17 January 2022
New online - December 2021
This month's round-up of newly available collections features archives from India, Romania, Moldova, and Indonesia.
- Digitisation of the Kováts Napfényműterem photographic archive (Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania) (EAP1130)
- Preserving the History of Indian Cinema through Digitising Early Urdu Film Magazines (EAP1262)
- Safeguarding of the intangible Romani heritage in the Republic of Moldova threatened by the volatilisation of the individual unexplored collections (EAP699)
- Personal Manuscripts on the Periphery of Javanese Literature: A Survey and Digitisation of Private Collections from the Javanese North Coast, its Sundanese Hinterlands and the Fringes of Court (EAP1268)
EAP1130 - Digitisation of the Kováts Napfényműterem photographic archive (Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania)
This project digitised photographs from the Kovats Photographic Museum and Studio in Romania. The vast majority of the photos represent the work of several generations of photographers from the Kovats family. A small part of the photographic archive consists of images created by collaborators of the Kovats studio, and of donations of photographic materials from the local population of Odorheiul Secuiesc.
The first photographic studio in Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc) was founded by Ferenczy Lukács (1850-1926) in 1876. In 1903 Kováts István Sr.(1881-1942) bought the studio from Lukács and in 1906 reopened it under his own name – Kováts Napfényműterem (Kováts Sunlight Studio). It still operates today at the same address. Ferenczy Lukács and Kováts István Sr. were not only photographers, but also amateur historians and ethnographers. They documented with passion and attention for detail the life of the small rural communities, mainly of Hungarian and Székely ethnicity, around Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc).
Kováts István Sr. was also a photographer in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War, and he was dispatched throughout Europe on the Romanian, Galician and Italian battlefields. He brought back around 400 negatives with images from the trenches, portraits of fellow soldiers, and daily life of his company – a personal view of a war that re-shaped Europe and changed the life of millions of its inhabitants, a view that offers to any military historian precious documents. Living for most of his life in Székelyudvarhely, Kováts István Sr. documented everything – social life, architecture, traditions, and his studio was a central point in the life of the city.
Over 5000 photographs can be viewed here.
EAP1262 - Preserving the History of Indian Cinema through Digitising Early Urdu Film Magazines
This project aimed to preserve the rich record of cinema history in India through digitising Urdu film magazines and periodicals from the early twentieth century. Shedding new light on South Asian film journalism and readership, this material highlights aspects of local engagement with film that have remained unexamined so far and are under threat of being lost forever. Given the scarcity of Urdu material that survives today, the digitisation of rare film magazines makes a significant contribution to future scholarship on the subject. This material constitutes an invaluable resource for early Indian film history and Urdu writing on cinema.
While Indian film journalism has not been widely studied, this is all the more concerning for Urdu materials that are less accessible and less widely read than those in other languages, especially English. The production triangle of Hindu-Urdu cinema that spanned Bombay, Calcutta, and Lahore changed irrevocably with partition, and many publications and films from Lahore are believed to be lost forever. The periodicals surveyed and digitised under EAP1262 were largely published in Calcutta, with the exception of one very rare publication from Lahore, and represent a valuable record of an undivided Hindi-Urdu film culture. While Bombay became the major centre for Hindi-Urdu film production, and a more important site for Urdu publishing than Calcutta, these publications offer an invaluable off-centre vantage point of colonial-era Hindi-Urdu film culture and journalism.
The archives can be viewed here.
EAP699 - Safeguarding of the intangible Romani heritage in the Republic of Moldova threatened by the volatilisation of the individual unexplored collections
This project digitised the personal archives of several Roma families in Moldova. The archives mostly consist of individual photographs and photo albums. The albums are notable for their use of illustrations and collage alongside the photographs of loved ones.
During the project the team were able to discover and digitise material from the families of some well-known Roma personalities from the past, as well as material from ordinary Roma families. The digitised material is now publicly available in the Moldovan National Archive as well as the British Library, and is an important source of information for Romani studies.
The project digitised 2557 images from 36 individual collections dating from between 1925-2013. They can be viewed here.
