Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

21 October 2021

True Echoes: Eric Raff 1924 Efate, New Hebrides cylinder collection (C83)

The Eric Raff 1924 Efate, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C83) is a set of twelve black wax cylinders recorded in 1924 on the island of Efate in Vanuatu. The collection was previously known as the RAI Vanuatu Cylinder Collection as the cylinders came into the Library from the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1983, but with no documentation as to when they were recorded or by whom.

Their British Library shelfmarks are C83/1498 to C83/1509. Three cylinders, C83/1504, C83/1506, and C83/1508, are badly broken and so could not be dubbed. It is one of two collections from Vanuatu within the True Echoes project at the British Library; the other is the John Layard 1914-1915 Atchin, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C177).

The cylinders of the Eric Raff 1924 Efate, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C83)

Above: The cylinders of the Eric Raff 1924 Efate, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C83)

The cylinders were accompanied by 28 sheets, formerly held together by small rusty pins, but there was no information about the recordist or the date. The papers are carefully typed out translations and transcriptions of songs and stories from various villages on Efate.

A transcript of the recording 'The song to warn Iakokae-Iako' as performed by Miriam of Malavau

Above: A transcript of the recording "The song to warn Iakokae-Iako" as performed by Miriam of Malavau. This is the third page of the original documentation for the cylinder collection. Held by the British Library's World and Traditional Music section.

We started the historical research by compiling a document of everything we knew about the collection, and a list of any possible recordists, from anthropologists to government officials, from missionaries to traders, who spent time on Efate between 1898 and the 1930s. We circulated this document to researchers working in Vanuatu today.  We looked at handwriting, and other likely characteristics of the recordist. Chris Ballard at the Australian National University helped us to deduce who the recordist was. We can now say that the cylinders were recorded by Eric Maitland Kirk Raff (1892–1927), an Australian Presbyterian missionary who was based at Vila on Efate from 1917 to 1924.

Eric was born in Victoria, Australia, on 29 March 1892. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in Melbourne on 18 October 1916, and formally appointed as minister of the Margaret Whitecross Paton Memorial Church in Vila on the same day. On 9 December 1916, he married Ruth (née Baird), and on 17 January 1917, they left Australia for Vanuatu, then called the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides.

Sarah Walpole, archivist at the RAI, found correspondence from 1927 between Ruth Raff and Sir Everard im Thurn, a former President of the RAI, which gave us a much better understanding of this collection. Ruth noted that Eric made thirteen 4-minute Edison phonograph records “in Vila … early in 1924” (Raff 1927b). The collection only comprises twelve cylinders now; we do not know what happened to the thirteenth. The cylinders are unusual as they hold 4 minutes of recording as opposed to the more usual 2 minutes; the phonograph used to record them operated at a faster turning speed. These particular kind of cylinders were very fragile, which explains why three of the twelve surviving cylinders are badly broken. We do not know how or where Eric obtained the phonograph or the cylinders.

The Raffs left Efate in 1924 due to Eric’s ill health, and travelled to Scotland. Later that year, Eric wrote to both the Edison Bell Works and the Gramophone Company as he wanted to have permanent copies of the cylinders made; neither company could help. Ruth also noted that they tried to enlist the help of Alfred Cort Haddon – “a friend at Cambridge (an ethnologist whom we had met in the Islands) tried to interest Dr Haddon, but apparently nothing came of it – I think they said their funds were low!” (Raff 1927b). Haddon led the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits and the cylinders produced during this expedition are now in the collections of the British Library’s Sound Archive. Further information on this collection, known as C80, can be found in this Sound & Vision blog post.

In July 1926, Eric received a reply from Thomas Joyce, Deputy Keeper of the Department of Ceramics and Ethnography at the British Museum, indicating that he would purchase Raff’s “New Hebrides Records” at 5 shillings a piece (Joyce 1926).

Eric died on 22 March 1927 in Bournemouth at the age of 34. Ruth was determined that the “valuable phonographic records of old native songs (both legends & songs fast dying out)” collected by her husband should not be lost to science (Raff 1927a). During a stay in Edinburgh in April and May 1927, she typed up all of the legends to give to Thurn; she mentioned “more interesting notes on early Efate” that she could send to him later (Raff 1927d). It is not clear whether this material has survived. It is also not clear what happened to the cylinders. Ruth may have sold them to the British Museum when she visited London in early June before her departure for Australia on the 16th June (Raff 1927c).

The level of detail on the accompanying documentation, including corrections on the covering List of Records as well as on the transcriptions and translations, indicates that both Eric and Ruth were familiar with the languages represented in the collection.  This documentation indicates that there were originally 30 songs recorded. Six performers are noted by name and village: Miriam of Malavau, Meny of Fila, Turi of Leleppa, and Kaltaban, Leiboni, and Tavero of Meli. Four songs were performed by “Pango women.” Nganga, probably a chief of Meli, is noted as the translator of three songs. Initial research indicates that most of the songs are from the languages of North Efate (Nakanamanga), South Efate (Nafsan) and Mele-Fila (specifically the Meli dialect).

A map of Efate highlighting Port Vila and the villages of the C83 Vanuatu performers. Map data ©2021 Google.

Above: A map of Efate highlighting Port Vila and the villages of the C83 Vanuatu performers. Map data ©2021 Google.

The clip that we would like to share with you today is from the first song on cylinder C83/1498, Iakokae-Iako, by Miriam of Malavau.

Clip from C83/1498, Iakokae-Iako by Miriam of Malavau

Research to find out more information about the performers and the genres of the songs and stories told, as well as the languages featured in the recordings, will be done by our project partners at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre / Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VCC / VKS). Ambong Thompson is Manager of the National Film, Sound and Photo Unit that manages the Vanuatu Cultural Centre’s collection of film and audio recordings and photographic collections of cultural events, ceremonies, celebrations, performance, practices and activities. Through the True Echoes project, digital copies of Eric Raff's 1924 recordings will be accessioned into the VCC collection.

Ambong Thompson, Manager of National Film, Sound and Photo Unit at Vanuatu Cultural Centre

Above: Ambong Thompson, Manager of National Film, Sound and Photo Unit at Vanuatu Cultural Centre.

Ambong said,  

“We have already identified three fieldworkers from Mele, Ifira and Pango to work with staff from Vanuatu Cultural Centre… We have already spoken to, and had a good response, from Mele village. Some people from Mele Village have heard about the project and were very delighted.”

The VCC is working to identify the right people and equipment to undertake participatory research for this project. Ambong noted that these are “very old recordings and will make a major contribution towards our collections”.

References:

Joyce, Thomas Atholl. 1926. ’T.A. Joyce, Dept. of Ceramics and Ethnography, British Museum to Rev. E.M. Raff.’ Ethnomusicology Committee. Wiley Digital Archives: The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. No Date. http://WDAgo.com/s/5bb00889. Accessed 8 June 2021.

Raff, Ruth. 1927a. Letter from Mrs Ruth Raff to Sir Everard im Thurn, 27 March 1927. Ethnomusicology Committee. Wiley Digital Archives: The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. http://WDAgo.com/s/47577a34. Accessed 8 June 2021.

Raff, Ruth. 1927b. Letter from Mrs. Ruth Raff to Sir Everard im Thurn, 14 April 1927. Ethnomusicology Committee. Wiley Digital Archives: The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. http://WDAgo.com/s/3bf69adf. Accessed 8 June 2021.

Raff, Ruth. 1927c. Letter from Mrs. Ruth Raff to Sir Everard im Thurn, 8 May 1927. Ethnomusicology Committee. Wiley Digital Archives: The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. http://WDAgo.com/s/4ccaadc9. Accessed 8 June 2021.

Raff, Ruth. 1927d. Letter from Mrs Ruth Raff to Sir Everard im Thurn, 10 May 1927. Ethnomusicology Committee. Wiley Digital Archives: The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. http://WDAgo.com/s/211a4c36. Accessed 8 June 2021.

Vicky Barnecutt, True Echoes Research Fellow

18 October 2021

Recording of the week: Family mealtimes

This week's selection comes from Dr Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.

One way or another, food is at the heart of everyday life for almost everyone on the planet. We plan our days around it, share it with friends, watch TV shows about it, and food – or sometimes, intentional abstinence from food – is central to many religious, cultural and familial celebrations. Our relationship to food – whether it is we eat, where we eat it, or who we eat it with – is a reflection of who we are, shaped as it is by the traditions we inherit from our families, cultural expectations, our social circumstances and other aspects of our day-to-day lives.

Food on a table being served

                                                                                                                                                        Image: Anadolu Agency / Contributor via Getty Images (1212156867)

When interviewers ask people to describe what mealtimes look like for them, they are asking about more than just how people sustain themselves. In this clip, Kuli Padan interviewed in 1999 for the Millennium Memory Bank, describes a typical family mealtime in her home, and in doing so reveals much about her family dynamics and cultural heritage.

At the end she reflects on the ‘sad’ fact that the television is the focal point of her family now, and an enduring presence at her family’s mealtimes in particular.

Kuli Padan family cooking and eating [BL REF C900/17597]

Download Transcript

Listening to this clip brought to mind conversations I’ve had with my own family recently on how our mealtimes have changed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. Growing up, family mealtimes at the dinner table every evening – without any technology – was one thing my parents insisted on. It was important to them that we spent that time together, catching up and sharing what we’d been up to each day.

When lockdown happened and we suddenly found ourselves spending all our time together – all working in the same space as we were living, our hobbies and social lives brought to an abrupt stop – we suddenly found ourselves short on things to talk about at mealtimes. Gradually, for the first time in my life, family mealtimes moved to in front of the TV where a programme (usually a quiz show of sorts) could take the place of conversation. I don’t lament this development in the same way Kuli Padan does, because it feels less like a loss and more like a reaction to a world that changed in ways that were beyond our control. It does raise some interesting questions about why we eat in the ways that we do and our emotional relationship to those moments in our lives, though.

Of course, these experiences are very personal and individual. The pandemic, for example, may have changed other people’s eating habits in ways vastly different to my own: perhaps working from home presented some families with an opportunity to share mealtimes that they never had before, or enabled someone to find time to learn to cook from scratch. Over time, children grow into adults and the responsibilities for cooking and feeding in the home change and shift, as do food preferences, the schedules for mealtimes, and exposure to new foods and ways of eating. Kuli Padan was interviewed in 1999; I wonder how mealtimes may have changed for her in the years since she gave her interview?

The nature of the life history approach, which informs many of the interviews in the British Library’s oral history archive, combined with the sheer size and thematic scope of the collections means our archive contains a wealth of material on people’s eating habits and their relationship to food. This particular extract is featured in If Homes Had Ears, a website which showcases the sounds of domestic life, by exploring five spaces in the home: the bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom and garden. Each space highlights intriguing audio clips from the diverse collections in the British Library Sound Archive, covering the timespan of recorded sound and featuring many of the rich cultures that make up the UK.

Kuli Padan was interviewed by Eka Morgan in 1999 for the Millennium Memory Bank, the largest recording project in the history of British radio. It ran from 1998-99, capturing the pulse of the century through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life.

Follow @BL_OralHistory, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

04 October 2021

Recording of the week: Dog team or engine power? Sleds and other subjects in 1940s Alaska

This week's selection comes from George Brierley, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

During my time working as a cataloguer on the Unlocking our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project, I have been fortunate to catalogue a diverse range of oral history collections. The majority of the interviews in these collections are several hours long, recorded across a number of tapes and over a number of days. Occasionally, you will come across a short but sweet recording like this one.

This recording is a ten minute conversation between Abraham Lincoln, an Inuit fisherman (not the 16th president of the United States) and Pete Severnay, a Norwegian sailor. It took place in the city of Kotzebue, Alaska, just above the Arctic Circle, in the winter of 1948.

Despite its short length, the recording covers quite wide ground.

We discover that Abraham has been staying with Pete, who has been travelling across North America for the past few years.

The men discuss several topics. Pete thinks that he might stay in Kotzebue, but it all depends on the fishing. He also complains about the lack of employment opportunities in the area, and that any available jobs pay too little - one dollar an hour.

Abraham has a different outlook; one dollar an hour is a perfectly reasonable wage for the locals to live on. Pete is fishing to keep himself busy, but his main interest is gold prospecting – he believes that there are large amounts of gold in the area.

Unsurprisingly, the two men discuss the weather. Pete isn’t too bothered by the cold. After all, he’s been travelling in wind and storms during his entire time in Alaska, with visibility so poor that he hasn’t been able to see his hand in front of his face at times. He has also built his own sled.

In the audio excerpt below, Abraham amusingly mistakes Pete’s sled for a table, and they start a lively discussion about dog team sleds versus engine-powered sleds.

You will be able to hear a slight hum in the background which comes from the recording device:

A discussion about sleds [BL REF C1603/01 S1]

Download Transcript - A discussion about sleds

Inuit family with MalamuteAn Inuit family with an Alaskan Malamute, c. 1915. Photograph from Wikipedia. Original source: W. E. Mason. Malamutes are the sled dogs that are mentioned by Abraham.

We know little about the background of this recording – the open reel tape travelled from Kotzebue to Anchorage, before arriving in the United Kingdom and ending up at the British Library. We also know little about the two men in conversation.

I could not find any information about Pete Severnay online, although I did find some more information about Abraham. He lived in Kotzebue with his wife, Blanche, where they raised two sons and two daughters. His birth date is listed as around 1887, so he would have been in his early sixties at the time of this recording.

The fact that we know so little about the two men and the recording is irrelevant. In fact, the anonymity adds to the overall appeal. The important thing is that the two men have come together to share their unique knowledge and experiences. They may be different in terms of age and culture, but it is clear from their words that they have respect for each other’s differences.

This recording offers a glimpse into what life was like for the inhabitants of Alaska during the time but also gives insight into the life of an outsider venturing into an isolated community. Who knows? Perhaps this conversation was the start of a friendship lasting the rest of their lives.

Follow @BL_OralHistory, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.