Project 26

On October 25, the Atlanta-based record label/book publisher Dust to Digital will release “Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM,” a collection of music recorded across Africa in the early 20th century that’s compiled by LA-based collector, researcher, writer — and, coincidentally, Getty Foundation employee — Jonathan Ward.

As explained by Ward, Opika Pende “is a 4-CD collection featuring 100 tracks taken from rare 78rpm recordings of African music (1909 to mid-1960s), none of which have ever been issued on CD until now.”

As the digital world continues to scour the past for remnants nearly lost to time, Ward’s project could transform the way we think about African music by shining a light on some of the many undocumented strains born on the continent and helping to connect the dots to music created as musicians emigrated, both voluntarily and as part of the slave trade, to ports across the world.

Ward is best known in collector circles for his music blog, Excavated Shellac, which over the past four years has offered remarkable, historically significant downloads of old music from across the world. “Opika Pende,” like his 2010 vinyl compilation “Excavated Shellac: Strings,” is a natural extension of the blog.

Like all Dust-to-Digital productions, including the landmark set of early gospel and spiritual music, “Goodbye Babylon”; the surreal curated art book/musical compilation “Victrola Favorites”; and Pasadena artist Steve Roden’s book of found photographs of musicians and anonymous old music, “… i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces …,” Ward’s “Opika Pende” will come in a deluxe package and feature extensive liner notes.

For a Getty project, I’m interested in working with information provided in the liner notes and music and augmenting it with conversations with Ward and others to create some sort of online/digital/iPad/whatever feature that examines the many layers of data and historical context and transforms this information into something else. What, exactly? Not sure, but I imagine — I’m brainstorming here, so bear with me — employing Google Maps, archival footage, interviews, Flash, the music itself, photos, the hive mind, whatnot, to create an enlightening, dynamic digital feature.

Unlike in today’s world, music and other forms of art created at the birth of recorded media didn’t travel via satellite connection, but migrated physically. In the case of African music, colonialism spread the music to and from Europe, and the slave trade delivered musical ideas to America — where they traveled up and down the Mississippi River as African-Americans migrated north after Abolition.

By connecting dots and employing new ways of examining information, a dynamic multi-media feature, done right, will better reveal the profound influence that African music has had over the past few centuries while celebrating Jonathan Ward’s singular, and important, accomplishment.