Daniel Sheehy, 7.12.04
RB: What do you think production is?
DS: Well to tell you the truth I haven’t thought about it much I just sort of do and things happen. I guess if you looking to delineate production from life that’s going to be a little new territory for me.
RB: Well relative to what you do. What is it that you do?
DS: I think a lot of it is brokering. That’s the terminology that they use around here the cultural broker. That’s the title of Richard’s book (Richard Kurin Director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage). That’s a concept that has been around for quite a while. There are different circles that overlap and don’t overlap somehow. One is the institutional framework that one works in. There is usually some sort of mission. Thank god for missions because they help you prioritise. What kinds of things you are looking for what your message that you want to get out should be. That kind of overall framework guides you. What is that kid’s toy that goes click click click all the way down? That is one little metaphor for me about mission. The establishment of mission isn’t click click click all the way down the line. As you go you have a clear mission you can go back and refer to that to help you make your decisions - this artist or that artist, this piece or that piece, this style or that style. Fortunately for me I have managed to land in institutions in which my own personal mission fits very well. To put in a very roughly hewn fashion. It’s two things to get a very grassroots exciting music out to the public, particularly the public in the United States, which is the public I know best. So that they can experience the same sort of excitement the sense of life fulfillment that I had. Being a musician is where that comes from you know you have been in the zone, some people call it the flow some people call it spirituality. I just call it kind of an altered state of consciousness and I think that science at this point in time will jibe with what I have felt for some time now. That’s a very special life enhancing state. Somebody called me and said how do you feel when you play music. I said to them ‘it’s not a feeling it’s a state of being.’ I treasure those moments; that state. The music has taken me there and music speaks to me pretty strongly in that way. Somehow I feel that that is very important for humanity in general. And at the same time (laughs) I can’t contain myself anyway. I can couch it as this is important for humanity but it’s so exciting that I just have to share it with somebody. There’s another side to that personal mission that fits into the institutional missions that I have been in. And that’s been more on the social end of things. I’ve had these transformative experiences really with different kinds of music African music as a performer, Ashanti drumming, rhythm and blues the playings of great music of James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett that style of sixties music. And then latin music mexican music that I perform and then by extension other latin musics that I’ve felt particularly moved by or taken into that zone by. And looking at the social side of things, especially in the sixties when I was just starting to think about these things. There’s a social hierarchy that is keeping these folks down. Part of that is a musical hierarchy that in part is social. When I went to school you had the orchestra, the band that plays some quasi orchestral music and the choir almost always is western European they might have taken a song from Korea or something (sings a line) and created a western piece out of it. When I left my hometown and got out of that very local environment and went to Los Angeles and saw all these musics and went to UCLA and learned about all these musics. I realised that, hey, where’s James Brown in my music education, where’s Kwasi Badu he’s my masters drum teacher from Ghana where’s he in my music education where’s the Jarocho music from Veracruz where are they in the world. And I got mad, there’s something that is unjust in the world. And that is the channeling of people by major social institutions, educational institutions toward a very limited view of what’s valuable in music. I really didn’t like that. In fact I can feel myself getting annoyed (laughs) the old emotions welling up. So I said dammit I want to do something about this. Whatever I can do I want to do it. Fortunately that’s where I ran into what some people might call the Alan Lomax school of folklore and ethnomusicology and production of music of grassroots people in the United States. I started to work with his sister Bess Lomax Hawes working on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival which was one of the first things I did. Fieldwork going to bars and homes in East Los Angeles and other moving music like this. A ten piece brass band that played in a bar for eight dollars a song. The sound was like being inside one of the trombones or something. I figured out that there was some sort of career out there. You can follow your passions and line up with institutions that want to do basically the same thing. That is those two angles of action that is making grassroots musical expression accessible to the public and helping those artists by giving them what they want. Giving them access to markets, giving them access to audiences, giving them access to institutions like recording studios, like distributors. All these things that not every grassroots musicians wants this. A lot of them really don’t want it at all, a lot of Gospel musicians wouldn’t want this, others would undoubtedly. In terms of production, for me it is part of this whole chain or cluster of actions led by this, fueled by this, driven by this mission, this sense of both personal mission and institutional mission. There are probably many definitions of production. So let me just say maybe there is this seamless sense of following through any direction you need to follow through on to accomplish these goals. Then there’s the more specific sense of production and that’s musical production, and I will keep that a little broader than just recording, in terms of public programming, concerts, festivals, tours, publications, writings about grassroots musicians and recordings of course. There’s a similar approach for me in all of these things. There are going to be specific strategies, specific tools, specific avenues that are particular to each one of those. Probably the most challenging part for me is coming up with the sense of what needs to be done to satisfy those two sets of needs. That is getting things out to the public and somehow benefiting the artists and the communities they come from. The traditions they represent. There’s no substitute for knowledge and experience there. The main tool of my trade is fieldwork and by field work I mean really getting to know the people, getting to know the dynamics of the community networks that they work in. Getting to know the repertoire of the music they perform. Getting to know what the repertoire is that they are not performing. That is within the tradition that they might know a little bit about but are not really actively performing. That is getting to know the larger context of the dynamics social cultural and musical. About the only way to do that, you can always read that in books, but if you don’t know people and you don’t hear it firsthand from individuals who live the life and are right in the middle of it today. You really can’t move ahead with much confidence. There are two ways to get that kind of expertise. One is to do it yourself, the other is to have somebody else involved who knows it. There are different kinds of views that you can bring to bear on that. There is the artist the insider the person who has a particular story to tell, their view of the musical terrain at the time. And there is the more specialist with a broader view. Sometimes those are scholars and sometimes those are other people.who just have a broad view of what needs to be done in Mariachi music for example. So if you can get to the point of having that as a tool to use to move ahead with whatever production you are doing. Then you going to be positioned much better to have the effect that you desire. That is, getting something out there, that maybe isn’t known, to the public. Or somehow calling attention to something in a very public way that then will have a positive effect on maybe society in general maybe the community that is being represented also feeding back well into the community. So for example why do a recording of Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, moving right into recording. This is where production I will define more in terms of music recording production. If you go into record stores especially Latin stores in Mexico or the southwest there will be lots of recordings of mariachi music. Some of them are by a single group Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan that’s the preeminent group and I mean preeminent because they are really the model most other groups cover what ever they do. And then there are a lot of cheaply done grassroots groups that you don’t find much anymore because it is not economical. They don’t make much money so they don’t do much anymore. And you have a few other groups but why Mariachi los Camperos? They are a pioneering group they have a story that’s tied in with cultural identity. A story that’s tied in with the efforts of Nati Cano who created a new context for Mariachi music in a way broke through to social classes that hadn’t felt comfortable with cantinas and bar music. And also because he didn’t have anything circulating at all in the marketplace. They are an extremely accomplished group, they’re successful concertizers. Their positioned at a place, even thought they are not obscure in American society, where with a little bit of support from something like the National Museum through a recording sponsored by the National Museum they can make a big difference in society through greater venues. There could be a lot of impact by having that particular group recorded out there doing their style of music with the story of that group along with it. None of these recordings have lots of notes that tell the story behind the music. And that’s an important part of the production for me too.