EAP1268 - Personal Manuscripts on the Periphery of Javanese Literature: A Survey and Digitisation of Private Collections from the Javanese North Coast, its Sundanese Hinterlands and the Fringes of Court
The project highlights the periphery of Javanese and Sundanese literature. It covers tales written by scribes residing near shrines, notebooks scribbled by commoners, and works produced by courtiers on their own behalf without apparent patronage from nobles or sovereigns. The grant holder came across these sources while doing fieldwork in places like Gresik, Yogyakarta, Surakarta and Tasikmalaya. Their vernacular provenance increases their obscurity and simultaneously limits their preservation due to a lack of patrons. Thus, it also allows for an interesting survey on the more personal sides of Javanese and Sundanese writing.
Other than surveying and digitising these sources, the project team also used them for Natural Language Processing (NLP). The diversity of the writing styles and vernacular languages found within these manuscripts is expected to contribute to the development of a comprehensive Javanese handwritten text and entity recognition model called Gado2.
399 digitised records can be viewed here.
06 December 2019
Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques & Approaches - a training workshop offered by Jadavpur University, School for Cultural Texts and Records
We decided to inaugurate the webpage of our project EAP1247 – Songs of the Old Madmen – with a short piece about the first concrete step towards the creation of our digital archive. Our first tangible accomplishment would not have been possible without the support of the EAP1247 grant and our local archival partner at SCTR, Jadavpur University. We are grateful to the entire team, who generously shared their knowledge and expertise during an intensive four-day training workshop. In this piece, we will discuss the structure of the training workshop and some of its outcomes -- hoping to provide some useful information and experiences for future EAP grant holders and workshop organisers.
The training workshop ‘Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques& Approaches’ consisted of both theoretical and practical sessions. Eminent speakers presented critical topics of archival ethics and methodologies. Hands-on modules and laboratory group work provided a well-balanced preparation for the future generations of digital humanists. We recommend to future grant holders that they start their project with a training workshop with the local archival partners, to gather the necessary knowledge and familiarize with the international standards of digital archiving processes, but also to make sure that all the team members and collaborating institutions are on the same page!
Our training workshop was open and free for all local students and invited scholars. It offered the opportunity for students and scholars of other departments and institutions within and beyond Kolkata (some participants came all the way from Bangladesh) to partake in the valuable experience and extraordinary expertise of faculty staff and research fellows from the School of Cultural Texts and Records. They have been conducting digitisation projects since 2003 and have completed six projects funded by the Endangered Archives Programme. Jadavpur University has been recognized among the top 10 institutions in the world in the field of digital humanities. We feel fortunate to have worked with such a fantastic archival partner!
The workshop started with a lecture by Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri (EAP127, EAP261) who introduced us to the past, present, and future of digital humanities at Jadavpur University, an institution that is adamant about protecting academic freedom in these challenging times of bigotry and governmental intrusion in the field of education and research. He showed successful examples (see Bichitra) and ongoing projects that transform disturbingly neglected cultural texts and vernacular manuscripts into binary code, where everything, from words to sounds, is translated, reduced to, and stored as, zeros and ones. What we found particularly inspiring was Prof. Chaudhuri’s reminder that there are no sacrosanct specifications in the realm of digital archives: one can always suggest innovations, if these worked as solutions for a particular kind of endangered material.
Professor Anuradha Chanda’s lecture focused on the practical challenges, limitations, and problematic issues that emerged during her fieldwork, aimed at collecting Sylheti Nagri manuscripts in Northeast India and Bangladesh (see EAP071 for her EAP project). These manuscripts are kept hidden from orthodox Islamic authorities which contain esoteric and antinomian teachings in a distinctive script of the regional Bengali variant. These little-known texts, were supposed to be written for womenfolk in a simplified alphabet, but Prof. Anuradha Chanda’s research revealed a more complex (hi)story. The historical, literary, and symbolic value that Prof. Chanda and her team attributed to the preservation of these texts triggered a response among the local community, who started a popular movement of revaluation of their cultural heritage. This incident shows that the creation of digital archives does not exist in a vacuum of social power, but rather, it is always entangled with local cultural histories and hierarchies, and it has a direct impact on the field in which it operates. Her fieldwork involved a great deal of grassroots networking, negotiation in the politics of cultural and ethno-linguistic identity in Assam, and delicate navigation through the politics of cultural texts, the local protocols of knowledge accessibility, and the oscillation between pride and stigma associated with a non-official way of being Muslim. These issues are often invisible in the ‘final product’: they are not legible through the digitised images of the preserved texts, nor through the metadata that accompanies them. However, these practical and ethical issues, that require skills to understand the local politics and the power dynamics of cultural representation, form the fundamental backbone of a digital archive of endangered cultural texts. The Sylheti Nagri manuscripts belong to the Indian and Bangladesh cultural zone – extending to the bordering regions of Burma and Southern China. This material reminds us that the circulation of cultural texts does not coincide with the rigid borders of post-colonial nation-states. The flows of cultural texts, especially when linked to folklore and oral transmission, cannot be encapsulated in the nationalist regimes of cultural heritage. This problematic issue resonated particularly well with our own EAP project, since the endangered note-books and manuscripts of old Baul songs that we are aiming to preserve, are distributed in the porous cultural area of Bengal, which is shared between two nations: India and Bangladesh. These archives will hopefully lead international actors and funding entities in the field of cultural heritage to rethink of the unrealistically nation-centric ways in which we are expected to categorize, describe, and protect endangered collections.
Professor Chanda’s interlocutors had stories to tell about each of the text secretively preserved under the thatched roof of their homes. Copying the texts was perceived as a religious action of piety. There were emotions and sentiments related to the texts. These elements of the ethnographic life of a text and its cultural history often do not make it into ancillary metadata. Digital archives and their conventional norms are always the result of difficult selections, filters and omissions. They will not tell us how the Sylheti Nagri texts are chanted, or how they were allowed to be recited only in the night, before the morning call for prayers. Metadata can and should inform us about a cultural ‘item’ – its dimensions, conditions, and the details that we can access only by touching and smelling a text, rather than merely observing it – but it is only useful as long as it is short and concise, and therefore incapable of containing the emotional and performative life of a cultural text as ‘event’.
In a roundtable discussion, Professor Samantak Das, Professor Parthasarathi Bhaumik, and myself (Dr. Carola Erika Lorea) discussed archival ethics and the ethics of digital archives. Who creates digital archives and for whom? Whose knowledge is included and represented? Whose knowledge is excluded? Is everybody equally able to access this mode of knowledge representation In this session we discussed the ethical implications, the power inequalities and the issues of ownership and accessibility involved in the creation of digital archives of vernacular culture in India, a country with 500 million internet users, but with only 3% households enabled to enjoy a computer connected to the internet, and with a massive digital divide in terms of gender and urban-rural gap (I discussed some of these issues in an earlier article for Cafe Dissensus).
Professor Amlan Das Gupta (EAP132 and EAP274), Biswadeep Chakrabarty, and Pradip Deb conducted the sessions dedicated to the creation of sound archives, the history of sound recording, and the steps in the digitisation of music (SCTR hosts one of the largest digital archives of Indian classical music in the world ). Sound archives follow the conventions outlined in the handbook of the International Association of Sound and Video Archivists (IASA), but in practice, archiving is the art of making things work with the available means (an operation that has vernacular terms like jugaar in Hindi or ‘arrangiarsi’ in Italian) in face of the frequent occurrence of incompatibility and the fast obsolescence of carriers.
Analog mediums such as gramophone records, magnetic tape, wax cylinders, Teficords, and wire recorders are playing their swan song., While digital mediums for sound recording have progressed and changed incredibly fast in the past century; they are ‘philosophically different’ from born-digital material and present a particular set of challenges and problems in the field of preservation and digitisation. Digital storing mediums such as floppy discs, compact discs, mini discs, and VCDs, are even more prone to vulnerability and instability, especially in relation to obsolescence. What clearly emerged in this session is that digital formats and materials are the most unstable, with an expected longevity of merely five years.
Diversify and update emerged as some fundamental keywords of a responsible project of music digitisation. Diversify storage formats and venues, creating as many copies as possible and storing them in different places, clouds, and hard drives. Updating and shifting the digital archive to newer platforms and formats can be an expensive and technically challenging process: a refreshment policy should be built in all archival projects if we want them to reach the next generations. Archives, as Prof. Amlan Das Gupta reminded us, are for the future; they are producing memories. They are not the heroic deed of an individual, but rather, the result of a collaborative project, involving the skills and labour of several people, institutions, collectors, researchers, and their expected audience of users.
Hands-on and gloves-on sessions: Handling fragile material and simulating remote capture
Afternoon sessions and the whole fourth day of the training workshop have been dedicated to practical sessions, aimed to build the required skills to handling fragile material and conduct an EAP project, from shooting high-quality images to creating metadata. What to digitise? How to digitise? The SCTR research fellows Amritesh Biswas, Purbasha Auddy and Moumita Haldar have generously shared their past experience with handling fragile collections and digitising endangered texts in order to prepare us for the upcoming fieldwork trips in rural West Bengal, where we will be digitising old note-books of Baul songs.
The formation of a digital humanist engaged in preservation projects involves much more than technical skills. It requires a sort of character transformation, and the adoption of a certain set of values. Whereas the collector is moved by desire and personal taste, the archivist is supposed to be neutral: s/he protects the entire collection, without being moved by subjective preference. Even though we have post-editing technologies to make images and music sound ‘better’ or ‘clearer’, none of these modifications are part of an archivist’s work: collections are to be immortalized and faithfully represented for what they are. At the same time, the protocols of digital archives require us to always use the best available technology and the highest precision at our disposal, to record or capture our material. For images of manuscripts, we want to be able to zoom in and visualize every single detail: for scripts like Bengali, Farsi, and Arabic, for example, we should keep in mind that every single dot is important, for a minuscule dot can totally change the meaning of a word. This necessity dictates the rules of photography during remote capture: set your ISO at a maximum of 200, as this reduces noise; ensure that every part of the page including the edges are in focus, and avoid mixing lights to keep color and exposure consistent, more technical details are abundantly discussed in the EAP guidelines for Remote Capture.
Some of the mottoes of digitising projects in rural fieldwork sites, which might seem obvious,, are often threatened by the temptation to opt for something more convenient in the immediate context of fieldwork. Schedule your digitisation following the norm the worst comes first: give priority to the most endangered and vulnerable items. Start by sorting out the objects: name them, clean them, create a specific folder and the required sub-folders for each. Segregate dangerous documents infested by pests. Think about the best available methods for preventive conservation (for example, wrap your items in acid-free paper or use silica gel bags for de-humidifying). Treat your equipment carefully during remote capture: for example, turn off the Live Mode in your camera utility software, unless you need to check your live image capture, or it will damage the longevity of your DSLR camera. Produce metadata as soon as you have the original item in hand, or you will miss a lot of precious information. Become familiar with your file management and naming practices (keep in mind that the last component of a file name is always numerical). Most importantly, demystify romantic notions about the creation of digital archives!
One of the best lines during the training workshop taught us that archive sounds cool, digitise sounds lovely, but actually it involves a lot of tedious issues and a lot of labour. As a matter of fact, we faced numerous compatibility issues during the post-process, which are a typical and unavoidable struggle. As soon as we brought our new Canon 6D to the School of Cultural Texts and Records to test it during the workshop, we realized that the laptops used at SCTR, which were perfectly fine for the previous EAP projects with their Canon 5D, were not equipped with the softwares or the versions needed to work with a Canon 6D. We needed to update a plethora of things - starting from the Canon EOS Utility -, figure out a different application to open and check the images, and reinstall a new version of Adobe Lightroom CC to process and export the images in TIFF. It is advisable to resolve these issues at the very beginning of the project, instead of finding oneself stuck with serious compatibility issues in a remote countryside!
Thanking once again the Endangered Archives Programme and the School for Cultural Texts and Records for this insightful experience, we encourage the readers to stay tuned for the upcoming posts on the next steps of our project EAP1247 on the Songs of the Old Madmen.
Carola Lorea, National University of Singapore and Siddhartha Gomez (EAP1247)
24 September 2018
Call for applications now open
Do you know of any collections that are currently at risk and need preserving? The Endangered Archives Programme is now accepting preliminary applications for the next annual funding round – the deadline for submission of preliminary applications is 12 noon 19 November 2018 and full details of the application procedures and documentation are available on the EAP website.
The Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) has been running at the British Library since 2004 through funding by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, with the aim of preserving rare vulnerable archival material around the world. The Programme awards grants to relocate the material to a safe local archival home where possible, to digitise it, and to deposit copies with local archival partners and with the British Library. These digital collections are then available for researchers to access freely through the British Library website or by visiting the local archives. The Programme has funded over 350 projects in 90 countries world-wide and has helped to preserve manuscripts, rare printed books, newspapers and periodicals, audio and audio-visual materials, photographs and temple murals.
There three main types of grant:
- Pilot projects investigate the potential for and/or feasibility of a major grant. A pilot can also be a small digitisation project. They should last for no more than 12 months and have a budget limit of £15,000.
- Major projects gather and copy material. This type of grant may also relocate the material to a more secure location/institution within the country. These projects usually last 12 months, or up to 24 months and have a budget limit of £60,000.
- Area grants will be awarded for larger scale projects. They are similar to a major grant, but larger in scale and ambition. Applicants must demonstrate an outstanding track record of archival preservation work and be associated with an institution that has the capacity to facilitate a large-scale project. The EAP will only award a maximum of two area grants in each funding round. They can last for up to 24 months and have a budget limit of £150,000.
A further type of grant will be introduced in 2019:
- Rapid-response grants can be used to safeguard an archive which is in immediate and severe danger. These grants are intended for the most urgent situations where a delay in the decision process could result in extensive damage to the material. These grants are not subject to the time restrictions of the yearly EAP funding cycle and can be applied for at any time. They must last for less than 12 months and have a budget limit of £15,000.
If you know of an archive in a region of the world were resources are limited, we really hope you will apply. If you have any questions regarding the conditions of award or the application process, do email us at email@example.com
12 February 2018
World Radio Day: Recordings from the Endangered Archives Programme
World Radio Day has been held annually on 13th February since 2012 following its proclamation by the UNESCO Conference. The following year the United Nations General Assembly formally endorsed this proclamation and adopted it as an official ‘International Day’ to be celebrated on the anniversary of the establishment of United Nations Radio in 1946.
It is celebrated as a way of showing the continuing importance of radio around the world. The UN Secretary General António Guterres, speaking in the build-up to World Radio Day 2018 states,
“Radio reaches the widest audience in the world! In an era of dramatic advances in communications, radio retains its power to entertain, educate, inform and inspire. It can unite and empower communities and give voice to the marginalized” 1
Whilst the Endangered Archives Programme is more widely known for digitising vulnerable collections of manuscripts, books, newspapers and other written or visual based mediums, we have also funded a number of audio digitisation projects. Several of these are available to listen to now on BL Sounds, including two important collections of digitised radio archives from Iran and Micronesia. For this post celebrating World Radio Day we thought it would be a good opportunity to highlight these two collections and feature a few of the recordings from the thousands that are available for you to listen to freely.
Micronesia - Endangered Micronesian recordings (EAP115)
This eclectic collection of sound recordings from Micronesia were digitised with the help of the Micronesian Seminar (MicSem), a research-pastoral institute founded by the Catholic Church in 1972. The project team were made aware of hundreds of audio tapes sitting on the shelves of government radio stations throughout the region that were in danger of being lost. These tapes contained a rich and diverse collection of recordings played on local radio from the 1950s right up until the early 21st century. Many had already been lost or destroyed, some through theft and others damaged in natural disasters. These low-lying islands are regularly threatened by typhoons and some are already seeing the consequences of climate change. Many of the islands have already lost land mass due to erosion caused by rising sea levels, some are likely to disappear completely within the coming decades, and others have even been lost altogether within living memory. The threat of typhoons, rising sea levels and the usual factors that endanger vulnerable archives – poor storage conditions, theft, pests, humidity, decay and degradation of the original medium, etc. – uniquely placed these radio archives in need of preservation.
The project mainly digitised recordings from government radio stations in Majuro, Marshall Islands; Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap, Federated States of Micronesia; and Koror, Palau. The project team also digitised recordings from a number of private radio stations, including V6AJ on Kosrae, and some from former Palau national congress Senator Alfonso Diaz’s private radio station (WWFM). Other sources for recordings include private individuals and the Liebenzel Mission and Catholic Church media studio in Chuuk.
The recordings feature a wide variety of musical styles and chart the evolution of music in the region, with recordings ranging from traditional music, religious chants and hymns, to acoustic rock and reggae songs. Given the importance music has on the islands, these recordings can give some context into the cultural evolution of these island societies.
Over 7000 recordings available to listen to here.
CEAP115/2/71/2 - Danpei Youth Christian Association, Ai Koun mehlel kapakap nan mwehdiwelo
CEAP115/4/80/2 - Unnamed girls from Woleai, A happy celebration song
CEAP115/2/71/2 - Danpei Youth Christian Association, Ai Koun mehlel kapakap nan mwehdiwelo
CEAP115/1/158/6 - Mobil Team Youth, Non ai nonom on fanufan
CEAP115/2/122/6 - Black Ruru, Ese wor mwo emon lukun en
Iran - The Golha radio programmes (Flowers of Persian Song and Poetry) (EAP088)
Abdolvahab Shahidi with accompanying musicians © Golha Project
The Golha radio programmes were broadcast on Iranian National Radio between 1956 and 1979 and consist of a mixture of musical pieces, poetry, and literary commentary. They were the brainchild of Davoud Pirnia, a one-time Assistant Prime Minister who harboured a deep love for Persian culture and its rich literary and musical traditions, and who devoted himself to producing the Golha programmes upon his retirement from political life in 1956. The foremost literary, academic and musical talents of his day offered Mr. Pirnia their collaboration and support, and many of the greatest Iranian vocalists of the twentieth century saw their careers launched on these radio programmes. The programmes constitute an unrivalled encyclopaedia of classical Persian music and poetry. Over 250 poets were introduced to the general public at the time of these broadcasts and they helped to reintroduce and preserve Persian classical music and poetry.
Prior to the digitisation of the Golha radio programmes, these recordings were previously inaccessible to students and scholars of Persian poetry and music. The original tapes were scattered between a number of different archives and private collections with no single archive containing all recordings. The Iranian government withheld access to their archives of music broadcast before the 1979 Islamic revolution, especially those which feature female voices (which all of the Golha programmes contain). Because of the regime's ideological stance to this type of music in particular, it was unlikely they would have committed the resources needed to preserve these recordings. Thanks to the hard work of the EAP088 project team, this important collection of recordings is now saved and freely available both on BL Sounds and the Golha website.
The first of these series of programmes, Golha-yi Javidan (Immortal Flowers of Song and Verse), began its broadcast on March 21 1956 and it concluded, as did all further episodes, with
“This has been an immortal flower from the peerless rose garden of Persia Literature, a flower that shall never perish. Good night”
(In ham goli bud javidan az golzar-e bi-hamta-ye adab-e Iran, goli ke hargez namirad. Shab khosh!).2
1296 recordings available to listen to here.
CEAP088/1/2/1 - Gulha-yi Javidan 1
CEAP088/1/4/29 - Gulha-yi Sahra'i 29
1 World Radio Day Message from UN Secretary General, Mr António Guterres
2 LEWISOHN, J., ‘Flowers of Persian Song and Music: Davud Pirnia and the Genesis of the Golha Programs’, Journal of Persianate Studies (2008) 1, 79-101
Robert Miles, EAP Cataloguer
25 January 2016
Syliphone record label archive from Guinea
Over the past few months we have been working to make publicly available some of the sound collections that the Endangered Archives Programme has funded. Two of the first collections we worked on were EAP088: The Golha radio programmes (Flowers of Persian Song and Poetry), and the three projects that make up the Syliphone record label collection from Guinea (EAP187, EAP327 and EAP608). It is with great pleasure that we can announce that these two collections are now available on BL Sounds for anyone to listen to worldwide.
The Golha radio programmes were broadcast on Iranian National Radio between 1956 and 1979 and consist of a mixture of musical pieces, poetry and literary commentary. These programmes can be listened to here. You can read more about this project in a previous guest blog by Jane Lewisohn.
To celebrate these collections now being made available we have a guest blog entry from Dr Graeme Counsel whose hard work has enabled these fantastic Syliphone recordings to be shared with a wider audience. The recordings are available here to listen to. There are 7780 tracks in total for you to enjoy!
The end of colonial rule in Africa commenced with Ghana’s declaration of independence from Great Britain in 1956. Faced with a growing independence movement, to gain the ascendancy France presented its colonies with an ultimatum: the choice of autonomy in a confederation of states under French rule or total independence. Guineans were the first to vote on this offer via a national referendum, and in September 1958 the mayor of Conakry, Sékou Touré, addressed a large crowd who had gathered on the eve of the poll. With President Charles de Gaulle standing by his side, Touré implored Guineans to vote no to the offer of autonomy, declaring that “Guineans prefer freedom in poverty to riches in chains”. A few days later Guineans stunned France by voting for independence, and under the Presidency of a young and charismatic Sékou Touré the nation would become one of the major proponents of pan-Africanism and an architect in the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union).
President Touré saw the development of national identity as key to the progress of his nation. The development of culture was thus a central policy platform, with the arts sector, for example, largely under government direction. This was not unusual in Guinea, for in the course of his presidency (1958-1984) Touré oversaw the government’s reach extend into virtually all facets of daily life, supported by over 26,000 party cells. To develop culture, Touré’s government launched an official cultural policy called authenticité, whereby artists were encouraged to seek inspiration from the values inherent in traditional African culture as a means of edifying contemporary society. Traditional folklore, for example, would be “revalorised”, with Guinean heroes “re-awakened” through imagery, songs and text in order to serve the needs of a post-colonial Guinean society. The process was most concisely illustrated in a catchphrase of the time – “regard sur le passé”, or “look at the past”. Of the arts, music was the principal focus of the authenticité policy, and one of the first acts by the government was to disband all private orchestras in Guinea as they were deemed to be too European in their musical style. To replace them, new state-sponsored orchestras were created in each of the nation’s 35 prefectures. The government supplied all of the groups with musical instruments, which, in the vein of the Cuban/Jazz style popular at the time, included electric guitars, saxophones and trumpets. The government hand-picked musicians who formed core “national” orchestras, and they were tasked with training the young musicians of the 35 “regional” groups. Through authenticité a new form of African music was being created, one which presented traditional Guinean music in a modern style. All of the orchestras’ musicians were paid a regular wage and all had opportunities to perform at government-sponsored national arts festivals.
In addition to a network of orchestras, the authenticité policy also created theatrical troupes, traditional music ensembles and dance groups in all of Guinea’s prefectures. Together, they formed artistic companies who represented their region in arts festivals. To further embed the authenticité policy all Western music was banned from Guinea’s radio network, and to fill the gap the government broadcast its own recordings. Since at least 1960 the Guinean government had been recording musicians, initially on Nagra III’s in makeshift studios. By the mid-1960s, however, the West German-funded Voix de la Révolution studios had been created in the Radio Télévision Guinée (RTG) offices, and these state of the art facilities would soon be augmented by a government-owned recording label, Syliphone. Originally recorded on ¼” magnetic tape, Syliphone recordings were released both locally and internationally via eighty-three 33.3 rpm and seventy-seven 45rpm vinyl discs. Broadcast by the RTG through one of the largest radio transmitters in West Africa, Syliphone recordings were a sensation, and Sékou Touré sent his orchestras and musicians on tours throughout the region and continent. It was a remarkable period of creativity which saw Guinean musicians as pioneers in the creation of African popular music styles and as the voice of a new Africa.
The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) funded three projects to archive the collection of music contained in the sound archives of the RTG. The Syliphone archive, as it has been named, is now available through the British Library Sounds website.
The first EAP project was to reconstruct the entire Syliphone catalogue of 750 songs released on 160 vinyl discs. The government’s own archive of this collection had been destroyed in the counter-coup of 1985, when artillery bombed the national broadcaster and home of the offices of the RTG. I commenced the project in 2008 and completed it in time for Guinea’s 50th anniversary of independence celebrations. These recordings commence with the reference number “Syliphone1”. The success of the project enabled access to the RTG sound archive, a place I had visited some years earlier. Then I had been shown a hand-written catalogue of perhaps fifty audio reels of recordings. In 2008 I was ushered into a room which contained walls of reels, two or three deep. In the few weeks that remained of my project I digitised and preserved as many reels as possible, and these recordings commence with the reference number “Syliphone2”.
