Sound and vision blog

9 posts from March 2018

19 March 2018

Recording of the week: South African gumboot guitar

This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

I was studying Zulu street guitarists in Durban in 1984 when I met Blanket Mkhize, a guitarist from Glebelands male hostel in Umlazi township on the outskirts of the city. Blanket had a fascinating playing technique using the back of a comb to 'bow' the strings. He was, I believe, trying to use his guitar as a violin as well. For Blanket was also a gumboot player. Gumboot is a spectacular dance style performed by a team of men who, clad in heavy gumboots (very thick wellingtons), stamp, slap, clap and kick their heels in perfect synchronisation. And in gumboot you include, when you can get hold of one, a violin. Together with my fellow student, Carol Muller, we joined Blanket's gumboot team and spent a wonderful year rehearsing and performing with the team. What a privilege! Blanket was the dance leader and so often gave the guitar accompaniment duties to his friend, Albert Manothisa Nene. Albert is a refined dancer and a real virtuoso on guitar. Albert lived in the same area of the hostel as Blanket. One day he sat down with Blanket's cassette ghettoblaster and recorded himself playing gumboot guitar. The recording is full of tape hiss, clunks and thumps, and half way through Albert stopped the machine to check how much tape he had left. Here are two excerpts from this session, the first in a contemplative finger-picking style, the second with a more up-tempo ukuvamba (lit. vamping) strumming style.

Gumboot guitar

Blanket Mkhize (with whistle and tassles) and Albert Nene (right, with guitar). Glebeland male hostel, Umlazi township, Durban, South Africa, 1984. Photo: Janet Topp Fargion

Gumboot guitar

The full recording - over 25 minutes in all - and others of gumboot guitarists can be heard on Gumboot guitar: Zulu street guitar music from South Africa (Topic Records TSCD923). The entire collection is housed in the British Library with the reference C724: Janet Topp Fargion Collection.

Follow @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

16 March 2018

Linguistics at the Library - Episode 4

PhD placement students, Andrew Booth & Rowan Campbell, write:

What happens when lots of languages and dialects come into contact with each other? This week, Andrew and Rowan discuss contact effects in super-diverse cities like London, and what happens to English as more and more people speak it around the world. We also answer a question from Twitter about the noises we make in conversation to show that we’re listening.

Tweet us: @VoicesofEnglish

This week’s ‘What’s the feature?’ used a clip from:

Millennium Memory Bank Recording in Birmingham. BBC, UK, rec. 1999 [digital audio file]. British Library, C900/18580. Available:

Links & studies mentioned:

Multicultural London English databank:

Donahue, R. T. (1998). Japanese culture and communication: Critical cultural analysis. University Press of America.

Cheshire, Jenny, Kerswill, Paul, Fox, Susan et al. (1 more author) (2011) Contact, the feature pool and the speech community : The emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics. 151–196. ISSN 1360-6441

Oxford Dictionaries – 10 ways speakers of World English are changing the language

Linguistics at the Library Episode 4

14 March 2018

Memories of Stephen Hawking in An Oral History of British Science

Stephen HawkingStephen Hawking, Unknown Date, Source: NASA

A number of interviews recorded for An Oral History of British Science at the British Library speak of Stephen Hawking in their interviews. Tim Palmer was in the audience for his paper on the emission of particles by black holes at the first ‘Oxford Quantum Gravity Conference’ in 1974 [Track one 1:36:14-1:42:55]. Others remember reading his popular science books. In Sir Harry Bhadeshia’s case, A Brief History of Time (in spite of its famous last sentence) inspired thoughts that led to atheism:

Harry Bhadeshia on A Brief History of Time 1988 (C1379/100)

The most charming memories of Hawking are contained in Nicholas Humphery’s interview, part of a wonderful description of Humphrey’s childhood home in Mill Hill. A teenage Hawking is beautifully recalled in the roles of Scottish dancing instructor and drill sergeant:

Nicholas Humphrey remembers a teenage Stephen Hawking (C1672/21)

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, the British Library. Paul interviewed Tim Palmer, Harry Bhadeshia and Nicholas Humphrey for An Oral History of British Science. The complete interviews can be listened to on BL Sounds.

