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30 posts categorized "Africa"

15 June 2020

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

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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.

UOSH

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29 May 2020

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

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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 focussed on music with the support of the British Library. 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.

20 April 2020

Recording of the week: Makame Faki, legendary singer from Zanzibar

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This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Zanzibari musician, Makame Faki, affectionately known by the nickname ‘Sauti ya zege’ ('Voice of gravel'), passed away aged 77 on 18 January 2020. He was known for his exuberance, always with a big smile on his face. Of course, he was mostly known for his musical talent, as a distinctive singer, orchestra leader and violinist in the Zanzibari orchestral taarab tradition with the group Culture Musical Club. He also led musicians - as singer and violinist - in the closely related but much more fiery genre of kidumbak.

Makame Faki
Makame Faki leading a kidumbak performance at a wedding on the outskirts of Zanzibar Town. © Janet Topp Fargion, 1989

I went to Zanzibar for the first time in 1989 to do fieldwork on taarab music for my doctorate in ethnomusicology. I had the immense privilege of knowing Bwana Makame and recording him on many occasions as he led the kidumbak sessions then extremely popular at wedding celebrations throughout the backstreets of Zanzibar Town. Some 15 years later, in 2004, he appeared at the WOMAD Festival in the UK with Culture Musical Club playing both the orchestral version of taarab - joined on this occasion by the late legend Bi Kidude - and kidumbak.

Zanzibar Town panorama                                        Zanzibar Town Panorama. Janet Topp Fargion, 1989

This week’s recording(s) of the week are a tribute to Bwana Makame. The first recording is an extract from a very long kidumbak performance I made with a very excitable audience at a wedding on the outskirts of Zanzibar Town in 1989. To me this was one of the most pleasurable days of my year-long fieldwork: seated right in the middle of the circle of musicians playing violin, sanduku (tea chest bass), cherewa (coconut shakers), mkwasa (beating sticks) and singers, the recording (on a good old Sony Professional Walkman cassette recorder and a single stereo microphone) tells something of the way the audience participated and the whole event was led by Bwana Makame.

Kidumbak in Zanzibar 1989 (C724/2/52)

The second recording, made by the British Library, is the last couple of minutes of the Culture Musical Club performance at WOMAD in 2004. Before an audience of at least a couple of thousand, and after a full hour of performance, the recording demonstrates Bwana Makame’s ability to please crowds on an international stage.

Culture Musical Club at WOMAD 2004 (C203/1174)

He was a truly remarkable ambassador for the music and for Zanzibar. I shall always be grateful to him for the days and weeks he spent imparting to me his huge knowledge of, and enthusiasm for this music.

Further reading:
Zanzibar says goodbye to legendary 'King of Kidumbak', musician Makame Faki

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

UOSH

30 December 2019

Recording of the week: Wax cylinder recordings of Nigerian music

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This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Northcote Whitridge Thomas
Northcote Whitridge Thomas

The Library’s World and Traditional Music collections include some of the world’s earliest ethnographic recordings, made on wax cylinders. Amongst these is a collection of recordings made between 1909 and 1915 by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote Whitridge Thomas, during his work in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. To learn more about the recordings and to engage researchers and original community members with the sounds, the Library has partnered with the ‘Museum Affordances’ project, funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council and led by Paul Basu at SOAS University of London.

As part of the project, Samson Uchenna Eze, musicologist and lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, chose some of Thomas' recordings to explore through transcription of the lyrics and music, and through engaging musicians in Nigeria to re-record them.

The song Igbo bu Igbo (Great Igbo) [NWT 417; C51/2277], is a call to Igbo people to remember their identity and ‘return to [their] truthful ways’. Prof. Eze writes: ‘In this song the female singer repeats the phrase [Great Igbo (all Igbo), come and hear the truth] several times and improvises in the internal variation section, calling on neighbouring villages to come and hear the truth’.

Listen to Igbo by Igbo (BL shelfmark C51/2277)

[Re:]Entanglements is the website of the Museum Affordances project. Prof. Eze has written a blog showcasing some of his work with the recordings.

Follow @reentanglements, @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

18 October 2019

Black History Month: King Menelik and Queen Taytu's phonograph message to Queen Victoria

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Menelik II Emperor of EthiopiaNegusa Nagast (King of Kings) Menelik II of Ethiopia

Guest blog by Eyob Derillo of the British Library Ethiopian collection

The year 2019 marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of King Menelik II, one of Ethiopia’s most famous and influential monarchs. King Menelik and his wife Queen Taytu bequeathed an important legacy to all Africa.  To celebrate their many achievements and lasting influence as Ethiopia’s most popular king and queen, we would like to invite you to hear a phonograph recording of the voices of these monarchs.

