Smithsonian Folkways Presents ‘The Social Power of Music’

Curated by Smithsonian Folkways, The Social Power of Music is a dynamic and rich exploration of music's ability to connect and disrupt political, social, and cultural impasses.

The Social Power of Music
Various Artists
Smithsonian Folkways
22 February 2019

The Social Power of Music is a cultural time capsule. Bridging past eras to the present, the collection interconnects the struggles and celebrations experienced across generations and geographies. Curated by Smithsonian Folkways, The Social Power of Music is a dynamic and rich exploration of music’s ability to connect and disrupt political, social, and cultural impasses. The Social Power of Music centralizes the pressing need for social progression and strong communities. Without question, music has the ability to inspire and agitate while supporting liberation and rebellion. The Social Power of Music deftly captures that capacity. The inclusion of both popular and arcane selections will certainly educate and unify.

The collection is organized into four sections demarcated by thematic CDs. Part 1 highlights “Songs of Struggle” and undertakes issues ranging from labor and civil rights, advocating for the ERA, protesting war, and a myriad of other political issues. Sadly, it’s impossible to disconnect “Songs of Struggle” from the contemporary moment. Sammy Walker’s “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) is prophetic in its description of the Trump administration’s racism. Whereas the original was written by Woody Guthrie as a protest to racist treatment of Mexican migrant workers, the lyrics bitterly transfer to current conversations of border walls and internment camp. Walker’s lamentation, “And all they will call you will be deportees”, emulates Trump’s essentialist and racist discourses framing refugees as “bad hombres”.

Peggy Seeger’s “Reclaim the Night” is a clarion call for women’s rights. Her demand for safety and to live without fear of rape is unequivocally relevant in the #metoo era. Seeger even considers the commodification of women and women’s bodies when she sings “When exploitation is the norm / Rape is found in many forms / Lower wages, meaner tasks /Poorer schooling, second class.” Her recognition of the interconnection between class, sexuality, gender, and oppression exhibits a timely urgency.

“Sacred Sounds” is the focus of part 2. Here Smithsonian Folkways considers an impressive global understanding of sacred music. The collection is diverse in its featuring of the “many names to refer to this ‘mystery of existence’: God, Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Great Spirit, the gods, Buddha, Brahman, Tao, Mother Earth” (45). Indeed, this section consists of anthems such as “Amazing Grace” as sang the members of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists and Strange Creek’s version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”.

However, the showstoppers are the pieces from global artists including vocalist Ahmad Al Alawi’s “The Call to Prayer/Adhan” and Tu Huyen, Hai Phat, Tam Thu, and Hai Dat’s “Buddhist Chants and Prayers“. The latter specifically uses bells and gongs to “symbolically represent the Buddha’s voice…[a music] performed at funerals and rites for the deceased’s soul” (57). Here the collection temporarily loses sight of the overt interconnection since the inclusion of sacred music is more reflective of specific cultural standpoints. Yet “Sacred Sounds” concretizes the belief that music has the power to establish communities rooted in vastly different beliefs. This shifts the listener to disc three: “Social Songs and Gatherings”, the impassioned music scoring social and cultural practices, celebrations, and bereavement rites.

“Global Movements” are represented in disc four thereby showcasing “social justice is a global struggle, and the musics of social movement offers cross-border maps of interconnected hopes, values, and strategies” (97). “A Desalambrar (Tear Down the Fences)” by Uruguayan musician Danie Viglietti, is a call for land reform while Yves Montand “Le Temps des Cerises (Cherry Blossom Time)” transcends temporalities with its depiction of the Paris Commune of 1871. Suni Paz’s “Prisioneros Somos (We Are All Prisoners)” is a call for Latina women’s freedom and her plea for dignity is shared with Gambang Kromong Slendang Betawi’s “Hidup Di Bui (Life in Jail)”. In opposition to the horrific conditions at the Tangerang Correctional Institution, the track bespeaks the prison-industrial complex’s reach. “Global Movements” is a sweeping analysis of the discontent inspiring solutions and politicizing awareness.

Comment on The Social Power of Music’s presentation is necessary as the book, images, and CDs are an art piece in themselves. The musical collection is supplemented with five essays, linear notes, stunning photography, and a comprehensive list for further reading and listening. The collection opens with Jim Peppler’s iconic image of Fannie Lou Hamer singing during the 1966 March Against Fear. Her uplifted countenance transplants the sound of her voice well before listeners reach her track “I Woke Up This Morning”. Frank Espada’s 1981 photograph of migrant workers at a demonstration in Washington D.C. enshrines Baldemar Velasquez’s and Aguila Negra’s “De Colores“, the theme song for the United Farm Workers. The juxtaposition between song and image is flushed with efficacious cultural and political authenticity.

The Social Power of Music is impressive in its scope and the quality of its examination into the social and political voices from across time and geography. The collection will inspire, raises consciousness, and empowers. The Social Power of Music empathically imparts political knowledge and informs cultural conditions indelibly situating music as a catalyst for change and community.

RATING 10 / 10