Royal B.C. Museum nominates Indigenous music collection for UNESCO program

Ida Halpern was passionate about the songs of British Columbia’s Indigenous people

Her life was steeped in classical music, but Ida Halpern was passionate about the songs of British Columbia’s Indigenous people, music she set out to prove was equal to that of Bach and Mozart.

Halpern’s more than 500 recordings, transcriptions and handwritten notes comprise a unique Indigenous collection at the Royal B.C. Museum. The work was recently nominated for a United Nations world memory program designation to safeguard cultural treasures against neglect, destruction and collective amnesia.

READ: Royal B.C. Museum to host first adult sleepover in Victoria

Some of the songs are available to the public in digital form while many others are part of what is an ongoing effort by the museum to reconnect the music with their communities, says museum archivist Genevieve Weber.

Among the recordings available are songs by Chief Mungo Martin, a renowned Indigenous artist and leader whose totems and big house stand at Thunderbird Park on the museum’s grounds.

Weber said she experienced the cultural and historical significance of Halpern’s work last summer when a relative of former Kwakwaka’wakw chief Billy Assu called about songs to use for her wedding.

Assu, from Quadra Island, was one of the first Indigenous leaders to permit Halpern to record songs, said Weber. Halpern spent years trying to record Indigenous songs but was rejected on grounds they were sacred and could only be heard by the community, she said.

Assu recognized in the late 1940s the songs would die with him because Indigenous people were not permitted to speak their own language at residential schools and their potlatch ceremonies, where many of the songs were performed, were declared illegal until 1951.

“I had a woman who asked for songs for her wedding,” said Weber. “She was a descendant of Billy Assu and I was able to not only give her the audio recordings, but I also gave her the transcriptions. She was learning them with her entire wedding party.”

Halpern fled the Holocaust and arrived in Vancouver from Austria in 1939. She had a music PhD, studying the works of classical composer Franz Schubert, and taught music appreciation courses at the University of British Columbia.

But she was drawn to Vancouver Island, the northwest coast and Haida Gwaii looking to record and preserve Indigenous music.

Halpern described in audio conversations that are part of the museum collection how she failed in the early 1940s to convince an Indigenous woman to share her traditional songs with her during a family vacation at D’Arcy, northeast of Whistler.

Halpern’s recording said when the woman finally agreed to sing for her, she sang only Christian hymns.

“I want your old, old songs,” Halpern said. But the woman refused, calling the Indigenous songs sacred.

In another interview, Tofino-area singer John Jacobson describes to Halpern how the rhythms and melody of songs from the Ahousaht people of Vancouver Island represent human heart beats and the sound of rolling waves.

“She published prolifically in music magazines around the world,” Weber said. “She wrote essays arguing that this was very technical, complicated music. That it was musically the equal of Bach and Mozart. She would print off these reports to show the complexities of the music.”

In 1974, the Folkways record label released a collection of Indigenous music recorded by Halpern from 1947 to 1953 and 1965 to 1974. It was called, ”Nootka Indian Music of the Pacific North West Coast.”

READ: The bonds of family form a key part of Royal B.C. Museum exhibit

Weber said Halpern’s work was groundbreaking in that she examined the music as an art form and explored the connections between Indigenous music and culture. Halpern also saw the need to preserve the music, she said.

“From my position in the archives, I think the most important thing she did was to have preserved these songs as a way that means they are now accessible to the communities and they are able to use them to revitalize their culture and bring back some of their ceremonies,” said Weber.

Halpern, who died in 1987, also taught ethnomusicology at UBC, was a music critic at the Vancouver Province newspaper from 1952 to 1968, served as the regional director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council from 1958 to 1972, and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1978.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

UPDATE: Nanaimo woman found safe

Nanaimo RCMP were looking for Amy Lynn Dowell

Summer of our Discontent: homeless camp a contentious issue

City of Nanaimo, tent city going to court this week to settle differences

Application hearing held for Discontent City case

Two-day petition hearing begins July 17

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Enough is enough at Discontent City

I cannot believe that the people of Discontent City even get to have a say, says letter writer

Large suspected ammo found at Cassidy recycling facility

Area businesses voluntarily evacuated

Nanaimo Concert Band to perform at Maffeo Sutton Park

Group will play marches, swing and show tunes at free evening concert

Silly boats make a splash on Nanaimo seas

Superette wins Nanaimo’s Silly Boat Regatta community fundraising event

Florist announces bid for Nanaimo city council

Jim Turley, former owner of Turley’s Florist, intends to run in fall election

VIDEO: Firefighters putting out brush fire in East Wellington

Fire is in the area of a new development under construction near Shady Mile Way

Temperature records break across southern B.C. as heat continues

Whistler broke a 70-year-old record high of 32.2 C with a temperature of 32.9 C

Hawaii volcano boat tours continue after ‘lava bomb’ injuries

“An explosion occurred near the shoreline hurling hot lava rocks towards the boat and injuring several passengers.”

Trump returns from summit with Putin to forceful criticism

“Shameful,” ”disgraceful,” ”weak,” were a few of the comments. Makes the U.S. “look like a pushover,” said GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.

Obama to deliver Mandela address in likely rebuke to Trump

Former U.S. President Barack Obama Monday praised Kenya’s president and opposition leader for working together but said this East African country must do more to end corruption.

Trudeau asks transport minister to tackle Greyhound’s western pullout

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s asked Transport Minister Marc Garneau to find solutions in Greyhound Canada’s absence.

Most Read