OK let’s jump to another kind of music, Los Llaneros. Why do a recording of Musica Llanera from Colombia. Musica Llanera is in Venezuela and in Colombia it’s been identified as the national music of Venezuela, it has not been recognized as being important in Colombia except for in that region of Colombia. In the record stores, on the web it is very difficult to get anything but watered down versions of this extremely exciting music practised by extraordinarily talented musicians who happen to come from rural areas and play in their social world. It’s the prophet in your own land thing, this is great music by great musicians but not valued as they should be at home. On the Colombian side of the border, because that nation did not select this as their main national music, (the Bambuco for a lot of people is the national music) they are doubly under recognized. So by taking this music out of this rural area and putting it on the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label nad then distributing it in the United States. We’ve had enormous feedback from the musicians themselves, from the Colombian end of things this is a great breakthrough for them, people are looking at them with new eyes now. It’s something maybe more special than they thought it was before. In the United States our hope is that their appearance at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that their being on the BBC world service featured on the Global hits section is going to get them more opportunities to perform outside their country as well. In fact they are going to perform at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in February. How did it work I went to Nati Cano in the case of the Mariachi recording I knew pretty much what his repertoire was, they had some tracks already recorded that were not being distributed except for by themselves at a few concerts here and there. I talked to Nati about the fact that we want to tell you story, I think what you do is important, at the same time we want to have a record that is an introduction to Mariachi music. There’s a great opportunity here there’s nothing like that out there. And so there was a little bit of a dialogue. There always should be some sort of backing and forthing a partnership really a collaborative arrangement. We went with the mission of the institution and the mission I saw as someone has been close to this music for sometime. The leader of the group said ‘great that’s exactly what I want to do right now’ so it was a very easy collaboration from that point on. In the case of the Colombians I relied on others to take me to a person that I had heard of years ago as a leader of this music. I basically lucked out, well there was a little bit of the harder you work the luckier you get. So I did a little fieldwork in terms of networking and located this person I had heard of before and he was much greater than I even expected he would be. He worked for the Ministry of Culture so he had the big view. He was an activist in teaching people to teach in cultural centers throughout Eastern Colombia. He was a great fellow. He was totally frustrated like I was by some of the general commercial pressures on traditional music that deracinates it. That takes the real zest the excitement the energy out of it and just relegates it to the whims of a star singer who is basically motivated by profit and personal success in one way or another. Carlos Rojas saw this as hallelujah, (laughs) where did this guy come from and I was on the other side of the fence saying hallelujah where did this guy come from, I’d heard about him before of course. It was another one of those magic moments where I said a little bit about what we’re looking for and explained and this is an important part of these collaborations if you are talking about reaching new audience. I came with a knowledge that he did not have about the audiences in the United States about what would play well in the United States about what would accomplish this mutual sense of mission that we both had. Getting the music out and around getting it more respect and getting the music in the form of the way the musicians play for themselves in parties in the plains in cattle country out there. In other words just unleashed just doing their thing so everybody can really bring all their talents to the fore. So we went into the recording studio with a basic understanding of what our mission was and what we needed to do to reach our mutual goals and it just clicked, bang, bang, bang another one of those magic moments. I think we got a recording that, certainly they can’t stop saying enough good things about it and I’m pretty fond of it myself so I feel pretty good about that. Let me give a bad example. On that same trip there was another group that was very convenient to record another group representing another tradition. I didn’t really know the tradition that well I had a lead through an ethnomusicologist to the group leader. I thought that it would be very easy to add two or three days in the studio to come out with another recording. I realized that was kind of a risky venture going in. I’ll never do that again. (laughs) Because there was a strong leader who had a vision for the group. We had talked about all of our deal points before we got together to start the recording. We had talked a bit about the style of music the traditional end of the spectrum without lots and lots of the fashionable bells and whistles that would appeal to the new age sound. We got in the studio and many things started to fall apart most importantly the interpersonal understanding the collaboration between me, the producer and the co-producer and I would give him that title. He pulled that particular group of musicians together and worked up repertoire because I did not know him well enough, I did not know the tradition well enough and that liason, the contact that got me there in the first place was not part of the equation. It was a pretty good example of not everything that can go wrong in the production process but some pretty serious things that can go wrong. At some point during the recording session that he wanted more money for himself not for the musicians, he wanted to add rainsticks which is not part of the tradition. Basically he had a very good product. At the business end of things it was it was really, really disastrous. On the business end of things he wanted more money. He runs in more popular circles than the musicians that he brought to the session. He had some sense of what would appeal to more popular audiences.
RB: That was a negative for you?
DS: That was outside of the mission for me, outside of our understanding that we had reached. I didn’t know him well enough and he didn’t know me well enough that even though we might have had an understanding of some sorts it was too cursory it was not enough of collaboration. It was to some extent a failed collaboration although I am still trying to pull it out between us. I think there was a combination of experience and inexperience on his part that fueled the same situation. The point is that producing traditional music with traditional artists particularly those who might not have had a lot of experience in the profitability of traditional music in the global marketplace. That was at the root of the failed part of the production. The collaboration has to be there, knowledge has to be there, the sense of shared mission has to be there and it needs to be pretty much outlined. There’s a great piece by Kurt Dewhurst who is on the Center’s board on how to do a successful collaboration - an eight-page piece for institutions collaborating with each other. I liked in your book you had examples of things that didn’t work, your bigger nightmares so to speak (laughs).
RB: Actually the problems you have just outlined are extremely similar to the kinds of problems a commercial producer experiences. Although they are couched in terms of mission, it is essentially the same thing you start out trying to achieve an end and people have different viewpoints, sometimes there is a hidden agenda and that’s where it goes horribly wrong.
DS: I dealt with grassroots musicians many times before, I’d probably produced or co-produced eight recordings and this was the only disaster I had encountered and it came about by moving too quickly. Thinking that something was convenient and possibly easy and even though it was a risk the only downside of that was that possibly a recording would not come out. The fact is that human relationships were made and business arrangements were half made and it’s taken a lot to salvage that relationship and come out at least neutral, not ahead of neutral (laughs). There’s definitely a lesson to be learned there where you don’t have that nexus of human relationships. And it’s interesting it probably is true in the commercial world but in societies where people don’t really depend on the written word very much at all. They depend on human relationships on knowing somebody or somebody else knowing somebody or knowing that a community knows somebody where there are all these ties that are in built controls of trust.
RB: Like I say, even though in rock and roll you are surrounded by all these contracts when the relationship breaks down it breaks down. You can have contracts all day long but when the relationship is gone it is gone.
RB: One thing I am curious about is that when you go into a production relationship you are bringing the finance, you are the source of the finance for the project. The other thing that you are bringing is a lot of academic rigor. There are only a couple of styles of production that really require academic qualifications, one is classical, most significant classical producers have significant academic qualifications. Your PhD is in ethnomusicology. Any particular focus
DS: Culturally Latin America which is a big place so regional Mestizo, Mexican music is my main focus and a few other musics of Latin America I have a fair knowledge of. In terms of bringing the resources to a relationship, as I’m sure you are aware, the resources that are brought to bear on folk music are meager compared to a lot of commercial situations. But that doesn’t mean they are not significant. Grassroots artists are grassroots artists, which means a lot of times they don’t have much money, not to mention access to the studio to the label to distribution. This is a great opportunity for a lot of the artists. Yes you do bring that to it even if it is not your money when Joe Wilson and I produced a recording of Puerto Rican music it was Rounder's money but nevertheless Joe and I were bringing the deal together we were the relation makers the deal makers. One needs to be aware of that from an ethical point of view and from a human relations point of view which is part of ethics every part of the way. In terms of the whole academic side of it I may not fit the perception of what academic is. A lot of academics are scholarship driven they are looking for the article they are looking for the new thought, the new theory the new paradigm. That’s not how I use my tools. I’ve got academic tools but I didn’t go in the academy. Partly because I didn’t see that I could get this much done in the context of the academy of colleges or whatever and also because I was a musician and I what I was excited about was the other musicians and the music they made. It took me a while to build my own idea of what I was doing getting back to the idea of the mission. The idea was to get this music out and around to make something happen to make people excited about something they may not know anything about. We had this one artist who was really keen to record the Flight of the BumbleBee on his instrument. He thought that by doing that it would