Reviewing the Sound of Diaspora

Musical Passage - A Voyage to 1688 Jamaica

I have been fascinated by ethnomusicology since I was first introduced to the word and able to pronounce it. This study of cultures through this music and vice versa allows you to make connections and follow conclusions that shrink the world while exposing the enormously complex layers of deceptively simple sound expressions. It is also a way to illustrate and understand migration patterns, symbolic interaction, and facets of culture that might have been obscured through time.

This week my assignment for digital history class was to analyze and review the Musical Passage project, and I was thrilled. Created by Laurent Dubois , David K Garner , and Mary Caton Lingold , here is a digital fusion of history, music, and digital application to inform and unwrap the complexity of a musical piece composed to transcribe a piece of African music in the Carribean. A collaboration of scholars presents an interactive story of Hans Sloane’s Voyage to the Islands of Maera, Barbados, Neives and S. Christophers and Jamaica” from 1707. From a contemporary view, there was an English intellectual who traveled to Jamaica during an active era of slave trading from Africa to the region, held slaves and a plantation, and in effect mined the culture and talents of these forces, transplanted people to study their music through his lens.  But, this is African music, acknowledging ethnic diversity there, brought to those in a tragic diaspora, keeping a respect to the meaning and delivery of the music: the melody and instrumentation remaining as authentic as possible given the setting.

This site posts the image of these 2 musical pages of text and offers hypertext to hear the passages or learn about the instruments and language within the piece. The clicks remain on the page in a popup to provide information such as a short biography on Sloane, elaborated definitions of some terms what illustrate life in Jamaica at the time, speculation on who his assistant “Mr. Baptiste” really was. On the music printed, the creators offered the historical background of each movement as it related to the 3 ethnicities represented: Angola, Popo, and Koromanti. They gave the location, some distinctive description of each and what kind of instruments would have come from the region. Along with this pop-out is a sample of the music performed as written.

The site has 3 main sections: Explore, Read, and About. Explore is the aforementioned page with the text and transcription from which one can listen or read more information on the piece. In the “Read” section, the authors provide a detailed history on Sloane and Jamaica at the time, the process of writing this book and Sloane’s efforts with Mr. Baptist in achieving some authenticity. They do this respecting the integrity of the music above all else. The final section discusses the collaboration of scholars, the digital architecture behind the project and platforms, and an extended bibliography. The grace and ease of transition in the site from HTML5 and Fullpage.Js among other newer software for web presentation.


The creators of Musical Passage clearly state that the audience for Sloane’s book was for his peers: the white, wealthy land-owning, slave-holding class in Jamaica at the time and not for the people who could relate to the material and join the conversation. Those they treated as sub-human were also those who were peculiar, and they held a detached intellectual interest in these rich cultures much as they would a seashell or a chair.

The audience for the website, however, is the public at large and this user-friendly site has the appeal of offering great detail in somewhat common language that can be understood by middle school children interested in the origins of the guitar or banjo or a citizen wanting to find a transcription of music hailing (inspired) from their ancestral land pre-diaspora. It would be useful as a classroom assignment to launch a multi-disciplinary study into Jamaica at the time as a case study in slavery and the Americas. Or, for someone like myself, who loves music and exploring its many manifestations as expressive cultural artifacts.

Musical Passage is both a digital archive and an exhibit. It digitized a rare and important work, perhaps the first transcription of African music into the Americas and annotated it so that we can listen and understand it in the context beyond its initial appeal.  It may inspire others to develop interactive digital sites and exhibits for other pieces, both historical and current which invite the discussion of art and meaning and the things that unite us all or expose stratification.