The Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is a melancholy document, charting the 3,000 or so languages that experts predict will vanish by the end of this century. For the most part, ethnographers and linguists are helpless in the face of the gradual erasure of collective memory that goes along with this loss of linguistic diversity.
Kong Nai plays chapei, an instrument used in the Arak ensemble. Photo: Phnom Penh Post
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts of Cambodia plans to seek UNESCO cultural world heritage status for the traditional music known as Khmer Arak, an art form they believe is in danger of disappearing.
Arak originates from animist spiritual beliefs. The music is a ritual form that was thought to drive out illnesses. But as the country adapts to modern medicine, Arak is in danger of dying out, and few young Cambodians know about it.
The Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) Conference in early October 2015 in New Orleans, USA, featured the theme “The Music of Endangered Languages.” It focused on how music and songs can assist in the revitalization and preservation of endangered languages.
FEL Conference Chair Brenda Lintinger, a member of the Tunica-Biloxi tribe, said the conference enabled delegates to share their experiences and solutions with each other “and foster a deeper respect for the cultural differences around the world. It really helps promote harmony among all peoples.”
A few years ago now, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released the ‘Mickey Hart Collection‘ to preserve and further Hart’s efforts to cross borders and expand musical horizons. Many of Hart’s music projects are now available online.
The Collection begins with a set of albums that include those six forming the “Endangered Music Project,” a collaboration between Hart and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress that presents recordings from musical traditions at risk. Here’s one, The Fahnestock South Seas Expedition: Indonesia.
In Hart’s words:
Music is our talking book, our portal to the spirit world. I hope you will enjoy these audio snapshots of my musical journey. Our new technologies are part of a powerful civilization which is rapidly transforming the world around us. It changes the environment, often in ways that endanger the delicate ecological balance nature has wrought over the millennia. It also brings radical change to cultures. Sometimes that change is empowering. But all too often it endangers precious human ways of life, just as surely as it endangers the environment within which those ways of life flourish. This series is dedicated to the hope that with education, empathy, and assistance, imperiled cultures can survive.
Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) has been working since the late 1990s to revitalise the traditional performing arts in the country, since the enormous human tragedies and cultural losses of the 1970s. It collaborates with musicians, communities, and other stakeholders to create an environment where Cambodian arts empower and transform individuals and communities.
These CLA-produced videos are compelling introductions to three musical genres that are still at some risk without intervention.
In a recent edition of the SEM newsletter, Robert Garfias reflected on the issue of music endangerment:
[L]ike biological diversity, species are disappearing, languages are disappearing. And in a sense cultures are disappearing. Every few years somebody dies who was the last person who knew how to do something or other; the last person who did this or the last person who knew this tradition dies. And when that species dies, you can’t reconstruct it, you can’t bring it back. So I’m concerned about the things that are being lost forever. . .it’s terrible to lose something. (in Rice, 2014, pp. 7–8)
As the viability of music genres features increasingly as a topic for (applied) research in our discipline, it is important to keep a close eye on the way we characterize the issue. The words we choose—the rhetoric, the metaphors and analogies—reflect and reveal certain values and assumptions, and for this reason warrant careful consideration. Perhaps even more critically, they affect whether and how we take action against a perceived threat to, or loss of, music genres (for example by supporting communities to reinvigorate intergenerational transmission, secure funding, grow governmental support, or engage the media or music industry).
Culture is barely mentioned in Australia’s latest Intergenerational Report – as was the case with the three preceding it. But the nation needs strong policies to support cultural heritage, including musical traditions, and we need them urgently.
In this podcast (released June 20, 2007), Smithsonian Folkways Director and Curator Dan Sheehy talks about “endangered sounds,” sounds we lose from changing technologies or encroaching globalisation, including musical traditions. Dan reports on what Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is doing to preserve these sounds through their recordings.