THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

10 posts categorized "Research collaboration"

27 June 2018

Using wildlife sound recordings in the field

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Coleridge research fellow Dr Alice Rudge writes:

What are the uses of the recordings we make beyond preserving them? How might archiving wildlife recordings open up possibilities for interdisciplinary research, beyond the original purpose of the recording? During my anthropological PhD fieldwork with Batek people in Malaysia, which focused on their uses of music and sound, using wildlife sound recordings in the field created some interesting outcomes.

Batek people are indigenous hunter-gatherers of the lowland rainforests in peninsular Malaysia, numbering around 1,500 people. They speak Batek, an Austroasiatic language of the Northern Aslian family.

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Evening fishing and flower collecting

In a Batek camp, or when out in the forest, birds are a common topic of conversation, and under the dense canopy of the forest, birds are some of the most noticeable creatures, not because they are seen, but because they are heard (see also Lye 2005). All that might be seen is a flash of colour or a shaking leaf, but birds’ calls cut across the background hum of insects and chatter. Perhaps for this reason, birds are a major source of musical inspiration. Birds are cosmologically significant, too, and played an important role in creating the world as it is today, according to Batek origin stories (see also Endicott 1979). They are also used to make predictions - for example if you hear a certain bird you might know that certain fruits are ripe, that elephants are close, or that a friend will arrive home that day. Birds are often named onomatopoeically for their calls - for example the sŋseŋ bird has the call ‘seŋ-seŋ-seŋ-seŋ’.

This evident salience of bird sounds for Batek people meant that I was interested to document Batek names for various birds during my fieldwork - partly so that I could then ask further questions about them! However - when out in the forest, if we heard a bird and someone told me the name of it, it was difficult for me to then know the English name of it based on the sound alone. I therefore got hold of some of recordings of Malaysian birds, and, alongside showing them images from photographic field guides, played them to my Batek friends with the idea that they would be able to tell me the Batek names for the birds, which I could then compare to the English names noted by the original recordist. This proved a fascinating exercise - in particular as often there was not any one simple answer or direct correspondence between the English and Batek names for birds. For example, the aforementioned sŋseŋ was variously identified from the images as the Black-eared Shrike-babbler, Long-tailed Sibia, White-bellied Erponis, Oriental Reed-warbler, Arctic Warbler, Mountain Leaf-warbler, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Blue-throated Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Flowerpecker, Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, and the Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker. However, from the recordings it was more definitively identified by different people as the Brown-throated Sunbird.

Furthermore, not only did people help me to document a lot of bird names, but they were also keen to recount stories and other information about the birds. For example, on listening to the Crested Jay, ʔEyJayat identified that it was a lhlah in Batek, but also recounted a funny story about coming across a tourist in the forest: the tourist was reaching up, trying to record the lhlah bird with their microphone - but this took ʔEyJayat, who was walking in the forest, by surprise as he thought the tourist was a ghost. ʔEyKtlət also remembered that the lhlah was the bird we had heard in the forest that morning when we had been fishing. He, his wife, and his son talked about how the lhlah has two sounds - syãl and llɛk. If you hear these sounds it means you won’t find food in the forest that day. If you are tired, and have no food, or only a tiny bit of food - you will hear it. If you get back home and your lean-to is damp - you will hear it. People therefore feel angry when they hear this bird! Through this exercise, Batek friends also taught me that the baləŋ bird indicates that elephants are close, as it makes the sound tuləŋ that imitates the sound of an elephant trumpeting, and that the maliʔ bird calls rain to come (ʔoʔ ʔajak ʔujan). The ləʔ talok bird (a type of Scimitar Babbler) - whose name literally translates as ‘indicates the Dusky Langur’ indicates that Dusky Langur are close!

