THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

6 posts from May 2020

29 May 2020

In search of the ramkie in the Karoo and the Olifants River Valley

Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper is a researcher and writer with an expertise in mythology and folklore. Since 2011, he has been recording and investigating the culture of Afrikaans-speaking Khoisan descendants living in rural areas in the Western Cape and the Northern Cape provinces of South Africa. In March 2018, he carried out field work with the support of the British Library which focussed on music. Jose Manuel's previous field work had been devoted to understanding and documenting narrative traditions and oral histories.

The Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper Collection has recently been made accessible at the British Library though until Reading Rooms re-open, readers won't be able to access the videos that make up this collection. For now you can browse Jose Manuel's detailed catalogue entries on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue under collection number C1760. As an introduction to the collection, Jose Manuel has written a guest blog post about his encounters with the ramkie instrument in his field work.

In October 2012, while on a field trip, at a lovely restaurant and junk-shop that has the unlikely name of Williston Mall, in the South African Karoo town of that same name, my wife Helena and I saw a magnificent ramkie made of wood. The price was very affordable, so the temptation to purchase it was strong, but since my wife and I were about to return to Spain in December, after more than two years living in South Africa, and had plenty of things to pack, I finally decided to give up the beautiful instrument. Of course, it was not long before I regretted that decision.

A year and a half later, in April 2014, another field trip brought me again to Williston. Of course, at the first opportunity Helena and I went to the mall with some hope that perhaps the item we had not bought in our previous visit would still be there. Stranger things have happened to us in the Karoo. But just as we were asking one of the owners of the place about the ramkie, I saw it hanging from one of the walls, among other not-for-sale items. Fortunately, noticing our disappointment, our interlocutor said he was going to give, rather than sell, us another ramkie, and soon we had it in our hands.

Ramkie
Ramkie made with a primus stove, given to the author in Williston

Made from the tanks of two Primus stoves, the instrument is a fine example of the Karoo folk luthiers’ ingenuity for making the most of whatever is at hand. I would rather have had the other one, but this was certainly an excellent consolation prize. By then, the ramkie had become for me more than a mere curiosity, since it featured in some of the most intriguing stories I had been recording in the Karoo and neighbouring areas. More on this later.

The ramkie is a string instrument similar to a guitar. According to the eminent musicologist Percival R. Kirby, in his monumental book The Musical Instruments of the Indigenous People of South Africa (first published in 1934), the name comes from the Portuguese rabequinha, meaning “a little violin”, and the instrument “shows traces of Portuguese influence”. The earliest mention of the instrument, Kirby writes, comes from the 18th century German author O. F. Mentzel, who lived in the Cape from 1733 to 1741. Mentzel attributes a Malabar origin to the ramkie, but according to Kirby “it is either definitely of Portuguese origin, or else a hybrid instrument”. It was soon adopted with enthusiasm by the Khoisan servants of the European colonisers. Originally made using as a resonator a calabash to which a wood handle was attached, as described by Mentzel, it normally had three or four strings which were plucked, not bowed. Different accounts by early travellers suggest that variations in the material used for the resonator appeared early on. In recent times it is usually made with a 5 litre oil can, hence the name of blik kitaar, “tin guitar” in Afrikaans, by which it is also known.

When in March 2018 I undertook a field trip to the Olifants River Valley and parts of the Upper Karoo, one of my main objectives was to find out if the instrument was still alive among the rural, Afrikaans-speaking communities of those areas, most of whose members descend from the original Khoisan inhabitants of that part of southern Africa. I wanted to record, if possible, people playing it, to film the making of one and even bring at least one to the British Library if I was fortunate enough to obtain it.

In the event, what I could mostly do was gather memories of the instrument, yet memories that, to my surprise, were of not so long ago. The majority of the musicians I interviewed were middle-aged people who now played the guitar but had learnt music in their youth by observing a parent, a relative or a friend play the ramkie. At some point, many had made their own instrument, usually with the 5 litre oil can.

The very first person, my assistant Patrick Hanekom and I interviewed, had learnt to play in this way. He was Alfred Basson, of Clanwilliam, who had grown in the Heunnigvlei area of the Wupperthal Mission, in the Cederberg Mountains. Mr. Basson has won several prizes at rieldans competitions and is an accomplished guitarist. Using just three strings from his guitar he gave us a glimpse of how the ramkie sounds, and offered to make one for us. We jumped at the opportunity, but on our way home after the recording session Patrick told me he doubted Mr. Basson could finally make good his offer, for the simple reason that the 5 litre oil cans are nowadays almost impossible to come by. And sadly, that was what happened.

