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Sound and vision blog

6 posts categorized "Research collaboration"

26 September 2017

Sounds of London

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Pinar-Cevikayak-Yelmi

In this guest blog post Pınar Çevikayak Yelmi describes her recent audio recording projects.

Initiated in July 2017 during my research at the British Library, the London Soundsslike Project aimed to collect symbolic sounds of London. A list of the most characteristic sounds of London was informed by public participation - British Library staff and others responded to a questionnaire I circulated. Then I recorded a representative selection of these sounds and archived them on the Soundsslike platform. The London Soundsslike Project remains a dynamic crowd-sourced sound archive which is open to further contributions.

The London project is a sub-project of the Soundsslike Project which aims to raise public awareness of urban and cultural sounds and to create a global crowd-sourced sound archive. The Soundsslike Project was initiated to expand the Soundscape of Istanbul collection which was created during my doctoral research at Koç University, Istanbul. The Soundscape of Istanbul project approaches everyday traditions and daily urban life from a sonic perspective and aims to increase public awareness of cultural sounds, e,g. through public exhibitions.

Sound is part of our daily lives and our cultures, and is of great importance in terms of intangible cultural heritage. Sonic cultural heritage is twice endangered due to the physical characteristics of sound itself and the dynamic structure of intangible culture. Sounds that are not protected or archived get lost forever. In a dynamic city such as Istanbul, daily life and urban sounds change rapidly. Therefore, it is necessary and worthwhile to conserve cultural soundmarks of the city so as to sustain cultural identity and cultural memory. The Soundscape of Istanbul collection is now archived at Koç University’s library, on the Europeana Sounds platform and on the global database WorldCat. 

Here are some sound samples from the London Soundsslike Project, with accompanying images:

Big-Ben-Chimes

Big Ben Chimes

Tower-Bridge

Tower Bridge

Free-Evening-Standard-Man

Free Evening Standard Man

Ferry-Horn

Ferry Horn

04 September 2017

Recording of the week: Epic

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This week's selection comes from Rosy Hall, an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections.

Epic 3. b. colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.). Particularly impressive or remarkable; excellent, outstanding. (www.oed.com)

According to one Urban Dictionary entry, the birth of ‘epic’ as a popular catchphrase has its origins among ‘avid gamers and pretentious English majors’. This fits with the WordBank contribution of one of our speakers (b.1991), who attributes it to ‘video gamer culture’ and his gaming friends.

Um, I think that ‘epic’ is a very interesting word that I constantly hear my friends use, because, it’s interesting because it’s, I feel it comes from like some kind of like video gamer culture, cause my friends are like ((bay kid)) gamers, I mean I’m not so much, but they always use the word ‘epic,’ ‘that was epic’, or like ‘epic fail’ and {cough} I just, where, what does it mean? I guess it’s kind of like…uh like ‘amazing’, like it just sort of emphasizes something. You know what I mean? Yeah. It’s like a lot of emphasis on something it’s epic, it’s not just s- -- you know ordinary, it’s epic. I don’t know, maybe it’s rooted from the actual word epic where you know, like, I don’t know the Odyssey? Who knows? Who knows. But yeah. Bye!

Epic (C1442)

Like so many words whose meanings have evolved over time, epic is a common bugbear among prescriptivists – English language mavens who would rather the word were reserved only for Homer and Virgil. As alluded to by this speaker, epic hasn’t always been a trendy word for something like ‘really good’ or ‘extreme’; traditionally it’s a genre of lengthy heroic poetry. Scholars have pointed out, however, that even this definition is fairly fluid – the meaning of epic has changed over time to cover both oral and written forms, and extends to novels and even movies (Game of Thrones, anyone?). Language change is inevitable, after all; it seems this new epic is just the latest iteration.

Song-of-ice-and-fire-1177616_1920

And we’d better get used to it: unfortunately for the pedants, a high level of objection usually correlates to a high level of usage. Judging from the number of internet rants against it, it’s clear that epic is here to stay!

Continue the conversation with us @VoicesofEnglish

23 June 2017

Women in the Electricity Supply Industry

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23rd June is International Women in Engineering Day. To mark this we look at the role of women in the electricity supply industry, recently documented by National Life Stories in the project An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK.