The recording that people found the most hilarious was of the trut kit, or ‘fart’ bird - whose call sounds a lot like somebody breaking wind. Not only did I learn this funny name for the Mountain Imperial Pigeon - but also everyone fell about laughing about the bird, saying yɛʔ malɛs nir klɨŋ - ‘I really don’t like the sound’, imitating the sound, and then laughing again. In the Batek’s forest, however, laughter can be taboo (lawac), and risks causing a storm - and in the recordings people can be heard warning each other - ‘watch out or we will be lawac from laughing so much’. As well as giving information about birds, the new recordings of people listening to these recordings therefore also document something about Batek humour and taboos more broadly.

The jayit srwal bawac bird - which in English is the Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush - has a name which translates as ‘sewing the trousers of the macaque’. This bird also has other messages - as it is also heard as saying cok buŋah kwaʔ and jŋʔɨl tlok kawah - telling the listener to prepare the kwaʔ flower to be worn in the hair and to jump into the water at kawah - a part of the nearby river. These messages are ‘phonological iconisms’ of the birds call. In other words, the words sound like the sound of the bird. This bird is therefore particularly inspiring to and well loved by the Batek, it is strongly associated with a particular place and with flowers that the Batek love, and its call often therefore prompts exclamations of feelings of longing and nostalgia, which the Batek call haɁip. You can listen to the sound of the bird, followed by ʔEyKtlət repeating its name, in the audio excerpt below:

Jayit srwal bawac

Through recording Batek people listening to the recordings, therefore it has been possible to preserve some of this complex and in-depth knowledge and love of birds that Batek people have, knowledge which is deeply connected to their forest home, and their daily experiences of the birds. The exercise has showed that wildlife recordings can have great use beyond documentation - in this case by providing a resource for eliciting, sharing, and in turn preserving, further unique knowledge, and providing a window onto important ways of thinking about the environment that challenge dominant discourses, and show the ways that human and avian lives can intertwine.

The Alice Rudge Collection is currently being deposited and catalogued with the World and Traditional Music collection as part of Alice's ongoing research with the Batek.

For more information on Batek people, see the following:

Endicott, K.M., 1979. Batek Negrito Religion: The Worldview and Rituals of a Hunting and Gathering People of Peninsular Malaysia, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lye, T.P., 2005 [2004]. Changing Pathways: Forest Degradation and the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Strategic Information Research Development.

Rudge, A., forthcoming 2018. The sounds of people and birds: music, memory, and longing among the Batek. Hunter Gatherer Research. 

 

15 June 2018

International research collaboration on South Asian audiovisual heritage

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In March this year the British Library began a new research project with the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology American Institute of Indian Studies (ARCE) in India, focused around our South Asian audiovisual heritage collections.

Funded through a grant from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the project is part of  the Rutherford Fund – a major UK Government investment launched in 2017 to promote international research collaboration.

In this post, Dr Sangeeta Dutta, ARCE Archivist, discusses the research fellowship she has been undertaking as part of the project, in the World and Traditional Music section of British Library Sound Archive.

 

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Dr Sangeeta Dutta

The ‘International Fellowship in South Asian Audiovisual Heritage: Preservation, Research and Engagement’ is a collective endeavour, involving the exchange and sharing of resources of two audiovisual archives - the British Library Sound Archive and the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology American Institute of Indian Studies (ARCE), India. It aims to facilitate the exchange of knowledge of archival practices and of collections, or information about collections, held in each location. A particular objective is to exchange historical recordings made in the first decades of the 20th Century on wax cylinders, and to make them accessible for users at both the archives.

In India, ARCE is one of the pioneers of audiovisual archiving. It was established in 1982, with a vision to bring together the recorded collections of music and oral traditions of South Asia. It has collections of field and published recordings, voluntarily deposited or donated by foreign and Indian scholars and institutions, which are preserved in climate controlled storage and made available for users in a well-equipped listening and viewing room. It has recording, transferring and audio and video archiving facilities, across different technologies and formats. It follows global standards of preservation in audio and video formats in the digital era.

Since I began my fellowship in March, I have had the opportunity to explore various South Asian collections, specially the recordings made in India, and to become familiar with the workflows of the British Library Sound Archive. This fellowship has also been instrumental in providing the opportunity to contribute to the Library’s major digitisation programme, the Save Our Sounds Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. As part of my contribution I have created collection preparation documents for 11 South Asian collections, which have been prioritised for digitisation.  

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M. Umashankar in the audio lab at ARCE

I have also been involved in the cataloguing process of both the field and published recordings in the World and Traditional Music section of British Library Sound Archive, creating catalogue entries, working with newly acquired collection items and dealing with born-digital collections. These experiences have been a brilliant learning opportunity for me as Rutherford Fellow. The project has also allowed me to compare, develop and share approaches towards making sound heritage accessible for wider dissemination.

During the Fellowship I have had the opportunity to attend various training courses, ranging from metadata creation to developing dissemination processes. Through these I have learnt something of the tools and practices that will be applicable at various stages of audiovisual archiving in future. The Fellowship has also made it possible for me to visit related institutions and exhibitions in and around London, and to meet scholars of various disciplines - archivists, museum curators, ethnomusicologists, etc. These meetings and discussions have immensely influenced my thought processes involving audiovisual archiving in relation to ethnomusicology.

Another component of the project has been the engagement of two Collections Assistants, one at the British Library Sound Archive (Christian Poske) the other at ARCE in India (Dr Divya Shrivastava). The assistants have contributed towards the preparation of the recordings shared between the two archives, exchanging knowledge around respective cataloguing formats, and developing a model for the classification and cataloguing of musical instruments. Both the Collections Assistants have had the opportunity to make short visits to the partner archives, thereby having hands on experience of archival processes in both institutions.  

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Dr Janet Topp Fargion (Lead, Curator of World and Traditional Music, centre) with Collections Assistants Christian Poske and Divya Shrivastava during her visit to the British Library  

One of the most useful outcomes of the sharing of recordings between our two audiovisual archives will be the wider level of dissemination, particularly where users cannot visit the actual site where the recordings are preserved. The project will make information and expert knowledge of ARCE collections available for the first time to British Library users and audiences in the UK. In India, on the other hand, where ARCE is one of the primary research centres for ethnomusicology, being able to provide access to British Library collections will be of great value to users – a mixture of Indian and international scholars.

Thus the Rutherford Fellowship has facilitated a substantial international collaboration between the British Library and the ARCE. This has enabled the Library to share resources preserved in London with the region of origin. At the same time detailed knowledge held at the ARCE, for example of particular instruments and instrument classification systems, will allow these resources to be more usefully described and discovered. We thank our funders for helping to create this new pathway for the circulation of knowledge among the institutions, building a bridge between the archives and their users. 

 

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

 

20 April 2018

Linguistics at the Library - Episode 7

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PhD placements students, Andrew Booth and Rowan Campbell, write:

What happens when you have a collection of recordings of endangered languages but little further information about what’s actually on them? Guest speaker Dr Alice Rudge, a cataloguer in the sound archive, talks to Andrew and Rowan about the fascinating stories she has discovered through her work as part of the HLF-funded Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, and the collaborations with curator Andrea Zarza Canova and linguists Professor Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris that enabled these stories to be heard.

Tweet us: @VoicesofEnglish and @BL_WorldTrad

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

Millennium Memory Bank Recording in Stoke-on-Trent. BBC, UK, rec. 1998 [digital audio file]. British Library, C900/16541. Available: https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/Millenium-memory-bank/021M-C0900X16541X-2100V1

Interesting links:

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage: https://www.bl.uk/projects/unlocking-our-sound-heritage

Information on the major, international, community-based project that focuses on the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian languages, and is coordinated by Dr Janet Watson and funded by the Leverhulme Trust can be found here: https://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/info/125219/modern_south_arabian_languages

