News / Africa

Tribute Paid to a Remarkable Curator of African Music

South Africa exhibit honors expert in African music, Hugh Tracey

Darren Taylor

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

When a young Englishman arrived in what was then Rhodesia in 1921 to run a tobacco farm, his workers expected him to be just like the other colonial overlords they’d known. He would be their master; they would be his servants. They would obey his every command, and they would speak to him only when he spoke to them.

Pioneer ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey
Pioneer ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey

After all, he was white and they were black. They were dependent on him for their daily bread. Rhodesia was ruled by the British, and the country’s black people had no rights whatsoever.

But, from their first interaction with him, Hugh Tracey’s laborers saw that he was different. Besides immediately learning the Karanga dialect of their Shona language and sweating with them at work in the fields, the farmer constantly asked them about their culture…and especially their music. Tracey learned Shona folksongs and sang along with his workers as they toiled together among the tobacco crops.

“Music was the gateway for my father into African’s lives. It was his experience in (now) Zimbabwe that sparked his life’s work, his life’s love,” said Andrew Tracey, who followed in his father’s footsteps to become one of the world’s top ethnomusicologists.

Hugh Tracey undertook several epic musical journeys across Africa in his lifetime, including to what’s now Namibia, to record music made by the Herero people.
Hugh Tracey undertook several epic musical journeys across Africa in his lifetime, including to what’s now Namibia, to record music made by the Herero people.

Resistance

However, when Hugh suggested to various colonial authorities that African music was “important,” said his son, he met resistance. “He was staggered to find that there was no interest from anybody – whether in the church, or in education, or in government or even among the other farmers – in this African music.”

But, said Andrew, his father maintained that the music of Africa was “deep and of immense cultural value. So he thought, ‘This needs to be studied; it needs to be recorded and revealed (to the world).’ So the rest of his life he spent revealing and discovering African music.”

Hugh Tracey is currently being honored in South Africa, with an exhibition that celebrates his life. From the 1920s until his death in 1977, he accumulated what international musicologists consider to be the world’s most valuable and extensive record of traditional African music.

Hugh Tracey’s son, Andrew – himself a leading expert on African music
Hugh Tracey’s son, Andrew – himself a leading expert on African music

In his lifetime, Hugh traversed sub-Saharan Africa – from the deserts of then South West Africa, now Namibia, to the jungles of the Congo, to the plains of Nyasaland, now Malawi, to the Swahili coasts of Kenya and Tanzania – to record indigenous music.

“Hugh Tracey was someone who did not enjoy the benefit of a university education or the kind of academic training that most music scholars have. But he had an innate ability to see what needed to be done (to preserve African music), which was truly remarkable.” said Prof. Diane Thram, director of the International Library of African Music in South Africa. The institution is home to Hugh Tracey’s recordings.

Hugh Tracey recording xylophone music in Mozambique in the early 1950s
Hugh Tracey recording xylophone music in Mozambique in the early 1950s

‘Simply unbelievable’

In the mid 1930s, inspired by his passion for the sounds of Africa and his self-taught knowledge of sound recording, Hugh abandoned farming. He joined the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in Durban, on South Africa’s east coast, in the country’s then Natal province. There, he immersed himself in the culture of the Zulu people.

“Right from the start of my life I can remember going to African music performances with him…. He used to take me to the Zulu dancing in the interior of Natal and to record music at (Zulu) Chief Buthelezi’s village,” Andrew recalled.

While most white people in the colonial times dismissed traditional African music, Hugh Tracey insisted it was of “immense cultural value”
While most white people in the colonial times dismissed traditional African music, Hugh Tracey insisted it was of “immense cultural value”

In the late 1930s, Hugh’s close attachment to black people and the value he put on them would have been surprising anywhere in the world. But the fact that he did it in South Africa – at a time when the National Party was preparing to declare actions such as Hugh’s interracial relationships illegal – made his work “all the more shocking, and wonderful,” said Thram.

“Hugh Tracy was truly an exceptional person for his time,” she commented, adding that his later persuasion of the SABC to allow him to devote a weekly radio show to “educating white audiences about black music” at the height of apartheid was “simply unbelievable.

In South Africa, Hugh Tracey studied the music and dancing of the Zulu people
In South Africa, Hugh Tracey studied the music and dancing of the Zulu people

Public ridicule

“White people, especially in South Africa, regarded music made by black Africans to be worthless. So my father’s championing of it meant he was often publicly ridiculed,” Andrew told VOA, emphasizing that this did not deter his father. “There’s always been a certain class of people who’ve been above that sort of petty thinking, and that was the kind of society that we liked to move in – enlightened people,” he stated.

Nevertheless, the entrenchment of apartheid in 1948 made Hugh Tracey’s mission much more complex. Andrew explained, “Apartheid made it against the law for whites to be in places where blacks resided,” in impoverished shantytowns called “locations” and in isolated “tribal homelands.”

It meant Hugh Tracey had to apply for permission from the government every time he wanted to visit an area where black people lived and made music. In order to pursue his mission to record as much indigenous African music as possible, he was willing to do this. But, said Andrew, it led to “misconceptions” about him and his father.

Hugh Tracey worked his entire life to preserve indigenous African music and the instruments used to play it. This wooden side-blown flute from Zimbabwe forms part of an exhibition in South Africa to honor his work
Hugh Tracey worked his entire life to preserve indigenous African music and the instruments used to play it. This wooden side-blown flute from Zimbabwe forms part of an exhibition in South Africa to honor his work

“Certain people started to think that, because we were recording around the country in tribal areas, that we were therefore supporting (apartheid) tribalism, and supporting the rationale of the apartheid government (of the supremacy of whites) – which was far from the case,” he explained.

No help from racists

Andrew said he and his father had never received any support from the state. “Even if we had asked (apartheid government officials) for financial help, they would not have given it because they saw absolutely no value in African culture. Secondly, we did not want their help because we opposed their policies. Almost all the support we got was from overseas foundations (in Britain and the United States).”

Hugh Tracey recorded African musicians young and old all over the continent for about 50 years.
Hugh Tracey recorded African musicians young and old all over the continent for about 50 years.

In other parts of Africa, Andrew said it was “easier” for him and his father to record music, although they were sometimes “treated with suspicion” by some authorities.

As a result of the Traceys’ passion and perseverance, African music of the ancient past that would have been lost forever has been saved. It’s now available to teach future generations of Africans about their history and heritage.

You May Like

Hezbollah Chief Says Does Not Want War But Ready for One

VOA's Jerusalem correspondent reports that with an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, neither side appears interested in a wider conflict More

Multimedia VOA SPECIAL REPORT: Despite Danger, Best US Minds Battle Deadly Virus

Scientists at America's premier biological research center race to find effective drugs, speedier tests and a safe vaccine amid the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history More

Kurdish Poet Battles to Defend Language, Culture

Kawa Nemir's work is an example of what he sees as an irreversible cultural and political assertiveness among Kurds in Turkey 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.
Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unresti
X
Heather Murdock
January 30, 2015 8:00 PM
Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Mobile Infrared Scanners May Help Homeowners Save Energy

Mobile photo scanners have been successfully employed for navigational purposes, such as Google Maps. Now, a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the same technology could help homeowners better insulate their houses and save some money. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid