I LOVE archives, and I’ve always used them to learn Gaelic songs and familiarize myself with the repertoire. But recently, I’ve been taking a critical look at the use of archival recordings as a cornerstone of today’s singing practice- in the way they represent, contextualize, and embody Gaelic song in Cape Breton.
In contemporary Cape Breton, Gaelic singers turn to recording archives as cultural storehouses, learning tools and representations of the Gaelic song canon. They invest archives with authoritative power and enter into active dialogue with their documents. But philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote that archives are repositories of traces, evidence of past individual experiences rather than monuments representing collective memory. Archives are indeed potentially static manifestations of cultural practices; they represent a body of tradition that appears cohesive to those outside the community but which might reflect a limited aspect of the more amorphous and dynamic living canon, for archives do not easily reveal the kaleidoscope of individual styles and repertoires one experiences firsthand.
As an ethnomusicologist who got into scholarship as a singer first, I’ve learned reluctantly to join my singing friends in Cape Breton in placing my trust in first-hand experience, turning to Archives as a mnemonic device or memory prompt, or a clue to a mystery I must keep working to solve.
(to be continued..)