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Capturing the spirit of music in Michigan

By Brandon Monzon

Fiddlers participating in a workshop for beginners at the Oldtime Fiddlers Convention in Hillsdale, MI.

The Michigan Musical Heritage Project is documenting the state’s rich musical tapestry.

Since the 1600s, people from around the world have settled in and around the Great Lakes. Joining an existing diverse population of indigenous Algonquian people, immigrants created cultural enclaves and transplanted many aspects of their parent culture in Michigan, creating an expansive musical mosaic.

Spearheaded by Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Music Lester Monts (ethnomusicology), the Michigan Musical Heritage Project (MMHP) aims to capture the broad range of Michigan’s folk, ethnic, and immigrant music. Along with documenting our regional musical landscape, the project will serve the University in several additional ways.

“There are three distinct purposes for the MMHP,” said Monts, who served as U-M’s senior vice provost for academic affairs and senior counselor to the president for the arts, diversity, and undergraduate affairs for 20 years before returning to teaching in 2014. “One is to complete a video documentary on ethnic, immigrant, and folk music in Michigan; the second objective is to create the foundation for a video archive of music in Michigan, of which we already have over 200 plus hours; and the third is to develop an undergraduate course on Michigan music.”

Monts’s field crew includes U-M alumni Ian Klipa (art & design), Conor Anderson (interdisciplinary arts), and Rowan Niemisto (sociology), with support from Tom Bray, converging technologies consultant at the James and Anne Duderstadt Center.

Lester Monts and members of the Michigan Musical Heritage Project film crew interviewing Sue Bila, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Festivals and Events.  Lansing, MI 

Lester Monts and members of the Michigan Musical Heritage Project film crew interviewing Sue Bila, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Festivals and Events.  Lansing, MI

Together, Monts and his crew spent last summer traveling across Michigan, documenting a diverse and lively slate of local and regional festivals. They visited the Upper Peninsula, western Michigan, Detroit, Ann Arbor, and southern parts of Michigan, attending about 25 different events. “All of them, such as agricultural festivals, have local musicians promoting a particular style of music from various immigrant and folk communities, and we are there to capture that,” said Monts.

Another key element of the MMHP is the state-of-the-art ethnomusicology lab Monts has set up in the Duderstadt Center. This post-production technology suite is where the crew edits all of the video and audio they have collected and where Monts and his team will begin to shape the footage into something packaged and easily consumed by a larger audience.

“The initial goal is to create an hour-long documentary for a local PBS station,” said Monts. “But given the magnitude of Michigan music, you cannot delve deeply into any of this music in just an hour. My hope is that I will use a lot of different clips from various regions of the state in a newly created course that will have a robust educational thrust to it.”

Details of the course are still being refined, but the audio-visual material will be an important component. Additionally, Monts envisions a course project in which students look into their own ethnic or immigrant backgrounds to make discoveries about their heritage.

A well-respected scholar on Liberian ethnomusicology, Monts believes that all ethnomusicologists should start out focusing on one area of music, one region of the world, or one genre of music, and, after working in that area, adopt another area to create a balance.

“If you learn a music culture very well, you have the basis for comparing it with others,” said Monts. “The work I’ve been doing here in Michigan is another step toward that particular goal—to have another way of looking at music in this urban society. It is a reflection of where people came from and I’m hopeful we can start to align that music with various immigration patterns.”

Mariachi musicians who performed at the 2015 Hispanic Heritage Celebration in Hart, MI.

Mariachi musicians who performed at the 2015 Hispanic Heritage Celebration in Hart, MI.

The MMHP aims to create beneficial relationships to help preserve the scope and depth of Michigan music. Monts is collaborating with the Michigan Festivals and Events Association and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, which is providing access to event organizers statewide, all of whom were more than happy to logistically support the project.

“The University of Michigan has a very special place in the hearts and minds of the people of Michigan, so event organizers made all kinds of arrangements for us,” said Monts. “Once we started to get around, different groups asked us to include them in our work, as they want to be part of this archive, part of the course, and part of the documentary.”

Monts and his crew are looking forward to another summer on the road, with a more fine-tuned approach now that they have a year of experience under their belts. Supplementing their field work and media will be a dynamic website that will allow Monts to expand the project’s impact beyond the state of Michigan, while informing other scholars of his lab’s capabilities.

“I want the website to serve the purpose of the project, as well as the ethnomusicology community, to let them know the kind of work we are doing here,” said Monts. “Ethnomusicologists of my generation are stuck with the same kinds of challenges that I have, with analog materials that need to be digitized. I want to make the lab, and other resources we have available, to scholars who study Chinese or other ethnic music, in addition to people who study music of the Midwest or Michigan, because they will be able to take a deeper dive into the data.”

Availability and access to Michigan’s musical heritage is at the heart of Monts’s goal to provide an extensive archive for analysis and instruction to future generations. He hopes younger scholars and ethnomusicologists will be inspired to continue this work as contemporary musicians try to preserve the music’s original cultural context.

“It’s high time that we start looking at these various traditions before they change,” said Monts. “They’ve already changed a lot—whether they’re from Latin America, Europe, or Africa—but how they change and how they exist within the context of this multiethnic society that we live in is an important academic pursuit.”