Few African leaders have achieved such fame as the Ethiopian King Menilik II.  He was born in Shewa on 17th August 1844 to King Haile Malakot (1824-1855) and his wife Woizero Ejigayehu. After the death of his father, Menelik was taken prisoner by Emperor Tewodros II, and ten years of his life were spent in captivity at the fort of Maqdala.  In November 1889, after the death of Yohannes IV, he was proclaimed King of Kings, Menelik II.  According to the official Ethiopian court chronicle of the period, he was named after the legendary first king of Ethiopia Menelik I , who was the eldest son of Makeda, Queen of Sheba and ruled over the country in the 10th century BC.

Menelik II’s triumphs on the battlefield of Adwa (1896) against an invading force of Italian troops allowed him to extend Ethiopia’s sphere of influence over most of East Africa.  Menelik II was the first Ethiopian king to succeed in mobilizing all the quarrelling nobles and regional rulers to unite against the Italian aggression.  His victory completely reshaped the balance of power in the Horn of Africa, allowing Ethiopia to play an assertive role in the geopolitics of the strategic Red Sea region.  Under his rule Ethiopia reached the zenith of its economic, political, diplomatic and cultural power.  The era of King Menelik II and Queen Taytu also saw the geographical expansion of the boundaries of the Ethiopian kingdom.  For peoples suffering under colonial rule Ethiopia became a symbol of hope and inspiration in their struggle towards freedom.  King Menelik’s great victory against the Italian General Oreste Baratieri at the Battle of Adwa also become a source of inspiration for the worldwide movement of pan-Africanism in the early twentieth century.

The Battle of AdwaThe Battle of Adwa, painting by an unknown Ethiopian artist. The painting depicts the Battle of Adwa, fought between Italy and Abyssinia in 1896 (Photo - © The British Museum)

Equally celebrated for her considerable political power and participation in the Battle of Adwa was Taytu Betul (c.1851-1918). Taytu was descended from a northern princely family who had ruled the northern region of Ethiopia since the seventeenth century.  Her education and family background gave her a keen insight into the workings of the court and political life, rendering her a formidable ruler in her own right.  Queen Taytu was admired for her mastery of the way the power structure functioned, and her diplomatic tact in dealing with the quarrelling factions of nobles who were constantly vying for the king's patronage.  As a result she was popularly known as ‘the light of Ethiopia’.

Queen Taytu

Portrait of Queen Taytu by Georgios Prokopiou (1905)

The capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, was founded by Menelik II in 1889, though it is important to note that the location was both selected, and named by Taytu.  Her reign can be seen as representing the foundation of modern Ethiopia.  Menelik, on the other hand, founded the first modern school, and established the Ethiopian national bank, as well as the first railway, telegraph system and telephone lines.  One spectacular achievement was the construction of the railway from the Red Sea coast to Addis Ababa.

The victory of Adwa brought Ethiopia to the attention of the world, and soon new diplomatic relations were established and old ones renewed.  The history of diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and England can be traced as far back as the fifteenth century.  The British Library’s collections include the copy of a letter from King Henry IV to 'Prester John, King of Abyssinia' written in 1400, seeking to open communications and establish diplomatic relations.  With the expansion of Ottoman power in the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa, from the sixteenth century onwards the diplomatic relations between Europe and Ethiopia were characterized by a mutual awareness of the vital role each side could play in checking and containing the steady and at times seemingly irresistible expansion of the Ottoman Empire. 

Britain was one of the first to resume its alliance with Ethiopia, and in 1898 Queen Victoria sent a recorded phonograph message to King Menelik and Queen Taytu, expressing the 'hope that the friendship between our two Empires will constantly increase.'  In the following year King Menelik and Queen Taytu returned the compliment by making phonograph recordings of their voices and sending them to Queen Victoria.  Although in poor sound, these cylinder recordings, made 120 years ago, capture a unique relationship between monarchs who never met.

King Menelik II 1899

An Amharic transcription of the recording was made by Abraham Demoz for the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1969:

I, Menelik II, king of kings of Ethiopia, say to our very honoured friend Victoria, Queen of the great English people, 'May the Saviour of the World give you health!'

When the very beautiful and excellent phonograph (recording) of the Queen reached me by the hands of Monsieur Harrington and when I heard the voice of Your Majesty (as if) you were beside me, I listened with great pleasure.

May God thank you for your good wishes for us and for my kingdom.  May God give you long life and health and give your people peace and repose.  I have spoken with M. Harrington concerning all issues between both our peoples.  When he told me that he was now returning to England, I said to him that I would be pleased if he could settle all our affairs before coming back.  And now, may the Queen receive him well.

Furthermore, we have told M. Harrington about Matamma, how our great king is and many of our compatriots died there for their religious zeal.  I have hopes that you will help us in having the English government recognize this city for us.

May God help us that Ethiopia and England may remain in peace and friendship.  Having said this, I extend my greetings of respect to your great people.

Queen Taytu 1899

I, Itege (Queen) Taitu, Light of Ethiopia, say to the very honoured Queen Victoria, the great Queen of the English...  May God give you health.  Your phonograph has reached me.  With great pleasure I listened to you (as if) you were beside me.  And now, since God has willed to bring my voice to the ear of the honoured Queen, I declare ... that God give you health and long life.  May God keep you many years in good health.

References

Demoz, Abraham: 'Emperor Menelik's Phonograph Message to Queen Victoria.'  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 32, no. 2, 1969, pp. 251–256. 

Jonas, R. A., 2011. The Battle of Adwa: African victory in the age of empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Prouty, C., 1986. Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910. London : Trenton: Ravens Educational & Development Services; Red Sea Press.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

07 October 2019

Recording of the week: No prisoners

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This week's selection comes from Mat Hart, World & Traditional Music volunteer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

This beautiful song is composed and performed by Madi Lehbib, who sings and plays percussion on this track, with accompaniment from guitarist Mahmud Bara. The song is sung in local Arabic dialect – Hassaniya. Madi’s lyrics reject the idea of political imprisonment and oppression, which his community – the Saharawi’s – have experienced as refugees living in exile in the Tindouf Province of South-Western Algeria.

The Saharawi’s are ethnically mixed descendants of Berbers, Arabs, and Black Africans. They have been living in exile since the mid-1970’s after fleeing from Moroccan forces during the Western Sahara War. Today, their people and communities live in refugee camps set up across the Tindouf Province. Having lived for centuries in the deserts of the Western Sahara, known as Africa’s last colony, the Saharawi’s land is, to this day, still occupied by Morocco and pending decolonisation.

Musical performances at the camps are common, as there are many musicians within the Saharawi community, though the lack of resources in the refugee camps forces musicians to constantly improvise with their instrumentation. In this recording, Madi is playing percussion on the body of his friend’s guitar. There is a humble beauty to his performance, which brings the Arabic voice and acoustic guitar together in gentle harmony.

No Prisoners performed by Madi Lehbib & Mahmud Bara, recorded by Violeta Ruano (C1640/1)

Photograph of Madi Lehbib during the sessionPhotograph of Madi Lehbib during the recording session

This recording was made by sound recordist Violeta Ruano Posada. Violeta spent six months staying in the various refugee camps during 2013 and 2014 conducting ethnographic fieldwork as part of her PhD research at London’s SOAS University - commissioned by the sound archive. This recording was made at the “Cape Bojador” refugee camp and was recorded at the camp’s shabiba (youth centre) with the help of a group of local Saharawi sound students.

To listen to more sound recordings of Sahrawi Music, browse the Violeta Ruano collection on British Library Sounds

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

17 September 2019

Beginnings: Arabic music in the 'Ezra Hakkāk and Emile Cohen Collection

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Hazem Jamjoum joined the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project in April 2019 as Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer. Over the next 2-3 years he will be working on the Library's audio collections connected with the Gulf region to scope, catalogue and research them, to manage their preservation and access and to write about them. In this blog Hazem talks of his introduction to the collections.

 

It was at the very beginning, less than three weeks into my role as Gulf History Audio Curator that I found myself with British Library Sound Archive doyen Ian Macaskill in the disc and tape-bestrewn room through which newly acquired sound and moving image materials enter the British Library’s collections. At the end of this audio-cataloguer rite of passage, one foot already out the door, I was beckoned back into the room to describe my role at the Library to another veteran of the accessioning team. As if awaiting confirmation that I would work with Arabic language materials, a bemused Jowan Collier rose from his seat and began the dance around the stacks of CDs to the other end of the room. “I imagine there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.” A few dozen shellacs in an assortment of discrepant sleeves lay in a dark wooden box marked “532: Emile Cohen Collection.” A yellow sticky note, curled up like a delaminated lacquer disc on the side of the box announced October 25, 2016 as the donation date.