                                                       

The ramkie people remember is the one made with the oil can. It had from 3- to 4 strings, normally made from fishing-line, although some people mentioned a more archaic material: sheep-gut. From what we were told by several of the people we recorded, it appears that really affordable guitars became available in the area around the 1980s, and they have gradually replaced the ramkie. There are, however, still many people around who know how to make and play this wonderful instrument.

Although Oom Dawid de Klerk (born in 1944) of the farm Kriedowkrans, showed us a related instrument, the blik viool or tin violin, which he couldn’t play for us for want of a bow, Patrick and I were not able to see a really traditional ramkie during this field trip. The closest we got was in the Sandveld town of Graafwater, west of Clanwilliam, where a wonderful musician, Ephraim Kotze, with whom we had a most stimulating conversation, showed us an electric ramkie he plays occasionally while performing with his band. He played the instrument for us acoustically, since he lacked an amplifier at the moment. The sound was unlike the guitar, but this ramkie had six strings and the fretboard and other additions to the blik were certainly not made of recycled material.

                                                       

We asked Ephraim about a local character called Dirk Ligter, about whom many stories are told in this part of the world. Ligter was (and for many still is) an unbeatable sheep-thief, who stole and slaughtered the sheep of the farmers without ever being caught. He is reputed to have supernatural powers, among them that of being so fast that he could outrun any horse. More wonderful still, is his gift of being able to transform into virtually anything: an anthill, a broom, a bush…

Ephraim told us that he knew about Ligter, but couldn’t tell us any of the narratives himself. This was not surprising, because the Sandveld is somewhat outside the usual range of this legendary sheep-thief, whose natural territory lies to the east and north of the Sandveld, and encompasses most of the Bokkeveld, Cederberg, Tankwa and Hantam Karoo areas.

The reason I was asking about this character during my fieldwork in March is because, in addition to being a master sheep-thief, Ligter was also an accomplished ramkie player. As was to be expected, his instrument was not an ordinary one. Patrick’s father, Petrus Hanekom, of Algeria, a village in the Cederberg Mountains, told us that when Ligter felt like listening to music he just had to hang the instrument somewhere and say “Elom!”, and the ramkie played on its own.

James Zimri
James Zimri, Algeria, Cederberg Mountains

It was from Oom Petrus from whom I first heard that Dirk Ligter never stole from the common people, just from the farmers. Yet there was an exception: once he stole a ramkie from a labourer. Oom Petrus remembered only this far, but we got a few more details from his brother-in-law, James Zimri, whom we went to visit next. Besides being an excellent harmonica player, Oom James is also a storyteller and of course he knew about Ligter. Among other things, he told us the specific farm at which Ligter stole the ramkie, and also that the instrument in question was broken, and Ligter mended it. Yet, again, he could not go beyond this. The rest of the story, however, is in all likelihood still there and I hope to be able to record it in the near future.

25 May 2020

Recording of the week: Account from a Norfolk lifeboatman

This week's recording of the week comes from Emma Burman, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

The role of a lifeboatman has never been an easy one. Before the widespread introduction of modern day lifeboats, with electronic mapping and covered shelter, men responded to calls in open topped boats. These boats had very little shelter from the harsh sea wind and splash, they were slow, and had no navigation systems. As soon as the boat launched, the men would look at their watches, put the charts on their knees and use their parallel rules to work out the tides. These men could spend five or six hours exposed to the elements during a call out, limiting their physical and mental ability to carry out their work.

Photograph of lifeboat station
Lifeboat station where Brian Pegg worked © J Gaiger / Stringer via Getty Images

In 1857, when with the originally established 1804 lifeboat organisation fell into financial troubles, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution took over the Cromer lifeboat station in Norfolk. Brian Pegg began working for the Cromer lifeboat station in 1964, continuing until he was 59 years old. Like many lifeboatmen, it was a job he loved.

Nonetheless, Brian maintained a very strong awareness of the sea’s unstoppable and merciless nature and the respect one must show it. In 1999, Brian contributed his voice to the Millennium Memory Bank, and spoke about the distress of losing someone at sea. Throughout the recording, he discusses the impact that two particular tragedies had on him, as well as the impacts felt by the wider community along the coast.

