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

Multimedia Social Media Documenting, Not Driving, Hong Kong Protests

Unlike in Arab Spring uprisings, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong aren't relying on Twitter and Facebook to organize, but social media still plays a role More

Bambari Hospital a Lone Place of Help in Violence-Plagued CAR

Only establishment still functioning in CAR's second city is main hospital 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.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid