THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

4 posts categorized "West Africa"

03 April 2017

Recording of the week: Kébendo Jazz

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This week's selection was prepared by Dr Graeme Counsel, the archivist for the Syliphone record label digitisation project funded by the Endangered Archives Programme.

Kébendo Jazz were one of Guinea’s greatest orchestras, super-stars when many groups, such as Bembeya Jazz, were still in their infancy. Adapted from an ancient Mandé song, this recording from circa 1971 is an alternate version to that which appears on Syliphone SLP 25. The song celebrates Guinea’s grande artistes, with a reminder to “do what you have to do and do not worry about the hour of your death”.

Soumba performed by Kébendo Jazz

Syliphone

This example is part of a large collection of Syliphone record label recordings from the Radio Télévision Guinée archives, created in the Republic of Guinea under the Presidency of Sékou Touré (1958-1984) following independence from France. The collection was digitised as part of the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) project whose work contributes to the preservation of archival material that is in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration world-wide.

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

09 January 2017

Recording of the week: Ad man's dream

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Our first Recording of the Week for 2017 comes from Tony Harris, Preservation Audio Engineer.

There's a really lovely, lazy, summery feel  to "Are nor want for be" by the Famous Scrubbs and his Band. The infectious little ditty really should have been in an insurance ad by now!

Are not want for be_Famous Scrubbs and his Band

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The Decca West Africa yellow label series, issued on shellac disc between circa 1948-1958, provides a major resource for the study of contemporary African music. Visit Decca West Africa Recordings to listen to more recordings from the series.

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

11 July 2016

Embedded Live

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Since autumn 2015, the British Library Sound Archive has hosted Aleks Kolkowski and Larry Achiampong as composers in residence through Sound & Music's Embedded Residency scheme. Larry and Aleks will be performing live on Tuesday 12 July at 18:30 as a way of showcasing their progress in the first half of the residency. You can book your free tickets here but space is limited!

Embedded is a Sound and Music creative development programme funded by The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the PRS for Music Foundation which places composers from a range of disciplines into extended relationships with leading national organisations.

The 12 month residency is an ideal duration for the British Library Sound Archive to host artists, allowing them to engage with the rhythm of the archive, far from the immediacy with which the digital domain has accustomed us to consuming music. In an archive, the journey a listener takes with a sound recording – often on an analogue carrier – can be as long and circuitous as the initial route taken to make the recording.

In their collaborative live performance, Larry and Aleks will draw upon their respective explorations of the sound collections whilst also demonstrating historic sound recording formats, such as wax cylinders, 78rpm, acetate and vinyl records on phonographs and gramophones in combination with contemporary beat making machines and electro-acoustic manipulations.

 

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The artists have seen what takes place 'behind the scenes' during their residency at the sound archive

 

During the residency, Aleks Kolkowski has been focussing on early cylinder recordings and the Bishop Collection, which gathers the sound effects made for theatre by the Bishop Sound and Electrical Company which operated in Soho during the the 1940s and ‘50s. Kolkowski’s work engages with Save our Sounds, the Library's programme to preserve the nation's sound heritage by playfully employing analogue technology and obsolete formats in a contemporary setting. His impressions about creating work within the sound archive give us some insight into what sorts of sounds and artefacts he has been exposed to:

I was prepared for the vastness of the sound collections and familiar with some of the categories but there are always plenty of surprises, many brought to light by the curators. The quantity of home recordings, for instance, dating back to the early 1900s on cylinders is very impressive and are a delight to listen too, as are the domestic open reel magnetic tapes and acetate discs from the 1950s such as the A.W.E. Perkins Collection. To listen to these voices and sounds from the past is to experience social history brought alive. I am also very taken with the large collection of broken records that brings out both the audio archaeologist and the hands-on experimenter in me. I would love to spend time piecing these rare recordings back together and rescuing their sounds, or playfully rearranging them in the style of Milan Knízák’s Broken Music.

Larry Achiampong, an artist with a background in visual arts, has been developing a new body of work stemming from two previous projects, which explore his Ghanaian heritage. ‘Meh Mogya’, which means 'my blood' in Twi, a Ghanaian language, and ‘More Mogya’, meaning ‘more blood’, are the origin for his current exploration of field recordings from wider West Africa. He was particularly inspired by the selection of music present in the recent British Library exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song and will be re-mixing excerpts in his performance. As part of his residency, Larry participated in Ghana Beats, one of the ‘Late at the British Library’ events alongside artists such as Yaaba Funk and Volta 45.

 

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The Swiss-made "Mikiphone", patented in 1924, is the smallest talking machine ever placed on the market and is part of the sound archive's artefact collection

 

Beyond Embedded, the sound archive is committed to supporting the creation of new work by artists, composers, academics, record labels, and curators. Through annual opportunities such as the Edison Fellowship or one-off commissions, we guide listeners through our collections and enable new research and creative practices, such as with Hidden Traces. This installation functions as an audio map of the Kings Cross area, layering interviews with local residents and archival recordings from King’s Cross Voices interviews to create a narrated journey that reveals how the area has changed. Realised by choreographer and urbanist Gabriele Reuter and sound designer Mattef Kuhlmey, it was commissioned by The Place and supported by the British Library.

The British Library Sound Archive has been pivotal to various artistic productions since its origins in 1955 as the British Institute of Recorded Sound, including Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In 1983, Martin Scorsese discussed ideas for the musical soundtrack of his film with musician Peter Gabriel, who recently described how the National Sound Archive was crucial to the creation of this soundtrack –

In my research for Passion, many people mentioned the wonderful resources in the NSA (National Sound Archive) and in particular introduced me to Lucy Duran, who both understood what I was hoping to achieve and made lots of great suggestions. Scorsese had asked for a new type of score that was neither ancient nor modern, that was not a pastiche but had clear references to the region, traditions and atmospheres, but was in itself a living thing. 

The soundtrack, which was further developed and released as the album Passion on his record label Real World Records in 1989, brought together Middle Eastern and North African traditions and included appearances by musicians like Baaba Maal, Jon Hassell, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Bill Cobham who were just becoming big names in the world music genre.

Peter Gabriel’s creative process for the soundtrack and album is captured in a compilation record entitled Passion – Sources, which was released shortly after Passion, also by Real World Records. This album includes the “sources of inspiration” – some of the recordings of traditional music he listened to at the National Sound Archive alongside location recordings made during the filming process. For Gabriel, the archive is still a relevant source of inspiration: “There is so much great stuff there, most of which you can’t reach by googling.”

The inexhaustibility of the archive makes it an ideal setting for creation, limited only by the time and patience it can take to search and listen through the sound recordings available. Through the Embedded residency the Sound Archive is able to support the creative process of contemporary artists, acknowledging the ways in which past works can be explicitly influential. The mobile process of creating original work is given new possibilities within the archive, a unique opportunity to work amongst one’s sources, and engage with them in greater depth. As the sound recordings in the archive are re-contextualised into new events and compositions, their meaning is extended and their historicity brought into the present.

26 October 2015

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

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The album cover for Fela Kuti’s ‘Sorrow Tears and Blood’, artwork courtesy of Lemi Ghariokwu, 1977
The album cover for Fela Kuti’s ‘Sorrow Tears and Blood’, artwork courtesy of Lemi Ghariokwu, 1977

The British Library's major autumn exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, is now open to the public. It's an exciting show that brings to life, in full colour and sound, the intellectual traditions of literature, music and art from across 17 countries, referencing 1000 years of history right up to the present day, from this dynamic and hugely inspirational region of the world. 

Here, in honour of the 10th anniversary of the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage are a few audio tracks from the exhibition for you to listen to.

