News / Africa

Treasure Trove of African Music Revealed

International Library of African Music in South Africa releases ‘treasure trove’ of indigenous sounds from the past

Darren Taylor

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


Three big trucks – packed with metal lathes, reel-to-reel recorders, heaps of pancake-shaped tapes, hundreds of yards of electric cables and assorted microphones, military tents, tarpaulins and tinned food, a half-ton diesel generator, hundreds of gallons of fuel and five people.

Drummers in Nyasaland, now Malawi, in the mid 1930s, recorded and photographed by Hugh Tracey
Drummers in Nyasaland, now Malawi, in the mid 1930s, recorded and photographed by Hugh Tracey

Those were just some of Hugh Tracey’s requirements when he undertook what modern day musicologists consider to be one of the greatest musical journeys ever.

“My father started recording in the late 1920s and 1930s using a lathe on acetate discs in the field, but most of his recordings were done in the 1940s on a quarter-inch, open reel tape. The machines in those days, until the 1960s, used to need (a power supply of) 220 volts, hence the need for that massive generator,” Andrew Tracey explained.

From the 1920s until his death in 1977, Hugh Tracey, an Englishman based in South Africa, lugged his equipment throughout sub-Saharan Africa with one mission – to record as much of the indigenous African music he loved as possible

As a young man, Hugh Tracey (far right) had to transport his recording equipment across Africa in a convoy of trucks
As a young man, Hugh Tracey (far right) had to transport his recording equipment across Africa in a convoy of trucks

“He had a vision,” said Andrew. “And that was to preserve this music for future generations.”

Meticulous notes

Today, a single person with a palm-sized, battery-driven digital machine with a built-in high quality microphone is able to make broadcast-quality music recordings. In Hugh Tracey’s time, it was very different. “His recording technique was to hold a microphone in one hand, and a stopwatch in the other, to time recordings. The microphone was on a short boom, and he’d move around following the sounds of the musicians,” said Andrew. “It was a physically taxing effort.”

Hugh Tracey’s microphone was linked with a long cable to a large lathe, and later to a reel-to-reel tape recorder, operated by an engineer who would control the sound levels and ensure that the tape ran smoothly.

Hugh Tracey made most of his recordings on reel to reel tape
Hugh Tracey made most of his recordings on reel to reel tape

“Recording had to happen as far away as possible from the noise made by the generator, so my father needed really long cables,” said Andrew.

After his field trips, Hugh Tracey made meticulous notes about each piece of music he’d recorded – on the people making the music, the instruments they used, the recording venue and so on.

He stored his notes and masses of tapes at the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in South Africa, which he established in 1954. Library staff recently digitized Hugh Tracey’s recordings, using the latest technology to improve the original sound as much as possible, and stored it on computer.

One of the primitive microphones used by Hugh Tracey during his fieldwork in Africa, on display at an exhibition in South Africa to pay tribute to him
One of the primitive microphones used by Hugh Tracey during his fieldwork in Africa, on display at an exhibition in South Africa to pay tribute to him

“It’s a treasure trove of the sounds of Africa’s past,” said Prof. Diane Thram, an American musicologist and ILAM’s current director.

Mbira ‘heartland’

In the early 1930s, Hugh Tracey received his first grant – to study and record the indigenous music of then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe – from the Carnegie Foundation in the United States.

“He did a very thorough canvassing of the whole of what is now Zimbabwe and prepared a report. It contains photos of musicians playing every instrument he discovered in the field and analysis of the scales that are played on every instrument,” said Thram.

Hugh Tracey became enamored with the mbira – a complex 24-note thumb piano made of wood and steel used by Zimbabwe’s Shona people.

The stopwatch Hugh Tracey used to time his recordings
The stopwatch Hugh Tracey used to time his recordings

“The thumb piano is found only in Africa, and Zimbabwe is its heartland. It’s a very expressive instrument – not very outgoing and loud like so much African music. It’s very intimate, personal music,” said Andrew.

His father was especially fond of the Shona’s use of the mbira to “create atmosphere” while telling stories to their children.

