The 1939 Trinidad Field Recordings of Melville & Frances Herskovits
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Rastlin' Jacob:
The Music of the Spiritual Baptists of Trinidad
The 1939 Trinidad Field Recordings of Melville & Frances Herskovits

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cd cover Anthropologists Melville and Frances Herskovits dedicated their careers to documenting and theorizing the retention of "Africanisms" among New World African-descent peoples, working tirelessly in Haiti, Trinidad and other Caribbean settings. This title, the second in a projected series, presents 32 tracks from some 300 examples logged on the eve of World War Two among the "Shouters" or Spiritual Baptists of rural Trinidad, a group whose ecstatic, highly ritualized religious services were officially outlawed in 1917, against fervent resistance. The human voice is central here, and while the uninitiated listener will recognize elements of the English-speaking sacred repertoire and associated biblical texts, the localized character of song and performance styles remains striking. For example, the New Orleans standard, "When the Saints," carried by missionaries to Trinidad, references Emperor Haile Selassie, hailed by many, Marcus Garvey's followers in particular, as a heroic fighter against the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1937. Selassie's resistance, of course, would also lead to his deification by the Rastafari originators of Jamaica, and give rise to a growing sense of Pan-African identity in the Caribbean. A readiness to borrow from other sects is likewise manifest, as in the stiffly rendered rub-a-dub cadences and punctuated whoops and shouts of "Onward Christian Soldiers," not precisely what its Salvation Army authors had in mind, one can only assume.

An expert on roots musics of the eastern Caribbean, ethnomusicologist Donald R. Hill produced, and wrote the extensive notes. This digitally remastered disc draws from the Herskovits audio depository at the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music, the Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University, and the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture. This is a fascinating documentary effort, one vital to the ongoing project of comprehending the many branches of the New World African Diaspora. - Michael Stone

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