Image of Emile Cohen Box
“…there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.”


I eventually found out that it was my predecessor on the British Library-Qatar Foundation partnership, Rolf Killius, who had arranged for this gift. Rolf had delivered a lecture about Iraqi music at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq after which an elderly gentleman introduced himself, and soon thereafter offered to donate a collection of shellacs to the British Library. This was Emile Cohen. Born in Baghdad in 1943 to a secular scion of a rabbinical family, Emile spent the evenings of his youth listening to the dozens of guests who would assemble at his grandfather’s house for edifying conversation. Given the centrality of Baghdad’s Jewish community to the city’s musical life, much of this conversation centred on things musical. It didn’t hurt that from the roof of their house they could eavesdrop on the regular musical performances at the nightclub next door. Cohen had obtained the recordings from 'Ezra Hakkāk. The Hakkāk’s owned a shop on al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad and another in Tehran that started off selling leather goods, branching out into sewing machines, electronics and, ultimately gramophone machines and records.

Emile narrates much about these and other stories in an oral history interview conducted by Richard Green and held at the Library as part of the Sephardi Voices UK Collection (C1638), and which comprises oral history testimony about the settlement of Jews from West Asia and North Africa in the UK.

Image of Emile Cohen with Collection – photo by Rolf Killius 2016
Emile Cohen just before a trip to the British Library to donate his shellac collection. Photo: Rolf Killius, 2016.

Much can be said about what was in that little box, but ‘beginnings’ might be ‘a very good place to start’ given how many of the recordings contained in that box of wonders embodied career-launching events in the contributing artists’ biographies. At the very top of the box’s stack of discs lay two Baidaphon records by the legendary Laylā Murād (1918-1995). Though Murād had achieved enough fame as a teenager in one of Cairo’s top music halls to be cast in one of the earliest full length Egyptian films (al-Dhaḥāyā [The Victims], 1932, dir. Bahija Hafez and Ibrahim Lama), hers was a minor role in the silent film. She achieved a bit more notoriety when that film was reissued as a ‘talkie’ a few years later, landing her a recording deal with Baidaphon that resulted in Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr (I've loved and seen a great deal), which was also in the box. But it was not until her 1938 collaboration with Moḥammad ʻAbd al-Wahhāb on the film Yaḥyā al-Ḥubb (Long Live Love, dir. Moḥammad Karīm) that her career as a superstar singer and actor began. Indeed, the two records at the top of the delightful box were Yā mā ʼaraqq al-nasīm (oh how soft the breeze) and Yā qalbī mālak (oh my heart, what is the matter), both written by Aḥmad Rāmī and composed by ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, and both from that film’s soundtrack.

Image of Habbayt w shuft kteer on the Baidaphon label
“Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr” on the Baidaphon label. Recorded when she was 19 years of age, it was one of Layla Murad’s very first recordings.

Nestled among the shellacs in the box of wonders was a little 17cm disc in its original sleeve proclaiming the artist as “Om Kalsoum”, one of more than a dozen variations on the Egyptian diva’s name. The recording is “Enta fein wel ḥobb fein” which roughly translates as “love is here, and you are way over there”, a song much better known after its opening verse "ḥubb eh illi-inta gayy tʼūl 'aleh" (what love is it that you speak of). By 1960, when this song was first performed, Um Kulthūm was already well established as the pre-eminent Arab artist across the region. Indeed, at that time Egypt and Syria had united into the United Arab Republic, and Um Kulthūm had been chosen to sing the union’s national anthem. But it was the largely unknown composer of this runaway hit who skyrocketed to regional fame when it was first performed. Balīgh Ḥamdī (1931-1993) had studied music since the age of nine, spending his college years between law school and the music academy before trying his hand as a singer in the late 1950s. It was around this time that Um Kulthūm was looking for a new sound, meeting Ḥamdī at the recommendation of singer (and Misrphon label owner) Moḥamad Fawzī. In the two decades that followed the success of ḥubb eh, Ḥamdī became one of the most sought after composers in the Arab world, composing for every major artist of the mid-twentieth century as well as for radio, television, theatre and the cinema. Hip hop aficionados will be very familiar with Timbaland’s sampling of the melody from Ḥamdī’s Khusāra khusāra on Jay Z’s first major hit single, Big Pimpin’. Intellectual property enthusiasts are likely also familiar with it after Ḥamdī’s nephew sued Jay Z, Timbaland and EMI in 2007 for copyright infringement. The court summarily dismissed the case in 2015, finding that Egyptian law was not applicable, and that as a result the artists and the recording company were under no obligation to seek the permission of Ḥamdī’s family for what the family considered a debauched use of Balīgh Ḥamdī’s work.

Image of Um Kulthūm on the cover of Enta Fein wel Hobb Fein
The original sleeve of Um Kulthūm’s ḥubb eh, composed by Balīgh Ḥamdī


In addition to a host of other career-making recordings, Emile Cohen’s gift can tell the tale of another sort of beginning; the beginning of Egyptian music’s regional dominance in the interwar period. Many of those involved in the development of cultural production in Egypt since the nineteenth century were artists whose families had moved to Egypt from Greater Syria, a trend that continued well into the twentieth century. From this collection alone, some names that stand out include:

  • Ṣabāḥ, who was brought to Egypt from Mount Lebanon by filmmaker ’Āssia Dāgher and ultimately recorded over 3000 songs and performed in over 100 plays and films;
  • Moḥammad Salmān, who moved to Cairo from Mt. Lebanon to pursue a career in music but would later find his passion as an actor and filmmaker in the Egyptian capital;
  • Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, who grew up in Palestine performing as an amateur until he was sent to study at the music academy in Cairo in 1937. There, he became deeply involved in composing and performing for radio audiences before eventually becoming head of music programming at the Near East Broadcasting Service in Palestine until the expulsion of, and denial of return to, two-thirds of the Palestinian population in 1947-1948. After a few years with the broadcast service which had moved to Cyprus, he moved to Lebanon to head the music department at the Lebanese radio service al-Sharq al-Awsat;
  • Najāḥ Salām’s Beiruti father was a well-known composer and ‘ūd player and took the chanteuse, already known in Lebanon, to Cairo in 1948 to meet many of the leading musical figures of the Egyptian capital. This, of course, did wonders for her career. So much so that by the mid-1970s she was granted honorary Egyptian citizenship.
  • Sihām Rifqī who moved from Syria to Egypt for a music and film career, recording over a dozen hits before an early retirement;
    and of course
  • Farīd al-‘Aṭrash and Amal al-‘Aṭrash (aka Asmahān), brother and sister born to a notable Druze family that had led the resistance against the French occupation of Syria, moving to Egypt because of the anticolonial connections between their family and that of the Egyptian independence movement’s leader Sa‘d Zaghlūl. The siblings rose to dominate the music and musical film scene in Cairo by the 1940s.
Image of Baidaphon sleeve featuring their top recording artists
Baidaphon was a Beirut-based record label, and possibly the first homegrown music recording company in the Arab world. This sleeve from the 1940s showcases the company’s top recording artists. It is notable that all of these artists hail from Greater Syria, and all of them launched their stardom and regional celebrity in Egypt. Clockwise from the top: Asmahān, Najāḥ Salām, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, Sihām Rifqī, Moḥammad Salmān, Ḥanān. The record in the photograph is by an Egyptian dancer of Syrian origin, Bibā ʻIzz al-Dīn, who achieved far more notoriety for her live shows in Cairo’s music halls than she did for her recorded output.

Those familiar with postcolonial dynamics will be particularly aware of just how politicised cultural battles between former coloniser and colonised can be. In the case of Arab states emerging from British, French and Italian colonial rule, and in light of the centrality of Cairo described above, the battle over national culture was also waged with an eye to Egypt. Whether in Tunisia, Iraq, or elsewhere, the mid-twentieth century witnessed an immense amount of activity that practically accepted Egyptian cultural production as the language of Arabic culture, but each of these fledgling nation-states sought to develop and elevate their own dialect within that. The dynamic between language and dialect is not only metaphor; any composer in the interwar period who wanted to produce 'serious' music had to do so in either classical Arabic or an Egyptian dialect, while other dialects were reserved for their own folklore. After the post-WWII wave of postcolonial independence, composers and lyricists beyond the confines of Cairo sought a legitimacy for their own dialects, including other Egyptian dialects, as ones that could convey a cultivated urbanity.

