Sound and vision blog

37 posts categorized "Africa"

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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13 May 2021

Eid Mubarak: Celebrations marking the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a new month

In today’s blog, Charlotte Wardley, Project Support Officer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH), shares some recordings from our sound archive related to Eid. Charlotte is joined by Saba Syed, Chair of the British Library’s BAME Network, to talk about Ramadan and Eid.

Today is Eid, marking the end of Ramadan. Eid Mubarak!

The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar and each month is 29 or 30 days long. Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is observed by Muslims across the UK and worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, community and reflection.

Eid al-Fitr is the celebratory festival which marks the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a new month. That makes ‘Eid eve’, otherwise called ‘Chand Raat’ (meaning ‘night of the moon’) in the Indian sub-continent, an exciting time. Everyone checks in with each other to see whether a new moon - which marks the new month and start of Eid - has been sighted.

New moon at sunset - photo by bartb_pt

Above: New moon at sunset,  'Ramadan رمضان' by bartb_pt  - licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In some Islamic communities you will find people on the rooftops, eagerly scouting the sky for signs of a thin new crescent moon. If it is sighted, then Eid is declared for the following day by local mosques. If a new moon hasn’t been sighted, then it’s another day of fasting with confirmation that Eid will follow the day after.

In the following recording from 2008 from the Moroccan Memories in Britain collection (C1237), interviewee Fatima Serroukh recalls how Ramadan was an exciting time for her as a young girl and she describes the traditional Moroccan foods her family would eat during Iftar. These include dishes such as ‘harira’, which is a soup with lentils, tomato and chickpeas, and ‘chebakia’ which are sesame and honey cookies. Iftar is the meal served after sunset during Ramadan, to break the day’s fast. Iftar is often a social event where many friends and family come together.

Listen to Fatima Serroukh interview - clip 1

Shelfmark: C1237/118 © Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, now called Migrants Organise. Download Transcript - clip 1

Fatima then describes the anticipation of Eid and how her family would prepare for celebrations. She describes the traditional Moroccan outfit called ‘takchita’ that she would plan on wearing. Then on the day of Eid her family would celebrate together by eating breakfast and going to meet friends and family.

Listen to Fatima Serroukh interview - clip 2

Shelfmark: C1237/118 © Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, now called Migrants Organise. Download Transcript - clip 2

Saba recalls similar feelings of excitement ahead of Eid and when the new moon sighting was finally announced and celebrations would begin:

Growing up, I remember the flurry of activity and excitement that would follow the declaration of the sighting of the moon. My sister and I would pull out new clothes and set about ironing them for the family. My mum would be in the kitchen preparing favourite food items for the next day. New outfit, new underwear and bangles, and anything else festive would be laid out in preparation. Then we would sit down to apply henna on each other’s hands. My dad would be liaising with friends as to which morning service we would all aim for. When I was younger, we would all attend Eid prayer at London Central Mosque on Regent Street, and the car journey there would be an event in itself. More recently, we coordinate and attend one of the hourly services at Harrow mosque, or one of the prayers organised in a local park.

Following the prayer we gather and meet other friends and families, enjoy the food stalls and ice cream. Then we head off to the graveyard, to pay our respects and offer a prayer to the recently deceased, followed by visiting loads of people and eating lots of lovely delicious food. As children we would also look forward to ‘Eidi’ – money handed out by the elders. Now our tradition has shifted and my family buys each other gifts, and so there will be one point in the day when immediate family will get together, hand out gifts and enjoy watching everyone rip off the wrapping and delight in their new presents.

The final recording featured on this blog comes from our Head of Sound and Vision, Janet Topp Fargion’s collection, which was recently digitised by the UOSH project. It was recorded at a fairground in Zanzibar in 1989 during Iddi Mossi (Eid al-Fitr) celebrations, where many people from the town and rural areas gathered for festivities, food and lots of fun. You can hear the celebratory atmosphere, with the adhan in the background, which is the Islamic call to prayer, and the Beni brass band in procession around the fairground. Beni is one of Zanzibar’s best-loved celebratory musics and is performed at special occasions.

