Sound and vision blog

40 posts categorized "Africa"

27 June 2022

Recording of the week: Sharing Somali sounds and stories

This week's selection comes from Emma Brinkhurst, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

As Learning and Engagement Coordinator for the British Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage programme, a highlight of my role has been working in partnership with Camden Somali Cultural Centre to develop a listening project. Weekly listening sessions showed the capacity of recorded sound to make connections, bringing listeners in contact with different times and places, as well as connecting those who share the experience of listening together. Ubah Egal, director of Camden Somali Cultural Centre, explained the significance of Somali sound recordings in the British Library’s World and Traditional Music collections, saying 'Camden Somali Cultural Centre wants to re-engage the community with our oral tradition of sharing stories. The collection at the British Library represents a beautiful selection of recordings capturing our oral tradition from many generations of Somalis.'

Poet and storyteller Elmi Ali selected recordings of song and poetry for the group to listen to, which elicited discussion, reminiscence, laughter and a sharing of cultural pride during the sessions. Of particular interest to participants were recordings from the John Low collection, made in Somalia in the mid-1980s during Low’s time as a development worker in the Lower Shabeelle region. On 12 November 1984, Low sent a postcard from Somalia to the British Institute of Recorded Sound (now the British Library Sound Archive). He wrote that 'songs, poems, work songs abound' and set about making recordings representing a diverse cross section of musical styles and practices. Several decades later, following Somalia’s civil war and the disruption and displacement it caused, Somali listeners in London engaged with these songs and poems, which stimulated memories of cultural heritage and former times, places and people.

During the listening sessions, artist and poet Sophie Herxheimer drew and painted, reflecting the words and stories shared by the group. Sophie’s drawings portray recollections of nomadic life evoked by recordings such as this house building song performed by a group of women and recorded by Low:

House Building Song [BL REF C27/13]

This song stimulated discussion about the role of women in nomadic culture and how women were responsible for building nomadic houses, with one participant commenting that this song made her think of her mum. At the end of the project she said: 'this has brought back so many memories.'

Black and white drawing of a nomadic woman with the words 'most come from a nomadic background the woman building the house or hut - using wood, mud, cloth, singing the songs while they build.'

Participants were very moved by lullabies from the collection, such as this one performed by Faadumo Cabdi Maxamed:

Lullaby [BL REF C27/13]

Hearing recordings such as this prompted memories of other lullabies, such as a fondly remembered lullaby that a participant sang to the group, a moment that was captured by Sophie in this drawing:

Black and white drawing of a mother and child and a glass of water, with the words 'We sing lullabies for the boys: "New moon, we need you like a thirst" and for girls: "you are so beautiful...no one is going to hurt you and if they hurt you I will hurt them"'

Low also recorded camel songs, including this watering song for camels at the Shabeelle river, sung by Geedi Maxamed Cali and a male chorus:

Camel Song [BL REF C27/12]

Listening to this evoked much laughter as a participant recounted memories of being a city girl visiting the countryside and running away in fright from various animals – foxes on one occasion and a baby camel on another!

A coloured pencil drawing of a camel and two children with the words: "So when I was out in the wild with my cousin we saw a fluffy animal and I didn't know what it was because I'm from the city. She said "watch out it's gonna get you!" and she followed it so it chased me! I was scared but it was only a baby camel'

One member of the group described the listening sessions as providing 'an opportunity for us to get to know each other in a different way, tell these stories to each other that we never speak about.' Ubah Egal reflected on the project as 'a wonderful moment capturing the reactions and impact the recordings had on our community and participants.' This small selection of recordings demonstrates the potential for sound heritage to unlock memories, connect listeners, and make a deeply personal impact.

The Somali listening sessions took place as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, a major project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund which aims to preserve and provide access to thousands of the UK's rare and unique sound recordings.

With thanks to John Low for allowing us to use the sound clips, Sophie Herxheimer for permission to post her artwork, Elmi Ali for selecting recordings, and to Ubah Egal and members of Camden Somali Cultural Centre for allowing us to include their comments and stories in this blog.

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

The logo of the Camden Somali Cultural Centre Pink waveform logo of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project

27 December 2021

Recording of the week: 'Kuli milimo', there is work in the house of the Lord

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

Inspired by the festive atmosphere, I bring you not one but two recordings this week. These are meant to be appreciated together just like the turkey and gravy some people will have indulged themselves with this Christmas.

It’s 1973 and we are in Zambia, Brian Stubbings is currently spending his second year among the Tonga people of Kafue and surrounding areas. Over the course of seven years Stubbings will record many traditional songs sung on different occasions. This is the case of our first recording, a kutwa song sung by two women pounding grains using a mortar and pestle.

Women pound maize with a pestle in a mortar Women pounding grains with a pestle in Kalabaya village, Chief Sinadambwe chieftancy, Gwembe Valley, Zambia, 1973. Photo by Brian Stubbings.

They sing:

Kuli milimo (4x), kun'ganda ya ba nasi kulimilimo, alimwi cilabilikita yalila, wailesi njemilimo

[There is work, there is work in the house of the nurse there is work]

Kutwa Song [BL REF C1417/2 BD1]

The pounding of the mortar provides a rhythmical framework for the song, while singing makes the pounding more regular and the workload lighter.
You would probably be surprised to hear the same tune sung in a church, yet, that same melody was arranged into a Christian song by the Kafue Composer's Club, a group of dedicated students who worked closely with Stubbings.