The recordings in this collection help tell that story as it unfolded in Lebanon. The early recordings by Ṣabāḥ and Wadī‘ al-Ṣāf ī in the collection typify the folkloric bent of the music recorded in Lebanon well into the 1940s. One of the more significant recordings in the collection is the song Waynik yā Laylā (Where are you Layla) by Sāmī al-Ṣaydāwī, who originally composed the song for Lebanese singer Kamāl al-Ṭawīl. Both Ṣaydāwī and Ṭawīl had built careers performing in the Egyptian dialect to audiences in both Egypt and Greater Syria; Waynik yā Laylā was one of the early non-folkloric songs performed and recorded in the Syro-Lebanese dialect, forming part of a trend that would continue and grow over the decades that followed.

Image of the iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)
The iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)



The artists who did the most to propel Lebanese song into the more exalted register regionally all had a part to play in yet another item in the box of wonders. The song ʻItāb (reproach), appearing on the Zodephone label in the early 1950s, was an instant hit, one that proved momentous for the emergence of Beirut as Cairo’s main musical rival. The vocalist, Nuhād Haddād, had been 'discovered' a few years earlier by Mohamad Flayfel, composer of such songs as Mawṭini (‘my homeland’, the popularly accepted national anthem of Palestine, and the post-2003-occupation anthem of Iraq) and Ḥumāt al-Diyār (‘defenders of the home,’ the national anthem of Syria). Flayfel encouraged Haddād to study music at the conservatory, and to immerse herself in that repository of vocal technique at the heart of ecstatic Arabic song: Qur’anic recitation (tajwīd). While at the conservatory, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī heard her sing and decided to take her under his wing, introducing her to his friends the Raḥbānī brothers, ‘Assī and Manṣūr. Rūmī also decided to pick out a stage name for her, one that means turquoise, and that millions of people now associate with their morning coffee: Fairūz.

As a romance blossomed between ‘Assī Raḥbānī and Nuhād (they married in 1955), so did their creative collaboration, the first fruit of which was the song ʻItāb that is on this recording. The airing of this song on Lebanese and then Syrian radio in late 1952 launched Fairūz’s regional fame, enabling her to sign her first recording contract with Zodephone. Indeed, Zodephone's early success as a record company was based on the company's recordings of Fairuz songs.

All that’s left to say is a big warm thank you to Emile Cohen and ‘Ezra Hakkāk for such wonderful beginnings!

 

Written by Hazem Jamjoum, Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project (BLQF), which produces the Qatar Digital Library. Follow the BLQF Project @BLQatar

Follow The British Library’s World and Traditional Music team @BL_WorldTrad

Follow Unlocking Our Sound Heritage updates @BLSoundHeritage

21 July 2019

Recording of the week: Nelson Mandela in the UK

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This week's selection comes from Adonis Leboho, Communications Intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Last Thursday, people all over the world marked Mandela Day through commemorative events celebrating the legacy of the heroic anti-apartheid revolutionary.

Nelson Mandela fought against institutionalised racial segregation in South Africa for decades, enduring twenty-seven years of imprisonment until the ruling regime finally gave in to domestic and international pressure and released him. Eventually succeeding in the fight against apartheid, Mandela went on to lead South Africa as its president, setting about the difficult task of healing the nation’s deep wounds after years of division.

In a recording digitised through the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, Mandela addresses gathered journalists at a press conference during his visit to the UK following his release, likely at the International Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium in 1990.

Photograph of Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela photographed smiling in Johannesburg, Gauteng, May 2008 (courtesy of South Africa The Good News / www.sagoodnews.co.za via Wikimedia Commons)

Still full of energy and resolve, Mandela uses this platform to draw attention to the continuing struggle to dismantle apartheid. In his clear and considered way, Mandela also responds to difficult questions about the state of his political party, the ANC, and the struggle for human rights around the world.

In the clip I have selected, Mandela discusses the role of artists in successfully communicating political messages, especially in ways politicians just aren’t able to manage. Though he admits he didn’t have much time to keep up with the latest musical trends because of the demands on his time and lack of access to music, Mandela talks about how he came to develop an appreciation of the work of musicians, as they used their art to campaign for his freedom.

Nelson Mandela (C1132/148)

Found in the Rob Waldron Radio Broadcasts collection, this recording captures Mandela’s integrity, dedication and compassion right at the moment when he is forging South Africa’s democratic future.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage for regular updates on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

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