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

    Escalation of Media Crackdown in Turkey Heightens Concerns

    Critics see 'a new dark age' as arrests of journalists, closures of media outlets by Erdogan government mount

    Russia Boasts of Troop Buildup on Flank, Draws Flak

    Russian military moves counter to efforts to de-escalate tensions, State Department says

    Video Iraqis Primed to March on Mosul, Foreign Minister Says

    Iraqi FM Ibrahim al-Jaafari tells VOA the campaign will meet optimistic expectations, even though US officials remain cautious

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

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Processi
    X
    Katherine Gypson
    July 27, 2016 6:21 PM
    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora