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37 posts categorized "World and traditional music"

01 July 2014

Songs of the Dinka of South Sudan

The British Library has recently acquired  a collection of field recordings made in South Sudan which document Dinka song culture. Songs of the Dinka of South Sudan - Diɛt ke Jiëëŋ ne Cuëny Thudän - can now be accessed via our catalogueby searching for C1580, and listened to online.  Dr. Angela Impey, one of the researchers on the project, has written the following text which contextualizes the research project and gives some general information on Dinka culture:

The songs in this collection were recorded for a project entitled Metre and Melody in Dinka Speech and Song, which was conducted between 2009 and 2012 by researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in collaboration with Dinka researchers in South Sudan. The academic aims of the project were, first, to understand the interplay between Dinka song structures and the Dinka language (which distinguishes words not just by different consonants and vowels but also by means of vowel duration, pitch and voice quality), and, second, to learn more about the song tradition and the ways it has responded to the intense disruptions caused by protracted civil war.  

Funding for the project was provided by the ‘Beyond Text’ programme of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. Project participants included Bob Ladd, Angela Impey, Bert Remijsen, Elizabeth Achol Ajuet Deng, Peter Malek, Miriam Meyerhoff and Simon Yak Deng Yak.

Dinka Songs_image.docx
Photo credit: Robin Denselow


Almost everyone in Dinka society will accumulate a repertoire of personal songs during their lifetime, and most dialect groups follow a similar compositional process. Individuals who lack the ability to compose good songs will approach a talented composer in the community and commission a composition in exchange for a cow or an agreed sum of money. Occasionally a composer will be considered a talented lyricist only, in which case a second individual, who has an aptitude for good melody making, will be brought into the process. Upon completion, the song will either be taught directly to the ‘owner’, or if the owner is not a good memoriser, via a group of relatives or age-mates, who will gradually pass it on to the owner.


[In this ox song (C1580/59), Deng Jok Ajuoong, praises his ox, Mading, which he compares with an elephant. He sings about how he acquired his ox through hard work.]

Most musical structures in sub-Saharan Africa are based on highly repetitive, multi-part vocal and rhythmic interactions, and melodies are typically based on the hexatonic (six tones per octave) or equi-heptatonic scales (seven tones equally distributed across the octave). In contrast, Dinka tuning systems follow a standard pentatonic scale (five tones) and songs are composed in an extended series of linear, interconnected song-segments that follow a simple, regular or semi-regular pulse. Certain song types are accompanied by clapping, clapping sticks or a small double-sided drum (loor), and are performed either solo, in unison or in simple call-response format. The only melodic instrument played by the Dinka (apart from more recently introduced western instruments) is a 5-stringed lyre referred to as rababa. Marked aesthetic variations do occur across the dialect groups, which are likely to be the result of different social, economic, environmental and political circumstances.


[This song (C1580/6) is performed by a women's group during the war in South Sudan. It is an encouraging song about Dr. John Garang and Koryom, a battalion of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The women start the song by singing “The Arabs said we are afraid, how can we be afraid while John Garang is strong?”]

Apart from one book (available in British Library Reading Rooms) published on song lyrics by Francis Mading Deng in 1973, no formal research has been conducted on Dinka music. Yet songs play a fundamental role in the lives of all Dinka people, functioning as individual and social chronicles of relationships, experiences and historical events. In fact, the Dinka boast an usually complex taxonomy of songs – praise songs, war songs, songs of initiation, cathartic songs, religious songs, to name a few – each of which is defined by discernible melodic, rhythmic and performative features. Woven through all song types, however, is the poetic allusion to the interconnection between self, cattle and land or locality. As one musician explained: If you know our Dinka songs, you will know the Dinka people.

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.


01 May 2014

British Music at the British Library: two free events on 10 May

On Saturday 10 May 2014 in the Foyle Suite, British Library Centre for Conservation there will be two free events to celebrate the outstanding British music collections at the British Library.

The Full English Archive Open Day

From 10.30 to 1.30, the Full English Archive Open Day will give access to some of the original manuscript folksong transcriptions of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger, with illustrated talks about the early folk revival and the collectors. This presentation forms part of the Full English project, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and developed by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). For the first time 19 of the most significant manuscript collections of folk music, song and dance amassed in England during the folk revival of early 20th century are available to browse and search online. Also find out how The Full English digital archive works and can be used, and learn about the project’s development from author and folklorist Steve Roud and EFDSS Library Director Malcolm Taylor OBE.

This event is supported by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Further information:


The British Music Society Annual Lecture:

'Sir John Barbirolli: British Music's Cockney Emissary'

File:Barbirolli Bust Bridgewater Hall.jpg

In the afternoon(starting at 2.30), join Dr Raymond Holden, the Sir John Barbirolli Lecturer in Music at the Royal Academy of Music, for a talk about 'Sir John Barbirolli: British Music's Cockney Emissary'. Dr Holden will use recordings, marked scores and other performance artefacts to chart the role of Sir John Barbirolli as British Music's leading international advocate. This presentation will be the Annual Lecture of the British Music Society. Material from both the Royal Academy of Music and the British Library will be on display. The lecture will start at 2.30pm and will be presented in two 50-minute halves with a short break.

This event is supported by the British Music Society. Further information:

Admission to both events is free, but to reserve a seat please book free tickets in advance through the British Library Box Office:

Full English:




17 April 2014

The music of Holy Week in Seville

For the last seven years recordist Duncan Whitley has documented the events at Seville's Semana Santa in Spain. The results of this dedicated study can be found in collection C1338, which contains recordings in both audio and video of the rituals of Holy Week. Duncan's approach provides a unique and intimate acoustic portrait, allowing the listener to experience Holy Week as if they were there!

 Performer: Susana Silencio

Performer: Susana Sierra Martínez

To celebrate Easter we invited Duncan Whitley to write the following guest blog for the World and Traditional Music section describing his collection:

 The 194 audio and video recordings handed over to the British Library last month form part of an ongoing study of the soundscapes of Seville's Semana Santa, many recordings from which are already available in collection C1338. The collection features field recordings documenting the aural landscapes of Seville's Easter processions, with a particular focus on both processional music and the saetas flamencas. The saetas are short, flamenco prayers sung from balconies and in the streets, as effigies of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are carried past. The styles of saeta documented in the collection largely fall into the categories of: saeta por seguiriya, por martinete, por seguiriya con cambio a martinete, or por carceleras. With regards to processional music, it is worth mentioning that Seville has a heritage of musical composition for the Semana Santa, which can take on great significance when performed in certain places and times, in accompaniment to particular religious images to whom the marches are dedicated.

This most recent batch of recordings dates from Easter 2013, and features interviews with saeta singers Pili del Castillo, Paquita Gómez and José Antonio Rodríguez Sabín, alongside video and sound documentation of Seville's public processions. The material links up with recordings already available in collection C1338, as well as a quantity of material captured across Easter 2011 and 2012 which has yet to be catalogued.

The first video documents the salida (exit from the church) of the Guide Cross of El Silencio, on the Madrugá (early hours of Good Friday). Susana Sierra Martínez sings her saeta por seguirilla from a balcony opposite the church door. It is one of only two places in Seville where it is customary to sing to the Guide Cross (saetas typically being addressed to the religious images of Christ or the Virgin).

En la Calle Silencio, 2013 from Duncan Whitley on Vimeo.

 The following video documents the salida of the procession of Jesús Despojado on Palm Sunday of 2013. Upon completion of the complex manoeuvre of the religious float from the interior of the church into the street, the Agrupación Musical Virgen de los Reyes plays the Marcha Real.

Jesús Despójado, Salida 2013 from Duncan Whitley on Vimeo.

 The next video follows on from the previous, with the Agrupación Musical Virgen de los Reyes accompanying the religious float bearing the image of Jesús Despojado as it makes its way through the Plaza de Molviedro. The marches interpreted are A La Gloria!, which segways into Tu Misericordia.

Jesús Despojado, A La Gloria! 2013 from Duncan Whitley on Vimeo.

 The last video documents the return of the popular Esperanza de Triana ("Hope of Triana") to its neighbourhood, Triana. The brotherhood was not able to complete its Station of Penitence on the Madrugá, and having sought refuge for two nights in Seville's cathedral, the procession returns "home" without musical accompaniment. Upon reaching the Calle Pureza, where the religious images reside all year round, the public accompanying the Virgin Esperanza sing the Salve Marinera.

La Esperanza de Triana, regreso a Pureza (2013) from Duncan Whitley on Vimeo.

 Duncan Whitley



03 April 2014

Keeping Tracks - a one day symposium on music and archives in the digital age

Since October 2013 the British Library has been engaged in a six-month project investigating ways in which we can work with the fast-moving digital music supply chain, improve its relationship with the music industry and to help develop a Library-wide transition to acquisition of digital materials as part of its long-term Content Strategy. As part of this work a one-day symposium took place.

