On a warm night in Nairobi in 1982, I attended a film opening and heard the music of Abdullahi Jirma for the first time. Jirma, a Borana folk musician, provided the soundtrack for the film and I introduced myself to him afterwards. I was studying ethnomusicology at Friends World College in Kenya at the time, and arranged for him to travel with me to the college’s nearby headquarters. One evening at that repurposed coffee plantation, I recorded this enchanting singer and oud player.
This June, I was contacted by Dalle Abraham. Dalle lives in Kenya, and reached out as he has spent half a century recording many modern Borana artists. He wrote to me, “Jirma is the towering giant in these regards, his popularity and importance keeps growing. I have heard the recording you made with him. Impressive and rare songs. The recordings you made are the best versions of those songs, the ones in circulation are very poor quality.”
To me, this is a testament to Music Maker Foundation’s purpose. Decades after my time in Nairobi, Jirma’s work is receiving the recognition it merits. I was so fortunate to witness Jirma’s talent and record this important carrier of the Borana culture. In the forty years since I began this documentation journey, I’ve been ceaselessly astounded by the people I encounter, the stories and talent they share, and the profound impact of their cultural contributions. Their influence cannot be simply measured by charts or graphs; it is intricately woven into the very fabric of our souls.
When Denise and I co-founded this organization in 1994, we operated on a shoestring budget and used rudimentary equipment to document musicians. Remarkably, these recordings transcend the medium. The unique and powerful songs we documented then still resonate deeply. These recordings led music lovers around the world to support the mission of the Music Maker Foundation to ensure these voices would never be lost or forgotten.
Music Maker has produced over 200 albums since those early days. Oftentimes, the photos, videos and recordings we capture are the only evidence of these artists’ work. We know that a quality portfolio is essential to elevating these artists’ careers, but beyond that, we consider it our responsibility as caretakers of our cultural heritage to preserve this work for future generations of Americans.
That is why we are embarking on this new stage of our journey. In all the years we have been partnering with artists, we have never been able to offer them a dedicated space for their work. Currently, our studio is a rented room below an HVAC business. We hurriedly snap photos and record when their crew is out on the job. We also record in artists’ homes, as well as in partners’ studios and rented spaces across the South.
Through our work with the gospel music dynasty that is the Vines/Daniels family, we are now connected to the community of Fountain, NC, and the rich culture of gospel music in the surrounding region. In 2019, we had the opportunity to purchase a building in Fountain at an affordable price on Fountain’s main street, and have acquired two more since. These three buildings are now being converted into Music Maker Studios.
The first building became an Artist Workshop that currently hosts Freeman Vines. The second building is our Photography Studio. It is now up and running, and we are beginning work to build our first proper, high-fidelity recording studio. This is thanks to the Robert & Mercedes Eichholz Foundation and other generous donors whose investment in our studio renovations and ongoing programming support will make this project possible. We are close to our goal and they hope that their gifts will inspire you to join in and support creating this space where artists can record.
There are hundreds of artists that need to be recorded in Eastern Carolina. Moreover, there are Music Maker artists throughout the country that need a place to go, to get out of their everyday lives, to reflect and create.
It is our collective responsibility, and our privilege, to tend these roots. I hope you will join us, and delight in what we can grow together.