The ‘great’ Jege Tapera

When Andrew was a child in the early 1940s, he remembers his father “constantly” telling him about the mbira and his admiration for those who could play it. “That was one of the things that he was hinting throughout his life – that I should learn the mbira.”

In 1960, after studying music in England, Andrew joined the Kwanongoma College of African Music (now the United College of Music) in Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. He immediately began “scouring” the city and its surrounds for someone to teach him the intricacies of mbira playing.

The original repository for Hugh Tracey’s recordings was the International Library of African Music, which was originally on a smallholding near Johannesburg (Photo: ILAM)
The original repository for Hugh Tracey’s recordings was the International Library of African Music, which was originally on a smallholding near Johannesburg (Photo: ILAM)

“Jege Tapera was the man I found…. He taught me; he took me over as his son, in a way. It was hard playing (my) first African instrument. But the great Jege Tapera guided me,” Andrew recalled. “Jege went on to get a job teaching the mbira at the college. He died later, after many years, having taught many Zimbabweans how to play his kind of mbira, which is called a karimba.”

Andrew followed in his father’s footsteps to also become one of the world’s leading authorities on traditional African music. Together, they collected thousands of indigenous songs and the sounds of instruments unique to Africa, from Zimbabwe’s mbira to Uganda’s lizard skin Ganda drums, to the Central African Republic’s Kundi tortoise shell harps and many more.

DILAM’s current chief, Professor Diane Thram
DILAM’s current chief, Professor Diane Thram

Chopi of Mozambique

Among the “most central” sounds of the Tracey archive, said Thram, was the xylophone, or timbila, music made by Mozambique’s Chopi people and recorded by Hugh Tracey in the early 1940s.

Andrew described Chopi xylophone melodies as “one of the great, grand music’s of Africa,” adding, “Chopi music is so special because we know it’s at least 500 years old, from written evidence.”

Thram said Hugh Tracey faced “immense hardships” on his decades-long quest to discover indigenous African music. “For instance, there were no roads in some of the areas where he went,” such as in east Africa in the 1940s.

“He traveled through very difficult conditions, but we have remarkable recordings (he made) from the Swahili coast of Tanzania and Kenya,” stated Thram.

Hugh Tracey’s favorite African instrument was the Zimbabwean mbira
Hugh Tracey’s favorite African instrument was the Zimbabwean mbira

Andrew said his father “loved the complexity of the singing” he recorded in east Africa.
‘Incomparable’

Using a grant he received from the Ford Foundation in the United States, Hugh Tracey in 1958 began compiling what would eventually stand as one of his crowning achievements.

“One of the most incredible things he did was to create what he called ‘The Sound of Africa’ series. It ended up being a 210 LP series which then became a 218 LP series when Andrew Tracey’s field recordings were added,” said Thram.

ILAM has now digitized this series and produced it in CD format.

Some of Hugh Tracey’s most important work involved recording the timbila – or xylophone – players of the Chopi people of Mozambique in the 1940s
Some of Hugh Tracey’s most important work involved recording the timbila – or xylophone – players of the Chopi people of Mozambique in the 1940s

“(In this series) you have music from the Belgian Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, a little bit from Namibia,” said Thram. “(Hugh Tracey) covered a large geographic region for the time. So that’s one of the things that makes this collection so remarkable.”

She’s convinced that Hugh and Andrew Tracey’s work is “incomparable.”

“Their work, and Hugh Tracey’s work in particular, can never be equaled – even with modern-day technology, because they recorded Africa’s musical history.”

She added, “While it’s a history that cannot be repeated, Hugh and Andrew Tracey have preserved part of it for the world to hear. It’s now up to the world to listen, and hear what amazingly rich cultures exist, or once existed, in Africa.”

You May Like

Video Iran Nuclear Deal Becomes US Campaign Issue

Voters in three crucial battleground states - Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - overwhelmingly oppose nuclear deal with Iran More

With IS in Coalition Cross-Hairs, al-Qaida's Syria Affiliate Reemerges

Jabhat al-Nusra has rebounded, increasingly casting itself as a critical player in battle for Syria’s future More

Lessons Learned From Katrina, 10 Years Later

FEMA chief Craig Fugate says key changes include better preparation, improved coordination among state, federal assistance agencies 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.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs