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Capturing a Moment in Time: Documenting Musicians from the Horn of Africa in Their New American Diaspora

The following is a guest post by Kay Kaufman Shelemay, G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music at Harvard University and 2007 Kluge Chair in Modern Culture at The John W. Kluge Center.

When scholars think about the Library of Congress, they may immediately recall its famous collections that provide rich resources for the study of American history and culture across varied subjects, disciplines, and media. Yet as the world all around changes rapidly, and American society along with it, the Library continues to search for new or neglected topics to add to its holdings. This material can often arrive near the end of  scholarly or collecting careers, often many decades after the materials were compiled or acquired. I’d like to suggest that it would be worthwhile for scholars to consider early on what contributions they might make to the holdings of this great library through collections gathered purposefully to fill clear gaps.

With this perspective in mind, as fortunate holder of the Kluge Chair in Modern Culture, I spent two summers (2007, 2008) gathering materials to establish a new collection inside the Library of Congress. This project had its inception, I realize in retrospect, in 1972 when I first visited the Library of Congress’s Archives of Folk Culture seeking relevant materials in preparation for my doctoral ethnomusicology fieldwork in Ethiopia. I learned then that there were scant resources such as sound recordings or other holdings relevant to my Ethiopian project. I remember thinking at the time that there was no compelling reason why our national library should contain much in the way of materials about a distant African nation and its music.

But virtually overnight this distance collapsed. In the mid-1970s, political turmoil swept across Ethiopia, Eritrea, and adjacent regions of the Horn of Africa. The 1974 Ethiopian revolution set off a series of mass migrations, and by the late 1970s, thousands of Ethiopians had settled in metropolitan areas across the United States. By the end of 1990s, Ethiopians constituted the second largest new African community, with Washington, D.C., the center with what today is estimated at more than a quarter of a million Ethiopian residents, a greater number than any single locale outside of Ethiopia. Today, anyone who visits Washington, D.C., lands at Reagan National Airport, hails a taxi, stays in a Washington D.C. area hotel, or explores new restaurants and shops, will inevitably encounter members of the Ethiopian diaspora, many of whom work in transportation, hospitality, and food professions. Yet despite an increasing awareness of this flourishing immigrant community, most are not aware that an unusually large number of musicians have migrated from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and neighboring countries, and have settled in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

My project at the Library of Congress was devoted to establishing a collection that documents the lives and music of a generation of Ethiopians, Eritreans, and other musicians who have immigrated to the U.S. I sought to capture details of their interrupted lives, documenting the crises that forced so many of these talented performers and composers to depart their homes and resettle abroad. Beyond charting the biographies and personal experiences of artists who are now beginning to have a broader impact on music internationally, the “Ethiopian Music Collection” at the Library’s American Folklife Center provides a wealth of contextual information. Musicians who shared their experiences through oral histories, sound recordings, and other documents were among the first to migrate and played important roles in establishing new communities abroad. In their homelands, where they were important repositories of memory and conscience, they were forced to flee as their music sparked resistance to repressive regimes. Curfews and prohibitions against public gatherings eliminated opportunities for live musical performance, threatening their very way of life. Musicians who performed and transmitted widely divergent repertories ranging from the sacred to the secular thus found both their livelihoods and persons threatened. Church musicians could not celebrate their traditional all-night rituals, and secular musicians could not sing publicly about topics of current interest lest they raise suspicions. Musicians, always central to the institutions that allow communities to cohere and survive, whether in churches, community organizations, or entertainment venues, proved to be equally indispensable in their new homes abroad. They founded new churches, opened restaurants and nightclubs that featured musical performances, and sparked initiatives that engendered community action and identity. Thus gathering oral histories from dozens of new immigrant musicians opens up a range of subjects relevant to the lives of individuals and of the broader communities of which they are a part.

Ethiopian musician Tesfaye Lemma

Ethiopian musician Tesfaye Lemma deposits his collection in the Library of Congress with the help of former American Folklife Center Archivist Michael Taft. Photo by Kay Kaufman Shelemay.

There are many satisfying aspects to the process of collection building. While holding interviews at the Kluge Center, it was gratifying to be able take each musician to view the nearby Great Hall, emphasizing that the Library of Congress is now their library as well. To my surprise, I found that one can also encourage others to donate materials. One of the distinguished musicians I interviewed was the late Tesfaye Lemma, the longtime director and composer of Orchestra Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. After receiving asylum in 1988, he became a central figure in presenting and preserving Ethiopian traditional and vernacular music in diaspora. I learned during one of our interviews that Tesfaye Lemma had his own large collection of tape recordings of Orchestra Ethiopia and other Ethiopian performers, which he subsequently deposited in the Library. Thus one collection can encourage the deposit of others, and, as a result, the music and musicians of Ethiopia both at home and abroad are now well represented within the Library of Congress.

Kay Kaufman Shelemay held the Kluge Chair in Modern Culture in 2007. She returned to the Kluge Center this past June as part of #Scholarfest, the Kluge Center’s 15th anniversary celebration. An ethnomusicologist, she participated in a “lightning conversation” with ethnomusicologist and musician Deirdre Ní Chonghaile. Watch it here.

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