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 As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    Clinton, Sanders Fight for African American Votes

    Some African American lawmakers lining up to support Clinton in face of perceived surge by Sanders in race for Democratic nomination in presidential campaign

    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.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.