News / Africa

Rediscovery of Lost African Music

Remarkable ‘lost’ sounds of Africa, such as music from the royal court of Uganda, now re-mastered to CD

Darren Taylor

This is Part 1 of a 5-part series:  Honoring Africa’s Traditional Music
Continue to Parts  1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

In 1966, Prime Minister Milton Obote imposed a new constitution on Uganda and abolished the ceremonial presidency held by Kabaka (King) Edward Mutesa II. Obote declared himself executive president and ordered the army to attack the king’s hilltop palace that overlooked Kampala.

Hugh Tracey saved much indigenous African music and instruments used to play it from being lost to the world
Hugh Tracey saved much indigenous African music and instruments used to play it from being lost to the world

Soldiers led by then Colonel Idi Amin duly obliged. They killed some of Mutesa’s family and staff, but he escaped and went into exile in England, where he died a few years later.  

As well as ending the Buganda monarchy, the palace siege destroyed a significant part of Uganda’s cultural, and specifically musical, history. For centuries, Buganda rulers had employed musicians to entertain them and their guests and to perform at royal court proceedings. According to historians, these musicians created some of Africa’s most important music.

But Amin’s forces killed most of them. Those who survived fled Uganda. The soldiers also destroyed almost all of the ancient royal musical instruments, such as drums, lutes and lyres.

“That (Buganda royal) music is completely dead now…in the sense that there’s no one left to play it, no one left to teach it to modern generations of Ugandans,” said South African ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey. But, he added, “The sound of it lives, as a result of my father’s work.”

Ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey (left) taking notes about one of his father’s, Hugh Tracey’s, tape recordings at the International Library of African Music
Ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey (left) taking notes about one of his father’s, Hugh Tracey’s, tape recordings at the International Library of African Music

The music of kings saved

Andrew’s father, pioneer ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey, spent about 50 years until his death in 1977 traveling from his base in South Africa through sub-Saharan Africa to record and preserve the region’s indigenous music.

In 1950, he spent a significant time at the palace of the Buganda king, taping the music made there. His is the only record that remains of this unique music.

“Through his mission, my father undoubtedly saved a lot of African music from complete destruction,” Andrew told VOA. Some of Hugh Tracey’s remarkable recordings of music that would otherwise have been lost forever have now been made available on CD. The sounds he collected using primitive equipment have been re-mastered by the International Library of African Music in South Africa.

An installation at an exhibition in South Africa to honor Hugh Tracey and traditional African music. He recorded tens of thousands of songs about countless subjects … (Photo: Darren Taylor)
An installation at an exhibition in South Africa to honor Hugh Tracey and traditional African music. He recorded tens of thousands of songs about countless subjects … (Photo: Darren Taylor)

One of these CDs contains music Hugh Tracey recorded in 1952 at the court of the Tutsi mwami (king) in Rwanda. When the country became independent of Belgium in 1961, the monarchy was scrapped and the music it had fostered vanished. Again because of his father’s foresight, said Andrew, the “powerful and sophisticated” sound of Rwanda’s royal court survived.

“There are expatriate groups of Tutsis who actually try and keep that music going and they are able to make use of (my father’s) recordings to try and reconstruct it,” Andrew explained.

Also in the early 1950s, Hugh Tracey was present when Mbuti pygmies emerged from the Ituri rainforest in what’s now the Democratic Republic of Congo to barter with their Bantu neighbors. The occasion was celebrated with music made by all involved, and Hugh Tracey recorded it.

Another CD offers a selection of performances from peoples who have long since disappeared from Africa. On one track, listeners are able to hear 600 men and women of the Chagga ethnic group chanting on the slopes of Mount Meru in Kenya.

Hugh Tracey recorded unique music, such as this man playing a bow, all over Africa
Hugh Tracey recorded unique music, such as this man playing a bow, all over Africa

‘Legendary’ George Sibanda

Through his recordings, Hugh Tracey also documented “musical revolutions” that happened in the rapidly urbanizing Africa of the 1950s and 1960s, said Andrew. In some cities, and especially in the mining towns of Congo and southern Africa, the guitar at this time became an important status symbol for some entertainers.   

Andrew said two of the “most amazing” artists that Hugh Tracey brought to the attention of radio stations throughout Africa, and other parts of the world were singer-songwriter guitarists Jean Bosco Mwenda of Congo and George Sibanda of Zimbabwe.

One of the few photographs of sub-Saharan Africa’s ‘first radio star’ – Zimbabwean singer-songwriter George Sibanda - appears on the cover of this CD
One of the few photographs of sub-Saharan Africa’s ‘first radio star’ – Zimbabwean singer-songwriter George Sibanda - appears on the cover of this CD

Andrew reflected, “My father first met George in 1948 and immediately noticed that he could pick a guitar like no one else. He also had a very good, warm voice. He wrote fantastic songs and most of his music had that feel-good factor that uplifted anyone who listened, which made him very popular.”

