide greater access to indigenous language materials through digitization of audio and audiovisual items. On this episode, I chat with staff from the Amistad Research Center, housed on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Brenda Flora: Hi, I’m Brenda Flora. I’m the curator of moving images and recorded sound at the Amistad Research Center.
Lerin Williams: My name’s Lerin Williams, I’m a master’s candidate in Ethnomusicology and a graduate assistant at Amistad Research Center.
Joy Banks: Brenda and Lerin have been working to digitize recordings of African-American academic and linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner.
Joy Banks: Welcome to you both. I’m so glad that you could join me today as we talk about your project. If you want, just sort of give us an introduction to the projects and the work that you’ve been doing.
Brenda Flora: So we’re working on the papers of Lorenzo Dow Turner. Turner was an African American scholar and linguist known as the father of Gullah Studies. His 1949 publication, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, established a connection between the languages of West Africa and African Americans living in the low countries and sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia. So our collection contains a number of field recordings that Turner conducted throughout the United States, as well as in Brazil and West Africa. So we’ve digitized these recordings and we’re working on creating descriptions so that we can make all of these materials available online, digitally.
Joy Banks: How many different languages do you think are represented on the recordings?
Lerin Williams: Well, they’re definitely, represented: there’s Yoruba, there’s Igbo, there’s a dialect of Igbo called Ijebu. There’s Portuguese. There is some Vai. Off the top of my head, those are the primary ones that are most prevalent in the recordings that I’ve done descriptions for so far.
Joy Banks: So, Lerin, your work that you’re doing is really, you’re getting to listen to the different recordings as they’re digitized?
Lerin Williams: Yes, this is a dream come true. I have been trying to just follow in his footsteps for the past seven years. He basically innovated the way that people approach the study of language. So he was the first African American linguist ever in the country, and so the way that he approached it, he created everything from scratch. So he pulled together different fields of scholarship and inquiry. So he’s using some Africanist theory. He’s using native speakers. He’s using social sciences theory, and primarily people who are not just European, but also from the Caribbean and from African countries. So he was a huge innovator in that regard.
Joy Banks: There are a lot of people that did field recordings during this time, but it sounds like there are certain things that really set him apart in the work that he did.
Brenda Flora: I think so. I think part of it comes from just a genuine interest and wanting to find out what the roots of this connection was. He had some students when he was a professor at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg who were Gullah speakers and hearing them talk to each other, he kind of realized that there was likely a connection between the language they were speaking and the languages of West Africa. But in the United States at that time, people just saw it as a version of English or corrupted English. And he was really—it was important to him to prove that it was more than that and that the people who were brought to the United States and Brazil as slaves had retained enough of their culture and enough of their language that that still existed in the 1920s, 1930s, when he started studying.
Lerin Williams: And the approach that he took to record, he would specifically try to get elders and people between their 40s and their 60s to interview, so you’d get a difference in vocabulary with their, what their colloquialisms were, and he also made a point to get people from different social classes, so there was a variety and diversification in who his ethnographic subjects were, which was another approach that was quite different from what ethnographers were doing at the time. He was also able to establish a relationship that was deeper than what other scholars were doing at the time because they were predominately European or white and they were coming in with an air of superiority. So part of that assumption that it was just broken English comes from a superiority complex of not being able to view that type of linguistic uniqueness as something on its own merit and as an individual type of knowledge production that deserved to be elevated and studied on the same levels as other languages.
Joy Banks: That’s really fascinating to have that sort of insight into the pursuit of collecting and documenting these different languages. So how is it that your institution got this collection? How did it how did it get there?
Brenda Flora: Well, this is a collection that was for sale up in Chicago at a rare books dealer. And one of our long-term donors purchased it for us and donated it to our collection.
Joy Banks: Is it just the recordings that you got or did you get anything else?
Brenda Flora: It’s also extensive papers. And we have some of his original recording equipment that he brought with him. Lots of photographs and other materials related to the recordings and to his career.
Joy Banks: Is it typical that institutions would also get equipment from someone who did field recordings like this?
Brenda Flora: It’s actually pretty unusual that an archival institution would keep the equipment. That’s more of an area of museums. But in this instance, it’s so closely tied to his work that we just thought it would be an important thing to keep because you have to picture him going out into the field recording people. And we’re not talking like a little handheld microphone or something like you would see today. He had large, large pieces of equipment weighing hundreds of pounds that he would have to figure out how to ship internationally or, you know, how to bring the people to the place where he had the electricity to do the recordings. And it kind of just puts a little, a little context to the work that he was doing to collect these recordings.
Joy Banks: I just think it’s so cool that you’d have his recording equipment.
Brenda Flora: Me too! The Rio de Janeiro stickers all over it.
Lerin Williams: It’s amazing. Honestly, I mean, I love the recordings themselves, but that was one of the biggest—when she asked, like, the moment for you—when I saw his recording equipment—because I’m an audiophile—like, I flipped out. It’s so large and so bulky and it’s just so hard to imagine somebody traveling by boat, like from place to place, like, oh, well, I’m here until Friday. Let me see if I can hop over to the next city and come back with all of this …
Brenda Flora: like 400 pounds, or whatever.
Lerin Williams: It’s crazy. I mean, it’s just like, before I came into ethnomusicology, I thought I wanted to be one of those song catchers that carry the bulky material, and then I saw it in person. I was like, I got to work up to it.
Joy Banks: Yeah, well I think things have gotten smaller, although maybe we need to go back to wire reel recordings, right?
Brenda Flora: Still something good now.
Lerin Williams: Right! I’m one of those people, though, who would totally get one. Like, I want to get one.
Joy Banks: And did you say when was his sort of primary activity? When did most of these recordings take place?
Brenda Flora: The recordings that we have range from the early 1930s to the early 1950s. So that encompasses the time when he was teaching at Fisk University and also at Roosevelt College in Chicago.
Lerin Williams: Yeah, and he was the first African American teacher to ever be hired to teach at Roosevelt as a all-white institution.
Brenda Flora: He was also the first African American member of the Linguistic Society of America, and one of the first 40 African Americans to earn a PhD. One thing I just thought was interesting about Turner’s career trajectory was that he never … it wasn’t until after he published his seminal work that he was actually able to visit Africa and connect those dots more directly. And he brought recordings that he had made in the new world to Africa and played for them and made the connections between the speakers and the Gullah speakers, which I think is really exciting. And just that the work that he did laid the groundwork for so much future work to come in Creole studies, African American studies, Gullah studies, dialect, geography. He was really the first in many different ways and changed the landscape of what came after him.
Joy Banks: Wow, that is a lot of firsts.
Lerin Williams: He was the first at almost everything.
Joy Banks: So Lerin, I can tell that you are really excited about working with this collection. But how did you get involved with this project?
Lerin Williams: Honestly, I had [written] a proposal to do independent research with this collection already and I’d been emailing and coming into the archives, just badgering and bothering people to see when these recordings would be made available. So, months before they were actually digitized, I was, “Oh, well please email, let me know, please email let me know.” I presented a proposal to some other executive director of the archives and then I received an email from Brenda, and it was like, “Hey, we got a CLIR grant and there’s enough funding in here for a graduate assistant to create descriptions and metadata on this collection. And I’m writing my thesis and have multiple jobs and I was like, hmmm, do I have 20 hours a week? I’m just gonna make it happen. Thank you so much. Like I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t believe that the opportunity presented itself. So thank you, Brenda, for e-mailing me with this opportunity because I would have … I was planning on doing it for free, so …
Joy Banks: Well, I’m glad that you were around and in the forefront of their minds.
Brenda Flora: But this is one of those instances where—I have a background in audiovisual material, I know about that—but as far as the linguistic specifics of it, we really wanted somebody to come in and be able to listen to the recordings and do some translation and categorize everything properly. So the collection, access to the collection, is only as good as the descriptions that we can create. So that was why we wanted Lerin on board.
Joy Banks: Do you speak multiple languages, Lerin?
