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Folk Music Fieldwork is Returning to Caribbean Origins

Tra la
Tra la la
Tra la la la la la la la la
Nov. 9, 2005 — No matter how you remember it, it's in the musical memories of many listeners. Isn't it in a Christmas song? Well, no, that's "fa la la…"
It's in an opera, right, one of those Gilbert and Sullivan things? Yes, "the flowers that bloom in the spring tra la." French songs use the "tra la" and in the Middle East the equivalent word is "rampi" or "rompi." There's a South American folk song known as "El tra la la." The phrase is in folk songs of many languages, with variant meanings, perhaps even expressing an unwillingness to assign words with meanings.
But its widest application denotes the refrain: the point at which a soloist invites the chorus to join in. And in the Caribbean, it's unmistakably connected to one song, with an absolute number of syllables, which people in virtually every island sing and dance and play games to: "Brown Girl in the Ring." The tune may vary from island to island, but the refrain phrase is a constant.
In the early 1960s, the late folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax spent several months in the Caribbean, and met this song in Trinidad, Tobago, St. Kitts, Anguilla and Jamaica. He had been collecting folk songs throughout his life and had not encountered "Brown Girl" in the United States or elsewhere in the world, and thus he declared it a "genuinely original contribution by Caribbean children." So impressed was he that he named the 1997 anthology of song games from the Eastern Caribbean, created together with J.D. Elder and Bess Lomax Hawes, "Brown Girl in the Ring."
Lomax extensively documented 25 collections and thousands of field recordings, preserved and organized by the Alan Lomax Archive and the Association for Cultural Equity in Manhattan. It is now being digitized and distributed to the regions where Lomax originally located them. According to an article on World Music Central Web site, Lomax believed that it was "imperative to return traditions to their home sources and artists."
The Alton Augustus Adams Music Research Institute, a branch of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, has been chosen as the sole repository in the Caribbean region for return of the fruits of his Caribbean sojourn. On Nov. 10, Anna Lomax Wood, daughter of Alan Lomax, will make the presentation to Dr. Rosita M. Sands, Institute and Center director, in a program at the Marriott Frenchman's Reef resort. Anna accompanied her father on some of his later travels.
The 7 p.m. program, open to the public, will feature remarks by Alton Adams Jr., Myron Jackson, James A. O'Bryan Jr., and Dr. Orville Kean on behalf of the V.I. community, and by Dr. Samuel A. Floyd Jr., the Center's founder and director emeritus, and by Dr. Warrick L. Carter, Columbia College president. Dr. Lois Hassell-Habtes, who has sung "Brown Girl" many a time, including at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., will be mistress of ceremonies, and the Lockhart School Cultural Dancers will give a musical demonstration. A reception will follow.
Although Lomax did not do field research in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he visited Anguilla, Carriacou, Dominica, Grenada/Trinidad, Guadeloupe/St. Lucia, Martinique, Nevis, St. Bartholomew/Anguilla, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Tobago and Trinidad. Part of the Adams Institute's responsibilities will include dissemination to appropriate entities in those islands of the fieldwork conducted in their regions. In the first of these distributions, the fieldwork of St. Kitts and Nevis will be presented on Nov. 14 to the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society.
The Institute, located at the former Adams family homestead on Kongens Gade, is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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