Listen to Iddi Mossi fairground - Janet Topp Fargion collection

Shelfmark: C724/2/6 © Janet Topp Fargion.

It is the second year Eid celebrations will be different for many Muslims across the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. Here, Saba reflects on the ways in which her family have been finding moments to celebrate together during the lockdown:

This is the second year Ramadan has passed during lockdown, and last year there was no congregational prayers in mosques. Instead, we had our own family prayer with our immediate families socially distanced in the garden. Last year, my parents stayed indoors and observed us in the garden through the window of their house, until the final moment when they came out to pray before dashing back inside afterwards. My mum had prepared her usual feast for us, which was laid out in the conservatory, and we all helped ourselves and sat in the garden to eat as she watched us through the window, happy in the knowledge that her children were still with her on Eid, even with social distancing.

We wish our Muslim friends and family Eid Mubarak and despite the sadness, loss and difficulties many have experienced since last Eid, we hope those of you reading this blog and listening to these recordings will come together in a moment of celebration.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage for updates from the UOSH Project team.

Thank you to Saba Syed for generously sharing her memories and knowledge, to those who feature in the sound recordings, and thank you to Jonnie Robinson, Andrea Zarza, Janet Topp Fargion and Mary Stewart for their help preparing this blog.

26 April 2021

Recording of the Week: The world’s rarest traditional musical instrument?

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

Musicians playing the biram
Buduma musicians playing the biram, 1967. Photo courtesy of Guy Immega.

The focus of this week’s recording is unusual in a few different ways. It’s a recording of the biram, made in the city of N'guigmi in Niger, probably in the mid- to late-80s. The biram is a large boat-shaped arched harp played by the Buduma people, traditionally fishermen and cattle-herders on the shores and islands of Lake Chad. While similar harps are fairly common in Central Africa, the biram is the only one of its type in West Africa, and may have even evolved from an instrument of the Ancient Egyptians1.

Here is just an excerpt; the full (22 min. 23 sec.) recording can be listened to in British Library Reading Rooms at C617/3 S1 C1.

Buduma songs (BL REF C617/3 S1 C1)

For most instruments, the relationship between object and operator is simple – one instrument has one player. The biram is not quite so simple. In fact, it has two players, both making a completely different sound. One musician, the master, holds the neck of the harp and plucks the melody on its five strings. The other musician, usually a pupil, holds its body and drums a rhythm on the instrument’s skin soundboard and wooden trough. The combination of the deep thrum of the strings and the sharp clack of the body means that often the biram doesn’t sound like a harp at all, but more akin to the ngoni bass-lute of the Malian Bamana people. The biram is both a string instrument and a percussion instrument, literally depending on where you sit.

Musicians playing the biram
Buduma musicians playing the biram, 1967. Photo courtesy of Guy Immega.

Since this recording was made, however, the biram very nearly became extinct. As Lake Niger shrinks and its shores recede, the Buduma people are dispersing and their traditional culture and music are being lost. By the early 2000s, there was just one biram player left, a man named Boukar Tar. With no young Buduma musicians interested in learning the instrument, it seemed as if it would die with him. However, in 2002, Tar was approached by Mamane Barka, a Toubou musician already famous as a player of the gurumi lute. Tar taught Barka all he knew in the four years before his death on the condition that Barka would show the biram around the world. And he did: he performed the biram across Europe and the US2 and released the instrument’s very first album3. Barka himself died in 2018, but not before teaching the art of playing and making the biram to several students – this fantastic instrument has been pulled from the brink, although its future remains in the balance. Only time will tell if the biram will continue to recover.

Footnotes:

1 Immega, Guy (2012). Ancient Egypt’s Lost Legacy: The Buduma Culture of Lake Chad. Self-published: Vancouver.
2 Including a performance at the WOMAD festival in 2008, which can be heard at C203/1515.
3 Introducing Mamane Barka, World Music Network, 2009.