Lerin Williams: I am conversationally fluent in Portuguese. I am learning Yoruba, but I mean, I don’t even know if I would consider myself a beginner. I think I’m earlier than that, like “baby’s first words” kind of situation. I can pick out some things. But I definitely have approached linguistics from the phonetics, syntax, patterns, inflections—those are the same systems that Lorenzo Dow Turner used because he wasn’t fluent in all of these languages yet. Throughout his studies, he took it upon himself to identify different scholars who studied Ga, Twi, Efik, Ewe, Fon, and Yoruba, and he studied under those people and created his own system that would later be used when people created the Peace Corps so that it was just like the way that he established the system, would lay the foundation for how people decades later would learn languages. So I’m following in those footsteps.
Joy Banks: That sort of draws us into the clips that you shared with me and I loved the combination of the two of you, I think, in these clips—between the interest in the languages that they included, and then also from a very technical standpoint, I think they told a story of the importance of preservation.
Brenda Flora: Lerin selected the clips. So do you want to just work your way through and talk about why you chose those?
Lerin Williams: I would like to prioritize the last one and spend the most time talking about that one because, even though there’s English translation, there’s this phenomenal backstory of who Martiniano Eliseu do Bonfim is as a person. And so I’ve really wanted to have an opportunity to elaborate on that one.
Joy Banks: So can you tell me a little bit about who is speaking on these two clips?
Lerin Williams: So Senhor Martiniano Eliseu do Bomfim was born in 1859 in Bahia, but his mother was born in Nigeria and his father actually purchased his mother’s freedom. And so she was raised in Nigeria, in a city that no longer exists, and then taken to Lagos, and then from there she was sold into slavery. And when she arrived in Brazil shortly thereafter, his father was able to purchase her freedom. So later on, his father sent him back to Nigeria. And he was able to study English at a missionary school in Lagos for six or seven years and then go to a trade school and become, in Portuguese they call it, a pedreiro, but is something like a carpenter who works with stone, building structures, and then he also painted walls. But what’s most fascinating is that he was he was fluent in Yoruba, he was fluent in Portuguese. He was also fluent in English, as a result of his studies in Lagos, Nigeria, when he was growing up. When the beginnings of Afro Brazilian studies came to be, there was this huge rush to focus on questions of authenticity: What’s the most authentic manifestation of identity in Brazil? And one side is kind of fighting this African origin, but the other side is really trying to elevate it as something truly unique. And so they’re trying to create a museum. There was this Afro Brazilian Congress that the first one happened in Recife in 1934. And then there was one—and that was Freyre who led that congress. In 1937, Edison Carneiro, he led the Afro Brazilian Congress in 1937. So this is the first time that Afro Brazilian spiritual leaders acted and spoke, defining their own identity and their own culture in a scholarly context at a scholarly congress. And the 1937 one, because Edison Carneiro was a journalist as well as a sociologist, he was able to get all of this word out. So it was attended by over 3,000 people. And at that congress, Senhor Martiniano Eliseu do Bomfim, he presented a paper that was published on Afro Brazilian and Yoruba identity. So you have this really progressive movement in scholarship, where the ethnographic subjects are no longer subjects. They’re in a space where they’re able to articulate and define for themselves. And it’s really interesting because at the same time, police officers and military—police military units were arresting people and for having these religious practices at the same time that there are these national congresses elevating the inherent value of this culture. They’re being arrested for just their cultural practices and traditions. So he, Martiniano Eliseu do Bomfim, was a major spokesperson for religious freedom and the rights to govern themselves and not have a police entity enforcing restrictions on their religious practices.
[Clips 1 and 2, not transcribed]
Joy Banks: So tell us a little bit about this first clip in Yoruba.
Lerin Williams: So the first clip in Yoruba talks about where he was born. It’s a little bit of a brief autobiography. He talks about the year he was born. And in that spiritual tradition, they’re given Yoruba names. So he announces his Yoruba name, the Yoruba name of his father, and the Yoruba name of his mother, as well as introducing a little bit of his intellectual upbringing.
Joy Banks: So then the second clip that you sent, that also has Senhor Martiniano on it. What was the sort of background on that one?
Lerin Williams: That’s the English side of it, so the first clip is in Yoruba and the second clip is in English.
Joy Banks: OK, so they go together.
Lerin Williams: Yes. The intention was that they’d be playing back to back. So you can get a sense of his language acquisition and fluency, because he wasn’t really able to travel. Once he returned to Bahia, he wasn’t able to travel back to Nigeria for years and years and years. So the fact that he was able to maintain his Yoruba and English speaking facilities says a lot about the extent of his own desire to have that tie to his culture and to be able to represent it, to educate others in his spiritual community, and then also to share it with other scholars who wanted to know more about the culture and the value of Yoruba presence in Bahia and in Brazil.
Joy Banks: Was English prevalent in Brazil at that time?
Lerin Williams: No. This is only in the context of American and—scholars from America and scholars from Great Britain coming to Bahia in the late thirties, early forties to conduct research. But there were enough scholars in place that if someone was coming into town and they didn’t have a handle on the Portuguese language, then there would be someone who could serve as a translator for them. Lorenzo Dow Turner did not speak Portuguese.
There are letters of correspondence of him expressing his frustration with people speaking very quickly. But there are also evidences where he is very intentional, taking five classes of Portuguese a week, staying and being in a residence where there was only Portuguese being spoken. So he was very intentional about trying to get a handle on the Portuguese language.
[Clip transcript]: I was in Brazil, Bahia. The place that I born. I born in 16 October of 50. Eighteen fifty. Fifty nine. Yes. And my father got in me and put me in the school first class. I’ve come out from school there. Then my father takes me to Lagos, West Coast of Africa, the place they call Nigeria. I’ve been there 11 years and nine months. Before that, my father, he leaves me in this school. When I come out from school in the first class, I’ve been at grammar school. I’ve been there. A few, little time. Besides that I go to learn another trade as a mason. And when l lived (as) a mason, I worked for a little time in Lagos then my father called me for Brazil. When my father called me for Brazil, it was when my father died…
Joy Banks: Now, this is the one this was originally an aluminum disc, and I noticed at the very end of the clip that there was distortion that was captured in the digitization process.
Brenda Flora: So that’s pretty common with aluminum discs. There was a common format to carry to for field recordings instead of a deep groove. It just etches a lighter scratch on the top of the record. So it’s very prone to getting scratched and they’re very difficult to clean as well. So they’re prone to dirt and debris damaging them.
Joy Banks: Do you think—I imagine that people thought aluminum was probably a good idea because it’s metal and it’s sturdy as opposed to like a wax cylinder or something like that.
Brenda Flora: Right. When you think of other fragile formats that can get dropped and shattered or delaminate as they age, it really is a pretty robust format. So you can see why they used it.
Joy Banks: But it had a lot of problems.
Brenda Flora: But it had a lot of problems.
Joy Banks: So the next clip that I think would be interesting to talk about is the one that was the wire reel recording, or maybe it wasn’t on a reel, but it was a wire recording of the Igbo dialect? Is that [pronunciation] correct?
Lerin Williams: No—Igbo [corrects pronunciation]. So I am not fluent in Igbo; I know less Igbo than I know Yoruba, but it is it’s really tonal as well. They share that in common. So again, from a linguistic perspective, looking at the tonality, speech patterns, syntax, it’s very interesting to listen to how they convey storytelling. The clip that I selected is very reminiscent and representative of a type of storytelling found in Yoruba culture, called Alo, and it is where a storyteller or a narrator speaks. And there is one short song where the narrator sings, and then there’s a choral response, and that appears intermittently between the narration of the story. And so it can be about daily life and experiences in the culture. It can have a moral of the story. It can be more of a folktale. But there’s usually a lesson to be learned at the end of it. So that’s why I selected this clip, because it’s a really good example of that style of storytelling.
[Igbo clip not transcribed]
Joy Banks: Of the clips that you sent, this was really the clearest audio that existed, and I found that to be very interesting as a wire recording.
Brenda Flora: Yeah. And some of those wire recordings we got back were crystal clear. And it’s kind of impressive that they lasted that long. I guess just a little background about wire recordings, it was before other magnetic media like cassette tapes or reel-to-reel tapes, they would record directly on a thin steel wire on a spool. So it’s a magnetic recording, but there it’s very, very thin wire. And they’re susceptible to tangles and they’re susceptible to print-through, which is when you hear an echo in the background on the recording, so that some of our recordings, I think that’s probably present in. But we were very, very excited to get the recordings back and hear just how clear they were because we didn’t know what it was going to … because another problem with wire recordings, one of the biggest concerns, is that there’s not playback equipment readily available for it. So it’s sort of a high preservation risk to get those transferred as quickly as possible, but for the same reason it was—we had never listened to any of them and we weren’t sure what we were sending out when we got the recordings back. So we were very happy.
