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

Nigeria Incumbent in Tight Spot as Poll Nears

Muhammadu Buhari is running a strong challenge to Goodluck Jonathan, amid a faltering economy and Boko Haram security worries More

Video Liberia's Almost-Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo tells VOA that despite her fame, life is still a struggle as she waits for government's promise of support to arrive More

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

At least seven different indigenous groups in Ratanakiri depend mainly on forest products for their survival, say they face loss of their land, traditional way of life 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.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

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