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23 May 2014

Nigerian music and dance records at the British Library

The South African-born choreographer and dancer, Peggy Harper (1923 – 2009), worked from 1963 to 1978 in Nigeria, mainly based at the University of Ibadan and the Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly the University of Ife), where she carried out extensive research on traditional dance styles and masquerades relating to ritual and recreational ceremonies and performances. Co-founder of the Ori-Olokun performing arts centre (or Cultural Centre), Peggy created and co-produced creative dance and theatrical works for the stage, collaborating with towering figures such as Wole Soyinka.


Gwari musicians from central Nigeria. Peggy Harper Archive C1074

Peggy expounded on her work and approach in an article for African Arts (vol. 1 no. 1, 1967)  (available via JSTOR electronically and in hardcopy at the BL). Peggy teamed up with anthropological film-maker, Frank Speed, who helped her record in film, audio and still photography many of the dances and masquerades.

Unidentified photo. Peggy Harper Archive C1074

Unidentified photo of masquerade. Peggy Harper Archive C1074



These materials were kindly donated to the British Library in 2003 where they are being digitised and made available for listening and viewing via our on-site services.

Although Peggy was not an archivist, librarian or historian, she had a keen mind to the importance of creating a record “using the most reliable and comprehensive means available to give an accurate, if possible, first-hand picture of the dancers in their original context” (African Arts as above, p80). She predicted that “these records will be of immense value historically and sociologically, and as raw material for the theatre of the future.”

As the British Library prepares for its major exhibition on West Africa, due to open in October 2015, the Peggy Harper Archive is indeed providing a valuable resource, some 50 years after their original making.



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