Joy Banks: Well, that seems to be a risk for a lot of these audio materials that you don’t know until you send it out or try to play it.
Brenda Flora: Right. That’s part of why we’re working so hard to get these descriptions done too, is because when you look at a blank record or a cassette tape with no label, you have no way of knowing what’s on the on the recording without playing it through. So that’s a high preservation risk and a high concern for intellectual control, too.
Joy Banks: the last one that you sent was a Creole song. So did you want to talk a little bit about that?
Lerin Williams: Well, in trying to anticipate a potential question … I thought that one of your potential questions might be regarding whether Creole languages could be considered as indigenous languages.
Joy Banks: I would love for you to talk about whether Creole can be considered indigenous languages.
Lerin Williams: So, if the criteria of an indigenous language pertains to a linguistically distinct system of symbols and forms of expressions shared with a specific group of people, Creole languages are definitely indigenous languages. When you think about who determines what languages get elevated or what is watered down with a—really, it’s a colonial tie that it’s always being compared to and included with instead of being treated within its own merit. You start to think, OK, why isn’t it held to its own on its own? Why isn’t it regarded in the same way that other languages are? And so if you speak to members of a Gullah Geechee community, they maintain it’s their own language. And there are a lot Yoruba; the way that is spoken now in Brazil is just inherent to there. The Yoruba that’s spoken in Nigeria is completely different. So if someone from an older generation heard some of the words, they might be able to decipher and identify them. But a native Yoruba speaker today would not listen to the way that it appears in obviously religious and sacred contexts and heard in the songs that they would not readily be able to identify it as the same Yoruba spoken in Nigeria. So that is another way that we can note that it is very distinct, regional among the shared group of people. And that to me—those are the main markers of an indigenous language. So to me it is.*
Joy Banks: I appreciate that you brought that up because—and I think that in the framing work that the U.N. has done for this year—they’ve allowed a much broader definition for indigenous language that I think is telling, itself, that this is about the people, right? It’s not about some textbook that tells us things.
Lerin Williams: Exactly.
Joy Banks: So then the last clip that you sent ….
Lerin Williams: Sure. Miss Hosanna. Sometimes the descriptions are tricky to read because it’s his own handwriting. And as you can imagine in the field, he’s just scrambling to transcribe as many hours as possible before he has to hop on a plane or a boat to get back. He often traveled by boat. So, Miss Hosanna:
[Krio clip not transcribed]
Lerin Williams: I believe this recording was done in Freetown, Sierra Leone. And the language is Krio—K R I O—as opposed to the way it’s written on the description. And it is audible—but you have to strain to hear it—but I loved the timbre of her voice, the inflection in the melodies, the melismas. There was a rhythm to it that was very reminiscent of the Caribbean. So I think it kind of demonstrated the story of the creation of Krio language and culture a bit. You know, the amalgamation of Jamaican and Great Britain, Nova Scotia freed African people of African descent coming together and creating this new space and new cultures. So that’s a clip that I thought represented the most, even though you have to strain to hear it.
Joy Banks: Well, and that I think it sort of moves into a conversation about the importance of the preservation of all of these and at least trying to get something. It’s like I just ask, well, let what’s the point? Why are we trying to do this? Why try when the audio is not perfect?
Brenda Flora: I think because the importance of the record being there. And just like Turner was trying to race time to collect this older dialects that were no longer in use and find the elders in the towns who remember the most knowledge, it’s up to us to get it all in a position so that it’s available to people for generations to come now, while the recordings are still playable. And sadly, we’re hitting a point where a lot of them are becoming unplayable very quickly.
Lerin Williams: To add to that, I think another reason why it’s so important to digitize these recordings is because, at least with this particular collection of recordings, you can actually hear in a context where there was still colonial occupation in certain countries, this huge effort and push of an intrinsic method of passing knowledge down. So, Lorenzo Dow Turner also, when he was in Abeokuta, Nigeria, he visited language schools and grammar schools and documented not only professors reciting proverbs, tales, singing songs, and riddles; he recorded children and the way that they would recount these. And so you have concrete documentation of the ways that people maintained, protected, and guaranteed the continuity of their culture in these recordings. And so maybe those systems can be reproduced now by having these available. Maybe this is a mode of knowledge production that can be recreated globally and with indigenous languages and with all of these different languages that we have here. That’s why I think it’s so important.
