22 September 2023
Emmanuelle Olivier’s ‘Damara-Nama’ recordings and their return to Sesfontein, Namibia
In March 2022 a full set of digital copies of recordings of ‘Damara-Nama’ musics now archived in the British Library was returned to the Indigenous rights holders in Sesfontein, north-west Namibia. These recordings were made in 1999 by French ethnomusicologist Emmanuelle Olivier, assisted by the late Minette Mans, an ethnomusicology professor at the University of Namibia.
In 2015 they were brought from France to the UK by ethnomusicologist Angela Impey (School of Oriental and African Studies, London). They are archived at the British Library as part of the Emmanuelle Olivier Collection, which contains field recordings made between 1993 and 2001 among several hunter-gatherer and pastoralist peoples living in or near the Kalahari Desert Basin.
The collection mostly focuses on the musical repertoires of Ju|’hoansi, but also features ‘Damara-Nama’, Himba, Ovambo, Ndonga, Kwanyama, Haiǁom and Kxoe musics and songs. Catalogued under collection number C1709, the Olivier collection can be browsed in the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue, and a selection of the Ju|’hoansi and ‘Damara-Nama’ recordings can be streamed through the British Library Sounds website.
Sesfontein is a long-established settlement –now with municipality status– located close to the Hoanib River in Namibia’s Kunene Region. Historically it has been home to dynamic populations of Khoekhoegowab1 -speaking Damara / ǂNūkhoen2 , Nama and ǁUbun3 , as well as otjiHerero-speaking ovaHimba and ovaHerero. Olivier’s recordings focused on the musical repertoire of Khoekhoegowab-speakers in this community.
Above: Google map showing the locations of Sesfontein and the Hoanib River in Namibia.
Above: Looking east over the settlement of Sesfontein in 1995. The large building in the foreground is a German fort built in the early 1900s to consolidate colonial control, following a major regional uprising involving especially (but not only) Nama members of the Sesfontein community. Renovated in the 1980s under Gaob (King) Justus ǁGaroëb’s direction as the then leader of the Damaraland Regional Authority, the fort is now a high-end tourism lodge developed in the 1990s by investors in Germany –currently under renegotiation with the Sesfontein community. The settlement has expanded greatly over the last two decades. Photo copyright © Sian Sullivan 1995.
As outlined below, the recordings made in Sesfontein represent the five key musical repertoires of this community:
1. flute music (ǂā), a Khoe / Nama musical form on the cusp of extinction;
2. Damara / ǂNūkhoe / ǁUbu praise songs (|gais);
3. Damara / ǂNūkhoe / ǁUbu healing songs (arus);
4. bow songs (!gomakhās), a Damara / ǂNūkhoe and ǁUbu musical form rarely played today;
5. Nama-stap, a contemporary Nama music played here on guitar with music composed by Sesfontein resident Jonathan |Awarab.
These musical styles and repertoires are interconnected; they share histories and rights holders and exist in close relationship with each other.
Only one rights holder is named in Olivier’s documentation, but many more are identifiable from the images accompanying the collection. Indeed, the broader community of rights holders in Sesfontein is well known since they and their families and descendants are members of the Hoanib Cultural Group, which continues to play many of the specific |gais and arus songs included in the recordings, as clarified in research over the last few years. For example, the 2020 film The Music Returns to Kai-as, made in collaboration with Sesfontein’s Hoanib Cultural Group and the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority, confirms that a number of the specific |gais and arus songs recorded by Olivier and Mans continue to be curated and played by the group today.
For more information, please see the pdf format booklet for the 2017/2019 Future Pasts exhibition 'Landscape, Memory and Music in West Namibia' and our article 'The Music Returns to Kai-as’ – a film by Future Pasts'.
These performers, their relatives and descendants hold the copyright to the songs and musical performances recorded in the Olivier collection. The Hoanib Cultural Group includes some present members who were recorded in 1999, as well as the descendants and relatives of musicians who have since passed on. The intangible cultural heritage of the five recorded music styles is also part of the jurisdiction of the formally recognised Nami-Daman Traditional Authority (TA), for which Fredrick ǁHawaxab is the Secretary.
The return of copies of these recordings to identified rights holders, their descendants and the broader community of knowledge holders is the outcome of a lengthy process of negotiation. The main parties are the British Library, which digitised and archived the collection, and the Nami-Daman TA based in Sesfontein. The process has been assisted by the lead author of this article who has carried out research in the area since 1992.
Every step in what turned out to be a complex process was carried out in close communication with the Secretary of the Nami-Daman TA, Mr Fredrick ǁHawaxab. It has been shaped by a mixture of delight that the recordings have been tracked down and digitised, and frustration that what was understood in 1999 as an agreement that copies of the recordings would be returned had not previously been acted upon.
This context made the eventual return of the recordings in 2022 significant. The image below shows the moment of transferring the digital files to Fredrick ǁHawaxab’s laptop. It was especially fitting that the files were transferred in this way, given that Fredrick was the translator and facilitator for the original Sesfontein research by Emmanuelle Olivier and Minette Mans. It is Fredrick who has consistently pressed for return of the recordings, as per the terms of the original research agreement.
Above: Mr Fredrick ǁHawaxab, secretary of the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority and facilitator and translator for Emmanuelle Olivier’s 1999 research in Sesfontein, receives digital copies of Olivier’s Sesfontein recordings from the British Library, delivered to Sesfontein by Sian Sullivan. Photo copyright © Sian Sullivan, 15 March 2022.
Shortly after this transfer, an initial meeting was held with members of the Hoanib Cultural Group, in which the recordings were formally handed over. This meeting included individuals whose performances are part of the original recordings.
For example, Jacobus ǁHoëb, who leads the |gais and arus recordings, can be seen wearing a red jacket in the front row of seated community members in the image below. Jacobus continues to be recognised in Sesfontein as the ‘king of the |gais’ for his commitment to keeping the |gais songs alive and for his leadership of the Hoanib Cultural Group. Several other performers recorded in the |gais and arus sections of the Olivier collection were also present, as was Jonathan ‘Fritz’ |Awarab, the guitar player and lead singer in the Nama-stap recordings (pictured fourth from the right in the second row of the audience in the image below).
Above: The return of the Olivier’s Sesfontein recordings is officially celebrated with members of the Hoanib Cultural Group and their families, including a number of individual rights holders recorded by Olivier in 1999. Photo copyright © Sian Sullivan, 17 March 2022.
Several days later we held a second meeting with the Hoanib Cultural Group in which we explored the possibility of a selection of the recordings being made publicly available on the British Library Sounds website. As an outcome of this discussion –which included several key performers in the original recordings– the group selected one track from each of the five recorded musical repertoires, and permission was given for these tracks to be made available for listening online on the website (links to these recordings will be shared in a future blog post). The Traditional Authority headman attended as well, which was important in terms of confirming agreements made at the meeting.
Above: Meeting with members of the Hoanib Cultural Group and the head of the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority in Sesfontein (seated second from the left) to discuss the possibility of a selection of tracks being made publicly accessible via the British Library. Co-author Welhemina Suro Ganuses is seated on the left of the image. Photo copyright © Sian Sullivan, 21 March 2022.
This return of the recordings to the rights holders brings to completion a long and complex process of negotiation so as to arrive at mutual and respectful understanding across very different contexts. This process will be documented more fully in a forthcoming Future Pasts working paper. It remains to be seen how the rights holders to the recordings may draw on this body of work to support and revitalise their musical heritage into the future.
- Khoekhoegowab spellings used here are from field research by Sullivan and Ganuses, combined with feedback from Khoekhoegowab linguist Wilfrid Haacke, unless quoting directly from the Olivier’s 1999 field notes or from the British Library catalogue. Many of the Khoekhoegowab words in this paper include the symbols ǀ, ǁ, ! and ǂ, denoting consonants that sound like clicks and which characterise the languages of Khoe and San peoples who live(d) throughout southern Africa. The sounds these symbols indicate are: ǀ = the ‘tutting’ sound made by bringing the tip of the tongue softly down from behind front teeth (dental click); ǁ = the clucking sound familiar in urging on a horse (lateral click); ! = a popping sound like mimicking the pulling of a cork from a wine bottle (alveolar click); ǂ = a sharp, explosive click made as the tongue is flattened and then pulled back from the palate (palatal click).
- Damara Khoekhoegowab-speaking people tend to refer to themselves as ǂNūkhoen, meaning ‘black’ or ‘real’ people and thus distinguished from Nau khoen or ‘other people’. Historically, ‘Dama-ra’ was the Nama or Khoe name for Black people generally. Since Nama were those who early European travellers first encountered in the western part of southern Africa, they also used the term ‘Dama’ in this way. This gave rise to a confusing situation in the historical literature whereby the term ‘Damara’, as well as the central part of Namibia that in the 1800s was known as ‘Damaraland’, tended to refer to cattle pastoralists who called themselves Herero. The terms ‘Hill Damaras’ and ‘Plains Damaras’ were used to distinguish contemporary Damara or ǂNūkhoen (i.e. ‘Khoekhoegowab-speaking black-skinned people’) from otjiHerero-speaking peoples respectively. This differentiation signals historically-constitutive processes whereby pressure on land through expansionary Herero cattle pastoralism throughout Namibia pushed Khoekhoegowab-speaking Damara / ǂNūkhoen further into mountainous areas that became their refuge and stronghold.
- ǁUbun are Khoekhoegowab-speaking peoples who moved between the coastal areas of the Northern Namib desert where !nara melons (Acanthosicyos horridus) could be harvested and areas to the east where alternative foods were found. They interacted especially with different Nama and ǂNūkhoe lineages (!haoti) of Namibia’s north-west.
We thank Emmanuelle Olivier for the original recordings and for her support for the return of digital copies of this material to Sesfontein; Angela Impey for retrieving the recordings from France; and Janet Topp Fargion and the World and Traditional Music section at the British Library for their support. Sian Sullivan is grateful to research funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council through the projects Future Pasts (AH/K005871/2) and Etosha-Kunene Histories (AH/T013230/1), which has made the work shared here possible. We especially acknowledge the contributions of all Sesfontein Constituency residents who have sustained their musical heritage despite significant factors of marginalisation, and for their ongoing and generous participation in our research.
This guest blog is co-authored by Professor of Environment and Culture at Bath Spa University, Sian Sullivan ([email protected]), Senior Councillor and Secretary of the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority (TA), Fredrick ǁHawaxab, and Administrator at Save the Rhino Trust and Councillor of the Nami-Daman TA, Welhemina Suro Ganuses. Together they have worked with the British Library to facilitate the return of digital copies of ethnographic field recordings made in Sesfontein, Namibia, to the source communities who feature on them.