Smithsonian Folkways: As The Iconic Label Turns 75, A Look Back At Its 2023 Releases | Shore Fire Media

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27 October, 2023Print

Smithsonian Folkways: As The Iconic Label Turns 75, A Look Back At Its 2023 Releases

Smithsonian Folkways: As The Iconic Label Turns 75, A Look Back At Its 2023 Releases

Smithsonian Folkways, the contemporary incarnation of the iconic independent label founded by Moses Asch in 1948 in NYC, celebrated its 75th birthday this year with the release of nine new albums. While their artists, sounds, styles, and audiences could not have been more diverse - there was a kid’s record by Cass McCombs and the preschool teacher/songwriter Mr. Greg, an album by electronic music duo Matmos made entirely out of samples from the Folkways “non-music” catalog, even the first-ever release of music from Mack McCormick’s legendary blues archive - they were all united by the notion that to fully realize and shape the potential of our future and understand the present, we must reflect on the past.

The year’s first release, for example, February’s ‘Ears of the People,’ shined a light on the connection between African music and American folk music with its focus on the sounds of the ekonting, the three-stringed gourd lute played by Jola people in Gambia and the Casamance region of Senegal that was a precursor to the banjo. La Marisoul and Los Texmaniacs’ soulful collaborative album, ‘Corazones and Canciones,’ paid tribute to Mexican-American artists’ role within broader American music traditions, Dom Flemons incorporated the influence of 100 years of American roots into his own songwriting on ‘Traveling Wildfire,’ and the Bosnian artist Damir Imamovic crafted a modern epic of sevdah music by zoning in on a fictional, WWI set love story between two men.

By understanding history, all of these works provide a lens with which to view the present - and, in all cases, give us a glimpse of a more equitable future we can work towards if we do acknowledge the reality of our interconnected pasts.

The releases through the second half of the year echoed this “we must look back to look forward” ethos befitting of the label’s 75th anniversary, as well. ‘Playing for the Man at the Door,’ the monumental box set release of 66 tracks from the Mack McCormick archive, spotlighted many mid-century Black blues artists for the first time ever, and reckoned with the issue of Black music in white hands. The Cass McCombs/Mr. Greg album ‘Sing and Play New Folk Songs for Children;’ told stories about transformative American figures like Harvey Milk and Ruth Bader Ginsberg through song to our literal future - the next generation. No-No Boy’s indie-rock fantasy ‘Empire Electric’ recounted little-known stories of Asian-American struggle to give them power; the Aga Khan Master Musicians’ ten-years-in-the-making debut album ‘Nowruz’ was a forward-thinking fusion study on the historical sounds of Muslim communities worldwide; and, finally, Marmos’ ‘Return to Archive,’ out 11/3, dices, loops, stretches, and recontextualizes archival Folkways nature, medical, and science releases such as ‘Sounds of North American Frogs’ to question the concept of music and expand sonic horizons.

More information on all the nine albums are below. Let me know if you’d like more information on any or on Folkways’ 75th!


Various Artists - Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and The Gambia (February 3)

Ears of the People is a collection of sublime contemporary recordings of the ekonting, a three-stringed gourd lute played by Jola people in Gambia and the Casamance region of Senegal. The nine tradition-bearers featured on the album share stories of love, heartache, conflict, spirituality, and all that is unique and beautiful in Jola culture over the rolling lilt of the instrument. An important forebear of the American banjo, the ekonting drives lively dancing and brings these stories to life. These songs, rarely heard outside Senegambia, are a living tapestry of the Jola people and a unique interweaving of human voices and stringed instruments.

Listen HERE

“The ekonting’s future has never looked so bright.” -Bandcamp Daily


Dom Flemons - Traveling Wildfire (March 24)

Dom Flemons has built a reputation on presenting 100 years of American roots music, but now, with Traveling Wildfire, his own songwriting prowess comes into the spotlight. Carefully selected from his personal repertoire, these original songs reveal his love of country, western, blues, Americana, bluegrass and folk music as they tell of true love, family legacy, survival, time travel, and the juxtaposition between light and dark. Traveling Wildfire weaves through the themes of hope and humor as it rises above the hard times with strength and lightheartedness.

Listen HERE

“Flemons continues to honor the past while underscoring its relevance to the present — and keeping an unflinching eye on the future.” -No Depression


La Marisoul & Los Texmaniacs - Corazones and Canciones (April 7)

In Corazones and Canciones, two Mexican American musical powerhouses join forces to create an album overflowing with heart and imagination. L.A.'s Marisol Hernández—La Marisoul—and San Antonio-based Tejano conjunto Los Texmaniacs draw from a repertoire of cherished canciones rancheras, and boleros. "Everything is done with heart and soul, because of the passion and love we have for this music," asserts Texmaniacs leader Max Baca. Adds Marisol, "It’s just as American as it is Mexican; that’s one of the special things about living in the United States." Special guest Little Joe Hernández adds his trademark vocals to the melody of "Las nubes," the song he propelled to the forefront of the Chicano Movement.

Listen HERE

“La Marisoul and Los Texmaniacs bring the heart on their new album” - NPR’s Here & Now

Featured in “Alt.Latino presents the best music of 2023 (so far)”


Damir Imamovic - The World and All That It Holds (May 19)

Bosnian singer, songwriter and sevdah tradition-bearer Damir Imamović is a firm believer in the power of song to connect and transport. On this new album The World and All That It Holds he performs original compositions and traditional songs in Bosnian and Sephardic Ladino with breathtaking emotion and conviction. Created as a musical companion to Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon's epic novel of the same name, the songs tell stories of love and loss, hardship and perseverance. Imamović's music invokes the spirit of the cultural melting pot that is Sarajevo, his lifelong home, reflecting sevdah’s rich historical influences while invigorating its future.

Listen HERE

“This is folk music that connects lightning-bolt moments of emotion through the centuries, illuminating hidden stories and shimmering with electricity.” - The Guardian


Various Artists - Playing for the Man at the Door: Field Recordings from the Collection of Mack McCormick, 1958–1971 (August 4)

In the 1950s and 60s, the blues thrived as the primary form of Black vernacular music in Texas and its surroundings. Robert “Mack” McCormick, a dedicated blues enthusiast, captured this vibrant community through photographs, recordings, and interviews with local musicians. His extensive collection, comprising 590 reels of sound recordings, 165 boxes of manuscripts, photographs, and memorabilia, remained largely unreleased. "Playing for the Man at the Door: Field Recordings from the Collection of Mack McCormick, 1958–1971" is the first compilation from this legendary archive, showcasing both renowned and lesser-known artists. The music spans various genres, shedding light on the diverse cultural tapestry of the region. Accompanying this music is a 128-page book featuring McCormick's captivating photographs and essays on his life and the communities he documented. This release is in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Listen HERE and read a Sunday Arts feature in the Washington Post HERE

“A fascinating collection … The set reveals much about what the obsessive self-made folklorist was hunting for, and lets loose hours of exciting, previously unheard music.” - Wall Street Journal

“A collection that richly repays repeated listening.” -Folk Alley

“An unheard treasure trove of blues music” - NPR’s All Things Considered


Mr. Greg & Cass McCombs - Sing and Play New Folk Songs for Children (August 18)

The tender and curious songs on the first album by songwriter and pre-school teacher Mr. Greg and acclaimed indie chameleon Cass McCombs celebrate the joys of learning and discovery. The pair of longtime friends make connections for young children just beginning to find their own way in the world and for parents regaining their own childlike sensibilities. Set to tunes straight from the mold of Ella Jenkins and Woody Guthrie, the duo sings about the importance of friendship, understanding those different from yourself, and taking care of your body. They also pay musical tribute to heroic figures of bravery and justice like Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Harvey Milk. These songs are bridges to many adventures in the making and include suggested activities for youngsters to supplement their listening and exploration.

Listen HERE

“Sing and Play New Folk Songs for Children achieves the dual aims of folk music: to depict the world both as it is and as it could be.” - Pitchfork


No-No Boy - Empire Electric (September 29)

There are seemingly infinite layers of meaning to be found in No-No Boy’s third album, Empire Electric. You can listen closely to singer-songwriter Julian Saporiti’s lyrics, which juxtapose true stories of struggle from throughout Asia and its diaspora with Saporiti’s own reckoning with intergenerational trauma. You could also let the majesty of Saporiti’s songcraft wash over you, his captivating melodies cloaking those themes in a veneer of hope and ecstasy. But the deepest storytelling happens at the sonic level, as sounds drawn from across the Eastern hemisphere mingle freely with distinctly American instrumentation – banjo and koto, lap-steel and guzheng – while electronically manipulated field recordings of rushing water, chirping birds and other natural sounds ground us in the now. Adventurous and affecting, Empire Electric offers a vision for a new kind of folk music, one that tells unorthodox stories through unorthodox means and finds new pathways through our tangled roots.

Listen HERE

“The project emanates positivity, a sense that while we can’t control “The Great Unfolding,” we can ultimately trust it.” - No Depression


Aga Khan Master Musicians - Nowruz (October 13)

In Nowruz, their accomplished debut album, the Aga Khan Master Musicians (AKMM) draw on music from Central Asia, China, the Middle East, and North Africa to create a strikingly original body of work where living musical traditions meet and meld. Acclaimed virtuosos on their respective instruments, the six members of AKMM deftly blend pipaqanundutarviola d’amore, saxophone, and a panoply of percussion into a soulful new musical language that comes alive in these eloquent performances.

Listen HERE

“The recording is first-rate ... [an] impressive piece of work.” -RootsWorld


Matmos - Return to Archive (November 3rd)

In 1948, Moses Asch founded Folkways Records with a self-proclaimed mandate to record the sounds of the entire world. From the Sounds of North American Frogs to Speech After the Removal of the Larynx, Folkways documented the audible nooks and crannies of existence on hundreds of LPs produced by field recordists, scientists, and experimentalists probing the margins of the human soundscape. Seventy-five years later, electronic music duo Matmos have diced, looped, stretched, and recontextualized these recordings on their new album Return to Archive, which was assembled entirely from the so-called non-musical sounds released on Folkways. On just the album’s first track, dolphins, beetles, telephones, humans stretching the limits of their vocal cords, a shortwave radio, and metal balers co-mingle in a fantasia of sound both everyday and extraordinary. Each track on Return to Archive morphs its source material into something completely unexpected, honoring and expanding on Folkways’ legacy of sonic exploration. Featuring Evicshen and Aaron Dilloway.

Listen to the newest single, “Why?” (which samples ‘Sounds of North American Frogs’) HERE

Listen to Matmos’ Return to Archive companion mix on NTS HERE

“It’s like riding a conveyor belt through a hypnotist’s session and an acid house carwash, in that order.” - The Wire

For more information, contact Hannah Schwartz ( at Shore Fire Media.