In the early 1980s, Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson were standing in Nikki’s father’s garage, surrounded by objects and knick knacks. Nikki’s father was a pack rat. They stumbled upon a vinyl record amid the hodgepodge of things. The record didn’t have a label, just some words pencilled on the front:
Love: Mrs. B
Louie darling, play this side first.”
Nikki and Davia had met each other about a year earlier. Nikki was a museum curator. Davia worked in radio. Sitting on a bench overlooking the beach in Santa Cruz, they bonded instantly over their mutual love of artifacts and oral histories.
So when they stumbled upon a mystery record in a garage, of course they played it.
It was a recording that a woman had made at home in 1943 and then sent overseas to her husband, Louie, who was serving in the military in World War II. Louie had carried it around with him during his deployment and brought it back to the States, where somehow the record had found its way into Nikki’s father’s garage. Nikki and Davia were entranced.
“This was the first time we had ever seen anything like this,” says Nikki. “The way she spoke to him, the language, the things she said. They just took you there… I think that was the real moment we got into this idea of recorded sound and archival audio as a way to transport people. ”
This was just the beginning. Nikki and Davia went on to create hundreds of radio stories for NPR and other public radio programs as a radio duo known as The Kitchen Sisters. Over the course of their 40-year, award-winning career, they’ve stayed inspired by the same thing that they found in that first home recording — the power of recorded sound to transport people to a different place and a different time.
The Kitchen Sisters’ signature style relies on archival audio and found sounds. Their stories often start with one recording or one piece of tape that they find in the archives, at Goodwill, or in someone’s attic. Then they build out an audio landscape with layers of archival audio, music, ambient sound, and interviews. The result is non-narrated, documentary-style radio that was unlike anything else being aired on NPR at the time when they started.
Nikki Silva came into METRO’s Studio 599 to record an interview with me for Episode 16 of Library Bytegeist. You can listen below for the full story of how The Kitchen Sisters find and use archival audio — and how they became accidental archivists in the process. Nikki was generous enough to share clips of all of The Kitchen Sisters’ pieces that we talked about in the interview, so listen in if you want to hear examples (including the recorded letter for Louie at minute 11:50).
Now, the Kitchen Sisters are working on a new series, called “The Keepers,” that will profile stories of archivists, librarians, and curators.
“The Keepers has a lot to do with what we’ve always been inspired by, which is archival audio,” says Nikki. “Archivists and librarians are our go-to people that we have always completely depended on, for every story. Every story on some level involves one of those people. And we’re really grateful for that.”
The series will start airing in July on NPR’s Morning Edition. There will be supplementary profiles of “Keepers of the Day” on all of The Kitchen Sisters social media channels. So if you know of any activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors, or historians who The Kitchen Sisters should know about, give them a call on their hotline at 415–496–9049 (or reach out on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or email).