Digging the Music with Pat Conte

Pat Conte’s basement in Long Island is the repository of a staggering collection of ethnic music on 78s. Since 1995 Conte has produced The Secret Museum of Mankind series for Yazoo Records and released five wonderfully eclectic compilations, as well as CDs devoted to the music of Central Asia, Madagascar, East Africa, and North Africa. He is currently preparing two more volumes of sacred music. A proficient guitarist as well, Pat owns and plays a wide array of stringed instruments. His main musical project is the blues and pre-blues duo, The Otis Brothers. We spoke to Pat among the stacks via telephone.

conduit: And then language becomes more and more about...

pat conte: You know, it’s not poetry anymore, it’s not E.E. Cummings’s “the little lame balloonman whistles far and wee.” It’s not that anymore. It’s not a street hawker selling crabs and calling out his wares in the old New Orleans.

conduit: Do you feel that music is a kind of poetry, or that poetry is a kind of music?

conte: Any sound is music, depending on how you want to listen. The sound of tires on the road is music if you can tune in to it when you’re driving. It has a key, it has a pitch, just like the magnetic emanations from planets have a certain pitch, and people call that music.

conduit: I find one of the more interesting developments in contemporary music is that people are using found sound consciously as elements in music. People taking the sounds of car tires and sampling it.

conte: Oh, people are doing that? See, I didn’t even know that. It makes sense. It sure does make sense. On one of Lomax’s field trips into Spain—and there were many, many volumes that he supervised—there was a little tune played on a whistle that the man in town sounded if you needed to have your pig castrated. This was put on a record, on Columbia Records, back in the ‘50s. It was just a little ditty, a little tune that everyone in town would recognize: “Oh there’s the guy...that’s why the pig is hiding.” [Laughs] When I first heard it, I said, Geez, I know that tune. Now how could I know that tune? It was on Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis. Miles Davis had that record in the ‘50s and he turned it into something else. Now this is a tune that exists in a plane of time that might stretch over a few seconds and is repeated. But he took it and made a full-blown jazz piece out of it. And Sketches of Spain is definitely one of his masterpiece achievements. It’s probably my favorite of all of his things.

conduit: You refer, in the Secret Museum liner notes, to the ‘20s as “the most marvelous decade of recorded music.” Why?

conte: Well, whether it’s concocted or not, there’s a certain romance to the sound of it all. There may be a very lopsided view of what reality was like in rural areas where you’ve been fed a certain concept about rural music, that “Oh, this place must be full of great banjo players,” or “There’s a million great fiddlers, this is just some of them.” But whatever that lopsided and romantic aspect that is portrayed on those records is, it’s fine with me. It’s just that some of the greatest music that was ever recordedwas in that time frame, and you could stretch it up to about 1933, until the Depression really killed it all. There’s a marked difference in the sound of music after 1933, after the Depression, when things are on the kind of upswing out of this trough. There’s a definite change in scenery; it’s a new age. There’s a new spirit in the country of rebuilding and there’s a new spirit in the music. And whether that’s called even more commercial than it was previously, I don’t know. I’m not saying there’s anything bad about the music of that time. In the ‘30s it was just an explosion of new sounds.

conduit: You quote Whitman in the liner notes, and it makes me think that your compilations have a universal embrace. But where Whitman was seeing the Kosmos through the American people and landscape, you’re letting us look through the lenses of people all over the world, all walks of life.

conte: It’s still my lens. The reason I have such an affinity for Whitman is because he’s the self-proclaimed digger. When I was a kid, one of these underground papers had something with Ginsberg and he was talking about Whitman being the first digger. He was saying, here’s a guy who’s just into whatever and into it on that level below the surface, the literal digger. Getting below. Getting into it. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m not doing it as a scholar. I’m not doing it as a definitive collection. I’m not even doing it as a musician. I’m picking things that are deliberately not representative of a culture sound-wise. Because to try to pick one would be foolish anyway. How could you pick a piece of music and say, “This is Greek music”?