January 30th - Uncle Bouqui of Haiti
Uncle Bouqui of Haiti: By Harold Courlander - Augusta Baker, 1956
You're supposed to say ten thousand words to your baby every day. Talking, singing, joking - to help them get used to language you're supposed to cram as many words into their tiny heads as possible. But if you're a parent of a baby, this raises a bit of a problem - you're also probably exhausted and deeply, deeply burned out. It's not easy for me to say ten thousand words to ANYONE, all day long - when I see friends, I have to literally tell them that I have nothing else going on right now other than having a baby. Somehow my wife manages to narrate the entire day to Izzy but for some reason sometimes I just freeze up!
The other night it was just me and Izzy; I put on this album while I was doing her evening bath/changing/feeding and managed to give my own brain a break while getting a few thousand words from Augusta Baker, the reader of these Haitian folktales (collected by the titular Harold Courlander, a novelist and anthropologist who has a few albums of himself reading folktales on Folkways). The three stories - about the foolish, prideful Uncle Bouqui and his clever tormentor Godfather Malice - follow standard "trickster" story format, but are very charming. Moreover, they're told with great humor and tone by Augusta Baker.
Unfortunately and surprisingly there aren't liner notes for this album - just a cover and a back - so there isn't a transcription of the stories or more information on Baker. I really liked her readings, and I wanted to find out more so I googled her and oh wow this woman had an incredible life story! The first African-American to hold an administrative position at the New York Public Library, Baker was a long-time advocate for children's literature and diverse books - I suggest you at least check out her Wikipedia entry, which has a surprise appearance from Eleanor Roosevelt.
In her New York Times obituary, there is a paraphrase of Baker talking about how parents should read to their children:
Mrs. Baker suggested that a parent start with books of folk and fairy tales to be retold while sitting comfortably on a living room rug or under a shade tree in the park, preferably without interruptions. It is the voice that counts, she said, and it must be pleasing, flexible and enthusiastic enough to add drama to the story line, though overly dramatic gestures ought to be avoided.
I think - listening to these stories - we get a really good idea exactly what Baker meant by "pleasing, flexible and enthusiastic." It's a perfect encapsulation of her storytelling style. This is the only Folkways record that Baker did, but she had a public radio show about children's literature so I'm hoping there are more recordings of her storytelling out there!
Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways