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38 posts categorized "World and traditional music"

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.

12 April 2013

Interviews with Ethnomusicologists now online!

You can now hear the recorded interviews of leading ethnomusicologists on the British Library “Sounds” website. These interviews were made by Dr Carolyn Landau from 2010 to 2012.

The interviews offer an insight into the researchers’ musical upbringing and education and what drew them to the field of ethnomusicology in the first place. The interviews also discuss the researchers’ perceptions of ethnomusicology as they began their careers and how the subject is viewed now.

Image of Bartok

Here’s a short clip of one of the interviews, from John Baily, originally a psychologist who studied under the late John Blacking at Queen's University Belfast.


In this clip, Baily talks about the influence of Blacking on his research into the music of Afghanistan. Baily goes on to discuss whether, for example, ethnomusicologists need to have “big ears” – in other words, whether they need the transcribing skills of the composer Béla Bartók (pictured). If you're interested in seeing handwritten examples of Bartók’s transcriptions, some of them can be found in the Milman Parry Collection, Harvard University.

As well as hearing the interviews, you can also hear the recordings that some of these ethnomusicologists deposited with the British Library. For example, Peter Cooke made recordings of Ugandan music and Donald Tayler & Brian Moser made recordings in Columbia.

02 April 2013

Cataloguing and Processing the Ethnographic Wax Cylinder Collection – Part 2

In my last post, I offered a selection of three short recordings that form part of the ethnographic wax cylinder collections housed and available for listening at the British Library.

Coming towards the end of processing this 3500 strong collection, this follow-up post offers some further musical highlights that caught my ear whilst listening to thousands of recordings. I think they are of some significance, offering good examples of some of the earliest (and pioneering) music recordings taken from various locations around the world, and are therefore worth sharing.

Collection Samples

1) C37/1590, English Folk Dance and Song Society Collection. The English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) is one of the leading folk development organisations in the UK with a history dating back to 1898. This recording is one of 106 cylinders (on long-term loan to the British Library from the EFDSS) comprising several smaller British folk music collections (Welsh, Scottish and English) recorded by Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams, and others. Recorded in Herefordshire, England, in 1908 by Cecil James Sharp (1859-1924), this recording is in two parts. The first part is a male vocal solo sung by an unknown performer. The performance is entitled ‘there is an ale house (died for love)’. The second part is a solo fiddle performance, possibly by John Locke, of a hornpipe: a music/dance form popular in Britain from the late 17th century.



2) C51/2611, Northcott Whitridge Thomas Collection. Thomas (1868–1936) was a British government anthropologist who conducted field research in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915, recording songs, music and the spoken word onto hundreds of wax cylinders. This example was recorded in the Kaba, Akoko region of Nigeria by Thomas on the 4 March 1910: a spirited male vocal group performance.



3) C51/2853, Northcott Whitridge Thomas Collection. Another sample from the Thomas Collection recorded in the Ugwashi Uku, Ibo region of Nigeria on the 25 November 1912. This is a female vocal group with leader, accompanied by clapping.


 4) C72/820, Fox Strangways Cylinder Collection. This collection of 101 high quality recordings were made in India between 1910 and 1911 by British ethnomusicologist, Arthur Fox Strangeways. This is a good example of Shahnai (double-reed conical woodwind instrument of North India) music with drum accompaniment that was recorded in India around 1910 by Fox Strangways. It features a performance of Rag Sarang, Rag Adachautal and four thekas (repeated patterns of rhythmic strokes played on the drums).



5) C664/641, Berlin Demonstration Cylinder Collection. This collection is an early anthology of traditional music compiled by the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. It contains 107 recordings made between 1903 and 1913 in various locations including China, Japan, Java, Borneo, Africa, Russia, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. This example was recorded in East Africa (date unknown) and is of a 'waNyamwezi drinking song' performed by an unaccompanied male vocalist. 



Work Completed

The general approach taken to working on each wax cylinder collection was, firstly, to familiarise myself with previous work completed by a number of engineers and curators at the British Library. This involved delving into paper files, correspondences and technical reports that have amassed since work began on the collections in 1994. Secondly, this information was checked against existing catalogue entries and online sources for consistency and accuracy, and where necessary entries were updated. Thirdly, I listened to the majority of the 3500 previously digitised recordings and checked the contents against the catalogue entries and paper files. On occasion, I requested that the original cylinders were re-dubbed by engineers at the British Library as the files were missing, or they had been dubbed at the wrong playing speed. This work was done on a universal cylinder player build at the British Library for dubbing the ethnographic wax cylinder collections:


Wax cylinder machine
The British Library's Universal Cylinder Player

Fourthly, technical metadata (e.g. dubbing speeds, dubbing dates, filenames and engineer’s names) was added to catalogue entries. Lastly, after some final consistency and accuracy checks, the cylinder collections were uploaded onto the British Library catalogue where the documentation can be viewed and the recordings are available for listening by the public.

Further sample recordings taken from wax cylinder collections are also for public access at


Listen online to wax cylinders


15 February 2013

Kalahari San [Bushmen] music online


Over 1000 recordings of music recorded by John Brearley in Botswana, primarily among San or Bushmen people in the Kalahari, have been made available on the British Library Sounds website.

Oba plays the zhoma (pluriarc) while children look on.
Oba plays the zhoma (pluriarc) while children look on.

Recording of Oba playing the zhoma and singing.

John Brearley’s collection began with his first trip to Botswana in July 1982 to investigate and record traditional music, and to observe the extent to which the influence of radio and recorded music had interrupted the use of traditional instruments. In particular he wanted to learn about the music of the Basarwa (San / Bushmen) and so the collection includes recordings from a range of Bushmen groups including the !Kung, Nharo and Makoko, and features performances of healing dances, games, and instrumental tunes on a range of indigenous instruments. John returned to the Kalahari many times from 1982 to 2007.

Women playing tandiri [dakateri] musical bow
Women playing tandiri [dakateri] musical bow

Recording of women playing tandiri, 1989

During his travels in northern Botswana John came into contact with the anthropologist Hans-Joachim Heinz. Heinz had also made recordings of music and ceremonies, which he deposited at the British Library. These are also available online. Heinz also made films during his research in Botswana. Copies of these are in the British Library's collections as C312.

John wrote a report of his very first trip in 1982 which was published in Botswana Notes and Records (volume 16). This includes details of instrument tunings and musical transcriptions of brief extracts from the recordings.

28 January 2013

British and Irish traditional music online

150 hours of audio and almost 100 photographs from the Peter Kennedy Collection have been made available this week via the British Library Sounds website.

Sheila Gallagher
Sheila Gallagher, 1953, Middle Dere, Donegal

Sheila Gallagher talks and sings

Peter Kennedy (1922 – 2006) was one of the most important collectors of music traditions from the British Isles. Picking up from work begun by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams in the first decades of the twentieth century, he started recording in the early 1950s with his aunt, Maud Karpeles (founding member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, along with Sharp and Peter’s father, Douglas Kennedy), work that instigated the presentation of folk music and traditions on the BBC. He was greatly inspired by Alan Lomax, wishing to demonstrate that the folklore tradition was alive and well in Britain and Ireland. In just over 50 years he amassed a collection of audio and video recordings amounting to approximately 1500 hours, plus several hundred photographs and many cabinets of papers including correspondence, notes and song texts. The recordings now made available represent a small portion of the field recordings Peter Kennedy made during the four decades from the late 1940s in which he was most active "in the field”.

Peter Kennedy is in good company on the website, with an additional 20,000 recordings of songs, tunes and interviews mainly from the British Isles recorded by Bob and Jacqueline Patten, Bob Davenport, Carole Pegg, Desmond and Shelagh Herring, John Howson, Keith Summers, Nick and Mally Dow, Reg Hall, Roy Palmer, Steve Gardham and Terry Yarnell.

Notes: Peter Kennedy passed away in 2006 and we acquired the collection in collaboration with Topic Records who have been drawing on the Collection for their new Voice of the People series of publications. When the photographs, papers and original tape recordings came to the BL in 2007, all Peter's commercial LPs and his book collection went to Halsway Manor. In March 2012 we received a grant from the National Folk Music Fund to catalogue the photographs onto the Library’s Integrated Archives and Manuscripts System. This online project was supported by the British Library Friends.

19 December 2012

Cataloguing and Processing the Ethnographic Wax Cylinder Collection

On 30 October 2012 the World and Traditional Music department started the final phase of cataloguing and processing numerous wax cylinder recordings made between 1898 and 1941. This involves taking previously digitised wax cylinder recordings and checking and updating the related catalogue information, and finally uploading this information onto the The British Library catalogue for public access.

These recordings, totalling around 3,000, were made by prominent anthropologists and ethnomusicologists such as Prof. William Baldwin Spencer and Arnold Bake, and in various locations around the world including Australia (Spencer), Nepal, India and Sri Lanka (Bake), Japan, China, Papua New Guinea, Africa and the Americas.

Ethnographic Wax Cylinder Player
Wax Cylinder Player


Wax Cylinders
Wax Cylinders

While steadily working my way through the first batch of around 1,000 recordings and related documentation (in the form of previous cataloguer’s comments, original recording notes and archival correspondences), several have stuck in my mind (for various reasons) and, I think, are worth sharing. Therefore, the following sample recordings represent a small selection of the digitised wax cylinder recordings housed at The British Library and are available (or soon to be available) for public access.

1) C6/1183, Baldwin Spencer Cylinder Collection. A recording of exclamations used at sacred ceremonies by men dancing round performers: "The emu will soon lay some eggs"; "The Dalhousie men are making rain today and the Creek will run tomorrow"; "The wild ducks are laying eggs"; "The pelican is too thin to eat"; "Fat snakes make us fat, thin snakes make us thin" etc. Recorded in Stevenson Creek, South Australia in 1901 by Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis James Gillen.


2) C624/963, Madras Museum Cylinder Collection. A recording of the song Bavanutha; Ragam – Mohanam – played by P. Sanjiva Rau (bamboo flute), accompanied on harmonium. Recorded in India in 1909 by Edgar Thurston and Kadambi Rangachari.


3) C675/317, Temple Cylinder Collection. Male vocal solo, with algaitas (West African oboe) and drum. Recorded in Nigeria around 1912 by Mrs Temple.


These early recordings, complete with crackles, pops and period charm, suggest that we can look forward to more interesting and unique musical gems in the next batch of 2,000 or so waiting to be processed.

Update, 2 April 2013: A new post is now available on this collection.

14 November 2012

World and Traditional Music collections on YouTube

The first four archive film clips to be launched on the  British Library  - Sound and Moving Image  - YouTube channel are the results of a collaboration between the British Library World and Traditional Music and Moving Image departments, Dr Richard Widdess at SOAS and the Music Museum of Nepal. The digitisation, identification and editing of some of the film and non-synchronous audio material in the Arnold Adriaan Bake collection, C52, means we are now able to release some edited highlights from the Bake collection online. Furthermore each clip is specifically referenced in the summary of the YouTube clip to allow researchers to link directly back to the source material in the catalogue.

The first film begins with Bake's arrival in Nepal in 1931.

Title: Arnold Adriaan Bake: documenting music in Nepal. Indra Jaatra festival Kathmandu, 1931

Arnold Bake created a unique document of the religious music of Nepal through his films of the annual festivals which was where he found many of the musicians he would record for his research. In his films he also represented a changing culture and built landscape that would in part vanish in the earthquakes of 1933.

Many collections in the World and Traditional Music section hold a range of formats, reflecting the diverse nature of ethnographic field recording. Among these is C52, a unique collection of South Asian material recorded by Dutch ethnomusicologist Dr Arnold Adriaan Bake [1899-1963]. His collection spans not only many decades but also many formats of audio and visual material including wax cylinders, tefi-bands, reel-to-reel tapes and 16mm black and white and colour silent films, providing a complex and detailed document of music and ritual in South Asia from the 1930s to the late 1950s.

The collection itself is in many ways like a jigsaw. The recent digitisation of the 16mm film material by the Moving Image team enabled access to footage hitherto impossible in the British Library. This coincided with the digitisation of audio material from the collection. However the documentation, especially that of the films, was extremely sparse and in places non-existent. To add to the complexity the non-synchronous nature of the recordings means that although much of the audio and film footage is related it would not have been shot at the same time: in many cases Bake would record an event in film and then return to record the event in audio. The story could have ended there with a complex collection awaiting researchers to release its secrets………….

Excitingly the Nepalese material in this collection, which makes up at least half of the collection, became the subject of a repatriation project with the Music Museum of Nepal. With painstaking effort they honoured the exchange of knowledge by returning detailed documentation for the films to the British Library which has now been added to the catalogue and was the inspiration for the making of these short films.

Title: Arnold Adriaan Bake: documenting music in Nepal. Newar musicians, 1955-56

The second film introduces musicians from one of the main culture groups in Nepal, the Newar. Among the religious music performed by the Newar is Dapha, a form of hymn singing.

Title: Arnold Adriaan Bake: documenting music in Nepal. Matayaa festival, 1955-56

The third film illustrates the importance of ritual in Nepalese life. The Matayaa festival celebrates family ancestors with offerings at shrines. Musicians and devotees circumambulate the town making offerings.

Title: Arnold Adriaan Bake: documenting music in Nepal. Seto Machindranath festival, 1955-56

The final film allows a glimpse of one of the main features of the religious festivals in Nepal, the mobilisation of the chariots carrying the deities. This colour footage shows the dedication and worship related to the chariots and the precariousness as they are manually pulled through the streets during the festival. The mountains of Nepal can be seen on the horizon.

These represent only a small portion of the collection, with a great deal more digitised films to be released next Spring 2013, but we hope they will encourage researchers to come to the British Library to delve further into this and other collections.

02 November 2012

Brazilian music lecture podcast

In celebration of Brazilian Music Day and Brazilian Independence Day the British Library held a public lecture on the 7th of September by David H. Treece, Camoens Professor of Portuguese, King’s College London. David Treece is author of the forthcoming book: Brazilian Jive - from Samba to Bossa and Rap
(Reaktion). The lecture concerned the meanings of music in Brazilian culture exploring key symbolic ideas attributed to Brazilian music and its role in shaping and characterising popular images of the country.

As part of our on-going work to increase accessibility, the lecture was recorded and is now available internationally as a podcast at