Deposits of Modern South Arabian linguistic materials can be found at the Endangered Languages Archive: https://elar.soas.ac.uk/

Friends of Soqotra: http://www.friendsofsoqotra.org/

World and Traditional Music collection: https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/world-and-traditional-music

British Library Sound Archive on NTS Radio: https://www.nts.live/shows/british-library-sound-archive

Linguistics at the Library Episode 7

13 April 2018

T.M. Johnstone’s Modern South Arabian recordings: collaborative cataloguing and ‘footprints’ of biocultural change in Southern Arabia

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Audio cataloguer Dr Alice Rudge writes:

Thomas Muir Johnstone made many recordings during his research trips to the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which are of endangered and unwritten languages. The British Library now houses these open reel and cassette tapes, which were acquired from Durham University Library in 1995. The collection is archived within the World and Traditional Music collection with the reference C733. As part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, these tapes have now been digitised and are being catalogued. The cataloguing of the tapes in this collection containing Modern South Arabian languages was made possible through a collaborative process, which revealed not only the content of the tapes, but also the webs of intertwining stories and lives that they document. 

Abdul Qadr
T.M. Johstone sits with Abdul Qadr, the head of education in Dhofar at the time. He admired Johnstone for his beautiful Arabic handwriting (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Johnstone had a talent for languages from an early age, learning to speak Polish as a schoolboy, before settling on Arabic (in particular the Gulf dialects) as the language to which he would devote much of his career. However, his work was also invaluable for the documentation and description of Modern South Arabian languages, in particular Mehri, Shehret and Harsusi. He often worked long-term with particular speakers such as ‘Ali Musallam, who in fact spent many months living in London so that Johnstone could continue to work with him. In 1967, Johnstone was also part of a joint civilian and army expedition to the island of Soqotra. Johnstone was the group’s linguist, and accompanying him were also archaeologists, geologists, and botanists (the trip is documented in Doe 1992).  

Map
Map showing the distribution of Modern South Arabian languages in Yemen and Oman. Cartography by Ulrich Seeger. Used with kind permission from the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian team.

The Modern South Arabian languages Harsusi, Mehri, Shehret, Hobyot, Bathari, and Soqotri are distinct from Arabic. They are spoken in Yemen (including the island of Soqotra) and Oman, as well as elsewhere in the Gulf. Whereas Arabic is from the Northern branch of the Afro-asiatic language family, Modern South Arabian languages are from the Southern branch. Each of these languages are endangered, and are undergoing rapid change in response to urbanisation and the ever-increasing use of the dominant contact language, Arabic, in younger generations. This process of language loss was already happening during Johnstone’s fieldwork, and is continuing now. Modern South Arabian languages are also purely oral languages, with no formal script, making the sound archive’s preservation of these recordings vital for documenting the languages as they were spoken by individuals at that moment in time. As they are unwritten languages, recordings are the only documents.

When beginning to catalogue the recordings containing Modern South Arabian languages, the language barrier impeded us from making them accessible, as to us the content was often unidentifiable. In order to give due care and attention to the cataloguing of this significant and at-risk collection of recordings, we were therefore fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of Prof. Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris.

Prof. Janet Watson is Leadership Chair for Language at Leeds University. She works on the documentation of Modern South Arabian languages, alongside Arabic dialectology, phonology, and morphology. She is also a fellow of the British Academy. Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri is a speaker of Mehri, and also understands Harsusi and Shehret. Based in Oman, he collaborates closely with Janet, and has co-published papers with her. Dr Miranda Morris, St Andrews University, has been doing extensive fieldwork in Southern Arabia (including Soqotra) for many years, and has researched and published comprehensively on oral literature and on the ethnobotany of the area. She also worked closely with Johnstone in the past, as he was the supervisor for her PhD at SOAS. They all collaborate on the Leverhulme Trust-funded Modern South Arabian languages project, a three-year community-based project which aims to document the Modern South Arabian languages spoken in Yemen and Oman.