Keeping Tracks Poster

Keeping Tracks was devised as an opportunity for the British Library to talk about its collections and how we collect, preserve, conserve and give access to them, be they a 100-year-old wax cylinder or a newly minted digital file. It was also a great chance to gather different sectors of the industry – tech, labels, metadata, and archives – in one room to talk about an area that usually gets overlooked in traditional music industry conferences.

In the early spring sunshine of Friday 21 March delegates gathered from all corners of the globe and descended into the Conference Centre auditorium to be greeted by Curator of Popular Music, Andy Linehan. Andy set the scene and offered some historical context about where the British Library’s archives of recorded material had come from and handed over to colleagues Adam Tovell and Alex Wilson to talk about where they are going.

Andy Linehan - Introduction


AV scoping analyst Adam Tovell proceeded to discuss the study he has been engaged with for the last 12 months. Tovell and his team have been counting, quantifying and assessing the collections, analysing international standards and devising schedules to define best practice in the long-term audio-visual preservation of the Library’s 1.5 million recordings – before it’s too late.  The recording of his fascinating address can be found below

Adam Tovell - On shelves and clouds


Alex Wilson - Download into the BL


From the preservation of acetate and shellac, CDR and cassette to the collecting of digital sound and music Alex Wilson, Curator of Digital Music Recordings soon took to the lectern amidst a riot of noise and national anthems. This cacophonic audio clip was designed to illustrate the uphill challenge the British Library faces in 2014. Online sound and music is everywhere. It is the Library’s job as guardians of the nation’s audio memory to make sense of this. Wilson proceeded to show the first stages of a new collaboration that will improve the way we collect born-digital music and highlight other projects being investigated. The Q&A included some interesting questions surrounding Legal Deposit for recorded music and concerns of metadata ownership. Views from the floor regretted that this valuable material was without the benefits of statutory archiving and preservation that other material enjoyed.


Beggars Group

Keeping Tracks then opened its doors to the working music industry during a perceptive Q&A with Lesley Bleakley of the Beggars Group and Rory Gibb of music magazine, The Quietus. With over twenty years of experience in the music industry and representing a record label that is regarded as a leading light in digital delivery and archiving, Lesley Bleakley was perfectly placed to offer a fascinating insight. Moreover, she touched on the burgeoning relationship between Beggars and British Library Sound and Vision itself; the last year for instance has witnessed a mutual sharing of advice and guidance and music culminating in the delivery of the entire Beggars digital back catalogue in early 2014.

Lesley Bleakley and Rory Gibb - Beggars Archive


Post-lunch the discussion became truly international in scope as we invited representatives from peer organisation the National Library of Norway to take the stage. Whilst Norway shares many of the same archiving principles with British Library Sound and Vision it is differentiated in one crucial respect. Norway’s legalisation declares that all music recordings must be legally deposited at its National Library. Lars Gaustad and Trond Valberg discussed this and showed the auditorium their innovative new donation portal allowing users to deposit recordings online.

Trond Valberg and Lars Gaustad - Norway


Keeping Tracks then hosted a dynamic presentation from another peer institution. Creative Director at BBC Future Media, Sacha Sedriks shared his understanding of the guiding principles around music and metadata, the semantic web and the ecosystem that underlies their nascent BBC Playlister service. Through absorbing statistics and images Sedriks shone light on a pioneering new platform that only hints at how the truly immersive and interactive BBC Radio and Television offering of tomorrow will look like. 

Sacha Sedriks - BBC Playlister

Metadata underpins much of what we do here at British Library Sound and Vision and was a recurrent theme across the Keeping Tracks day. Hence it seemed only right to ask a leading music metadata supplier to the stand. Decibel Music Systems served up a talk in three parts: metadata from a market, data and technical perspective. Metadata is the glue that binds many systems together across the industry. As a result the Decibel presentation was followed by a lively and passionate Q&A which showed how important data is to making things (and people) click.

Decibel Music Systems - Dataphile


Whilst refreshments were guzzled, the auditorium was being tuned to a trans-Atlantic frequency. For the most ambitious strand of the Keeping Tracks we had invited UK based Music Tech Fest to share their keynote panel live via Skype from Microsoft Research Labs in Cambridge, MA, USA. The subject: developers, APIs and the music archive. Watched through the Skype-fuzz an energetic session ensued, moderated by Music Tech Fest head Andrew Dubber in the States and former Soundcloud man Dave Haynes here in the UK. Particular note should go to Microsoft researcher Jonathan Sterne who delivered an impassioned reflection on the nature of archiving and the internet which drew a round of applause in the London space.