put his instrument on the map by showing off his technical ability on the instrument. The fact was there wasn’t even a map yet for most people. The core repertoire was what was important to the label I was working with in that case and in terms of my own mission. So I wasn’t sure that our relationship was going to work out there for a little bit. Then when I explained the context that this artist would be playing into he understood or (laughs) he said he understood. He started to see that, well maybe I should get the grassroots repertoire out there so that people can understand the basics of where I come from before I do the Flight of the BumbleBee. There’s more framework for more cultural understanding. Maybe that’s the key right there, I’m looking for something beyond just the sound. Even just with the sound there is a certain sound with certain grassroots music that is so heartfelt it’s so strong it has a sense of strength that a people have given it over time. I think some of that conveys to people who don’t know anything about it. Even in terms of sound a lot of grassroots music in their core sense are powerful sounds. But, really, people are what gives meaning to music. Music doesn’t have any meaning at all. People create music and in creating music they give meaning to it. You can take the same music and it can have different meanings for different people or different meanings for the same person at different times. The point being if the idea is to break through to new audiences you need to be able to give the audiences the means to get meaning from that music, the meaning that that music at it’s core has. That’s what makes it important to tell the story to make sure people have an understanding of the cornerstone of the building blocks of that musical tradition so that they can have some place to start. Otherwise they are just grasping, they are saying, The Flight of the Bumblebee, I ‘ve heard that before and there is a slightly different sounding instrument here. That in my view undercuts the basic aims of that musician. Because it all references back to Western European music. You are caught in that Karma, whereas you have the opportunity perhaps to break out of that whole mindset, that bailiwick and liberate yourself so that you can make you case all the more powerful.
RB: It’s ironic also because Western European music is in a very significant part influenced by these very folk musics that are struggling to legitimise themselves.
DS: Yeah, I don’t think it takes more than about one generation to lose sight of that. A lot of those influences that you mentioned go back five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred years. To when, in Sardinia, there was this music that mostly likely predates organum. It was exactly that you have this vocal drone then you have the moving melody above it and these harmonies and it’s more than two. It’s probable that all that chant came out of regional styles of acapella chanting, folk music performed for recreation, ceremonies, rituals whatever that has fed into the European tradition over time. Later on the European so-called fine art tradition went back and borrowed things from folk melodies. Then there something happened, as talked about in the book Highbrow, Lowbrow how there were different phases of it. In the late nineteenth century upper class people, working to differentiate them selves as upper class people in a way, co-opted a lot of Western artforms that were much more open to the taxi cab drivers of the day, the working class people who would go see the Shakespeare play in England or in Italy would see a Rossini opera. There’s this differentiation over a two hundred year period, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of certain kinds of music that became privileged musics socially. That was the kind of thing that irked me. You can see when you go to school, when you learn these things when you study you realize that all of this goes back to these roots that are supposedly not as good as what it was developed into. Not to put down the fact that there is some real genius put into Western art music. Mozart was definitely a genius, I have studied and analyzed his music and there is definitely genius in there. But I have also studied fontonfrom drumming from Ghana, which is incredibly complex drumming which is often used for funerals and processions. Just to comprehend what is going on is incredibly challenging. There is great genius in that music too but nobody ever told me that I had to work incredibly hard to find that out.
RB: It seems to me that it’s a little bit like what happens with pharmaceuticals there’s no incentive for a company to promote an herb no matter how effective it is because you can go pick it and they can’t own it. If you look at the history of patronage there is some sort of history of ownership there.
DS: I think there is social capitol involved too it’s not just economic capitol.
RB: I’m curious if somebody was reading the book and said this really sounds like something for me. If I’m not mistaken it would be very hard for someone to make a living producing traditional music unless they were doing it in the context of an institution. Is this true?
