May 22, 2024

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Soul artist Verna Gillis was the daughter of a Latvian doctor who fled to the United States during World War II: Video, Sounds, Photos

American freelance record producer, Soul artist Verna Gillis has always had a desire to be “in the middle of the music,” and that is exactly what she has done from the early 1970s into the present.

Raised in Manhattan, Gillis was the daughter of a Latvian doctor who fled to the United States during World War II and a father who taught English as a second language. She was exposed to a variety of accents and cultural information that was conveyed as part of her daily experience. She credits her father with teaching her how to listen, which she considers the greatest gift she ever received. At the City College of New York, she encountered an ethnomusicologist for the first time: her professor Henrietta Yurchenco, who had done fieldwork, recording, and writing about the music of Mexico. Gillis was captivated by the prospect of listening and recording, and it ignited her imagination.

Gillis earned a PhD in ethnomusicology at the Union Graduate School, and when she was conducting doctoral fieldwork in Iran, she also recorded music in Kashmir and Afghanistan. This was an era when global travel was becoming accessible, and between 1972 and 1976, she mostly self-subsidized trips to record music in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Suriname, The Gambia, and Ghana. In the United States, she recorded Reverend Audrey Bronson with her Minister of Music, organist Becky Carlton, in their church in Philadelphia, as well as Comanche flute music with Doc Tate Nevaquaya in Oklahoma.

Two women embrace arm in arm.

Her body of recorded music consists of twenty-seven albums that were released on the Folkways and Lyrichord record labels. Some of Gillis’s original tapes are archived in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian, and others have been repatriated to institutions in the origin countries. At the time, few if any recordings of these types of vernacular music existed, especially recorded in situ. Her documents reflect the sounds of a particular moment in musical time.

Reflecting upon her experiences recording music, Gillis’s goal was to follow the music, wherever it led her. Coming into communities as an outsider, she recalls that people were very welcoming, and she never felt like a person out of place. She did need to devote considerable attention to learning the unique cultural customs of each region, such as how, or whether, you should offer your hand to someone in greeting. Gillis always relied upon a local guide to help navigate the unique challenges of each location, such as learning how to put up mosquito netting and how to get out of a hammock without falling on the floor!

In the late 1970s, Gillis produced a radio program on WBAI in New York City entitled Soundscape: Music from Everywhere, with Verna Gillis, presenting a collage of sounds, artist interviews, live performances, and more. This experience inspired her to open a music venue at 52nd Street and 10th Avenue entitled Soundscape. This oasis was a meeting place for an eclectic array of musicians and musical genres. Soundscape emerged as a leading presenter of a new Latin Jazz sound in New York, featuring the U.S. debut performances of Cuban musicians Daniel Ponce and Paquito D’Rivera. It was also the first U.S. presenter of African pop, with King Sunny Adé from Nigeria in 1981, which Robert Palmer of The New York Times called “The Pop Event of the Decade.”

Gillis closed Soundscape in 1984 to manage the career of Youssou N’Dour (Senegal). She also worked with Yomo Toro (Puerto Rico), Salif Keita (Mali), Carlinhos Brown (Brazil), and Roswell Rudd (United States). She was nominated for two Grammy Awards as producer for Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd – Live in New York, and MALIcool by Roswell Rudd with Toumani Diabate.

Verna Gillis, now eighty years old, shared memories of these early experiences and important audio documents, now in the Smithsonian Folkways catalog, over Zoom from her home in Kerhonkson, New York.

A group of mostly African women, and a white man and woman, dance together outdoors.
How did you get started in recording sounds from around the world?

When I was doing dissertation research in Iran in 1972, it led to unexpected additional musical recording opportunities in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Prior to my first trip, I had heard about the Nagra tape recorder, but that was beyond my financial capabilities. I then asked an audio specialist who recommended the Stellavox, and that was perfect.

In those days, you had to be creative about your recording gear as it involved schlepping tapes, mic stands, reel extenders, batteries, and there was no way you could go to a corner store to buy additional supplies. The main thing is that you didn’t want to take anything heavy. I had the Stellavox carrying case, which held the mics, recording equipment, the cables, and then a separate container for the boxes of tape. I also remember packing the microphone stands in a case designed for golf clubs. Sometimes I ran out of batteries, but fortunately I never ran out of tape.

Planning these recording field trips included money for roundtrip transportation, hotels, food, paying musicians, and local travel. Looking back on it after all these years, it always felt like everything happened as part of an organic process. I guess each trip was somewhat like producing a concert, but in various locations. I used the same skills, such as meeting people and arranging musical events, but in a different way. Generally, I would connect with a local guide in each region who knew the area and the musicians. I met a great person in Ghana named Yeboah Nyamekye, who knew everyone. We went to the radio station, met all the musicians, and were invited to their homes where we recorded them. It was so easy to be there.

