November 27, 2006

SIUC researcher digitizes Amazon music recordings

by Sun Min

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- More than 20 years ago, anthropology Professor Jonathan D. Hill ventured to Venezuela to study the music of the Curripaco, an indigenous group of people living in the upper reaches of the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River. It was the 1980s so Hill captured the sounds on cassette tapes.

Soon the Southern Illinois University Carbondale instructor will digitize those recordings as part of a special project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.The organization recently awarded $350,000 to Hill and seven other scholars from across the world to participate in the "Archiving Significant Collections" project at the Archives of Indigenous Languages of Latin America at University of Texas at Austin.With the older recordings in hand, Hill will make several trips to Austin in the spring to digitize hours of musical performance, secular and religious rituals and chanting, all made during his fieldwork in the Amazon. Once digitized, organizers will place the sound files on a Web site along with supporting documentation such as transcripts, translations, photographs and notes. "The goal is to make these recordings accessible to scholars, historians, anthropologists, linguists, folklorist and indigenous people," Hill said.

The heart of the collection includes recordings of naturally occurring discourse in a wide range of genres, including narratives, ceremonies, oratory, conversations and songs. Transcripts and translations in Spanish, English, or Portuguese accompany many of the recordings.

The works contain a wealth of information about Latin American indigenous cultures as well as knowledge about the natural environments in which the people live.

For many scholars who have only read about the music, the experience of hearing the recordings will be equivalent "to having a light turned on in a dark cave," Hill said. overSIUC researcher digitizes Amazon music recordings page 2As an anthropologist, Hill is especially proud to be a part of this project because he believes the music transformed the indigenous communities. "The music brought people into the human social world," he said.

Hill earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology and music in 1976 from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in anthropology from Indiana University in 1983.

For more information on the archiving project, visit

Enhancing the culture of research and scholarship is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.