Account from Norfolk lifeboatman (BL REF C900/11583)

Brian described his life as divided into three, his church, his family and his work for both the RNLI and in later life, the Salvation Army. He believed that if you can get those three parts of life to work together ‘you're on a high’, and if someone asked him to divide them up, it would be very hard.

This recording is from the Millennium Memory Bank Project, 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.

Discover more sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.

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

20 May 2020

Exploring the sounds and stories of Britain's shores

Last week the British Library launched Coast, a new web space dedicated to sounds and stories from Britain's incredible coastline.

Covering everything from superstitions and working conditions to wildlife and entertainment, this collection brings together field recordings, interview excerpts and music from across the sound archive. Many of these recordings have been digitised as part of Unlocking our Sound Heritage, a UK-wide project that will preserve and provide access to thousands of rare and unique sound recordings.

Without wanting to spoil the adventure, here are a few choice recordings to whet your appetite.

In May 2012 field recordist Peter Toll made this underwater recording of a rock pool. It includes the sounds of limpets, periwinkles and anenomes and lets us listen in to an otherwise silent world.

Rock pool ambience recorded on Bantham Beach, Devon, England (BL ref 212536)

Colour photograph of a rock pool(c) Avalon/ Contributor via Getty Images

All Aboard For Margate perfectly captures the excitement and popularity of visiting the British seaside in the first years of the 20th century. This version was performed by music hall star Florrie Forde,

All Aboard For Margate sung by Florrie Forde (BL ref 1CYL0001004)

Colour photograph of holidaymakers at the seaside(c) PhotoQuest / Contributor via Getty Images

The bright sounds of the amusement arcade is often one of the first things you'll hear when approaching the seafront. For me it's like a siren and very rarely am I able to resist its enticing call.

Better luck next time (uncatalogued)

Colour photograph of the inside of a seaside amusement arcade© Prisma by Dukas / Contributor via Getty Images

Fishermen are a superstitious bunch and are always on the look out for potential harbingers of misfortune. In this interview extract from The Listening Project, Wilfred Keys asks his friend Thomas Kyle about some of these superstitions.

Fishermens superstitions (BL ref C1500/416)

Black and white photograph of fisherman in a fishing boat(c) Image: Hulton Archive / Stringer via Getty Images

Seabird colonies are a seasonal highlight of the coastal calendar. This recording was made in 1986 by Chris Watson and is dominated by the raucous calls of nesting kittiwakes. 

Seabird colony at Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland, England (BL ref 24697)

Guillemots at nesting colony© Education Images / Contributor via Getty Images

Sound is such an evocative medium. It has the power to transport us to a completely different time and place. And, at a time when so many of us are confined to our houses and local areas, being able to escape, even for just a few minutes, has never been more important. 

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

All Aboard For Margate: Public Domain; Sounds from a seaside amusement arcade: CC-By-NC; Fishermen’s superstitions: © BBC; Rock Pool: © Peter Toll; Seabird Colony: © Chris Watson.

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18 May 2020

Recording of the week: Don't try this at home!

This week’s selection comes from Nick Morgan, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Joseph Sussman (1920-2013) was surrounded by music – literally: his house and garage were crammed full of 78s, LPs, CDs, reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes and videos. They vied for space with stacks of printed music and books, on composers, performers, schools and teaching, as well as on Jewish history, thought, art and music. The sheer numbers, breadth and depth spoke eloquently of Mr. Sussman’s long, busy life as a music teacher, organist and choirmaster, listener, scholar and collector, husband and father. After his death, his daughters generously offered his collection to the British Library. Curator Jonathan Summers spent several days appraising it, and I went along as a volunteer helper in selecting recordings in all formats.

In 2019 I was lucky to join the Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project as a cataloguer. By chance, my first assignment was a collection of 50 reel-to-reel tapes recorded by Mr. Sussman in the late 1950s and 1960s and retrieved by us six years earlier. Most of the tapes contain BBC Radio broadcasts which haven’t survived elsewhere: talks on music and its history, composition and performance (not only classical), live and studio concerts and recitals. They reflect his wide interests and expertise, especially in Jewish music – notably, the works of the Swiss-born American composer Ernest Bloch.

On a few tapes, Mr. Sussman himself plays the piano or accompanies his wife and very young daughters in touching songs and recorder pieces. Music-making was part of the Sussman family’s everyday life, and at its heart was the piano, as it had been in countless households from the mid-nineteenth century on. So deeply rooted was this hundred year-old ‘piano culture’ that, as one of Mr. Sussman’s tapes reveals, in the early 1960s BBC Radio producers still took it as a basis for broadcasts to a wide audience.