Not only were Janet, Abdullah and Miranda able to contribute their expertise towards our cataloguing work, providing us with information on the languages used in the recordings, the content of the recordings, and in some cases the names of the speakers, they were also able to illuminate a profound sense of the time and place in which the recordings were made through their extensive background knowledge – and to situate this within the current context of rapid language and environmental change in the area.

Indeed, environmental and language loss tend to go hand in hand – with the most linguistically diverse parts of the world tending to also be the most ecologically diverse. When the landscape changes, the language we have to describe it also disappears. The Modern South Arabian languages which Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda speak and work on are rich in evocative metaphors and similies that are connected to the particular landscape of the area. For example, if a man is described as axahēh sīmar ‘he looks like a mar tree’, he is compared to the Boscial Arabica tree, a tree of the desert and drier mountains that looks like an ‘opened umbrella’. In other words, he is characterised by his ‘height, uprightness, slenderness and a shock of hair’ (Morris, p.c., Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95).

In some cases, particular words used to describe the environment are ‘grammaticalised’ – changing from having a meaning as words on their own, to also taking on a grammatical function. For example, in Mehri, the word śaff (śɛf in Shehret) means ‘animal track’, or ‘footprint’. This word, however, has also been historically grammaticalised – and is now used as the particle śaf, having the sense of ‘it transpired’, ‘as it happened’, ‘really’ (Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95). This particle is a kind of metaphorical extension of the noun śaff (‘footprint, animal track’) that now resonates beyond its original, literal meaning, to encode a sense of surprise, or revelation, that something has turned out to be as it has - just like an animal’s footprints reveal an indisputable trace of what or who has passed by. As Janet and Abdullah put it ‘from sight someone might believe that they are following a camel from one herd, but on close examination of tracks [śaff] discover they are tracking a camel from a different herd’ (Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95). Just like tracks reveal someone or something’s true identity or nature, therefore, the particle śaf describes this sense of revelation and surprise that transpires from new information or evidence.

Camel track
A photo of a camel track, taken by Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and used with kind permission.

 

Camels
A photo taken by Johnstone of camels in the Negd. They are desert camels, so they have thin delicate legs, unlike mountain camels who have thicker legs and more splayed feet (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

This experience of ‘revelation’ was reflected in our own process of cataloguing the collection – where tapes that we thought to be one thing turned out to be another, as their true identity was unlocked and thus revealed by Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda. Some of the tapes were unlabelled, others had been placed in the wrong boxes. Our collaborative work was thus fundamental to ensure these sound recordings are preserved for the future with meaning, not catalogued as ‘unidentified’ or ‘unnamed’ and consequently remaining almost invisible in the Library’s catalogue.

One recording was found by Abdullah and Miranda to be of someone speaking in Hobyot – a language we weren’t previously aware was represented in the collection, but are now able to catalogue accordingly. Another recording in Harsusi was rich in ethnobotanical detail. However, as well as doing the essential work of identifying things like language, speakers, and content, Janet, Miranda, and Abdullah were able to unlock something of the time and place that the recordings were made, and in fact, a common theme of some of the stories in the collection was this very experience of revelation, of something turning out to be something else.

Below are three Soqotri stories, translated and interpreted by Dr Miranda Morris:

[C733/8] ‘Story of two thieves’. The two thieves want to learn about thieving from each other. One has a ‘sword’, the other has some ‘honey’. They each don’t know what the other is doing. The thief with the sword offers for the other to buy it, but the other says he doesn’t have money, only honey. They exchange items – only for the man who thought he would receive a fine sword to find it was only a date palm frond, and the man who was given the honey to find he had been given sticks of excrement. They both laughed and said ‘we’re as bad as each other’.