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08 March 2021

Recording of the week: Mohamed Choukri at the ICA

This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

Tangier  Morocco - photo by Brett Hodnett
Tangier, Morocco by Brett Hodnett – used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-2.0

Today’s selection features the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri (1935-2003), recorded at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, 22 September 1992.

Choukri’s first volume of autobiography, published in English as For Bread Alone, tells the story of a harsh and poverty-stricken upbringing in Tangier. Choukri was in fact illiterate until the age of 20. Two further volumes, Streetwise and Faces, continued the story.

Choukri is also known for his personal accounts of friendships with Paul Bowles, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams – all foreign-born writers who resided for varying durations in Tangier.

In this excerpt, Choukri talks (in Arabic) about his motivation for being a writer.

Listen to Mohamed Choukri at the ICA

The live English translation is provided by Owen MacMillan.

Download English-language transcript

This recording excerpt comes from our ICA Talks collection, which comprises recordings of more than 800 talks and discussions held at the ICA, London, during the period 1982-1993. These events featured leading writers, artists and filmmakers. Almost all of the recordings are available to listen to online.

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

01 March 2021

Recording of the week: Friction drum song from Botswana

This week's selection comes from Dr. Janet Topp Fargion, Head of Sound and Vision.

This song, based on the lyric 'The children of the traditional doctor can kill the medical doctor', is performed by Sebata on the sevuikivuiki friction drum and other Mbukushu villagers in the Tsodilo Hills, in the far north west of Botswana. It was recorded by John Brearley in 1982 during his first field trip to the country, one of many he conducted over the following decades.

The sevuikivuiki is a friction drum constructed over a hole in the ground. A hole is dug, about the size of a bucket, and a fairly flat woven mat is placed over it acting as the drum skin. On top of this sits the core of a corn-cob and a long notched stick kept in place by the performer’s foot. The instrument is played by rubbing two smaller sticks along the notches, producing a percussive sound that is deepened through a resonating hole in the ground.

Performer playing friction drum
Sebata playing the sevuikivuiki friction drum, Botswana, 1982. Photo by John Brearley

Sabata on sevuikivuiki with singing (BL REF C65/4 C5)

John Brearley describes the instrument in detail in his article ‘A musical tour of Botswana’ in Botswana Notes and Records (Volume 16, 1984, pp45-57).

The Tsolido Hills were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001 on account of the roughly 4000 examples of rock art dating back almost 100,000 years. These are beautifully described and illustrated on the British Museum’s African Rock Art website.

Although the Mbukushu, a Bantu people, only moved into this Tsolido Hills region within the last 200 years or so, they live amongst the various hunter-gatherer peoples who would have been responsible for the art works. Indeed hunter-gatherers and farming Bantu peoples have lived in this location for centuries: it is thought that many of the paintings were created by Bantu farmers as early as 800 - 1200 AD.

The recording forms part of the John Brearley Collection (C65). More recordings from this collection can be listened to on British Library Sounds.

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

04 January 2021

Recording of the week: Happy New Year!

This week's selection comes from Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Centre label of African Acoustic Vol.1 - Guitar Songs From Tanzania  Zambia & Zaire
'Bonne Année' was released on the album African Acoustic Vol.1 - Guitar Songs From Tanzania, Zambia & Zaire by record label Original Music

In this recording made by John Low, three boys in their late teens perform a song called 'Bonne Année' (which means Happy New Year in French) that they composed for the New Year celebrations of 1979.

Bonne Année recorded by John Low (BL C27/5 S1 C9)

Singing are Mukuna, Chola Piana and Soki Nambi, who also plays the guitar. Normally they would have played together in their electric guitar band, Orchestre Makosso (possibly named after another band that was famous in the 1970s) but on the night of the recording, they borrowed the recordist’s guitar.