In the 1920s and 1930s  the electricity supply industry was thought to offer opportunities for women engineers that were absent in other sectors and some of Britain’s pioneering women engineers including Caroline Haslett, Margaret Partridge and Beatrice Shilling worked in the sector. 

Despite this optimism the electricity supply industry documented in An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK was one that employed few women engineers, even after the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.  Mike Kay, who started his apprenticeship at NORWEB, the regional electricity supplier to north west England in 1978, observed:

Mike Kay on the lack of women engineers in 1970s Britain

Being the first to appoint a woman engineer was something senior managers remembered with pride.  Glyn England recalled doing so during his time at SWEB, the regional supplier for the south west:

Glyn England on the appointment of a woman engineer as a chief officer

So what was it like for these women engineers entering a largely male working environment?  Alison Simpson studied electrical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, secured work experience in a power station and participated in the Scottish Engineering Training Scheme before joining the South of Scotland Electricity Board in 1979 as a trainee in commercial engineering, which involved working with domestic and commercial customers to design and install electrical systems. The lack of women’s toilets at the company’s engineering training facility was an early sign of the discrimination she later faced.

Alison Simpson on sexual discrimination in the workplace

Eventually Alison managed to secure the job as a distribution engineer that she had sought at the outset. This involved working on the high-voltage distribution network and gave her access to a wide range of training courses. These including training in climbing poles and transmission towers that allowed her to appreciate the work of the line staff who kept the system running.

Alison Simpson on climbing electricity poles

Changes to the industry from the later 1980s, especially privatisation and the development of renewable energy sources, challenged its structures, leading to new opportunities for women with a range of expertise.  Lawyer Fiona Woolf developed an understanding of how power systems operated as a legal advisor to the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. This led to an appointment working for National Grid. She and her team wrote hundreds of agreements designed to ensure that a privatised industry really would keep the lights on, learning how to combine market rules with the laws of physics. (Listen to Fiona Woolf's interview on BL Sounds).

Fiona_Woolf_(cropped)Fiona Woolf (2014). Courtesy of  the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

More recently renewable energy companies have provided new opportunities for women, including in leadership positions. Juliet Davenport studied physics and environmental economics before working on energy policy. She worked as commercial director of the UK subsidiary of German energy company Unit(e) and was part of a management buy-out of the firm that later became Good Energy, of which she is currently chief executive. In her interview she suggests that her background in physics was important in establishing her credibility in an industry where some of the existing operators were struggling to adjust to the new ways of doing things that renewable energy represents.

Juliet Davenport on establishing her credibility in the renewable energy industry

Dr Sally Horrocks, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leicester, and Senior Academic Advisor to the National Life Stories's project, An Oral History of British Science.

25 May 2017

An Ode to Early Record Catalogues

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Thomas Henry is a collector of 78 rpm records based in Paris who has carried out extensive research on the history of sound recording through his blog Ceints de Bakélite and his interactive mapping project Disquaires de Paris. With a background in history and sociology of music from Paris École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, he is originally a vinyl collector who converted to shellac a decade ago after finding a bunch of mysterious Armenian 78 rpm records at Yerevan’s flea market.

A member of Paris Phono Museum, he also holds the Vice-Chair position of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives’ (IASA) discography committee. One of the aims of the committee is to create a network of partners who will collaboratively create a bibliography of discographies including information about all current, out-of-print and in progress discographies published worldwide in print and electronic formats. Digital versions of discographies, including those which have thus far only been available in print, will also be made available through this bibliography. You can access it and add to it through IASA’s webpage.

A discography is a comprehensive and detailed compilation of musical recordings, particularly those of a particular performer or composer. It is also very common to find discographies dedicated to a music style or a label. Behind a discography, there is the will to provide more information about a body of sound recordings. Discographies are often created by a researcher, a collector or an institution. Some of them are printed and published, some of them are just excel sheets on the computer of private collectors, but all of them are created with the same purpose: increasing knowledge about an artist or an orchestra, a composer, a label, a music style, etc. Record catalogues, key sources for this type of research, are printed documents produced by record companies that can be used as valuable tools by discographers and music aficionados. They offer less information than a discography about the sound recordings, but are full of interesting elements that complement and enhance them. 

For this blog post, Henry takes a closer look at some of the record catalogues made available online by the British Library and through their rich visual iconography, illustrates their use and history. Thomas Henry would like to thank Jonathan Ward and Suresh Chandvankar for their assistance in writing this piece.

An ode to early record catalogues

While listening to a fox-trot from the mid 1920's, a Beethoven sonata from the 1930's or a calypso from the early 50's, one might want to learn more about it. Of course some information will be available on the record's centre label but this information can be quite limited or not directly comprehensible. The name of a performer or an orchestra, title of a song, name and logo of a record company, short description ("fox-trot", "piano solo", "tenor with orchestra", "birds imitation" etc...), language and some obscure figures and letters can still lead us to wonder - When was this recorded? Who is the singer? What did he/she look like? Was he/she famous? What were people listening to at the time? And how did they listen to their records?

Finding answers to all these questions might take time or even turn into a lifelong quest for some obsessive researchers. Such research can be somewhat akin to detective work and clues can be found browsing photograph, newspaper, poster or sheet music collections available in libraries. Another fascinating, often underrated but incredibly useful item in this research is the record catalogue. 175 record catalogues have been digitized and made available on the British Library website. They are focussed on the British market and cover the "acoustic era" - from the late 19th century to the mid 1920's - before the microphone’s invention. One might see these catalogues as just a simple listing of records, but they are actually much more than that and in this post, I'll try to show why.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVOX1925XXX-0000V0
New His Master’s Voice Operatic Records, 1925

From the very beginning of the phonographic industry, all recording companies published catalogues listing their published output: wax cylinders and later on, records. In most cases, "general catalogues" were published every year and these were sometimes completed by "supplements", published on a monthly basis. In addition, some extra catalogues were also published for specific repertoires or special occasions. Created for a commercial use, these catalogues firstly give an overview of a record company's output at a given moment in time and illustrate how this output was categorised and marketed. Indications on the label's colours assigned to each musical style and its corresponding price range give us a clear picture of what it was like buying records in the past.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-ZONXX1913X14-0000V0
Zonophone Record Catalogue, 1913-14

The very first catalogues from the late 1890’s rarely mention the name of performers and composers; potential buyers were more interested in the name of a popular melody or an opera. Their content gets more precise over time and later catalogues, provide much more detail.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-EDIGX1898XXX-0000V0
Edison-Bell List of Records, 1898

These catalogues do not just consist of a monotone alphabetically ordered list of artists, they let us discover a very rich iconography - photographs, drawings, advertisements - complementary to the sounds themselves.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1913X09-0000V0
His Master’s Voice New Records, September 1913

Beyond their aesthetic dimension, these graphic elements provide interesting information on the ways in which  records and talking machines have been used over time. In addition, they often include technical tips on the best ways to play and store records, information that can be useful for people interested the history of sound recordings and talking machines.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-PATGX1910X11-0000V0
Complete Catalogue of Pathe Standards 10 Inch Double Sided Discs, 1911

These catalogues are also full of photographs and biographical elements about artists that can be hard to find anywhere else. They reflect consumers' tastes of the time, showing what the hits and who the big stars of the early 20th century were. This gives us some clues about the music our ancestors were listening to. No talking machine nor record collection from that time has survived in my family, so I can only speculate: were my great-grandparents fans of the French soprano Emma Calvé or the baritone Maurice Renaud? 

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRARX1904XXX-0000V0
Catalogue of “Red Label” Gramophone Records, February 1904

Or were they listening to marches by La Garde Républicaine and comic monologues by Parisian “Café-Concert” artists? Or were they actually lovers of rare or upbeat - yet popular - repertoires, such as animal imitations, whistling or hunting horn recordings?

