The Making of the Material on this Website
The Field Equipment
On the way in 1967, in Amsterdam airport, I spent my gear budget of $500 on three pieces of equipment: a 35mm SLR Pentax camera, a Canon Super-8 film camera (silent), and a Uher 2000 Report-L portable tape recorder (mono, four speeds, five-inch reels of tape).
The amount of 8mm film and recording tape was rationed, since they were not available in Afghanistan. There was no 8mm projector in the country, and no developing lab, so I sent my precious supply of reels to France to be developed and returned, but I was unable to project them to see how the camera was working.
Recording conditions were often difficult. Due to the dubious status of music in the culture, informants usually preferred to be taped indoors, in small, resonant, mud-brick rooms. Often a crowd would gather, if the site was near the bazaar, as was often the case, further limiting my mobility, as well as increasing the musicians' uneasiness.
Often, it was hard to identify musicians at all, since people did not want to be labeled as such. Once I discovered by accident that a musician was using a pseudonym, which casts into doubt the reliability of many of the names I wrote down for musicians who were not "regulars" in my work.
I envied researchers with Nagra tape recorders, the gold standard of field equipment, but did not regret having a much lighter machine, given the difficult travel conditions. The one time I used a Nagra, its weight of over 10 kg (with accessories) exhausted me. I was sorry not to be taping in stereo, but nearly everything I recorded was music played solo or in groups of two or three. The very live recording sites demanded close miking. Setting up more mikes or using flash photography would have seemed obtrusive, and there were no studio conditions available for controlled "laboratory" recordings.
An excerpt from fieldnotes about large public contexts gives some sense of the difficulties, and why small private sessions predominate in the tapes:
Good session at the tent [during the Nowruz festival, first days of spring]-somehow, we got the "folk" going and taped some non-pros. A large crowd gathered and, as in such occasions, one loses control to a certain extent of the ceremonies; some officious type always tells people what to do, what to sing, and treat me as an ignorant foreigner; sometimes, though, I have to assert my own taste to keep from taping all kinds of junk-little girls with radio songs, etc.
The old tablachi [tabla-player] stopped one fellow in the middle of a song because gambling was the topic. Somebody said "do you have gambling in America?" And much humor when I said "more than in Afghanistan." As usual, Bangecha [one of my prime musician friends] showed up and tried to steal as much limelight as possible. Typical case of maximum music, minimum info; I was complaining about not enough folksiness, but here was enough folk, but the wrong circumstances-I can't talk to anybody in the midst of 200 people! Barely can get names and such.
The most problematic recording session emerged from the discovery in Tashqurghan, made jointly with Pierre Centlivres and Micheline Centlivres-Demont, of an "underground" shaman tradition, hitherto unreported for Afghanistan. This pre-islamic, Central Asian tradition came as a surprise. We were very eager to document it, and invited one of the few remaining practitioners to heal the Centlivres' servant, Abdurrahman, whom we said was ill. The particular cure of the bakhshi that we requested is normally done indoors at night, making documentation impossible. We asked the bakhshi to hold his sťance on the balcony, still a private space, in daylight. He concurred, and did go into a state of possession while four westerners whirred around feverishly with tape recorders, still cameras, and a movie camera (see "A Muslim Shaman of Afghan Turkestan," Ethnology 10 , 161-73 for a full account of what we learned, as well as the section on this in their book Portraits d'Afghanistan). Around the same period of music documentation, Hugo Zemp was faced with a similar problem in his work with the 'Are-'Are people of Malaita in the Pacific, when he cataloged their entire music repertoire. When it came to the shamanistic ritual done in darkness, he chose to solve the problem by filming it in the dark, leaving the viewer with the black screen and the soundtrack.
The total amount of recording I did in Afghanistan came to something under 100 hours. Three long-playing vinyl recordings with excerpts from the fieldtapes were issued in 1969 and 1970 by the short-lived "Anthology of the World's Music" series on Anthology Records, under the sponsorship of the Society for Ethnomusicology, which chose George Curtiss, a small-time commercial ethnic-label manufacturer, as manager. The series stopped suddenly when Curtiss's warehouse was struck by lightning, destroying his stock (including the master tape for my projected fourth album, Turkmen music). Around that time, the Board of SEM (which I had joined) voted to terminate the series on the grounds that sponsoring particular scholars' records would look like an endorsement of a few ethnomusicologists and the implied disapproval of others.
Excerpts from the fieldtapes were also licensed to the BBC for their then-flourishing archive of custom-pressed discs for background airplay.