John Low had been staying in Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to study the guitar music of Jean-Bosco Mwenda. While he was there, Bosco arranged for Low to go to Likasi, where Bosco was brought up, with a Cultural Officer called Tshibuyi Katina. This was to see more of the region, and record there if possible. Likasi is in the Katanga copper belt, and it was in a neighbourhood called Zone Mpanda that Low and Katina unexpectedly met the three boys.

In John Low's forthcoming book ‘Two Guitars to Katanga’, he describes this moment with beautiful clarity –

Perhaps the best things in life are always unexpected. What followed was a performance of rare beauty. Soki picked intricate and varying patterns on the guitar, full of melodic interest. The boys sang in three parts: low tenor, high tenor and falsetto. Their young voices blended perfectly and the vocal lines soared and floated unhurriedly above the more urgent, choppy rhythms of Soki’s guitar work. The relationship of the vocal parts to the guitar patterns was very complex, yet Soki played and sang effortlessly. He was supremely talented.

These teenagers would have honed their musical skills already as young boys, almost certainly by playing in banjo groups like Yumba and his friends who we’d recorded earlier on. But now they’d moved up into a different league, and were avidly absorbing the idioms of modern Congolese dance music. Their first song, the more beautiful of the two I recorded, was called Bonne Année, and had been composed for the New Year celebrations that year.

The song, in Kikongo language, was published  on the album 'African Acoustic Vol. 1 - Guitar Songs from Tanzania, Zambia and Zaire' on John Storm Roberts' record label Original Music. In fact, all the tracks on that album are field recordings made by John Low and these, and many more, are available to listen to at the British Library as part of the John Low Collection (C27).

Thanks to John Low for allowing me to feature his recording and for his generous correspondence over email, which I've paraphrased in this post.

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02 October 2020

Banned in South Africa: Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

It is hard to imagine a set of circumstances in which the possession of a vinyl record of a Christian minister would be illegal.

But this did happen, and not so long ago. The year was 1966; the country was South Africa; and the speaker was Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

King disc label

In July 1966, the disc pictured above was distributed to 1200 church and community leaders throughout South Africa. The South African Publications Control Board banned the record on 19 August that same year, with no reason given. A police spokesperson reportedly said that mere possession of the disc would be grounds for prosecution.

This was at a time when the minority white population dominated the majority black population through the system of ‘apartheid’. Apartheid was a policy of legalized racial segregation and discrimination that existed in South Africa for most of the second half of the twentieth century.

Two years before this incident, future president Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned: a 'life sentence' that was to last 27 years.

The disc features a speech by Dr King given in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, in October, 1964, at a meeting of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity. It included a call for US society and its churches to cleanse themselves of racism. It seems this was not a message the South African authorities wanted people to hear.

The records were pressed and distributed by the Rev. Dale White (an Anglican priest, and director of the Wilgespruit Christian Fellowship Center near Johannesburg) and Bode Wegerif (an executive in a Johannesburg publishing company).

The British Library only acquired a copy of this rare record in 2019, when it was kindly donated to the collection by Jannie Oosthuizen.

Jannie wrote at the time:

The LP record was in the record collection of my father, D.C.S. Oosthuizen. He died in 1969, but we remember the record as children, and played it from time to time.

We never noticed that it didn’t have Martin Luther King’s name on the label, and I had assumed incorrectly that it had been bought on sabbatical in the states in 1968.

But in finding it again recently and looking up the history, I realise that it must have been sent to him (as a South African church leader) when the record was first distributed in 1966.

A contemporary press release about the banning, with quotes from Dr King, is available to view on the web site of the African Activist Archive.