Brenda Flora: And also, when we’re talking specifically about these international collections, the idea that we can make it available digitally and make it available online so that it reaches a wider audience, including the countries where these recordings were made: we think that’s very important too.
Joy Banks: And that seems to be a conversation that’s happening a lot about a lot of collections that are related to different cultures, and I think there’s two questions here. One: there’s conversations happening about the way that these collections were made, but it sounds like Turner really took a much different approach than maybe some of the other peers that were around at the time doing field recordings where he saw these languages as living, as opposed to some of the other linguists who thought they were documenting the end of a culture.
Brenda Flora: And I think he was also just respectful of the people that he was working with. He made sure to compensate people for their time, buying groceries or paying them a small fee. So I think part of it is just approaching people as an equal and as a person, which I think probably allowed him to get a lot more access than other linguists might have.
Joy Banks: Well, and, maybe even more genuine recordings.
Lerin Williams: Right. And there’s even documentation of … so, of course, being a scholar and being a member of different linguistic societies, he did have relationships with other scholars who wanted to know what his findings were. So either they were providing funding for his research or whatever. So there was a time where he invited someone—and it’s documented—that one of his ethnographic informants was just like, why did you bring this white person here? Like, that’s documented as one of the experiences that he had. So that speaks to the level of trust and the kind of relationship that he had with people to where it was like, OK, well, I see you as this. We can share these because it’s names. It’s … some of this is very sacred. You know, some of this is something they kept just among themselves. That’s why it lasted and was preserved for so long, because there was such outer dismissal of the significance and the value of their language. So, not saying that that is why it was held so closely, I think it had an impact for sure. And so they knew linguists in the past who had come to talk to them were dismissive of the way that they spoke and published that it was rudimentary. It was this crass, you know, sort of people who didn’t have the intellectual capacity to learn proper English, like that’s how they were spoken about. So I wouldn’t feel so inclined to be forthcoming with my language, knowing that that’s going to be the result of an academic inquiry—that it’s someone being dismissive entirely of my culture. And Lorenzo Dow Turner also made a point, to, in addition to compensation, he made sure to get native speakers [translators] from Africa. This is the timeline where a lot of countries were [starting to] gaining independence and he was part of a Pan Africanist movement. And this is again part of the transnational knowledge production piece, where when students would come from different African countries, he made a point to establish educational programs so that they were the ones doing translations and teaching Vai, Ga and Yoruba and Efik. So he worked personally with them and made sure they were paid. And they were students; they weren’t in a position to get grant funding per se. He struggled himself getting funding to publish his book and to travel to these different places to help bolster the findings of his research, and he knew—the whole time he knew—he just needed the resources to be able to get there. And I think in projects like what we’re doing here, making these documentations available for people in other countries, it’s an opportunity for people to have access and to self-publish and to be in positions where they can utilize this information to … even from a person who belongs to that community, to that ethnic community—a native speaker. Now they’re able to write something with insights that someone like myself or someone from England or France or whatever, they don’t have the same level of insight. But they also don’t have the resources, so it’s a means to provide access that otherwise wouldn’t be available.
Brenda Flora: But also then a means to provide richer scholarship surrounding the recording so everybody wins.
Joy Banks: So do you anticipate that you’ll have many access restrictions on these recordings? Is what you have sensitive, especially in light of the trust that the individuals had with Turner?
Brenda Flora: One thing we talked about early on in the project was kind of noting if it was a religious ritual or something related to faith, because we want to make sure we’re sensitive around those issues. But I don’t know, have you flagged anything as …?