DS: I can’t think of any person who has made a living producing traditional music who is not either employed by an institution like the French government, or the Smithsonian, or a non-profit organization, the World Music Institute has a recorded series that goes along with that. Of they started their own business. Even there there are precious few, Chris Strachowitz at Arhoolie Records. You could say that they were successful at doing it and making a living but that is being much more than a producer. You can either get a job with an institution like the Smithsonian or you can start your own business but you still have to pay the price of doing all this non production stuff. (laughs)
RB: An actually it seems like the role of the traditional music producer is a pretty tough role. Even if you didn’t work for the Smithsonian you’ve still got all of that organizational and budgeting to do.
DS: You mean doing it full time
RB: If Rounder asks you to do something you still have to make the contacts.
DS: I never found that particularly difficult. The labels would help. The way it used to work but not so much anymore because the market doesn’t allow this, was that ethnomusicologists like me would go off to a place like Chile, where I went, and record all this great music. Up in the high plains two miles high in the Andean mountains, down the central plains with all these different kinds of flute musics, little regional styles of music and then take it back. I had a friend who was starting a world music series for ABC records and she said ‘hey, I want to hear your stuff’ we are looking for material to publish.’ That was easy the hard part there figuring out how to get money back to Chile. Even that turned out to be easy because I had worked with one of the universities there and the folklorist was more than happy to help out with the business arrangements.
RB: How about the rights issues?
DS: Well the rights issues have evolved since back then (1973). I was working with the university, this was a university project and back then it was the ethics of the situation. It’s still true in certain situations today that there’s the positive image of the people involved. The reason the folklorists are working with the people that they are recording is because they have a passion for this music and the people and they want to do right by them. So that assumption underlying the relationship was enough to carry through in terms of doing right by the people being recorded back then. It’s interesting how things evolved over time so that the written word, signed contracts became injected into the situation. With some of those same recordings, I did a CD to accompany a text book ten or fifteen years later and I wrote to the folklorist, sent him a form to take to this pea farmer on a farm about an hour away from the nearest town. He was happy to help out and he got their signature and we got them an honorarium. We had it all locked down in terms of permissions. Fifteen years earlier it was regarded as an ethical issue and scholars were on their own to follow through. As a result you had some good ones and some not so good ones in terms of doing right by the people. In any case there were never significant sums of money being made that I know of. It was like what Moses Asch did as I understand it. He was focusing on letting these people’s voices and music be heard because he felt that they weren’t and so it was really social and cultural equity. He just did what he could to keep the label alive so that he could follow through on the social and cultural mission of his. I think that was pretty much typical in the sixties of how people were thinking at the time.
RB: I think that most musicians if they were given the choice of not being recorded and put out and discovered would choose the option of being recorded, put out and discovered and not paid rather than the other way round. I think the worst thing is when there is lots of money being made and they are not getting paid which is usually not the case in folk music.
DS: Today most ethnomusicologists that I know, people who are going out and doing field recordings, they should be getting releases acknowledging their permission for the use of this material for all kinds of things, not just commercial recordings. For people to listen to in an archive, for scholarly use. Anything other than the personal use of the person recording it I think it is wise, and it is state of the art ethics now to get permissions. I know archives certainly feel that way because they are feeling a lot of new responsibilities about their holdings. As the world gets smaller as economic interests encroach upon music in every corner of the world and people are more sensitive to this, permissions are important things to have.
RB: It comes into human rights issues at a certain point doesn’t it.
DS: Oh yeah. I am so happy you said that. There is this new conference that is trying to put a new frame around musical human rights violations. It’s funded by Ford Foundation. In April 2005 there is supposed to be a meeting to really come up with some examples some images some concepts maybe with some language following the international human rights violations through UNESCO dialogue. Hopefully for the first time bringing it home to a real life situation how there are musical human rights and there are examples of violations of that and how they should be addressed.