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

14 June 2021

Recording of the week: A Yanomami ceremonial dialogue

This week's selection comes from Finlay McIntosh, World & Traditional Rights intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In 1978, the writer, musician and scholar David Toop travelled to the Upper Orinoco region in the Venezuelan Amazon to record the Yanomami indigenous people and their songs, rituals and ceremonies.

While these recordings were released on the album Lost Shadows: In Defence of the Soul (Yanomami Shamanism, Songs, Ritual, 1978), Toop also kindly donated the unedited field recordings to the British Library, where they have been digitised through the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Toop writes:

I’m very happy that my Yanomami recordings will be available for digital access for two reasons. One is that the Yanomami are again undergoing a crisis due to the combined effects of the pandemic and a ruthless encroachment into their territory by illegal mining, so any attention focused on the Yanomami is a good thing. The second reason is connected to the first. I believe all people can benefit from exposure to the rich and diverse forms of encounter, counsel and negotiation that exist or have existed in world cultures, unfamiliar or strange as they may seem, because they can suggest alternate ways of listening to others, gaining understanding and resolving apparently intractable problems. Any narrowing of listening models is a bad thing.

Torokoiwa and daughter
Torokoiwa (a Yanomami shaman) and daughter. Photograph by Odile Laperche.

One of the recordings that stood out to me was his recording of wayamou – a type of ceremonial dialogue that the Yanomami use to negotiate relationships, maintain peace and resolve conflicts between different communities.

Wayamou is conducted at night and is performed in pairs, with one member from each community taking part. One participant will lead, and depending on whether the communities are on good or bad terms, he will criticise and reprimand the other participant, or submit requests and proposals to them.

The speaker will adopt a heavily metaphorical manner of speaking to conduct these conversations diplomatically and avoid addressing sensitive subjects too directly. The other participant will then repeat the phrases, words and syllables uttered by the speaker – sometimes identically and sometimes with slight variations – to show agreement with the speaker or at least an understanding of his point of view.

Afterwards, the participants swap roles so both have a chance to speak. The pair is then replaced by series of other pairs and discussions continue throughout the night.

It is a duel of persuasion and negotiation, where participants have the opportunity to put words, ideas and desires in each other’s mouth. Ideally, by dawn, solutions or compromises to the communities’ problems will have been reached.

Wayamou, recorded by David Toop [BL REF C1162/8 C1]

The controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon once described wayamou as: “something like a fast game of Ping-Pong, with the melodic, staccato phrases as the ball.”

We hear how the speakers throw these words and phrases between each other, creating colliding rhythms and echoing crescendos that are abruptly punctuated with sharp accents.

At certain points, you can even hear the respondent replying so fast that he is speaking at the same time as the lead participant, guessing what the lead is saying before he has even said it.

I was so enthralled by this amazingly fast and complex dialogue that I didn’t even stop to think about what they could be saying. However, when reading the liner notes to Lost Shadows, I was surprised to learn that there was a false start to the recording:

The recording seems to be going well, but Emilio jumps up, clearly angry, and stops them. What they have been saying is that the foreigners are stupid to want to record their music and they are going to trick us out of many gifts.

Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Here the wayamou had been stripped of its social function: there was no relationship to negotiate, no conflict to resolve or peace to maintain. When asked to perform under these conditions, what would there be to speak about?

Even if they are just talking about how foreigners are stupid to want to record their music, it is still an undeniably captivating recording ... and I don’t think we are stupid for wanting to listen to it!

If you are interested in learning more about the Yanomami, photographer Claudia Andujar’s exhibition The Yanomami Struggle will be running at the Barbican from June 17 to August 29 2021. Filmmaker and anthropologist Luiz Bolognesi’s film A Última Floresta (The Last Forest) will also be showing at the Berlinale on 19 and 20 June, 2021.

Further reading and listening:

Kelly Luciani, José Antonio. 2017. “On Yanomami Ceremonial Dialogues: A Political Aesthetic of Metaphorical Agency.” Journal de la Société des Américanistes 103, no. 1: 179-214.

Chagnon, Napoleon A. 1992. Yanomamö: The Last Days of Eden. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Toop, David. 2015. Lost Shadows: In Defence of the Soul (Yanomami Shamanism, Songs, Ritual, 1978). Sub Rosa.

