I’ve written here before decrying the lack of world music sites which feature a broad array of downloads and sell music by the song or record. This site answers my prayers and then some. But it does more, much more. In fact, the download aspect of the site is almost incidental to its larger purpose: education and research.
I maintain an e mail correspondence with Jon Kertzer, whose Best Ambiance radio program runs on KEXP here in Seattle. Between Jon and Doug Paterson over at KBCS, they play some of the best African grooves I’ve heard (and I’ve lived in Los Angeles, New York and the Bay Area and heard some good African music there). Jon’s mentioned a few times that he’s worked on the Smithsonian Global Sound project. It sounded cool so I eagerly awaited its rollout. Finally, tonight on NPR I heard a story about the project’s launch. And glorious it is. If you don’t know about Smithsonian Folkway’s catalogue and you’re interested in world and folk music, you should know about it. It’s a deep, wide and rich repository of some of the most wonderful sounds heard on this earth of ours. This site is not a music etailing site per se (though I wish it was more of that). It’s designers seemed much more motivated and interested in the educational aspect of their mission: to inform the public about the richness of the world’s musical traditions (which is certainly an important goal). Only secondarily does the site offer downloads of music from the Smithsonian Folkways label.
This site does just about everything right and is technologically light years ahead of other online music sites. Have you ever felt gypped by iTunes, MSN Music and other such sites which don’t offer liner notes in any format? Well, Smithsonian makes them available to you in pdf format. Do you detest the DRM encoding used by virtually every online music download site to restrict access to listeners other than yourself? Well, Smithsonian Folkways uses no encoding whatsoever. And here are some amazing technological features that I’ve never seen on any music sites. Global Radio Sound allows you to listen to various radio "programs" of music in the catalogue–entire songs! Finally, and perhaps most amazing is Synchrotext which:
enables recorded oral performance to come alive — in the nuance and drama of its sound, its immediate meaning, and the broader web of its historical and cultural significance. Through Synchrotext you can see and hear presentations of recorded performances enhanced with scrolling transcriptions, translations, and multimedia commentaries.
What this means is that as you listen to a song, Synchrotext displays the lyrics both in the original language and English translation. Each line is highlighted AS IT’S SUNG so you know precisely where the singer is in the song at any given point. You are also able to see bullet points about the cultural, social or musical context of the song as it’s sung. From the description at the site, it appears there are also visual representations of performances within the library. Molto cool! However, only a limited number of songs are presently available for use with Synchrotext.
To give you a flavor of what’s available on Smithsonian Global Sound, give a listen to Masanga by Mwenda Jean Bosco, a Katangan guitarist and popular singer who was a precursor of Franco and the other great Congolese musicians who began their careers in the 1950s and 60s. Masanga was recorded in 1952 just as he was discovered by Hugh Tracey.
Kudos to Jon, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and Smithsonian Folkways for doing something I wish other world music labels and etailers would do more of.
My only slight quibble with the site is that I wish it better considered the marketing of the music offered there. To me, buying world music is like diving into the dictionary when you’re 8 years old: you start out looking for the definition of a single word and 30 minutes later you’ve read definitions of ten words and forgotten to look up the original word that brought you there. It is too hard to search for and find downloads you might want to purchase. You certainly can browse at the Global Sounds site but not terribly easily. There are two main ways to browse, one by geography and one by classes of instruments. I don’t find this a terribly inviting or facile way of browsing. The site is great if you know what you’re looking for. But again, the site is new and this may be a kink that will be ironed out over time.