In 1961 the BBC’s popular Light Programme broadcast ‘Valerie Tryon at the piano’, a fifteen-minute recital by the British-born pianist, then in her twenties but already a seasoned radio artist – she had been on air since 1954. The music she played whisks us back to a middle-class parlour around 1900: a Mendelssohn Song without Words, a Beethoven Bagatelle, a Chopin Waltz… with only a Poulenc Mouvement perpétuel, written at the end of World War I, to remind us that the ‘long nineteenth century’ had ended in the trenches.

portrait of Valerie Tryon

Another reminder of past tastes and attitudes is the programme’s presenter (he’s not identified – do you recognize his voice?), sounding as if perched avuncularly over Valerie Tryon’s piano. He starts engagingly, welcoming us into the fellowship of active pianists: ‘Miss Tryon is going to play pieces that many of us have tried, probably, at some time or another, to learn to play ourselves.’ The Chopin Waltz, though, brings out a critical streak: ‘Many an aspiring pianist has probably been guilty of somewhat cavalier treatment of the music of Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Schumann, but poor Chopin has probably suffered more than most.’ And if the cavalier pianist isn’t sufficiently chastened, a parting shot puts amateurs firmly in their place:

BBC Light Programme, 24 July 1961 (BL REF C1644/11 S2 C7)

Many of the BBC presenters on Mr. Sussman tapes sport a similarly supercilious air, though one suspects they felt freer to talk down to some audiences than others. Still, this broadcast, and many others preserved by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, remind us how much classical music the Corporation offered audiences fifty years ago across all channels and all manner of formats, moods and ‘brows’. The BBC’s offerings ranged from Valerie Tryon’s salon favourites on the Light Programme, through repertoire familiar and not so familiar, such as Bloch’s works – which were aired surprisingly often on the Home Service – to the didactic earnestness of ‘Study Session’ on the unsung Third Network and, finally, the rarefied reaches of the Third Programme. Thanks to Mr. Sussman and other home-taping enthusiasts, by visiting the British Library’s reading rooms you can relive this almost vanished era, when classical music enjoyed a place at the heart of Britain’s homes and public life.

Follow @BL_Classical@BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

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11 May 2020

Recording of the week: Birth then and now

This week's recording of the week comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

Photograph of friends Gill and Deb

Gill and Deb have been friends for many years so when Deb split up with her partner during her first pregnancy she asked Gill to be her birth partner. Gill had already given birth to five children herself and Deb felt that she would be an experienced and reassuring presence at the hospital. Gill was someone she could trust at a time when she was at her most vulnerable and also someone with whom she wanted to share the magical moment of birth. Gill was very happy to be asked and they managed to make it work even though they were living some distance apart. Here they describe how they prepared for the birth and why it was such a positive experience for both of them. They talk about what they think makes a good birth experience and what can have a negative effect. They also discuss how attitudes towards birth and women’s bodies have changed in the 57 years since Gill had her first baby.

Gill and Deb (BL REF C1500/721) mp3

This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Gill and Deb can be found on British Library Sounds.

Follow @CollectingSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

04 May 2020

Recording of the week: Recording the birds of Japan

This week’s selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Wildlife and Environmental Sounds Curator.

In 1952 Japanese ornithologist Tsuruhiko Kabaya acquired his first tape recorder. This, as they say, was a game changer. For over a decade Kabaya had been diligently documenting the movements and behaviour of wild birds across Japan. He recorded thousands of observations during this time, but always on paper, never on tape.

Having a tape recorder at his disposal opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Though not as portable as a notepad and pen, this piece of equipment was much easier to wield, and certainly more efficient than the disc cutting machine Kabaya had previously been experimenting with.

The following recording was made by Kabaya in the early 1950s and features the repetitive, liquid call of the Oriental Scops Owl (Otus sunia japonicus). This is surely one of the earliest, if not the first, recordings of the species ever made in Japan.

Oriental Scops Owl calls recorded by Tsuruhiko Kabaya

Scops Owl Cherry Blossoms and Moon by Ohara Koson
‘Scops Owl, Cherry Blossoms, and Moon’. Ink and colour woodblock print by Ohara Koson (1926)

The recording was included in the 3 volume set ‘Japanese Bird Songs’ which was published by the Japan Victor Company in 1954. Compiled by Kabaya and his colleague Kasuke Hoshino, these sound books were the first identification guides dedicated to Japanese birds and represent a significant moment in the history of Asian field recording.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.