Sound and vision blog

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28 October 2022

Black History Month – The Cullen Maiden collection

By Frankie Perry, UOSH Cataloguer and Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Newspaper clipping Cullen Maiden 1958

When I acquired the collection of African American singer and poet Cullen Maiden in 2015 I wrote a blog about him which you can read here.  Since then, the British Library sound archive has digitised a large number of its collections under the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Maiden collection was one I was keen to have digitised, so as to make it available to researchers in the Reading Rooms of the British Library.

A further bonus of the UOSH work is having every recording fully catalogued and thus visible through our online Sound and Moving Image catalogue SAMI.  For a collection as large and complicated as this it took up to five cataloguers working full time, while the audio presented problems of differing speeds and track figuration within many of the tapes.

Now that it is completed, Cullen Maiden’s life and career is traceable through his performances around the world.

Frankie Perry, one of the cataloguers of the collection, has selected some extracts of the recordings and through her efforts has followed the thread of Cullen Maiden’s life and work.

Cullen Maiden’s collection of 590 open-reel tapes has now been digitised and catalogued as part of the UOSH project. By way of introduction to an extensive and diverse collection spanning around fifty years, here we share four short recordings that represent various strands of Maiden’s singing career (he was also a poet, composer, and actor). As very little information about Maiden is available online, this post weaves in biographical context gleaned from interviews, programmes, and other material held in the Music Manuscripts collection also deposited at the Library in 2015 (MS Mus. 1894).  Many thanks also to Maiden’s widow and donor of the collection Christine Hall-Maiden for sharing some of her memories during a recent visit to the Library.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Maiden was named after the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, and attended the same high school as Langston Hughes (Central Senior High). His lifelong immersion in and advocacy for Black American culture is palpable throughout the collection, evident in the themes of his youthful poetry sketches right through to the repertoire selected for song recitals given in the 1970s-90s. Maiden was introduced to classical music by his school teachers, who encouraged him to nurture his talent for singing alongside his development as a promising welterweight boxer; his points of entry were recordings of Paul Robeson and Feodor Chaliapin, and he later described this pair as ‘idols of my life’.[1]

Early recordings in the collection include national broadcasts of the 17-year-old Maiden singing ‘Waterboy’ and demonstrating his fantastically low bass range against a piano on the ‘Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour’ talent show.[2]

Following his bachelor’s degree at Ohio Wesleyan University, his vocal studies at the Juilliard School in New York were interrupted by a call-up for national service: he was sent as a Private First Class to Pusan Area in South Korea, where he worked primarily as an entertainment director. As a performer, he appeared in four Seoul Symphony concerts, and appeared on both AFKN radio and television and Korean radio networks. He also put on numerous concerts for troops and wider audiences in 1957 and 1958, in division and area command service clubs.

One example is a concert given with soprano Hai-Kyong Chang of the Seoul Opera Company and pianist PFC Richard Jennings, where we see the emergence of a signature Cullen Maiden programming strategy of pairing classical staples with spirituals and work songs; his Korean concerts also included Korean folk songs. Maiden had acquired a volume of traditional Korean songs in delicate arrangements by Sung-Tai Kim for voice and piano, and annotations in his heavily-used copy suggest he sang several. The one we have on record (in a couple of different renditions) is Kim’s arrangement of the popular song ‘Arirang’.

Arirang 1958 South Korea

Concert of Song with piano programme

Maiden also appeared as a soloist with the Seoul Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the influential Korean-American conductor John S. Kim, performing Mozart arias and show tunes (he was known throughout his career for his renditions of ‘Ol’ Man River’). Here’s ‘La vendetta’ from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro:

Mozart La vendetta 1957 South Korea

Seoul Orchestral concert programme cover

On returning from military service, Maiden returned to his Juilliard studies, and became a vocal soloist for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company (he had sung for Dunham during one of the dancer’s goodwill visits to Korea) and toured Europe with the company in 1959; he also toured the US with the Harry Belafonte Folk Singers. In 1962, Maiden spent six months in Stockholm performing in Lia Schubert’s Jazz-Balett 62, paired in a duo with the young guitarist Lars [Lasse] Åberg, who would go on to become a celebrated actor.

