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Berea’s Celebration of Traditional Music & African American Experience in Appalachia

Ajay Kalra, 2006 Appalachian Sound Archives Fellow, profiles and analyzes African American performers at Berea's Celebration of Traditional Music.

Berea Sound Fellow - Ajay Kalra

Ajay KalraAjay Kalra was an Appalachian Sound Archives Fellow from June - July, 2006. In 1999 he left behind a medical career in India to study bluegrass and country music performance at East Tennessee State University and earned an M.A. in Liberal Studies. In 2003 he was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin as a Ph.D. student in Ethnomusicology. Kalra's dissertation on the construction of space in late- and post-countercultural pastoral music was published in 2009. He also taught three courses on rock and blues music at UT-Austin and Texas State University, served as Graduate Writing Consultant at UT, and published extensively on the music of the American South.  Presently Ajay Kalra is a teaching assistant at the University of Nevada Las Vegas where he is a doctoral student in the History of the North American West..

While in Appalachia, Ajay became deeply involved in researching the music and culture of the region. He served as an assistant editor for the Encyclopedia of Appalachia and wrote a number of articles on Appalachian music. While at Berea he focused on analyzing the repertoires and playing styles of the seventeen African American performers who have appeared at Berea’s Celebration of Traditional Music since its beginning in 1974.

Report Excerpts

Excerpts from Ajay Kalra’s Sound Archives Fellowship Activity Report highlighting continuing themes and issues relevant to Berea’s Celebration of Traditional Music (CTM):


While in its early years, the Celebration of Traditional Music was able to procure the occasional surviving black fiddle or banjo player from the region, clearly for several decades guitarists have dominated older styles of secular music performance among blacks in the region. And although most of the guitarists who performed at the CTM through the years were hailed as “traditional” performers and were also presented in that way at other similar venues, most of them had been widely eclectic and playing the popular repertoire during their halcyon days.
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Just as African Americans hung up the fiddle and the banjo in favor of the guitar at the beginning of the last century, a majority of them have since rejected that instrument and music that over the decades had become traditional to it to find newer vehicles for their progressive cultural visions. While it increases the value of archival recordings of rural guitar music as historical artifact, this trend also raises doubts regarding such traditional music’s relationship to the contemporary experiences of the community for which it supposedly speaks.
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Next to guitar-based music, religious music, from a number of genres and rendered in a variety of styles, has been the strongest African American musical presence at Berea’s Celebration of Traditional Music. Although in the secular realm, beginning in the early years of the twentieth century, guitar- and keyboard-based music largely displaced older rural African American fiddle and banjo music, in the sacred field many elements of older traditions have continued within the context of more contemporaneous twentieth-century styles. While modern gospel music—which itself had a great many contributions from Appalachian or Appalachian-born innovators, especially Thomas A. Dorsey, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Swan Silvertones—dominates Appalachian African American religious expression, whether in the church or on the stage, a number of performers at CTM over the years have presented interpretations of nineteenth century traditions—both folk and art.
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