Lerin Williams: I need to flag a lot of things because there is a lot of material. That’s the thing, especially in the Brazilian context of Yoruba presence, it’s very inundated with sacred songs. There are Yoruba words for different elements that are directly pertaining to faith [customs and traditions]. And if you do a little more digging into the scholarship of the time around the 1930s, like around 1936, 37, 38, when people from the Brazilian elite class were starting to put out more and more articles and publish regarding Afro Brazilian spirituality, they wanted to publish everything and they went to the heads of these religious temples. They would go to them and just say, OK, give me all the Yoruba [words used in] recipes for all of your sacred rituals. And it’s like, no, you can’t do that. That compromises your faith, that compromises your position with your community and that, you know, depending on your belief system, I mean, that’s endangering yourself and everything that you’re standing for and creating. So that’s a real issue.
Brenda Flora: So we’re working our way through the first level of digitizing them, preserving them, providing access to a wide range of people, but hopefully that will just continue to expand as more people use the collection and can provide us with more information about the materials as well.
Joy Banks: Are you doing the metadata in multiple languages?
Lerin Williams: That was what I suggested before we started. That was one of the first suggestions I made. That’s like the first conversations we had about this in creating it. And it’s like that’s a goal. We’re working on it. I don’t know when it’s going to come about, but we’ve definitely discussed creating the metadata in multiple languages, especially the predominant languages that were his ethnographic subjects.
Brenda Flora: I would say that’s the ideal for all of our multi language collections.
Joy Banks: Do the infrastructure and software systems that you have in place allow for that, or would there have to be significant development in order to implement a multilingual metadata process?
Brenda Flora: Well, we haven’t implemented it yet for any of our collections. We have, as far as I know, anyway, we have—we’re primarily operating in English. So I think it’s something we would have to explore.
Lerin Williams: Just on my personal computer, I have all of the different accent marks and notations for Portuguese, but I don’t readily have the ones for Yoruba available. And so I don’t know if that’s something I need to download or if it’s a larger program thing. I’m not sure. That’s something for the near future that I’m trying to—that we’re both trying to—figure out.
Joy Banks: You’re not alone.
Lerin Williams: I hope everyone’s on board with it. It would be, it’s just such a resource. And that’s … it should be that way. Everyone should be able to access it. But even more so, the native speakers of who’s documented because the relevance and the identity and just the resonance that it can hold for people who whose cultural heritage has quite violently been stripped away. I think it’s important to center those people and provide—in any way, shape, or form we can—that connection. And I think that had something to do with Turner’s never-ceasing emphasis on making sure that he could provide these tangible measures to connect these communities.
Joy Banks: So we’re coming up to the end of our scheduled time. What might be the one thing— whether it’s a recording, or an interaction with a user, or some other experience that you have had through working with this project—that has been the most exciting or the most impactful to you? Big question.
Brenda Flora: Well, I can answer your question for me, at least. For me, the most exciting moment of this project was when we got the first test recordings back from the lab and I listened to them for the first time and got to hear those voices from 1930s wire recordings, you know, recorded far away from where we are, in a far-away time. And it just bridges that that distance between time and place. I found it very exciting.
Joy Banks: Had you ever been able to listen to any of these prior to that?
Brenda Flora: No. We never listened to any of them. So that was … we didn’t we didn’t know when we got the recordings back off there would be anything on them or if it would be too muddled to hear anything. So it was very, very exciting. And here’s Lerin.
Joy Banks: Can you choose just one?
Lerin Williams: I literally cannot choose just one. I mean, every time I press play, it’s just—because I’m also a musician, I’m getting a masters in ethnomusicology. So everything I listen to, is just fireworks going off. I mean, it’s … it’s just phenomenal that that much was preserved. I mean, the first time I pressed play and I heard the quality of the sound and the fact that the majority of them have that level of audibility and clarity. That was really impactful because I had no idea recording technology could last that long because everything today is created in a way so that it’s obsolete. So you have to purchase and purchase and purchase. The fact that I can hold his notes in my hand and listen to these recordings and look at him scribbling down syntax and oh, this word means this. And this song is with regard to this tradition, all every single thing, every single day. Like, I can’t really choose one.
Brenda Flora: And I think it’s one thing to be able to read a book about a subject, and then something else to read a book by somebody who’s been there and done that. Something else to read something they hand-wrote. But something about audio recordings and moving images, too, where you’re actually hearing the voices—you just feel connected in a way that can’t be replicated.
