THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

34 posts categorized "Africa"

08 March 2021

Recording of the week: Mohamed Choukri at the ICA

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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

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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!

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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.

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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

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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.

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