The first section of the exhibition is called 'Building states'. We explore how stories and symbols within a long literary and oral heritage co-exist, still exist, and how they have been used to forge histories and form the basis of communities and political entities. Music, symbols and words form the backbone of the Asante Empire, in modern-day Ghana, and are of vital importance to the exercise of royal power. Musical instruments - such as drums and trumpets - are part of the king's official regalia. They are used during a variety of royal functions, reciting proverbs and poetry and conveying messages. The atumpan drums are central. The official player is responsible for sending the king's messages across the kingdom, He also plays welcome statements and eulogies, and recites praises and ayan (drum poetry) before and during ceremonies and rituals.

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Kofi Jatto performing phrases of text on the Asante atumpan drums in Ghana in 1921. It was taken by the anthropologist Robert Sutherland Rattray

Listen to Atumpan 'talking drums' recorded by Robert Sutherland Rattray, 1921

The 'Spirit' section of the exhibition explores the centrality of words and communication of meaning in religious practice in West Africa. We look at some of the many and varied 'indigenous belief systems', Islam and Christianity. Christian missionaries arrived in West Africa in large numbers during the 19th century. They believed it was essential for West Africans to be able to read the Bible in their own languages and some of their early converts, such as the Nigerian-born linguist, scholar and Anglican bishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c.1807-1891), was the first to translate the Book of Romans, from the New Testament, into Yoruba, published in 1850.

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Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, 1867

Music has always been an integral part of religious practice in West Africa. Christian missionaries taught music along Western lines, often suppressing indigenous musical practices. By the turn of the 20th century, African Christians were translating and composing their own hymns in their own languages. Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti, a Nigerian Anglican priest (and, incidentally, grandfather of the famous Nigerian protest singer, Fela Anikulapo Kuti) was among the first.

Here he sings 'Jesu olugbala ni mo f'ori fun e' (I give myself to Jesus the Saviour) in Yoruba, with piano accompaniment.  Zonophone 3394, recorded in 1922. 

Listen to JJ Ransome-Kuti hymn in Yoruba

Our section called 'Crossings' explains how the pen became a weapon against the slave trade, introducing the leading writers of African heritage in 18th-century Britain. The section also delves into cultural continuities - how religion, customs such as carnival, and music became acts of resistance and how they continue to circulate within the 'cultural Atlantic' and beyond. 

The exhibition highlights a West African lute, the akonting, of the Jola people from The Gambia. With a round soundboard and a movable bridge, the akonting is similar in structure and playing style to the early minstrel banjo in the United States. 

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Akonting made by Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta, 2015

Listen to 'Aleenum' (My brother_sister) song for Akonting by Daniel Jatta, 2015

Our 'Speaking out' section looks at how West Africans used tools, sometimes brought by the colonial powers, to resist colonialism and how they continue to use words (political speeches, newspapers, political novels and poetry), symbols (on cloths, flags and buses), and music to raise social issues and fight injustices. This section features a room dedicated to Fela Anikulapo Kuti and demonstrates his use of music in 'speaking out' against the Nigerian government of the day with clips from Finding Fela, a film by Alex Gibney (2014).

Post-independent West Africa saw an outpouring of creativity in literature and art. The final section of the exhibition, 'Story Now' illustrates the many ways in which stories are remembered, told, created and recreated - from pamphlets and books, to visual art, to popular Nollywood films, radio dramas and works written with new digital forms. 

Chinua Achebe (1930 - 2013) was one of the greatest African writers of the 20th century. He was author of the famous novel Things fall apart (1958) as well as many other works of fiction and non-fiction. This praise song for Achebe, was composed and performed in 2014 by Professor Akachi Ezeigbo of the University of Lagos, Nigeria.

Listen to Achebe Praise Song

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For more on 'West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song' go to our exhibition web pages. See also co-curator Marion Wallace's piece on the British Library's Asian and African studies blog. An accompanying book by Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace is available in our bookshop.

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

Follow the British Library Sound Archive on Twitter via @soundarchive and tag with #SaveOurSounds

Follow the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities on Twitter via @BL_WorldTrad