Joy Banks: Yeah, well, even listening to the clips that you shared with me, I don’t speak any of the languages, but to hear a voice from the past and just, yeah, there’s something about audio that is different.
Lerin Williams: It’s transcendent. You’re literally transported to that time period, to that place. It is just, it’s great. I think it’s really important to add just like a larger framework of linguistics and ethnography. And the question of historical memory and cultural heritage. Because despite having scholarship and archival records, there’s such a disparity in representation of who has access and who’s able to conduct these studies in the first place. And then there’s also legislation put in place that is directly contributing to the genocide of the cultures that we’re talking about here. I mean, right now there’s an 88 percent increase in wildfires in the Amazon than there was last year. So I think when we’re having these conversations of this being a year of indigenous languages, we have to think about what that looks like in terms of application. It doesn’t have to just be a symbolic valorization. It should be a very tangible, measurable valorization so that things are put into place and people are actually protected and not continuously displaced, removed from their homelands, and their actual ways of life prevented from continuity.
Joy Banks: Yeah. And I think that was one of our hopes in sort of joining this conversation that has been happening this year. And if we can do anything to help broadcast work that was done in the past and work that is being done now to make a difference for the future, that is something we’re always interested in doing. But the more that we can have these conversations and the more that we can talk about it and then also do practical application, which is the important last step, Lerin, you’re right that it’s not just talking about it. It’s doing something about it, too. Is that a nice ending point?
Lerin Williams: I could keep going, but that was a very nice closing remark.
Joy Banks: Well, thank you both so much for your time and the conversation. And I’ve just really enjoyed talking with you.
Brenda Flora: Thank you so much for having us.
Lerin Williams: Thank you; yeah, this is a great conversation.
Joy Banks: Thanks so much for listening to our episode. We hope that you’ll join us on episode three when we’ll talk to staff at the Duke University Libraries who will share their journey through a restoration project to save recordings from Radio Haiti, which was a voice of social change and democracy that advocated human rights and celebrated Haitian culture and heritage. We also hope you’ll stick around for the full season of Material Memory, and do be sure to rate, review, and subscribe.
More information on today’s episode, including show notes, transcript, information on our guests, and links to their projects, can be found online at material-memory.clir.org.
CLIR is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning. Learn more about us at clir.org.
To learn more about preservation efforts happening in your area and ways that you can contribute, visit your local library, archive, museum, or historical society.
Material Memory is produced by CLIR, with the assistance of Ernesto Gluecksmann, Christa Williford, Kathlin Smith, and Lizzi Albert. Our audio engineer is Benjamin Green. Our theme music is by Poddington Bear.
I’m Joy and I’ll see you next time on Material Memory.
*Note by Lerin Williams: It is important to note that there are diverse ethnicities within what is considered a Pan-Yoruba identity today in Nigeria. These ethnic groups have their own linguistic and cultural traditions. The term Yoruba to describe the broader designation of people from the region became standardized and more widely used around the era of British colonization in Nigeria, beginning during the nineteenth century
Behind The Mic
Joy Banks is program officer for CLIR’s grant team. She helps manage communications, outreach, and assessment activities for the Recordings at Risk, Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives, and Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives programs. She is the author of The Foundations of Discovery: A Report on the Assessment of the Impacts of the Cataloging Hidden Collections Program, 2008-2019, published in 2019.
Brenda Flora is the curator of moving images and recorded sound at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. She holds a master’s degree in film archiving from the University of East Anglia and is a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and the Association of Moving Image Archivists, where she currently serves as co-chair of the Advocacy Committee of the Board. She has been with Amistad since 2010 and has completed several grant-funded projects including projects funded by CLIR, the National Historic Publications and Records Commission, and the National Park Service.
Lerin Williams is a master’s candidate in ethnomusicology at Tulane University. She has worked as a graduate assistant at the William R. Hogan Jazz Archive and the Amistad Research Center. Her ethnographic fieldwork in transnational knowledge production, oral history, cultural heritage, and linguistics has taken her to Brazil and the Caribbean. She has interned with the Louisiana Museum of African American History, and participated as a member of their Martinique delegation. Williams’s scholarship in ethnomusicology is concerned with community-led approaches to the preservation and continuity of material and intangible culture.