For decades, a chunk of Haitian history sat, untouched, on an obscure shelf in the Library of Congress in Washington: huge piles of aluminum discs in little cardboard jackets containing more than 1,500 recordings made in Haiti in the 1930s by famed folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.
Unearthed in the late 1990s, the find contained more than 50 hours of recorded music and six films. Needing help to deal with the massive discovery, Lomax's daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, called in Gage Averill.
Now dean of arts at the University of British Columbia, Averill is considered one of the world's foremost authorities on Haitian music. But even he was unaware of this treasure trove.
"I was gobsmacked that this existed. It was an extraordinary archive," Averill said this week. "There are more recordings in there I think, ethnographic recordings, field recordings, than have been made in the years since."
Last week, the recordings - released this year as the box set Alan Lomax in Haiti: Recordings for the Library of Congress, 1936-1937 - received two Grammy nominations: best historical album (up against the Beatles anthology, among others) and best album notes. Averill, who wrote the liner notes - a book, essentially - is nominated in the latter category.
His notes begin with the incredible story of Lomax's travels in Haiti. It was late 1936, Lomax was 21, and Haiti was at a critical point. The U.S. occupation had recently ended and ethnographers flooded in to study what was considered to be the most African nation in the Western hemisphere. Lomax - who in his career also touted the talents of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly - wanted to capture the music and stories of this pivotal time. He recorded everything from Voodoo ceremonies to Boy Scout troops.
"Alan was a passionate devotee of the folk," says Averill. "And he wanted to get to regular folks, to people who wouldn't have had a chance to be heard otherwise."
An ethnomusicologist whose other chief musical interest is American barbershop harmony, Averill, 56, has been travelling to Haiti since 1987, spending long stretches of time studying music there. Born and raised in the United States, Averill is married to a Trinidadian-Canadian and was at the University of Toronto for six years before starting at UBC in September.
When presented with the opportunity to work on the Lomax recordings in 2007 (it took some time to get the project off the ground), Averill hesitated. He was dean at U of T's Mississauga campus. His daughter was 4. He knew that the project - to transcribe, translate and interpret the many, many recordings and then select and arrange them into thematic discs - would be mammoth.
"I thought ... about whether I could do this under the pressures of being a dean. It wasn't obvious that I could. Actually I thought I couldn't.... But [record producer]David [Katznelson]refused to let me jump ship. Then my family - my daughter and my wife and I - had a powwow and they said something to the effect of we'll see you in about eight months."
They weren't that far off. On weekdays, Averill worked on the project from 4 to 8 a.m. before heading to his job, then returned to the recordings from 8 p.m. until midnight. Weekends he went flat out.
The process was part ethnomusicology, part detective work. Averill was tasked with matching the scratchy recordings with the disjointed notes Lomax had scribbled into various notebooks. But the numbers didn't always correspond, and Lomax's handwriting was terrible. Averill went through Lomax's receipts - for musicians, taxis - trying to figure out where he had travelled and when. In one case, he and his collaborators spent 20 hours trying to figure out the name of one small rural ensemble.
He pasted a giant map of Haiti onto his wall so he could find even tiny villages (with varying degrees of success).
He consulted with French and Creole speakers; Louis Carl Saint Jean, in New York, served as a trusted assistant, often calling his own aunt in Fond-des-Blancs, near Jacmel, to see if she could find anyone who might know the answer to an obscure musical question.
He tracked down the children of Haitian musicians who were active in the 1930s. "Louis would be playing the piece [of music]and holding the phone to the computer and some 90 year old who's come to a neighbour's phone in Plaisance, Haiti, would be telling us what she thought the song was about," says Averill. "It was totally cool."
Listening to the recordings for hours a day through his headphones, reading Lomax's diary and trying to sequence the songs, Averill felt a kinship with Lomax, who died in 2002. "I was doing essentially his work in reverse, to try to make this of use to the work.
"I found myself both awestruck and sometimes frustrated with Lomax," he continues. "I wish he'd kept better track of recordings. But that said, he's done more recording here than I'll ever do in my life. And that was under conditions of Haiti in the 1930s, lugging 50 pounds of recording equipment."
Keeping him going through the hard work and frustrations (and there were more - including his discomfort with some "disturbing" racial language in Lomax's writings) was Averill's will to provide a counter-example to all the bad-news stories about Haiti - and this was long before this year's devastating earthquake.
"The one thing almost everyone can recite is it's the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. So here's an example of humongous riches from the poorest country."
Even before the Grammy nominations, it was clear that Averill's months-long retreat into Lomax's mind - and erratic journal entries - had hit the right note, forging an intelligible path through Lomax's grown-over Haitian tapestry.
As Lomax Wood writes in her introduction to Averill's liner notes: "I am moved and astonished that [Averill]could, out of the dust of 70 years, produce notes of such scholarly depth and sympathy, and filled with so much vibrancy and immediacy that they transport us directly into sights and sounds and passions of long-ago, blending almost seamlessly with the preternaturally mature voice of the 21-year-old Alan Lomax."
The 53rd annual Grammy Awards will be held in Los Angeles on Feb. 13.