These are instances where you are totally present and focused within that moment in time. And I remember that many groups were surprised when I offered an honorarium for their performance. It was different, and many people had never experienced being recorded in that way.

A group of mostly African women, and a white man and woman, dance together outdoors.

How did you decide where to go or what to record?

Shortly after I finished my doctorate, I was teaching at Brooklyn College (1974–1980), and half of my students were from the Caribbean. I realized that I knew nothing about their music, so I decided to learn from their suggestions and their experiences, which provided my direction. That’s what took me to the Dominican Republic. Two of my students who were brothers, David and Ramón Perez, became my field recording assistants at different times. After working in the Dominican Republic, I went to Peru, then Ghana, and then Suriname.

That’s the way it was. There was no real master plan. There was no “budget.” Basically, I supported it, as I didn’t have the time or patience to put thought and planning into grant proposals and then waiting for the money to do it. I was fortunate to be able to afford to do it on my own, and along the way, I did receive help from various sources.

I remember that one of the major oil companies in the Dominican Republic supported my recordings. They met me at my hotel and brought me cash in a brown paper bag. I don’t think anyone had ever asked them for this kind of support, and certainly no one had ever paid me in cash in a brown paper bag.

Album art for Music from the Dominican Republic: Vol. 1, The Island of Quisqueya.
Album art for Music from the Dominican Republic: Vol. 2, The Island of Española.
Album art for Music from the Dominican Republic: Vol. 3, Cradle of the New World.
Album art for Music from the Dominican Republic: Vol. 4, Songs from the North.

Did you have an objective of what you wanted to do with these recordings?

When I first started recording, I just went and did it. Then I went to Folkways Records and met Moe Asch, who was an informal old guy, sitting behind stacks of contracts written in pen and ink—a great guy. It was really easy. He said, “Sure, yeah, sounds interesting—let’s do it!” I didn’t start recording because I thought there might be interest, but it turns out there was, and it continued to be that way, so that was fortunate.

Lyrichord and its owner Nick Fritsch was also very good to me. I used to go visit him in the West Village, and he released my recordings from Iran, Afghanistan, and Suriname. I’m grateful to both of those companies. At Folkways I was paid $500 per record. Since Smithsonian acquired the Folkways catalog [in 1987], it became possible to download individual tracks digitally, which has resulted in royalties.

Are there any moments that stand out for you from your years of recording?

When I went to Haiti in 1975 with my husband Brad, I went to a vodoun ceremony, and that is something that was visceral and remains within my body. I remember all the hairs on my arm standing up as I was recording with headphones on and reels going around. There were people eating glass, walking on embers, and things that I had never even considered as being possible. We returned to the hotel, went to sleep, and I wet the bed.

Another visceral event I experienced was through the music of Winti, an African-based religion in Suriname. The shared experience in these ceremonies was that practitioners were transforming, and being transported elsewhere, and it’s a part of communication—that I personally did not experience but that I saw take place. It was the power of music and rhythm that took them there.

I also remember an experience I had in Ghana, outside of Accra, when I was recording a group, and what grabbed my attention was the man who was playing the bell. It was what he brought to it, the way he played it, and the way it sounded when he played it—that’s what was different. It was the first time that I “heard” the bell. It was more than just keeping a rhythm going.

Experiences like that bring you into the present in a different way, because they are riveting. These are moments of extraordinary awareness when I realized: “Here I am. It’s really happening.”

How did you make these recordings relevant for people who had no idea about what they were hearing?

I never provided enough information. I never provided enough context. I don’t consider myself to be a formal ethnomusicologist—I’ve always said that. I record music. And even though I was able to describe basic peripheral information about a particular recording, I personally did not need a lot of information to really enjoy it. The contextual data didn’t change the experience for me, so I began asking other people to write the liner notes. In fact, when Folkways re-released my rara akbum, my original notes were rewritten by Gage Averill, who wrote excellent notes.

What did you do with your tapes after the records were released?

Only a small percentage of what I recorded was released on vinyl, where the maximum was twenty minutes per side, and I had recorded hours and hours. I decided that I wasn’t going to be doing anything else with those tapes, so I repatriated some of the tapes to their country of origin. I donated my recordings from Peru to the Department of Ethnomusicology at La Universidad Católica in Lima. The Ghanaian recordings went to the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, and in the Dominican Republic, there was a New York City-based Dominican organization, Alianza Dominicana, that took possession of the tapes. The Smithsonian has also archived recordings I produced here in the United States.

On the left, a group of Black people in white robes sing on a bench outdoors, facing a white woman recording them on the right. Between them on the ground, a microphone and recording equipment.

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