Review of The Photographs of Charles Duvelle: Disques OCORA and Collection Prophet
Sublime Frequencies, Seattle WA, 2017
296 pp., includes 2 audio CDs. Trade, $55.00
Today listeners can go on line and hear indigenous music from almost anywhere in the world. It’s easy and entertaining. Fewer will take the time to clarify just what it is they are listening to, or how it serves the culture it comes from and the audience that hears it being played there. Fewer still will encounter that music in situ, quite beyond the performances staged for fans and tourists, including at festivals that draw thousands.
Now transpose this situation to the 1960s, when recordings of indigenous music were rare for those in the West who were interested in it. And rarer yet a composer, musician, and musicologist trained at the National Conservatory of Paris, but who, in the 1940s, as the son of a French Governor General, lived his boyhood in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia; and whose ear was sensitized to what he heard when growing up.
Enter Charles Duvelle, whose field recordings, first in Africa then in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and South Pacific became in large part an indispensible library finally called Disques OCORA, which he founded, a small, underfunded arm of the French government’s Office de Cooperation Radiophonic. While the latter generally sought to disseminate French language and culture in Africa through radio and TV, the former sought to disseminate African culture in the West.
And so, in 1961, Duvelle began his work, traveling to Niger. There, with the help of native personnel from local radio stations, he made his first field recordings. Along the way his techniques evolved. He learned how to document the performances he attended, also with camera, careful not to draw undue attention to himself or his equipment, preserving as much as possible their immediacy and their cultural and ritual significance.
The present book celebrates this achievement with numerous black and white and color photos taken in situ and selected by Duvelle, selected also with his associate, Libyan-born musical archivist Hisham Mayet. Two CDs of exceptional tracks also chosen by Duvelle accompany the book, one of which from Benin included on the Voyager spacecraft’s golden record, now speeds beyond our solar system seeking ears other than human.
For Duvelle, though, music is responsive, not only to its culture but also to the environment in which it is played. In an extensive interview in the book, Duvelle makes the point that something alters when we hear music other than where it was created and performed. A Tuareg oblique flute, for example, resonates uniquely when played out in the open or in a tent in the Sahara where the Tuareg live or have lived. We can certainly listen to it on line or in a theater, but its resonance alters. Equally, as Duvelle notes, a Bach organ fugue written for performance in a church will resonate differently if played in a grassy field. The effect music has on us in the place where we hear it has its own existential value. The differences here may be slight or large, but for Duvelle they are differences that should not be ignored – neither should their implications. Additional commentary on musical education, whether primarily oral or through notation, enriches the significance of this book for contemporary readers and listeners.
Included in the book are explanatory notes to each photo; annotated track listings on songs on the two CDs; Duvelle’s 1970 text, “Eastern Music in Black Africa,” written for a UNESCO conference; a full discography of Disques OCORA and its latter incarnation, Collection Prophet, along with album thumbnail and other catalogue illustrations.
For those interested in Duvelle’s contribution to musical culture, how we appreciate music, its attendant scholarship, and what we have gained and lost by the availability of music worldwide through digital technology and abundant commercialization, this beautifully produced book is a significant source.