Periods of study in Rome with Luigi Ricci followed, as well as a year in London during which he had poems published in Tribune and gave poetry recitals. In the knowledge that many Black classical musicians found more employment opportunities in Europe than in the US, Maiden moved to Munich, together with Christine, and began auditioning widely. But the barriers were present there too: Maiden auditioned at companies across East and West Germany, but ‘for many of them, the idea of fitting a Black man into a German ensemble seemed to be a great hurdle. That caused a lot of problems. My Blackness prevented me from getting a job’.[3]

Maiden persevered and successfully auditioned for Walter Felsenstein’s Komische Oper, which was in East Berlin: his early roles in the company included the Town Mayor in Henze’s Der junge Lord (1968), and Farfarello in Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges (1969), both of which he performed in white make-up. His defining part came as the title character, opposite Carolyn Smith-Meyer, in the company’s 1970 production of Porgy and Bess, which was directed by Felsenstein’s second-in-command Götz Friedrich and widely praised for being a thoughtful production that highlighted social issues, and avoided the racist stereotyping upon which many productions of the opera (both before and since) relied. For Maiden, the role was ‘defining’ for the best and worst reasons. On the one hand, his performance received rave reviews that reached across the operatic world – photos of Maiden and Smith-Meyer appeared on the covers of major magazines – and led to a steady stream of further engagements to perform the role in English and German-language productions. On the other hand, Maiden’s success in the role also resulted in a long-term struggle to escape from his close association with Porgy and to be cast in other roles. Maiden’s testimony in a 1974 interview makes plain the reasons why:

‘No one accepts me as Cullen Maiden. They accept me as Every Black Man. […] When Robert Merrill is offstage, no one greets him as Rigoletto. But when I am offstage, people call me Porgy’.[4]

At the time of this interview, Maiden thought he had given over 250 performances of the work, and was trialling a policy of only accepting Porgy engagements if the company in question hired him for another opera too. Maiden also spoke of his desire to develop his US opera career, and of his fears that this would be impossible: he acknowledged that ‘Europe is relaxed and wonderful [...] it is not bi-racial, so you do not feel this pressure’, but that ‘most Americans I meet traveling miss America. You love your country, and you feel frustrated in Europe. I miss my family and my friends and just being here’.[5]

Maiden’s differing experiences of structural and everyday racism in America and Europe resonate in many ways with the stories and histories illuminated in Kira Thurman’s recent book Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.[6] The deep tensions of Maiden’s experiences as a Black American abroad, and the different struggles of Black German communities in his adopted home, are implied in a quote from a later interview: ‘It is time for African Germans to wake up and to stop agonising about whether they are black or white. They are Black. This society does not accept them as full Germans’.[7] This archive contains a wealth of material relating to Black cultural life in West Germany (and East Berlin) between the late 1960s and mid-1990s, and great potential for future research in this area.

Maiden did find operatic success in America, especially through a series of engagements with the pioneering Black-led company Opera/South.[8] The collection holds rehearsal recordings of his animated Osmin in a punchy English-language version of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and recordings of him workshopping the role of Father Lestant ahead of the PBS television production of William Grant Still’s A Bayou Legend (this was the first opera by an African American composer to be televised in the United States). There’s also plenty of photos, reviews, and other material relating to this production.

Below is a concert recording from 1992 of a song from a different opera by Still, ‘Our fathers taught us to be pure in heart’ from Costaso.

Still Our fathers taught us 1992 West Berlin

A hallmark of Maiden’s later solo recitals is his inclusion of music by Black composers: the collection includes live recordings spanning from 1977 to 1992 of songs by Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Still, Charles Naginski, and Howard Swanson, which was unusual in Europe at the time. Many of these songs set poetry by Langston Hughes, and Maiden emphasised the importance to him of performing music that sets Black poetry that in turn draws upon Black experience. Advocacy was at the heart of Maiden’s recitals, as is clear from their titles which include ‘My Soul is a Witness: Black History in Song, Poetry and Prose’, “The Souls of Black Folk’ – The Black Experience in a White World’, and ‘Aspects of Black History and the Black Experience in Songs, Poetry, Prose, Black Drama and Black Humor’’. From the early 1980s he performed under the auspices of Black Arts Theater Productions – details of this venture are unclear, but correspondence in the papers shows his ambitious visions and plans for a Black arts company in Berlin. Several programmes were given during February, the American Black History Month, including the concert advertised here:

Programme for 1992 concert in Berlin

These concerts usually combined songs with poetry and prose readings, and Maiden typically gave lengthy semi-scripted introductions to individual items – the recordings are moving and humorous in equal measure, and Maiden often had to wait for the audience’s laughter and applause to die down before continuing. The spirituals, work songs, and prison songs in the recitals were sometimes performed unaccompanied, and sometimes sung in voice-piano arrangements from the ‘concert spiritual’ tradition – including versions by Black composers and versions made famous by singers such as Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes. Maiden also wrote his own arrangements of several songs, variously with piano or guitar accompaniment.

