September 28, 2009

Library restores 1930s voodoo music recordings

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The chants, drumbeats and rhythms transport the listener to a different time and place. It’s the West Indies during the mid-1930s. It’s Haitian voodoo.

For the first time, you can hear these unusual, historic recordings, made by the late Katherine Dunham, thanks to the Special Collections Research Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Morris Library. Dunham, who died in 2006, achieved worldwide acclaim as a dancer, choreographer, songwriter, author, educator and activist.

But, she was also a trained anthropologist and while doing her graduate fieldwork in Haiti in the 1930s, she recorded voodoo music on Edison wax cylinders, a sort of precursor to records. The library acquired some of Dunham’s papers and about 60-70 of the recorded cylinders, each with two or three minutes of music, according to Pamela Hackbart-Dean, director of the Special Collections Research Center.

The Dunham recordings have been in storage at the University since the 1960s, in their original wax cylinder format, unheard, she said. Now, thanks to modern technology, digitized versions exist for 45 of the recordings and you can listen to them. Hackbart-Dean said Julie Mosbo, preservation librarian, directed the project to bring those old recordings to life. George Blood of Safe Sound Archive in Philadelphia transferred the sounds from the fragile cylinders to a digital format.

The original cylinders are back in storage for safekeeping but you can hear clips of what is on them online at Just click on any of the audio tracks and it will bring up the details about the recording. Then, to hear a small sample of the recording, scroll across the white bar under the title and the words “Access This Item” will appear. Click there and hear for yourself.

You can also enjoy the complete recordings by visiting the Special Collections Research Center on the first floor of Morris Library. The center’s Reading Room is open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“Libraries talk a lot about our ‘hidden collections.’ We don’t like that they’re hidden and we’re doing all we can to ‘un-hide’ them. But, doing so poses significant costs and some very real challenges. These recovered sound records of Ms. Dunham’s are a fascinating and intriguing example of a hidden collection. They represent an extraordinary, unique and completely irreplaceable component of music history that we estimate no one has heard for about 75 years. Their inaccessibility was compounded by their wax cylinder format -- a format outmoded by newer technologies. The high sensitivity and natural deterioration of this media compounded the challenge. We are lucky to have recovered the musical content in time for future researchers to hear,” said David H. Carlson, dean of Library Affairs.