David Blair Stiffler. Courtesy of Numero Group.
The allure of “ethnomusicological” records is, for me, only partially derived from their exoticism. Though I’m certainly attracted to strange sounds, I’ve found myself increasingly interested in the culture of such records themselves: their packaging, marketing, and the stories of the people who made incredible efforts to document this music. These albums—primarily field recordings made from the ’50s through the ’80s and released on labels like Folkways, Nonesuch Explorer, Lyrichord, and official-sounding units like the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music—frequently include stapled booklets, dense with slightly skewed typewriter texts, written by experts who, track by track, explain the social utility and anthropological origin of each piece. My overall impression, after reading liner notes by someone like David Lewiston (a legend of field recording and a non-academic), is that the brilliance of the individual performers and performances, and even the joy of listening, are secondary to a description of the music’s social function. I frequently find myself wondering, however, if I’m listening to the Bob Dylan of the Karakorams of Central Asia and not merely an exemplar of a “typical festive dance.” The anthropological approach can overwhelm the individuality of the artists, the narrative of analysis overshadowing the performance itself.
Numero Group’s recent release, Music from the Mountain Provinces, intensifies this tendency while featuring music that is among the most raw and hypnotic I’ve heard. The story behind this record suffuses each track and provides a narrative tension that increases its impact as an artifact that uniquely reflects the anxieties and tensions between the Western ethnomusicologist and the indigenous Philippine performers. Made by David Blair Stiffler in 1988, these recordings were originally intended to be released by Folkways but were shelved indefinitely when Moses Asch, the label’s founder, passed away. Stiffler and his wife, Elpie, had traveled to the Philippines to document the music of the indigenous people of the northern mountain provinces, where, after a short period of recording, they were kidnapped by a guerrilla group claiming affiliation with the Moro National Liberation Front. Held captive for eighteen days, the two made a number of recordings as they were marched through the jungle from village to village. These include a truly haunting traditional song “about a man named Mamayog who has to leave for town. However his girlfriend Ogarinin is worried that he will find another lover to replace her. This song was sung and whistled by the leader of the MNLF.”
Unlike Muranao Kakolintang: Philippine Gong Music from Lanao, a beautiful record of similar music that I return to often, Music from the Mountain Provinces is a novelistic experience. Though it’s surely not the only recording made under such dire circumstances, the foregrounding of Stiffler’s story asks the listener to recognize the tension between recordist and performer, between ethnographer and subject. The pretense of objectivity is broken down—a situation that provides an entirely different perspective on this remarkable music.