[C733/3] ‘Story of the fisherman from Momi’. The fisherman is looked after by a lady vulture. He feeds her fish and she looks after the house. He goes out and meets some people who ask him to come out with them – he says he can’t because of his ‘old lady’ back home. They say OK – we’ll come to you. He lights a fire and cooks fish for them. He ends up travelling with them for 2 weeks, and gets lost in a foreign country. He finds another boat, lands in another country, and has to live by begging. A man offers him to come and look after his goats, even though he says he doesn’t know anything about goats. He tells him to look after the camels and date palms – but he doesn’t know how to do that either. Finally he says it doesn’t matter, I’ll look after you and give you clothes and food until you die. That night the fisherman dreamed of home and his old life. A witch appears to him in his sleep, and tells him to go to where the sharks are feeding at dusk - you’ll see the sharks with their mouths open waiting to feed. She tells him to cover his face and wade amongst them. He finds the sharks, does as she says, and in the morning finds himself in his own country… In his house, he finds a woman instead of the vulture…

[C733/1] ‘Story of the man and the jiniyya’. A man left Momi [on the Eastern tip of Soqotra]. He is going to see the Sultan in Hadiboh [the capital]. He goes to the home of the representative of the Sultan. He goes to Kam – where the Sultan’s palace is. He meets him at a famous Christ thorn tree called Gidehem. On the way, a woman he meets seems to know him [this is very common of jiniyya] – they go on together, they lie down to sleep – she says how will we cover ourselves – they use his waist cloth. Underneath, he is naked except for his knives. He says ‘come a bit closer’. He sees her ‘tifr’ [this is the one long fingernail which marks out someone as a jiniyya]. Then he knew that she was a jiniyya. He says ‘go away! I know you!’. He grabs his knives and stick and sleeps elsewhere and then runs away. She chased him all the way home to a house that wasn’t his, where he wakes up a sleeping man. He couldn’t explain himself as he was too stunned. The jiniyya says ‘that man has been rude and he will do no good and he will die’. Then he was dead...

Beach
A photo taken by Johnstone of the beach at Duqm, Oman, now a large development (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

In these Soqotri stories, the ‘sword’, the ‘honey’ the ‘vulture’ and the ‘woman’ all undergo a process of 'revelation', and turn out to be something other than was first thought. Here, a date palm frond, sticks of excrement, a human wife, and a jiniyya. Similarly, Miranda also writes that much Soqotri poetry (which the T.M. Johnstone collection also contains) makes use of a poetic device she translates as 'veiled language', from Soqotri di-ḥarf 'concealed', and di-xīlīyə 'placed beneath'. This is where the true intention of the poet is 'intelligble only to people of superior wit and insight' or to those who 'share some secret knowledge with the poet' (Morris 2013:239). A further parallel, therefore, with the 'revealing' of information in the stories, where things also transpired to be something other than was first thought.

As well as being able to describe the content of the stories to us, Miranda was able to provide us with great detail about the context of the stories and the speakers. The jiniyya was ‘revealed’ as not what the man thought, but also ‘revealed’ was the history of the place Gidehem, mentioned in the story. Miranda told of how the place is named after the famous tree of the same name. Thieves’ hands would be hung in this tree after they had been cut off as a punishment for thieving. The hands would first be boiled in shark oil, then hung up for all to see. Though this no longer happens, the place is still called Gidehem, after the tree.

In another recording from Soqotra, the speaker talks about mekoli (shamanic healers in Soqotra). He talks about how mekoli can help to ‘wash away’ your sickness, by pointing out which woman has done witchcraft on you. He then describes the process by which an accused women would be tried for being a witch: she would have a millstone tied to her neck and then be thrown overboard from a dugout canoe. If she sank, she was innocent. If she floated, she was a witch and sent on the next boat to Sur (in Oman). Miranda was able to translate the speaker talking about these past practices – and also to share her memories of her Soqotri friends recounting their older relatives talking about how this practice came to be abolished.