Musicologists have branded Sibanda sub-Saharan Africa’s “first radio star.” He had hit songs all over the continent, even though listeners couldn’t understand his lyrics because he sang in his native Ndebele. Some of his songs were, however, translated and in the 1960s and 1970s recorded by famous American folk artists Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Arlo Guthrie, and by blues icon Taj Mahal.

”George was truly a legendary artist,” said Andrew. But by the end of the 1950s, the legend was dead…succumbing to the ravages of alcohol abuse. Thanks to Hugh Tracey’s recordings, though, Sibanda’s music endures.

‘Genius’ Congolese guitarist Jean Bosco Mwenda, in a photo taken in the 1950s by Hugh Tracey
‘Genius’ Congolese guitarist Jean Bosco Mwenda, in a photo taken in the 1950s by Hugh Tracey

‘Genius’ of Jean Bosco Mwenda

Andrew first heard of Jean Bosco Mwenda in the early 1950s while studying in England. “Dad used to keep in touch by sending me some of his latest recordings. One of them was by this guy, a young street guitarist from southern Congo named Jean Bosco Mwenda. The musical genius of this man hit me right between the eyes,” he remembered.

Andrew said Mwenda had “fantastic technique and compositional ability and everyone loved his music. I got a guitar around about that time, at school, and I learnt to play the guitar by learning Bosco’s music. I’ve been playing it ever since.”

Mwenda was a pioneer of Congolese finger-style acoustic guitar music. Hugh Tracey championed him, and he became popular across Africa, but mainly in east Africa. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Mwenda was based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where he performed regularly on radio and, said Andrew, influenced a lot of Kenyan guitarists.

In 1988, Andrew Tracey brought Mwenda to South Africa, where he gave a number of acclaimed performances. “He was a much older man by then but still playing the same tunes he’d played in his boyhood – and more, of course. That was a great experience, hearing him live,” Andrew recalled.

Mwenda performed in South Africa shortly before his death in 1990
Mwenda performed in South Africa shortly before his death in 1990

While in South Africa, Mwenda cut a few songs in a studio in Cape Town. They were his final recordings. He died in a road accident in Zambia in 1990, aged 60.  

‘Misunderstood’ legacy

As well as some of Hugh Tracey’s recordings now being available on CD, the International Library of African Music has archived the sound he collected during his field visits.    

“What we had to do is to match up the field recordings with the field cards and create a catalogue, so what we now have is over 20,000 sound items from all the various recordings that Hugh Tracey made,” said library director and American musicologist, Prof. Diane Thram.

The archive is now available online on the Library’s website (www.ilam.co.za).
It gives people around the world has access to Hugh Tracey’s recordings through MP3 sound files and metadata documents that contain information about each piece of music.

Staff at the International Library of African Music study negatives of photographs taken by Hugh Tracey during one of his fieldtrips
Staff at the International Library of African Music study negatives of photographs taken by Hugh Tracey during one of his fieldtrips

“It’s all pointed at educating people about African music, educating people about Hugh Tracey’s legacy, dispelling some of the misconstrued notions about Hugh Tracey which have somehow developed over the years,” said Thram.

Explaining further, Andrew told VOA, “There were stories that we made fortunes out of recording and selling African music. Now while one has heard of that happening, that’s not what we did. Our motivation was to preserve Africa’s musical culture, and you can see that today in the Library. We always survived on grants from organizations that saw value in our work and also saw value in African music. That money was used to fund our work and not for personal enrichment.”

A photo of Andrew Tracey recording xylophone music in Mozambique on display at ILAM
A photo of Andrew Tracey recording xylophone music in Mozambique on display at ILAM

But despite his and his father’s dedication to safeguarding Africa’s musical heritage since the 1920s, Andrew acknowledged that he sometimes asked himself, “Is it really important to try and keep something ancient alive and known?”

His answer, he said, was always the same: “I believe deep down that it is important – if only to reduce the sense of being without history that many Africans (mistakenly) have.”

And when Andrew listened to recordings made by himself and his father, he said, all doubts about their legacy were swamped by the “sheer beauty” of Africa’s musical past.   

You May Like

Video Miami Cubans Divided on New US Policy

While older, more conservative Cuban Americans have promoted anti-Castro political movement for years, younger generations say economically, it is time for change More

2014 Sees Dramatic Uptick in Boko Haram Abductions

Militants suspected in latest mass kidnapping of over 100 people in Gumsuri, Nigeria on Sunday More

Video Cuba Deal Is Major Victory for Pope

Role of Francis hailed throughout US, Latin America - though some Cuban-American Catholics have mixed feelings More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacksi
X
December 19, 2014 12:45 AM
The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid