From Kentucky bluegrass to Louisiana Zydeco to German hurdy-gurdy to East European Klezmer to Indian Manipuri dancing to Native American pow wows, and much more, these musical traditions from around the country and around the world have found their way to Michigan. Beginning in 2014, the Musical Heritage Project has been documenting Michigan’s folk music history.
Lester Monts Lester Monts specializes in ethnomusicology and has been documenting Michigan’s folk cultural heritage since 2014. (Image courtesy Lester Monts)
The project is led by ethnomusicologist Dr. Lester P. Monts, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Music, who began his musical journey as an orchestral trumpet player. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in trumpet performance and teaching trumpet at the college level before completing the doctoral degree in ethnomusicology and embarking on a research career. In the mid-1970s, Monts began to focus his research on music and culture in Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa. The fourteen-year Liberian civil war thwarted his fieldwork in that region.
Noting that there has been no systematic effort to collect and archive Michigan’s rich folk music heritage, the Michigan Musical Heritage Project was launched. Monts has embraced the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it. He notes that “music brings people together; it has the power to create community, and we witnessed this occurring throughout our many journeys around the state.”
Using his charm, passion, likeability, and keen musical knowledge to cultivate trust with his interviewees, Monts captured more than 400 hours of audio and video data over the years, amassing a total of 80 terabytes of data. He believes this to be the most extensive collection of Michigan folk music in the state and that U-M is the right place to house this collection.
The Michigan Musical Heritage Project crew wraps up at the end of recording session. (Image courtesy Lester Monts)
With a videography crew consisting primarily of former U-M students, Monts traveled all around the state to record performances at folk music festivals and cultural gatherings, such as the Celtic Festival (Saline), Irish Folk Music Festival (Muskegon) Hispanic Heritage Festival (Hart), Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival (Marquette), Port Sanilac Blues Festival (Port Sanilac), Africa World Festival (Detroit), Aura Jamboree (Aura), Oldtime Fiddlers Convention and Traditional Music Festival (Hillsdale).
He says, “The creative talents of the state’s outstanding musicians must be preserved, not only for my research but for that of others as well. If properly preserved, I’m confident that in the future, the ethnomusicology program and the American Cultures department will find these data provide important insights into Michigan’s diverse musical heritage.”
How technology supports this project
Monts’ crew includes a strong partnership with Tom Bray, converging technologies consultant and adjunct assistant professor of Art and Design, Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design. Bray has been instrumental in pairing the right technology for the long-term preservation of this collection, which includes converting older footage to digital media.
Tom Bray (image courtesy LSA)
Bray has collaborated with Monts to convert older technologies, such as VHS, 8mm, and high-8 video, to digital files. The files are both compressed and uncompressed and are very large and of high resolution.
All of this wonderful and important audio and video footage needs to be preserved somewhere. But where do you turn when you have 80 terabytes of data? Monts said, “I’ve been desperately searching for a way to archive the video data collected under the auspices of the Michigan Musical Heritage Project.”
Enter the U-M Research Computing Package (UMRCP) and the team from Advanced Research Computing (ARC), a division of Information and Technology Services. The UMRCP offers researchers across all campuses several resources at no additional cost to researchers, including 100 terabytes of long-term storage.
Bray said, “I had to read the UMRCP email announcement twice because I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so excited that ITS and the university are supporting researchers in this way. We jumped on this opportunity right away.”
ARC Director Brock Palen is excited about this work, too. “This is super interesting, and not like the usual types of research ARC normally sees, like climate and genomics. We’re happy to help Dr. Monts and Mr. Bray, and anyone who needs it, anytime. The archive is intentionally built for holding large-volume, raw data such as 4k video, and we are proud to be their go-to for this important cultural preservation project.”
Hours and hours of media is being converted to a digital format. (Photo by Stephanie Dascola)
ARC replicates and encrypts in two secure locations that are miles apart, so those who use ARC services will not have to worry about crashes that they might experience if they are using their own equipment. The UMRCP also includes technical expertise by talented ARC staff to further remove barriers so researchers can do what they do best.
Monts and Bray also leverage the university’s network and WiFi services to transfer the files from their studio in the Duderstadt Center to storage. The network is designed to minimize bottlenecks so that data transfers quickly and efficiently.
Dr. Monts said, “Although the pandemic temporarily disrupted my plans to complete the video documentary, I take solace in knowing that the many hours of data we collected is in a much safer environment than we had. The UMRCP storage resource is truly a boon!”
A reel-to-reel tape player. (Photo by Stephanie Dascola)
Dr. Monts shows footage from a special women-only dance in Iberia. He earned permission to record this rarely-documented group of women. (Photo by Stephanie Dascola)