The lyrics have been changed, and the rhythmical pounding of the mortar has been replaced by handclaps and single notes played on a kalimba, a wooden idiophone – not to be confused with the homonym lamellophone!

Here, they sing:

There is work, there is work in the house of the Lord there is work

Christian song based on a pounding tune [BL REF C1417/2 BD2]

Re-arranging popular and traditional melodies for religious purposes is a fairly common practice around the world. In fact, I was very surprised when, as a child, I found out Simon and Garfunkel’s 'The Sound of Silence' wasn’t originally an Italian Catholic song.

In this specific case the use of a traditional tune is rather important, as it signals a necessary transition from a purely European form to a more grassroots approach to Christian music that uses local tunes.

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28 October 2021

Black History Month – Carlisle and Wellmon

Photo of Carlisle and WellmonCarlisle and Wellmon (BL shelfmark 1SS0009976)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

For Black History Month this year, I was delighted to find early recordings of two African American musicians made in London.  The piano duo team of Carlisle and Wellmon made recordings for Columbia over one hundred years ago in November 1912.

Born in North Carolina in 1883, Harry Wellmon was already established in London as a song composer while still in his early twenties in 1906.  He had previously worked at the Harlem River Casino in New York City but, as with many African American performers, found far more job opportunities in Britain and Europe.  In London, from his premises at 47 Oxford Street he wrote songs for famous music hall stars of the day including Victoria Monks. 

Sheet music of I never lose my temperBL shelfmark H.3988.r.(43)

Wellmon returned to the United States in 1909 for a year but was back in England where a son was born on the south coast in Southsea in November 1911 the mother being Lilian Riley, a confectioner’s assistant.  He formed the piano duo Carlisle and Wellmon around 1910 and must have been popular as they recorded for Columbia in November 1912.  However, Wellmon had many pursuits, primarily as a composer and music publisher, and the duo made their last appearance at the Lewisham Hippodrome in December 1915 while Wellmon continued as a solo performer the following week.  In the early 1920s he appeared in Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Bratislava and Zagreb, Bombay, the Netherlands and South America.  He appears to have returned to the United States in 1935.

George Horace Carlisle was born in Minnesota, also in 1883, and had previously toured Britain with another performer as Carlisle and Baker.  It is claimed that he was a pupil of the great piano teacher Theodore Leschetizky (1830-1915) in Vienna - whose pupils include Paderewski and Ignaz Friedman - but Carlisle's name does not appear in Leschetizky’s personal lists of pupils or his diaries. 

Leschetizky did have a few African American students.  One was Raymond Augustus Lawson (1875-1959) who was educated at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee from where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree.  He then studied at the Hartford Conservatory of Music graduating in 1900.  Whilst in Germany he met Ossip Gabrilowitsch (Leschetizky pupil and son in law of Mark Twain) who in the summer of 1911 introduced Lawson to Leschetizky.  After playing for the great master, Leschetizky declared, ‘I know that Americans are great technicians, but Mr Lawson is a poet.’  As was often the way, Leschetizky heard a pianist once, then passed them to one of his assistants for instruction, and this may have happened to George Carlisle.  He seems to have stayed in England and died during a piano audition at the Royal Oak Hotel in Ramsgate in 1963, an obituary claiming he was born in Bermuda and in his sixties: he was actually 80 years of age.

Carlisle and Wellmon made six sides for Columbia in 1912, all of their own compositions, most of which were published between 1910 and 1913.  Four are of their own songs – 'Kiss me Right', 'Go ‘Way Meddlesome Moon', 'A Prescription for Love' and 'Why Do You Wait for Tomorrow?' 

Sheet music of Go way meddlesome moonBL shelfmark H.3990.c.(6)

The remaining two sides are piano only - Chip-Chip Two Step and March, and an arrangement of the Sextette from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti – ‘in Ragtime.’  This disc was issued as Columbia 2054 in 1912 but re-issued on their cheaper Regal label in February 1914 and remained in the catalogue until August 1918.

Label of Regal disc Lucia SextetteRegal Label (BL shelfmark 9CS0000242)

The performance is only in ragtime for the last half of the recording.  The first part is in ‘classical’ style and the switch to ragtime is not such a jolt as one might expect due to the fact that it is played in a strict ragtime style – not too fast, with a firm and controlled rhythm.  With the ragtime revival of the 1970s we learnt that Scott Joplin did not want his rags played fast and directed the player so at the beginning of his scores.  Few solo piano disc recordings of ragtime survive from the era and a recording of Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag played by the United States Marine Band from 1909 is taken at a swift tempo.  Carlisle and Wellmon’s performance has elements of Joplin's direction and even though played at a crowd-pleasing tempo with dazzling contrary motion chromatic scales, there are underlying elements of the strict ragtime style from ten years before.

Sextette from Lucia mp3

Thanks to James Methuen Campbell for the Leschetizky information.

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07 June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Honey gathering song [BL REF C423_1 S2 C2]

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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