15 June 2020

Recording of the week: The Kankurang or how to enforce a lockdown

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

The Kankurang is a Mandinka masked figure from the Senegambia region, associated with male societies and more specifically with boys' initiation ceremonies. It is a protective figure and an enforcer of rules, but, as masked figures go, the Kankurang is also pretty scary. It is uncannily tall, entirely covered in strands of red bark, and faceless. As it roams the streets at night, it brandishes and strikes together two machete knives, letting out a blood-chilling, high-pitched cry from time to time.

image of Kankurang
Photo by Dorothy Voorhees, licensed under cc-by-sa-2.0 / cropped and desaturated from original

Only a few initiates know the identity of the person hiding inside the costume; and besides, it doesn’t matter much because, once the costume is donned, the man, as it were, disappears and the Kankurang takes his place.

The whole point of the Kankurang is that you do not want to run into it, because although its role in society is useful and ultimately positive, the Kankurang is dangerous. It often roams accompanied by a small group of stick-carrying young men, the Kankurang’s followers and helpers, who can administer punishment on its behalf, and many a person has been beaten just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

'When the mask roamed the streets at night, cooking fires were extinguished, lights were switched off, and women wouldn’t leave their homes” (De Jong 2001: 14).'

This frightening masked figure makes its appearance at liminal times, during the change of seasons, around the time of boys’ circumcision ceremonies. After an extended period away from home, the newly-circumcised boys return from the bush school to their families, where they undergo a period of enforced rest while they heal and get ready to re-enter society as adults. It is important that during this time the boys stay indoors, and the Kankurang is a very effective means of ensuring their lockdown. The temptation to sneak outside to play is easily vanquished when one hears the piercing cries of the Kankurang coming from the street.

From the late 20th century onwards, there has also been a new kind of secular Kankurang mask. Especially in urban environments, at Christmas time and other secular traditions during the dry season, it is not uncommon to see an almost playful Kankurang dancing in the street during broad daylight, with children watching on and laughing rather than running away in terror. However, in spite of this new, more benevolent masked figure, many bear witness to the fact that the real, sacred, dangerous Kankurang still exists. You may not find it in the cities and big towns, but out in the countryside and around the smaller villages, where the dark stillness of the night still hasn’t been conquered by electricity, its knives still clang menacingly.

This week’s recording is a rare aural document of the 'real' Kankurang, made in The Gambia by music researcher and producer Lucy Durán. What follows is the sound recording and her account of the circumstances surrounding the recording of this rather strange piece of audio.

Kankurango and bullroarer [extract] (BL REF C2/269 S1 C1) 

It was the spring of 1986 and I was on my way to Mali with journalist James Fox. We were staying in Brikama, in The Gambia, at the house of my friend Dembo Konte, a well-known kora player. It was late at night and we were sitting in Dembo’s courtyard, chatting. The boys of Brikama had just got back from the bush school after circumcision. At some point, I heard a strange clatter coming from the street outside the compound. I mentioned this to Dembo who, after listening for a second, changed his smile to a frown and almost froze. He then got up and urged us all to go inside and lock all doors and windows. Initially, I thought he was playing a trick on us, but I soon realised he really was scared, and so I got scared too because it seemed that whatever it was that was making those sounds (and it was getting closer) was genuinely dangerous. And so, not knowing what I was running from, I ran inside with the others, went to my room and hastily closed the window and locked it. I then realised that the thing was right outside my window. I could hear metallic noises, a whirring sound like that of a bullroarer,* and strange, high-pitched cries. My portable recorder was just there, so I picked it up and started recording, while Dembo kept signalling us to stay quiet and not make any noise. Only after it was gone I learnt from Dembo that the creature outside our house was the fearsome Kankurang.

*The eerie whirring sound, clearly audible on the recording, is produced by a bullroarer called ngarankulo, also associated with boys’ initiation ceremonies. It was probably operated by one of the Kankurang’s followers.

Many thanks to Lucy Durán for allowing us to share her recording and for all the background information provided. The Lucy Durán Collection has been digitised as part of the British Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

Further reading:

De Jong, Ferdinand. 2001. “Démasqué”, Etnofoor Vol. 14, No. 2: 7-22.
Weil, Peter M. 1971. “The masked figure and social control: the Mandinka case”, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 41, No. 4: 279-293.

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