Many of the reels had been poorly stored. Some were completely void of identifying information
I returned the following year to complete the archival project. In the interim, Guinea’s long serving President Lansana Conté had died. This heralded a coup, and when I arrived in August 2009 a new military regime was in power. On September 28 an opposition rally was attacked by the Guinean army in an infamous event known as the “stadium massacre”. 187 civilians lost their lives and 2,000 were injured. In the aftermath that followed, with risks of reprisals and civil war, it was clear that working at the centre of the government broadcaster was too dangerous. The project was abandoned, just a few weeks before the government fell. The recordings from this project commence with the reference number “Syliphone3”.
In 2010 Guinea’s first democratically elected government was in office, and I returned to Conakry in 2012 to launch the third EAP project to archive the RTG’s audio recordings. In 2008 I had archived just 69 audio reels of music. In 2009 I archived 229 reels. From September 2012 to January 2013 the remaining 827 reels were archived, and these recordings commence with the reference number “Syliphone4”. The completion of the project drew much media attention in Guinea and had resulted in the preservation and digitisation of a total of 9,410 songs, or more than 50,000 minutes of music. The bulk of the material was recorded during the era of President Sékou Touré, and the archive is thus a testament to his government and to the policy of authenticité. The Syliphone archive captures an important era of African history, that of the independence period, when governments and artists alike looked to Africa’s history and culture for inspiration.
The Ministry of Culture organised a ceremony to celebrate the end of the project. The Minister of Culture & Dr Counsel both made speeches, and the all-female orchestra 'Les Amazones de Guinée' performed, as did 'Keletigui et ses Tambourinis'. The event was broadcast live
The Syliphone archive contains many unique and important recordings which document Guinea’s 1st Republic. It covers the early years (1960-1965), when Cuban music was a strong influence on the new and exuberant modern styles. The years following the Cultural Revolution of 1968 are extensively covered, and here new experimental styles are in evidence as music was being directly channelled by revolutionary policy. The early 1970s, when Guinean music was arguably at its creative zenith, is also comprehensively covered, and there are also numerous recordings from the post-Touré years, too, which permit a comparison.
Authenticité was abandoned in 1984, following the death of Sékou Touré, and the RTG’s sound archive was subject to years of censorship and neglect. Most of its recordings were never broadcast again, which resulted in a generation of Guineans having little exposure to the music of their mothers and fathers. The archive’s emergence is thus emblematic of the new era of Guinean democracy and of the gradual rehabilitation of Sékou Touré into mainstream Guinean politics. It is also a wonderful collection of music which permits us to “regard sur le passé”.
The list of artists and musicians represented in the archive is a who’s who of Guinean musicians. In addition to the complete catalogue of Syliphone vinyl discs, there are numerous examples of unreleased studio recordings by major artists such as Kandia Sory Kouyaté, Bembeya Jazz National, Fodé Conté and Kadé Diawara, in addition to hundreds of unreleased recordings by Guinea’s National and Regional orchestras, troupes and ensembles. There are dozens of concert recordings, too, and a wealth of material by famous Guinean artists who, as they were never commercially recorded, are unheralded outside of the region. Some of these include Farba Tela, Mama Kanté, Binta Laaly Sow, Koubia Jazz and Jeanne Macauley. The archive collection also features thousands of traditional songs from Guinea’s regions and ethnic groups, including recordings in the following languages: Baga, Bassari, Baoulé, Djakanké, Djallonké, Fulfuldé, Guerzé, Jahanka, Kissi, Konianka, Kônô, Kpèlè, Landouma, Lélé, Lokko, Maninkakan, Manon, Onëyan, Sankaran, Susu, Toma, Toma-Manian and Wamey.
Further information on the archival project can be found in the chapter “Music for a revolution: The sound archives of Radio Télévision Guinée", in From dust to digital: Ten years of the Endangered Archives Programme (Maja Kominko ed., Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2015) and also at the author’s website – www.radioafrica.com.au.
Dr Graeme Counsel, 2015.
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