Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

26 October 2023

Creating Art Using the Sound Archive | User Stories


Nicholas Calvin Mwakatobe is a filmmaker, photographer and curator based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is creating short films using the British Library’s sound archive collections as an online artist in residence for Resonations 2023, a programme supported by the British Council

It’s really exciting to be an artist in residence with the British Library. It’s an opportunity to explore recordings from the past which provide a unique point of access to history. Some of the stories, spoken words and sounds are not recorded anywhere else. It gives you a visceral connection to a time that is now gone. 

The way that we tell our own stories is a tool for survival. I'm interested in different ways in which we remember the past and foresee the future, whether through paintings, stories or songs, and deal with the question of who we are. The residency gives me better ways of unearthing local stories. 


For an artist, this is very rich ground

An archive is one way of accessing the past. But each individual, group or community that has been recorded has their own way of thinking about and caring for their history. It’s interesting to combine these two ways of approaching the past, the living system and the recording. The oral tradition is very susceptible to change. It evolves; it lives; it morphs. The archive always stays the same. For an artist, this is very rich ground for new questions.  

So far, I have listened to quite a few recordings and explored different ideas. I’m very interested in how the Swahili language has evolved over time. Someone who exemplifies the way the language spread and changed is a musician, Siti binti Saad, whose music is recorded in the Library’s sound archive. She was born in 1880 and died in 1950. In the 1920s and 1930s, she was a very prominent musician on the island of Zanzibar. The genre that she was singing in was taarab, which drew influences from countries across the Indian Ocean.


The recordings capture centuries of interchange

For centuries, before the first Europeans set foot in Africa, people used to travel in Dhow sailboats between the coast of East Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India, as far as China. This travelling resulted in a lot of cultural exchanges: music; food; architecture. Saad’s music blends sounds from across the regions where the Dhow boats travelled. 

After she became famous as a taarab musician, she performed internationally. The recordings we have of Siti encapsulate centuries of interchange between the coast of East Africa and the regions around the Indian Ocean. If you look deeply enough, they point you in so many different directions. 


The archive becomes a portal through time

I want to go back to the community from which these materials were recorded, and the people who are still performing Saad’s music as standard taraab repertoire. I’ll use film to capture the sound, the people, the bodies that still, in some way, echo and carry forward these voices from the past. 

I also found recordings of Ali Swahili, a prisoner of war in Berlin in 1918. They say he was born in Comoros, but he spoke and sang in Swahili. He was recorded several times in October and November of 1918. The fact that I can listen to these recordings in Swahili, made in a prisoner-of-war camp, inspires questions about how he ended up there. Why was someone interested in recording him? This type of recording carries more than just sound waves. The archive becomes a portal through time.


The stories you’re telling are sometimes larger than you

My job is to connect all these different elements through film and put them in conversation with each other. Then we ask, how do we move forward from here? We know these recordings were made within very specific political and socio-economic contexts, a good number of them during colonial times, whether in the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, when the Germans were controlling the East African territory, or from the 1920s to the 1960s, when the British were here. 

As an artist, the stories that you're telling are sometimes larger than you. If you’re a filmmaker, especially if you are a documentary filmmaker, you are a channel for all these voices to say something. I think at the core of it all is curiosity, having questions that you can’t answer. You find yourself taking on the role of a photographer, a filmmaker, a curator, depending on what stories you are trying to pursue. It’s almost as if each story has its own demands, and you are responding to them. 


There are not many sound repositories around

My residency is remote, but you can interact with the Library’s sound archive online. The Library has helped me access material and answer questions. Being there physically would create different kinds of possibilities. But I can do a lot with the access that I have. 

There are not many sound repositories around. The thing that hooked me on the Library’s archive early on was that I was looking at the website and saw Swahili recordings from the 1930s that were made in India. I was already interested in the movement of people, trades, goods and ideas across the Indian Ocean. To see that the recordings were made in India and sung in Swahili was fascinating to me. On a personal level, just the fact that there were a lot of Swahili recordings within the archive was a point of excitement. I was able to explore something that I have a connection with.

As told to Lucy Peters


Relevant recordings

Siti binti Saad: Explore the British Library Search - siti binti saad (

Francis mwa Kitime: Explore the British Library Search - Kitime (