‘The meek shall inherit the groove’: the fine art of field recording

In an excerpt from his new book, Ian Brennan argues that field recordings can arrest the progress of a music’s form, and describes how he came across the extraordinary Malawi Mouse Boys

A member of the Malawi Mouse Boys being recorded by Ian Brennan in Malawi

A member of the Malawi Mouse Boys being recorded by Ian Brennan in Malawi


A pitfall of capturing music in any permanent, reproducible medium is that it can arrest the artistic growth and progress of that musical form. The archetypal field recordings that Alan Lomax did throughout America’s South in the 1940s (or the forefather of all sonic “exotica” documentation, Jesse Fewkes in 1889), more than exemplifying exact musical genres like the blues, were in fact reflections of individual aesthetics at one exact moment in time. The assumption that bluegrass music always sounded like it did in the era in which it was first so faithfully documented is to disregard the fluidity of all musical creation.

Not only would bluegrass have sounded different one hundred years earlier, it probably sounded markedly different even five years before (and would have more so five years later, had it not been for the permanence of the recordings themselves which led to more precise mimicry, turning music-making from a process, instead, into a “thing” that could literally be held and examined).

More than sacred scriptures, most folk music has been constantly retooled and adapted by each successive individual performer. The greatest pieces were cross-generational works in progress (eg, The Iliad was 700-plus years in the making).

The first recordings essentially caught improvisations that arbitrarily became benchmarks, snapshots stolen from an epic film, that was then disrupted violently, damming up its stream, midnarrative. And those pictures will inevitably be, in the first place, blurry ones, for they are capturing something elusive and in motion, much like the ambiguous images offered as evidence of UFOs or Loch Ness monster sightings.

Art is designed to reveal, not to show us what we already see and know. Yet, the gigantic copying machine that is the music industry, by necessity, thrives on repetition. And when a system ceases changing, it has become a cadaver.

A psychological appeal of fixing something vaporous into a physical state is that it appeases people’s fear of their own impermanence. But 100 years from now – if we have even survived as a species – no one but the most erudite will know or care who sang Sexual Healing or Every Breath You Take or the like. But the sturdiest songs – the most unshakable melodies, a lyrical bit that hooks listeners’ psyches – will have lived on in some altered and evolving form, liberated from celebrity.

A field recording chronicle: ‘The meek shall inherit the groove’

It was just around the corner from the “Pack-and-Go” coffin shop that any trace of music was found in Malawi, on a skinny stretch of road that marks the only place where the tradition of selling barbecued mice-on-a-stick as snacks for passing travellers continues.

Literally working around the clock, whistling and waving their wares at oncoming traffic, the Malawi Mouse Boys spend the downtime of their days (and nights) beside the highway, strumming rudimentary guitars tailored from recycled scrap-metal parts.

Using stones for kick-drum mallets, they are a literal “rock” band. And, their hand carved and sheet-metal guitars give true thrust to the term do-it-yourself. One of the member’s mother gave him a birth name that translates to “I hate you”, expressing the not-so-subtle hostility of the environment that they were born into.

Having crisscrossed almost 2,000 miles along the bumpy dirt roads and undivided two-lane, main highway of this tiny, agricultural, and narrow land, until then – in more than two weeks – I had not seen a single instrument of any kind.

At one roadside bar stall that served banana-beer by the half gallon, Play that Funky Music, White Boy came blasting on the cracked speaker teetering on the counter, upping the irony quota to post post-modern dimensions. Whether the song had been put on intentionally as mockery or was just a case of someone simply liking the tune with or without knowledge as to its literal meaning seemed beside the point.

Along the journey, the person driving had made a wrong turn, dead-ending into an outdoor market. There was a standoff as he and one of the shopkeepers argued back and forth. The vehicle was soon surrounded by dozens of onlookers and other proprietors. The fact that the person with us was white seemed to only worsen matters. Finally, after many minutes of suspense, the crowd erupted into uproarious laughter, due at least in part to their befuddlement that a “British” person (who actually was Italian) could speak Chichewa so well and was willing to stand his ground so fearlessly. It turns out it had all been for amusement. To be allowed passage, we had paid a toll in theatre.

Rural Malawi is a place where wealth is demarcated by whether there is a thatch or tin roof over one’s hut. This alternating pattern dots the countryside in bursts, like some sort of patch-work binary code.

Subsisting in one of the poorest countries (the mean income is less than 40 cent a day and life expectancy narrowly surpasses 40 years of age) with nearly the highest rates of Aids, the populace seems poised, just one gram of protein a day away from revolution. The group of young villagers that founded the Malawi Mouse Boys live in one of the most impoverished districts of an already ravaged land, and have been writing songs of faith and love together since they were young children. The earnestness and passion of their voices hark back to an earlier and more trusting, pre-“modern” time.

After spotting one of the members beside the road, strumming a guitar, we made a hasty U-turn and introduced ourselves. Following some negotiation through a translator, a recording session was organised for later that week.

What had started out as a plan to record one single singer-songwriter snowballed into a full collective of eight musicians that piled in along the way, overfilling the truck-bed for a chance to play their handmade and repurposed instruments (the hi-hat was made from two rusted bicycle gears) for prosperity’s sake.

People talk of one-traffic-light towns. Malawi could be called a one-traffic-light nation. It’s a place where shoes remain a luxury item. There literally is no road into the Mouse Boys’ small village since cars never go there, so the band had to improvise a way through the bush.

It is an area where people define themselves not by what they have, but what they can do. The only real obstacle to catching something magic musically with these men was the tiny, manic spiders that kept racing into the slots of the hard drive.

Yes, dogs, chickens, and children are audible in the background of the recordings. But the great thing about animals and kids is that they always bark, chirp, and/or whine in time to the music. Intuitively, they blend.

How Music Dies (or Lives): Field-recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts is published by Allworth/Skyhorse (NYC) allworth.com

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