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A Confusing Musical Story About Pierre Verger

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This is a rumination about a great collector of world music, and an equally great photographer, Pierre Verger, whose name is now on the sleeves of some outstanding world music CDs.

I'll return to the particulars of the several discs in the Collection Edition Pierre Verger series. But first, let me share my puzzlement about the series' packaging and presentation, which in this case is far from being a trivial matter.

Verger devoted decades of his long life to collecting music, and photographing musicians, in Africa and the Americas—music that was inspired by West African, specifically Yoruba, spirituality. It's a tradition relevant to jazz history, and perhaps its future too, since Latin jazz has long utilized and modified Yoruba ritual and dance rhythms. Of course, this same Yoruba-based music informs a huge variety of Latin pop musical styles too. So Verger's mission to chronicle the music deserves a wide audience.

It isn't easy to learn much about Verger, since the books of his photographs are all out-of-print. The Pierre Verger Foundation in France has a number of Verger's photos available on their website. The Foundation also has about 130 hours of Verger's recordings of African and Caribbean music in their archives. I had assumed, reasonably but wrongly, that the fifteen CDS in the Verger collection available in the US were actually culled from Verger's recordings. Each CD I've seen features a glowing photographic portrait Verger took of someone from Africa or the Caribbean. Each CD booklet also has a paragraph about who Verger was and the current activities of the Verger Foundation, as well as some vague notes about the performers and performances on each disc.

But in fact, the CDs contain music that Verger never collected. They are instead dynamic studio performances cherrypicked from the French World Music label, Sunset France. It's possible that Verger may have never even have heard these recordings featuring his name and photography.

Does it matter? Yes and no. Verger is hardly a household name among most fans of African and Caribbean music, and only a limited number of people in the US or anywhere else would expect the use of his name to be associated with raw field recordings of Cuban, Brazilian and Trinidadian traditional music, along the lines of the Nonesuch Explorer series. The CDs focused on Cuba, Brazil and the Caribbean are as varied and enchanting as any general intro CDs available on the market, perhaps equal to, or superior to in some cases, the Rough Guide introductions to various world music traditions.

But what I find most worthy of rumination is the missed opportunity the odd packaging of these discs suggests. What if these African and Caribbean samplers had been packaged as a roots-of-jazz-and-popular- world music series? Suppose the CD booklets had clarified why Verger thought the music crossing with the slave trade between Africa and the New World was crucial to the myriad offshoots of jazz, blues, and rock? Suppose Verger's thinking about the foundations of the music of the Americas in Africa had been the overarching concept behind the series, so that snippets of Verger's own field recordings would be juxtaposed with the new studio recordings?

There is another, rather different and touching, possibility to this project. In addition to apparently paying generously for the right to reproduce Verger's photographs on the CD covers, Sunset France has also donated hundreds of the CDs to poor children in Brazil, whose exposure to music from around the world would otherwise be very limited. What might happen if these children would be encouraged to respond musically to what they heard, and their musical responses be made commercially available?

As promised above, here are some relevant facts and observations:

  1. Sunset France has a back catalogue of over 300 world music titles, some featuring obscure and talented musicians whose music isn't available elsewhere.

  2. The sound quality is generally superb.

  3. You may be curious about the roots of jazz in African and Caribbean, Yoruba-flavored music.

  4. If you fall in love with Verger's photography—an easy thing to do when staring at these covers—you might want to pressure some publisher into making his books of photos available again.

  5. You might want to write to the Sunset France label or the Verger Foundation. Ask them about the likelihood of their releasing Verger CDs containing the actual music Verger collected.
Visit Sunset France and Pierre Verger Foundation on the web.

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