Posterity Hacking

Music Tech Fest - Posterity Hacking


Lost Records

The end was nearly upon us. The final official session of Keeping Tracks was a panel chaired by Jennifer Lucy Allan of the WIRE magazine, stimulating discussion amongst a trio of label owners who specialise in lost music, records and reissues. Jonny Trunk (Trunk Records), Roger Armstrong (Ace Records) and Spencer Hickman (Death Waltz Recordings) proceeded to entertain the delegates with an informal, humorous, inspiring and sobering account in the wonderful art of releasing beautiful old music. Anecdotes, asides, controversies and reflections filled the hour and one suspects we could have talked well into the night.

Panel Discussion - Archives and music

Before the close of the day we invited respected author, journalist and Goldsmiths lecturer Mark Fisher to deliver his own personal take on what had gone before. Whilst it may have polarised some of the audience, Fisher’s lucid account of the 2014 digital space, music, memory, innovation and consumption sounded a stark clarion call to ring us toward the close.

Mark Fisher - Closing Words


The British Library would like to thank all those who presented, spoke, attended and asked questions at this inaugural Keeping Tracks symposium. We have been delighted with the feedback so far and would welcome any further suggestions, recommendations and donations for the future. If nothing else Keeping Tracks felt like a genuinely unique event (up) lifting the lid on a usually ignored, diverse set of issues and investigations about music and archiving in the 21st century. Long may these discussions continue...


All full presentations streaming here

All presentation slides displayed here

A follow up interview by Digital Music Trends is here

03 October 2013

English folksong at the British Library

Show and Tell 21Sept2013
Delegates of the Full English Folksong Study Day investigate the British Library's audio collections


Saturday 21st September saw the London leg of The Full English’s tour of Folksong in England Study Days, which took place in the British Library.

Renowned folklorist Steve Roud led the study day with a guest talk from Julia Bishop, Steve’s co-author of the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs who is also currently leading the project to produce the James Madison Carpenter Collection. See a full report by Scott Standing of the Full English's blogspot.


Show and Tell 21Sept2013 3
Some of the BL's Percy Grainger folksong transcriptions on view for the study day participants


British Library curators, Nicolas Bell (Lead Curator Western Music) and Janet Topp Fargion (Lead Curator World and Traditional Music) organised a 'show and tell', bringing out items from the collections that now form part of the Full English's digital archive, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams folksong transcriptions, plus related items such as newly acquired photographs of Percy Grainger and selections of folksong recordings including wax cylinders recorded by Vaughan Williams, many of which are available for listening online at BL Sounds.

20 August 2013

Trevor Wiggins Ghanaian Collection

Trevor Wiggins made extensive recordings in Ghana during the 1990s, focusing on the Dagaare people and their xylophone or "gyil" music, as well as recording various other instrumental and vocal music. These recordings are now available on the BL Sounds website.

A goge from the UCL Ethnography Collections

One such instrumental recording is of the gonje or goge, a Nigerian stringed instrument which is played with a bow. Here's an example from the UCL Ethnography Collections - you can see that the string is of horsehair and the main body is a hemispherical gourd with a skin covering.

Some of the xylophone or gyil recordings include demonstrations of the tuning of the xylophones and, also, the "signature tunes" of the performers. Here's the signature tune of Rallio Kpampul, followed by further music.

You can hear Trevor talking about his work when he was interviewed by Carolyn Landau in 2010. The interview is one of a group of interviews with leading ethnomusicologists.



01 May 2013

May Day at BL World & Traditional Music

As 1 May is May Day, we thought we would give you a glimpse of the Traditional Music in England collection available on BL Sounds. You can find many recordings of May Day celebrations such as this one recorded in the streets of Padstow on May Day in 1976.

Folklorist Peter Kennedy also recorded May Day celebrations. Here is an actuality recording of a May Day procession in Castleton, Derbyshire, England. You can hear the horses hooves march by to the tune of the brass band.

Padstow May Day
The Blue Ribbon 'Obby 'Oss: Market Square, Padstow, Cornwall, May Day (1 May), year not known (probably late 1940s); Photograph by Pictorial Press, London.

1 May is also a day for celebrating the international labour movement. Here are a few labour songs from around the world:

These women and girls, recorded in Uganda by Peter Cooke in 1964, are returning from doing their day’s work which would probably either consist of collecting grass or roofing.

The musicians and singers performing this song work in farming. In this recording, made by Rolf Killius in 2001, you can hear them describing the strains of the long agricultural year working in the barren fields in the mountains.

Our last recording was made by Peter Kennedy in 1953 at the Portland Stone Quarry in England. It was made for a film on the songs and work practices in the quarry entitled “Quarrymen’s Work Songs”. This is part of a group of work songs made by Kennedy, accompanied by the sounds of the work being carried out.