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1910X08-0000V0
New Gramophone Records, August 1910

 At a time where phonographs and gramophones were still considered by many as amusing curiosities rather than a way to enjoy “serious” music, convincing famous artists to make recordings was also a way for record companies to legitimize the talking machine. From very early on, The Gramophone Company understood that and some of its older catalogues feature pages where some popular singers express their admiration for the Gramophone and its capacity to faithfully reproduce their voice.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVCX1915XXX-0000V0
His Master's Voice Celebrity Records, 1915

In the same vein, record companies also used their catalogues to promote some of their “sensational” or unusual recordings and demonstrate the superiority of their products. Lacking Lolcats at the time, lambs and dogs were preferred to create a buzz.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1913X09-0000V0
His Master’s Voice New Records, September 1913

As an object, each of these catalogues has its own history. If you look at them carefully, you’ll see that they have many stories to tell about their former owners and the period during which they were published. They might include personal hand-written notes by their former owners or references to the historical and political background, as illustrated by the following reference to the Russo-Japanese War.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRAMX1904XXX-0000V0
Catalogue of Twelve-inch Gramophone Monarch Records, March 1904

​Early recordings made in some regions of the world are less documented than those made in Western countries. In some cases, there is no longer an existing archive allowing us to discover more about an artist and the context in which he or she was recorded. For these types of records, the work of discographers becomes absolutely essential. Based on a systematic inventorisation and analysis of cylinder and record details - performers, title, language, label, genre, matrix and catalogue numbers - discographical research provides valuable elements to find out the date and the result of a recording session. Record catalogues are a key resource for discographers, as they feature dating and background information. Browsing these catalogues is often the first step in discographical research, even though some of them are very rare - in some cases much rarer than records themselves! The opposite also holds true: records listed in some catalogues might never turn up and  their presence in a catalogue remains the only evidence that they ever existed.


As a collector of 78 rpm records “from around the world” - some might call them “world music” or “ethnic” records - I cannot conclude this post without mentioning some beautiful examples from this area taken from the British Library’s catalogue collection. They let us discover some very early Indian, Persian, Arabic and Russian recordings made in 1899 by the Gramophone Company in London.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRAGX1901XXX-0000V0
Gramophone Record Catalogue, 1899

 As part of the British Library’s Endangered Archive Program, a large collection of 1,408 Indian songs recorded on 78 rpm records were digitized and made accessible online in 2016. This unique material, focussed on the Odeon and Young India labels was sourced from private Indian collectors Suresh Chandvankar, Sunny Matthew and Narayan Mulan. Some very rare catalogues were also digitized, allowing us to enjoy their gorgeous illustrations and fascinating photographs while listening to some of the fabulous recordings available, such as this solo of Sundari, a double reed instrument, performed by Vithal More.

20
Odeon Marathi October 1934 catalogue
21
Young India Catalogues - Gujrathi, March 1941

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

19 May 2017

The Sound Recordings of Arnold Adriaan Bake at the British Library: A treasure trove of South Asian music

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This is the second blog from World and Traditional Music highlighting collections at the British Library  from India, as part of the 2017 UK-India Year of Culture

19th May 1899 is the birth date of Dutch ethnomusicologist Arnold Adriaan Bake [1899-1963].

Today the British Library is launching the first series of recordings from his collection of music from South Asia which has been a great resource for many academics across several disciplines. The British Library is actively engaged with a number of international academics and communities who are working with wax cylinder recordings from the Arnold Adriaan Bake archive to enhance the documentation for these recordings. They are being released in regional batches as research progresses.

The first batch includes recordings from Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh. These recordings have been the focus of PhD student Christian Poske's research, the author of this blog. 

Bake_1

Bauls at the Jaydev Kenduli festival, West Bengal, India, 15.1.1932.

(Still of film by Arnold Adriaan Bake, British Library, C52/FO/12)

 “Kees, Charley and I enjoyed the silence, and headed towards a small camp much closer to the way, where we had heard such nice flute playing. It was quite unreal. Some women and men, marvellous figures, sat in a circle, and a quite old man warmed a pair of long, thin hands above the small fire. Facing with his back to us, a man played on a bamboo flute, (…) completely detached from the outer world. It was splendid. We remained standing for quite some time and listened (…) The flute player stopped, and one of the others sang a song that was also very nice. To my great surprise, they agreed to come to the tent in the afternoon of the next day to record songs. I was very happy. It was the first really good thing that we had heard.” (Arnold A. Bake, Letter to his mother, 20.1.1932)

 

 C52_1757 Eman sādher bāgāne āmār

Listen: C52/1757, MP3 “Eman sādher bāgāne āmār” (engl. “In the garden of my desire”): Song performed by three Bauls, vocals with percussion accompaniment (Jaydev Kenduli, 15.1.1932, phonographic cylinder recording by Arnold Bake). This song belongs to the category of dehatattva (lit. ‘principles of the body’), the philosophy of the role and function of the human body, perceived as dwelling place of the divine, in attaining spiritual salvation. In its lyrics, aspects of human life are expressed through natural symbolism and personification: the six human sentiments of kāma (lust), krodha (anger), lābh (greed), mada (arrogance), moha (attachment), mātsarya (jealousy), known as ṣaḍṛpu (six enemies) in Indian philosophy, are described as six gardeners with corresponding character traits who influence human nature.

The Dutch ethnomusicologist Dr Arnold Adriaan Bake (1899-1963) was a pioneer in the study of South Asian music and dance. Initially trained in Western music, Bake was perhaps the first Western scholar to fully realise the wealth and diversity of South Asian music and dance traditions, which could be found not only in urban salons, theatres and concert-halls, but also in temples, monasteries, small towns and remote villages, across the sub-continent and at all levels of society. Taking advantage of the latest developments in audiovisual recording technology, and with the devoted help of his wife Corrie, he set about documenting this diversity - from Sri Lanka in the south to Nepal and Ladakh in the north - with unprecedented dedication and energy. The World and Traditional Music Collection of the British Library holds a unique anthology of material recorded by Bake. Its Bake collection spans not only many decades but also many formats of audio and visual material including wax cylinders, tefi-bands, open reel tapes and 16mm black and white and colour silent films, providing a complex and detailed document of music and ritual in South Asia from the 1930s to the late 1950s.

Bake_2
Arnold A. Bake recording women of the Mannan tribe, Kerala, 17.11.1933

(British Library, C52/FO/12)

            In the course of my AHRC-funded research at SOAS and the British Library Sound Archive, I am studying Bake’s fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh. In the last few months, I have evaluated his audio recordings and silent film recordings from these regions with the support of World and Traditional Music curators, Janet Topp Fargion and Isobel Clouter. Bake’s overseas correspondence, which is stored in the India Office Records and Private Papers collection of the British Library, provides much information about his fieldwork. Through an evaluation of these letters, new information related to Bake’s fieldwork and recordings has emerged so that previously uncatalogued recordings could be identified.

Bake_3
Arnold A. Bake with tabla and tanpura, Santiniketan, around 1926-27

(Bake collection, SOAS Music Department, SNK 55)

Presumably, Arnold Bake's interest in Indian music was sparked by the visit of the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) to the Netherlands in 1920. Having studied Sanskrit and other Asian languages in Leiden and Utrecht, Bake decided to complete his doctoral thesis, a translation of two chapters of the Saṅgīta Darpaṇa, a seventeenth-century treatise on Indian musicology, at Visva-Bharati, Tagore’s university in Santiniketan in West Bengal. While completing his thesis at the university, Bake also learned to sing Indian classical music and Rabindrasangit, the songs of Tagore, from 1925 to 1929. After his return to Europe, Bake held lectures on Indian music in Europe, providing practical demonstrations by singing Indian songs. Bake also sang some of Tagore’s songs at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin in 1930.

C52 2022-2 Nāi nāi bhay

Listen: C52/2022 (song 2), MP3 “Nāi nāi bhay” (engl. “Don’t be afraid”): Rabindrasangit, performed by Arnold A. Bake (Berlin, early 1930, phonographic cylinder recording by Georg Schünemann). Tagore originally wrote this song during one of his European journeys in Munich in September 1926, inspired by the struggles of Jatin Das and other leading figures of the Indian independence movement. The song praises the strength of the human spirit in the face of difficulties. In 1935, Bake published a transcription of the song in his book Chansons de Rabindranath Tagore: Vingt-Six Chants Transcripts.[1]

During his second stay in India from 1931 to 1934, Bake was again based in Santiniketan. From there, he made several recording trips to festivals in the vicinity to record folk and devotional music such as Santal music and dance, Baul music and Vaiṣṇava kīrtan. To reach the recording locations in the morning, Bake and his wife often had to travel overnight on bullock carts:

We took our two mattresses with us so that we had camping beds (…) - first straw, then two mattresses, then our bedding. It got cold quickly, so we wrapped up in the blankets nicely. Nevertheless, the cold still got us and we got out again in the middle of the night. (…) Around 6 am we climbed down from the cart and ran ourselves warm. At 7 am, Ganapati made tea somewhere by the side of the way, and at 8 am we started again and walked in front. It was around 10 am when we arrived in Kenduli (…)

(Bake, 20.1.1932)

Bake’s third fieldwork trip in South Asia was prolonged by the outbreak of the Second World War and took place between 1937 to 1946. His last fieldwork in South Asia took place in 1955-6, centering on Nepal. Bake also found the time to revisit Santiniketan for a few days, where he recorded Indira Devi Chaudhurani (1873-1960), the niece of Rabindranath Tagore, who had helped to establish the music department of Visva-Bharati University. Recorded when she was 82, her rendition of Tagore’s song “Katabār bhebechinu” has a striking intensity.

C52_NEP71-1 Katabār bhebechinu


Listen: C52/NEP/71 (song 1), MP3 “
Katabār bhebechinu” (engl. “How many times have I thought”): Rabindrasangit performed by Indira Devi Chaudhurani (Santiniketan, 8.3.1956, reel-to-reel recording by Arnold Bake). Tagore originally wrote this song in 1885, modelling its melody after the English folk song “Drink to me only with thine eyes”. The Bengali lyrics speak of surrender to the beloved one and are a fine example of how Tagore merged expressions of human and spiritual love in his compositions, inspired by the concept of bhakti (devotion) of Hindu Vaiṣṇavism. In 1961, Bake published a comparative musical analysis of both songs in his article “Tagore and Western Music”.[2]

Bake’s cylinder recordings of his fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh in 1931-34 are now available for listening online at British Library Sounds, where they can be listened to for enjoyment as well as for further exploration by ethnomusicologists. Many of Bake’s recordings from other South Asian regions still await further evaluation, and thus provide fertile ground for further research.

 

[1] Arnold A. Bake, ed., Chansons de Rabindranath Tagore: Vingt-Six Chants Transcripts, Bibliothèque musicale du Musée Guimet. (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1935).

[2] Arnold A. Bake, “Tagore and Western Music,” in A Centenary Volume: Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1961 (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961), 88–95.

 

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

23 August 2016

Passionate music from a hot country: a musical visit to Iraq-Kurdistan

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The British Library's World and Traditional Music section supported ethnomusicologist, Rolf Killius, on a field trip to record music in Iraq-Kurdistan over June/July 2016. This is his report.

 

Rugged Mountains in Kurdistan Photo Rolf Killius
Rugged Mountains in Kurdistan. Photo Rolf Killius, 2016

It is hot. No, it is extremely hot. Today the temperature is 45° Celsius; the air is bone-dry, no trace of wind. I am in Sulaimani, the second urban centre in Iraq-Kurdistan. This part of Iraq belongs to the Kurds and is de-facto an independent state run by a Kurdish government.

Traditional singers and musicians have gathered in the Zardosht Café. Zardosht is the Kurdish term for Zoroastrianism, an age-old religion known in the wider region. Since the coming of the Islamic period, it has become a minority religion, often frowned upon. These days the Zardosht belief is making a kind of come-back. Here in Kurdistan the faith is essentially Kurdish and promotes traditional folk music.

Listen Zardosht Cafe Group


The group starts to play: The zarab (goblet drum) player provides rhythm while the Korg keyboardist adds harmonies and melodic phrases. Occasionally the saz (plucked lute) virtuoso contributes drone and melodic sounds. But the musical highlight is the charismatic lead-singer Ata Azizy; he alternates – or even competes – with the balaban player, Jowanro, in expressing intricate melodic lines. A balaban is a traditional single-reed wood instrument; it is very similar to the Armenian duduk. Its sound is soothing and exciting at the same time. Their way of singing and playing, including the guttural stops, is possibly what makes the music “typically” Kurdish.

The singer Ata Azizy Photo Rolf Killius
The singer Ata Azizy. Photo Rolf Killius, 2016

 

The balaban player Jowanro accompanied with zarab drum, keyboard and saz Photo Rolf Killius
The balaban player Jowanro accompanied with zarab drum, keyboard and saz. Photo Rolf Killius, 2016

With the support of the British Library's World and Traditional Music section, I was able to visit Iraq-Kurdistan and record traditional music during live events and in pre-arranged recording sessions. I was curious: how does a new country treats its rich traditional music culture?

I stay for the ‘after-party’ at the Zorgasth Café. Here the singer, Rafat Germiany, and the same balaban player perform howrama. Though this musical genre is remotely connected to Zoroastrianism, it is known as a typical Kurdish vocal style. The voice and the wind-instrument alternate again.

 Listen Zardosht Cafe Howrama group

 

 The singer Rafat Germiany (second left) and the balaban player Jowanro (second right) Photo Rolf Killius

The singer Rafat Germiany (second left) and the balaban player Jowanro (second right). Photo Rolf Killius, 2016

For me the most remarkable thing is the large, mainly young crowd (only men). They watch the performance with increasing anticipation. It shows that the music is still meaningful to a younger audience and therefore has a future. One participant told me that this café was the only public space where a female singer was allowed to perform these days.

Everybody mentions the traditional vocal style called heiran from the Erbil region, Erbil being the country’s capital and the other urban centre. Mr Delzar, a friend, invites me to his home village far from Erbil, just below the Qarachokh mountain range. Today his ‘village’ consists of several farm-houses managed on a part-time basis and re-created only recently. The original Kurdish villages of this region were destroyed by Iraqi troops, the last time by Saddam Hussain in 1988. Only in the last few years – the region was only recently secured by the Peshmerga (Kurdish liberation army) – have some of the original villagers and their descendants come back to farm again.

A seasoned Kurd arrives at Mr Delzar’s farm-house and immediately starts singing. Mr Mahyadin Sherwani is a farmer and self-taught heiran singer. He explains to me that the songs of the heiran genre describe the rugged countryside of Kurdistan and its people.

I first experienced traditional Kurdish vocal music many years back in the Kurdish region of eastern Turkey. I listened to the always slightly over-amplified and highly reverberated recordings from cassettes played on the crackling PA-system of a local bus. There, listening to this music and viewing the hills flying past, I imagined how this music was born in the Kurdish countryside.  I have the same feeling today, listening to this talented singer in this Iraq-Kurdistan village.

 

The Heiran singer Mahyadin Sherwani Photo Parwez Zabihi
The Heiran singer Mahyadin Sherwani. Photo Parwez Zabihi, 2016

Listen The Heiran singer Mahyadin Sherwani

 

I have already mentioned the saz. During my last week in Iraq-Kurdistan I was invited to a performance in the heart of Erbil of the saz player and musical instrument shop owner, Bakr Sazvan. He has his shop just below the ancient citadel set on a mound towering over the city. He played a number of electrifying pieces, setting his business aside for a full hour.

The saz is a pear-shaped plucked instrument, with five or six strings organised in three courses. For the Kurds the saz is an essentially Kurdish instrument though it is also used by Turkish and Iranian musicians.

Especially intriguing is how Bakr Sazvan plays, combining melodic phrases played on the higher pitched strings, and striking the lower pitched strings in order to create the accompanying drone sound.

The Saz player Bakr Savan in his workshop Photo Rolf Killius
The Saz player Bakr Savan in his workshop. Photo Rolf Killius, 2016

Listen The Saz player Bakr Savan in his workshop

 

As I pack my bags for the return journey to London I ponder about Kurdish traditional music: in comparison with many other regions of the world I’ve visited, the music of the Kurds is still alive and kicking! As these people are very keen to demonstrate traditional music and to preserve their culture, they invited me to come again for a much longer stay. I happily accepted.

Rolf Killius (rolfkillius@yahoo.com and www.rolfkillius.com) 09/08/2016 

(with thanks to the musicians, interpreters, fixers and friends who assisted on the trip)

 

The recordings made during this project will be added to the Rolf Killius Collection (C815). Some of Rolf's recordings from rural India are online on BL Sounds.

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.