Children
A photo taken by Johnstone of children on the beach in Oman. One of the children wears a silver earring, suggesting that his mother may have lost a lot of children. The earring attracts witches away from the child, and so keeps him safe (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Working with Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda was therefore invaluable for revealing the 'footprints' not only of the content of the recordings, but also the landscape they grew from – the environmental landscape and the cultural landscape that Johnstone and the speakers he recorded were immersed in, alongside other British colonial activities taking place in Aden. Recording and preserving this knowledge accurately is an essential part of the preservation work we are engaged with in the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. To use Miranda’s words:

‘many of the traditional uses described have undergone modification or have already been lost. One result of recent development on the islands [of Soqotra] is that certain traditions or procedures are now seen as unsuitable or ‘backward’ and at odds with the more conservative views of modern Islam. Other uses and customs are seen as representing a time of desperation and poverty which many would prefer to forget. In this way, the recent rapid changes affecting the islands threaten to obliterate expertise and knowledge that have passed down the generations over hundreds of years’

(Morris & Miller 2004:3)

To return to our footprints metaphor: as Janet and Abdullah describe, many young speakers of Mehri will use the particle śaf in sentences to mean ‘it turned out that’ or 'it was revealed', but are unaware of the link between this word and the social importance of using footprints to track people and animals in the past. This unawareness is likely to be related to the environmental change caused by increasing urbanisation – you don’t use tracks or footprints to discover information when walking on solid asphalt (Ali Ahmad al-Mahri, quoted in Watson & al-Mahri 2017:96).

To help preserve this unique knowledge, therefore, we have been delighted to work with Prof. Janet Watson, Abdullah al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris – and we will further extend this work on the sound recordings of Modern South Arabian languages contained in the the T.M. Johnstone collection by reconnecting them with the speech communities in Soqotra and Oman. This will continue the process of revealing hidden information through the sharing of expertise and knowledge.

Jibjat
Johnstone walks on the plane behind Jibjat in Oman, amongst Chirst thorn trees. This area is now all desert, with no trees (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Thanks to Professor Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri and Dr Miranda Morris for their enthusiasm and for adding their insights on the collection. Many thanks also go to curator of World and Traditional music Andrea Zarza Canova, and to members of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project team, for facilitating the research.

The T.M. Johnstone collection can be found by searching the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue with collection call number C733

Copies of Johnstone’s published lexicons can also be found at the British Library:

Mehri, 1987 [YC.1987.a.5434]

Shehret [Jibbali], 1981 [X.950.11437]

Harsusi, 1977 [X989.51585]

References:

Doe, B. 1992. Soqotra: island of tranquillity. London: IMMEL Publishing Ltd.

Miller, A.G. & Morris, M.J. 2004. Ethnoflora of the Soqotra Archipelago. Edinburgh: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Morris, M.J. 2013. The use of 'veiled language' in Soqoṭri poetry. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 43: pp. 239-244. 

Watson, J.C.E. & al-Mahri, A.M. 2017. Language and Nature in Dhofar. In Linguistic Studies in the Arabian Gulf. Edited by Simone Bettega and Fabio Gasparaini. Turino: Quaderni di RiCOGNIZIONI, pp. 87-103.

Related links:

Alice Rudge talking with Rowan Campbell and Andrew Booth about the project on the Linguistics at the Library podcast

British Academy podcast in which Prof. Janet Watson discusses the relationship between environmental and linguistic diversity

Friends of Soqotra charity

Deposits of Modern South Arabian linguistic materials can be found at the Endangered Languages Archive

Information on the major, international, community-based project that focusses on the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian languages, and is coordinated by Dr Janet Watson and funded by the Leverhulme Trust  

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage 

World and Traditional Music collection

British Library Sound Archive on NTS Radio

HLF-english_compact_black

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is a five year project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, that will digitally preserve some of the most vulnerable sound recordings in the UK and establish the ways for our audio heritage to be shared with a wide range of audiences now and in the future. 

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.

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Odeon Marathi October 1934 catalogue
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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.