13 March 2018

Glottal stops and fluency in non-native English speakers

PhD placement student, Rowan Campbell, writes:

If you’ve been listening to our podcast (Shameless Plug #378902), you just might have noticed that I, the Scottish one, love glottal stops. This is the sound that’s often written as an apostrophe where you would usually see a /t/ – for example, wa’er instead of water. But it actually has its own super-cool symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and looks a bit like a question mark: ʔ

That’s the first of many fun things I could write about the glottal stop, but rather than descending into a clickbait listicle (You Won’t BELIEVE These Seven Facts About Glottals!), I’m going to focus on something interesting that I’ve noticed in the Evolving English VoiceBank: non-native English speakers using glottal stops. Have a listen to these three clips – the first recording is of a young RP speaker, the second is a speaker from Cardiff, and the third is a woman whose native language is Czech.

C1442 uncatalogued female speaker

C1442X5884 Cardiff female (b.1982)

C1442X5843 Czech female (b.1986)

As you can hear, all three speakers use glottal stops, but the main difference is that the RP speaker only uses them before consonants and pauses, where they often go unnoticed:

… opened the biscuiʔ tin, took out a biscuiʔ, brought iʔ back upstairs …

Compare this with the Cardiff and Czech speakers, who replace every word-final /t/ with a glottal stop:

… opened the biscuiʔ tin, took ouʔ a biscuiʔ, broughʔ iʔ back upstairs …

This is something that is now quite common among young British speakers, but we might not expect to hear it from a non-native speaker - the glottal stop is a stigmatised and often-criticised variant of /t/when it occurs between vowels, and as such is not generally taught to language learners.  Presumably, this Czech speaker has noticed the people around her using the glottal stop and has incorporated it into her own linguistic repertoire. But why has she picked up on this feature in particular?

Some recent research on sociolinguistic variation amongst Polish-born teens in Edinburgh suggests that t-glottaling may be a relatively easy native-like feature to acquire. In Sociolinguistics in Scotland (2014), Miriam Meyerhoff and Erik Schleef examine two features that can vary phonologically and sociolinguistically:

  • T-glottaling, or using the glottal stop /ʔ/ instead of /t/
  • Apical (ing), commonly referred to as ‘g-dropping’ – for example, pronouncing the last syllable of ‘walking’ as ‘kin’ rather than ‘king’. These are represented phonetically as /kɪn/ and /kɪŋ/ respectively, as the ‘ng’ sound has its own (also super-cool) phonetic symbol: ŋ

Without wanting to overload you with new terminology, you might notice that these features also vary in linguistic complexity. T-glottaling is only phonological, in that it just requires knowledge of the phonological variants /t/ and /ʔ/. Both of these sounds can easily be substituted for the other at the end of any word. However, to ‘g-drop’ in a native-like manner requires additional knowledge, as not all ‘ings’ are created equal – compare the ‘ing’ in ‘king’ versus ‘walking’.  We can pronounce the last syllable of ‘walking’ as either /kɪn/ or /kɪŋ/, but we can’t pronounce /kɪŋ/ as /kɪn/ without changing the meaning of the word. Learning where we can and cannot ‘drop the g’ requires knowledge of both the phonological variants and the grammatical difference between these two types of ‘ing’.

As such, it’s harder to learn the relevant linguistic constraints for ‘g-dropping’ than t-glottaling, making the glottal stop a great candidate for non-native speakers to pick up – and that could be partly why the Czech speaker’s English sounds very fluent and native-like!

12 March 2018

Recording of the week: A singing rat

This week's selection comes from Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision.

Even among wildlife sound recordists accustomed to capturing unusual sounds, it is a surprise to hear the sound of a rat, and one which literally sings, with a change in pitch and rhythm.

Amazon bamboo rats are a family of large tree rats found in the jungles of south America. While recording forests sounds on an expedition in south-east Peru in 1985, I often heard this sound at night, but didn’t believe locals who claimed it was made by a rat.

I had heard rare recordings in the British Library’s unique sound collections of high-pitched sounds made by the laboratory rat and the widely distributed Brown Rat. But this sound seemed, well, so unrat-like. It was also frustratingly hard for me to record, as whatever creature was making it only vocalised rarely, for a few seconds before going silent, at night in the pitch blackness of the tropical forests, from within dense clumps of bamboo near where I was encamped.

When I finally got this recording after many failed attempts, I was determined to identify the source. So I crept nearer and nearer over a period of about 15 minutes, expecting to see a large frog. Luckily it called again, and I was ready to switch on my torch. There in the light-beam, partly hidden by bamboo stems and leaves, was indeed a furry bamboo rat. Mystery solved! The call is used as a territorial signal to its own kind, much as a bird sings a song in its territory.


Drawing of an Amazon bamboo rat (illustration by Asohn19262 / CC-BY-SA)

Follow @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 March 2018

Laurie Anderson at the ICA - #IWD2018

Happy International Women’s Day!

Here is a recording of composer-musician, performance artist and filmmaker Laurie Anderson in conversation with art critic Sarah Kent, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 26 November 1990.

Laurie Anderson _Image CC BY Maria Zaikina on flickrLaurie Anderson. Image CC BY Maria Zaikina on Flickr.

Anderson talks about the use of voices (both male and female) in her performances, to highlight positions of power and authority, and to make remarks on gender politics.

She also talks about the relationship between live performance and recordings, her sources of inspiration, and the making of her album Strange Angels which she explains had its origins in a casual conversation at an airport - with a stranger who turned out to be film director Wim Wenders.

The interview goes on for about half an hour followed by an audience Q&A.

For more recordings of performance, drama, and literature at the British Library check our Sound and Moving Image catalogue  and follow us on @BL_DramaSound

05 March 2018

Recording of the week: being uncouth at drama school

This week's selection comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

Mother and son, Radhika and Omar, talk about Omar’s experience of attending a drama course at LAMDA - The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Omar describes the assumptions that he feels people at LAMDA have made about him as a mixed-race East Londoner and they discuss the experiences of some of his fellow students as well as one of the teachers on his course. They emphasise the importance of learning from people who are different to us and not making judgments based on stereotypes. They also discuss the difference in attitudes towards career choices between Omar, who is a second generation immigrant, and Radhika, who moved to England from Sri Lanka when she was 8 years old.

The Listening Project_Radhika and Omar

Radhika and Omar

This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Radhika and Omar can be found here.

Follow @CollectingSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news. 

01 March 2018

Farewell to Sir Dan - founder of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

From Jolyon(Courtesy Marlborough Rare Books)

I was recently surprised to discover an unusual recording here at the British Library Sound Archive.  It is an exciting find as it documents the Farewell Concert relayed from the Pavilion, Bournemouth on 30th September 1934 by one of the great figures of British music making before the War, Dan Godfrey.

English conductor Dan Godfrey was born in London in 1868.  His father, also Dan, (1831-1903) was bandmaster of the Grenadier Guards.  Dan, the son, formed the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in 1893 when he was twenty-five.  Their first concert was on the 22nd May 1893 at the Winter Gardens, a huge glass structure with a seating capacity of 4,000 built in 1875.  By 1895 the orchestra became the first salaried municipal orchestra in the country and, along with the Hallé Orchestra, one of the few permanent symphony orchestras in England.  By the turn of the century Godfrey was gaining a reputation as an exponent of British music along with Henry Wood, also giving British premieres of major works by Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens and Richard Strauss.  By 1903 Godfrey conducted his 500th concert and in 1910 Fritz Kreisler gave the provincial premier of Elgar’s Violin Concerto at Bournemouth after the world premiere in London.

Godfrey and the orchestra made records for HMV and Edison Bell in 1913 and from 1923 to 1933 he recorded for Columbia – some of those sessions with the London Symphony Orchestra – including the London Symphony of Vaughan Williams.

WalfordDavies_HughAllen_CyrilRoothamWalford Davies, Hugh Allen and Cyril Rootham

Knighted in 1922 ‘for valuable services to British music’, by 1934 Sir Dan was sixty-five and had to retire, hence the farewell concert where he passed the baton to Richard Austin (1903-1989).  Most of the concert was captured on these early discs from the broadcast including the speech at the end from Sir Hugh Allen (1869-1946) a musician whose life was spent between Oxford and the Royal College of Music in London.  An emotional Sir Dan responds to Sir Hugh, particularly when he refers to the musicians of the orchestra.  After forty one years conducting over two thousand concerts with this orchestra he lived on for only another five years, but his legacy remains as his orchestra became the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra that we know today.

The musical excerpt I have chosen is of a work that Sir Dan conducted at his first concert in 1893.  It is taken from the incidental music English composer Edward German (1862-1936) wrote for a London performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in 1892.  In his speech, Sir Dan relates that he received a telegram from the composer that afternoon.

German Dance from Henry VIII

Sir Hugh Allen speech

Sir Dan Godfrey speech