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

Gun Nation

This is who America's gun owners are More

US Border Patrol Union Accused of Taking Sides on Immigration

Report alleges agents leaking info to immigration opponents, appearing at their private events; Center for Immigration Studies director defends agents' actions More

Video Rights Monitor: Hate Groups' Use of Internet to Inflame, Recruit Growing

Wiesenthal Center's Abraham Cooper says extremists have become skilled at celebrating violence, ideology on Web 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.
Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Interneti
X
Mike O'Sullivan
June 30, 2015 8:20 PM
Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs