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Between 1914 and 1919, the British administrator and anthropologist John Henry Hutton (1885-1968) made fourteen cylinder recordings documenting the songs of Naga communities in the Naga Hills District, today part of the state of Nagaland in India. Little is known about the recording circumstances, as the documentation is limited to brief recording notes he sent with the cylinders to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which holds the collection. Hutton’s publications, on the other hand, include transcriptions and translations of some of the recorded songs, but the poor sound quality makes it difficult to assign these to the published songs with certainty. This paper summarises the outcomes of a research project funded by the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives between January and March 2022, which aimed to reconnect Naga communities with Hutton’s recordings to elucidate the content and performance context of the recordings, and to provide digital copies of the collection with enhanced documentation to the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology (Gurgaon) and the Highland Institute (Kohima). Fieldwork participants appreciated the opportunity to hear Hutton’s recordings, which they considered important historical documentation of Naga traditional music. Yet, most listeners struggled to identify the recorded songs, although a few were able to name and even perform some of them. The project concluded with an exhibition at the Highland Institute that featured Hutton’s recordings and more recent examples of Naga traditional music. Overall, few listeners were aware of the existence of Hutton’s recordings when we conducted our fieldwork in February 2022, although the recordings have been available online on the website of the Pitt Rivers Museum since 2013. Thus, I argue that initiatives of making historical sound recordings accessible online need to be supported by actions on the ground in countries of origin, to facilitate community engagement with audio collections uploaded to the web.
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