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07 June 2021

Recording of the week: Efe honey gathering in the Ituri Forest

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

For about two months a year in the Ituri Forest, it is honey gathering season for the Efe people of north eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. This season is an important and exciting time for the Efe, in which their energy is focused intensely on gathering honey, a favourite and staple part of their diet and livelihood.

The gathering occurs when honey is most abundant, between May and September. There are many different Efe songs and dances associated with honey gathering, performed before, during and after collection.

Climbing for honey
'Climbing for honey' by Terese Hart is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Honey gathering song [BL REF C423_1 S2 C2]

This particular group song is sung when the men are gathering honey from trees. The song is a beautifully intricate texture of polyphonic singing, hand clapping and likembe (a small lamellophone). Yodelling voices gradually emerge over the men’s bass humming. Listen closely and you can hear how the amorphous singing and humming imitates the swarm of honeybees flying around them. By ‘yodel’ we mean a vocal technique that involves alternating a ‘chest voice’ with a ‘head voice’, as recordist Didier Demolin explains in the liner notes to a CD release of his recordings.

The honey usually has to be gathered by climbing high into the trees, where the hive is often located twenty metres or more above. The men smoke out the bees and collect the honey in a basket or pack of leaves.

This song was recorded by Didier Demolin at the edge of the Ituri Forest in 1987, when the Efe were camping near the Lese villages of Ngodingodi and Digbo. The recording is part of the C423 Didier Demolin Collection and can be listened to in British Library Reading Rooms at C423/1 S2 C2.

The collection is of particular significance because the recordings were made shortly before warfare and deforestation inflicted profound damage upon Efe and Mbuti communities and their environment.

This Efe honey gathering song features in the British Library Sound Archive’s latest NTS radio programme on work songs from around the world. The show's selection also includes the songs of pearl divers from Bahrain, Somalian women singing to the rhythm of corn pounding, Scottish waulking songs and miners’ songs from Venezuela and the U.K., amongst many more.

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24 May 2021

Recording of the week: On architecture and identity

This week's selection comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Reference Specialist.

In these extracts from an oral history interview, architect Edward Jones talks about his approach to architecture, and what it means to build houses in both London and the rest of England. The interview was recorded in 2012 by the National Life Stories and is part of the Architect’s Lives collection.

Architecture is the living culture of a city life. We relate to the shapes of buildings and public spaces while we walk along the streets.

In trying to explain the gap between the design of buildings in the post-war period and the desires of people who would live in them, Edward reflects on a professional attitude that led to urban spaces being represented as miserable, inspiring a sort of urban blues.

A feeling of vulnerability from unsupervised spaces also arises from within the city’s voids: what is the relationship, or the lack of relationship with those spaces?

Traditional English house [BL REF C467/98]

Jones often gets asked what the best type of dwelling for the city would be, but in this interview, he shows how different urban histories led to different types of housing.

England has a very different architectural tradition to the Continent. Historically, England never experienced major land invasions so there wasn’t a need for walls or for intervening areas between the door and the street. London, Jones continues, never needed any defensive walls. Thus, the house-type building was the predominant housing solution that worked for England and flats only become more widely used in the 19th century.

Row of brick houses in London
Photo by Gonzalo Facello on Unsplash

In contrast, continental Europe adopted apartment blocks to house life in the cities. Paris or Brussels are architectural conglomerates with different levels of defence. Likewise, Glasgow has the same architectural structure. But not England.

Architecture as a reflection of a cliché: housing solutions become a representation of the ideal of a good life. Thus, the design of houses becomes part of the tradition, it reveals the relationship between spaces and the people who inhabit them.

Not only do houses create an identity, but cultural norms also play an important role in defining the geometry of cities across the country.

The celebration of private life in English culture is reflected in the strong residential character of London. The uniqueness of many of the green spaces in the city illustrates English cultural affection for the countryside. New York City doesn’t have that green character, Jones continues, but he still might prefer that urban arrangement as an experience of city life (although he admits he is probably an outsider to this).

The City's green spaces [BL REF C467/98]

Download Transcript for Edward Jones interview

Some distance is needed to observe the peculiarity of a city. Edward Jones reminds us that 'it might take the eyes of a foreigner to kind of see it'.

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