Maiden said in an interview that:

Black music is not like pop or classical music. One has to know the agony, the doubts and trials that Black people are subjected to daily. Only then can they fully understand the rich heritage in Black life’.[9]

The recording below, of ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’, uses an arrangement adapted from that of Harry T. Burleigh, and is introduced through a brief story of Maiden’s own family history.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child Hanover c1977

In addition to his singing, Maiden’s seemingly limitless artistic talents included poetry and prose writing, musical composition (in several styles), film and theatre acting, and drawing – his sketch of world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949 Joe Louis, signed by ‘Curly Maiden’, is below. A poetry collection, Soul on Fire, was published in 2008,[10] and the Music Manuscripts collection includes annotated copies of the poems and lengthy feedback notes from Audre Lorde, who lived for a while in Berlin. Beneath one of Maiden’s poems, ‘A Black Mother Asks of the Lord’, Lorde simply wrote: ‘This reminds me of Langston’.

Sketch of Joe Louis

Alongside 120 tapes containing Maiden’s original recordings, another substantial portion of the donation includes his extensive collection of off-air recordings, copied from German (pre- and post-unification), Italian, and British radio broadcasts over several decades. Maiden clearly made a concerted effort to record broadcasts of Black musicians, both classical and in various popular styles. Highlights range from live broadcasts from European festivals by figures like Leontyne Price and Simon Estes, to rare live recordings of twentieth-century repertoire sung by William Pearson, to Annabelle Bernard singing orchestrated Schubert lieder with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. This strand of the collection is testament to Maiden’s lifelong advocacy for Black music and art: his capturing of these broadcasts will mean that many recordings which were previously inaccessible or buried in European radio archives can now be heard again.

Maiden died in 2011, having moved to London in the late 1990s where he continued to sing, teach, and compose and write. Cataloguing of the Sound Archive’s collection is now complete, meaning the recordings are searchable online and will soon be listenable on-site at the British Library.

 

[1] ‘Interview with African-American Opera star, the bass-baritone Cullen Maiden’ [author unknown], Isivivane: Journal of Letters and Arts in Africa and the Diaspora, 3, January 1991, 20-25: 24.

[2] Name of the talent show inferred from a newspaper cutting: ‘Cullen Maiden develops qualities of leadership at Central Sr. High’, Call & Post, [author and date unknown]. Held in MS Mus. 1894.

[3] Isivivane, 21.

[4] Wilma Salisbury, ‘Heart and soul, singer’s quest is for identity’, The Plain Dealer, 1 September 1974. Newspaper cutting held in MS Mus. 1894.

[5] Salisbury, ‘Heart and soul, singer’s quest is for identity’.

[6] Cornell University Press, 2021.

[7] Isivivane, 25.

[8] See Ben E. Bailey, ‘Opera/South: A Brief History’, The Black Perspective in Music, 13/1, 1985, 48-78.

[9] Isivivane, 25.

[10] Cullen Maiden, Soul on Fire: Poems and Writings (AuthorHouse, 2008).

17 October 2022

Recording of the week: Laughing hyaenas

This week’s post comes from Cheryl Tipp, Wildlife and Environmental Sounds Curator.

Photo of a Spotted Hyaena

Above: Photo of a Spotted Hyaena by DJM Photos. From Flickr.

Although it may sound like it, the Spotted Hyaenas in this recording are not suffering from a fit of the giggles. Their laughter-like calls actually express feelings of frustration, excitement or fear rather than amusement. These sounds are usually produced by individuals during encounters with dominant members of the clan, when facing a potential predator, or when they want something they can’t have, such as access to a recent kill. Despite the scientific explanation, it’s difficult not to imagine them sharing an inside joke though.

Listen to the Spotted Hyaenas

This recording was made by Nigel Tucker at Imire Safari Ranch, Zimbabwe in April 1999 (British Library ref W1CDR0001982 BD25). It forms part of a larger collection of recordings made in the area which includes the sounds of other well-known African mammals such as lions, elephants, rhinos, wildebeest and antelopes.  

10 October 2022

Recording of the week: Never you mind!

This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

Chatting today to our local fishmonger (Grimsby born and bred) I was reminded of a wonderful expression, back of Doig’s, submitted by a contributor from Grimsby (b.1939) to the Library’s Evolving English WordBank.

Listen to a contribution on Hawming about back of Doig's

Download 'Hawming about' transcript

The verb hawm has been recorded in this sense in several dialects, including in Lincolnshire, since the nineteenth century. It’s defined by the English Dialect Dictionary as ‘to waste time, to be idle, to move about aimlessly, to loiter, to stand gaping and staring’. The additional reference here to back of Doig’s is particularly intriguing as it’s also captured in a BBC Voices Recording in Osgodby, Lincolnshire in 2004.

Listen to a contribution on Egging back of Doig's

Download 'Egging back of Doig's' transcript

This more detailed description suggests that back of Doig’s is a playful expression, used especially by children to parents to deflect an unwanted enquiry as to what one has been doing or where one has been. This type of playful folk idiom is extremely difficult to observe as it typically occurs in private or domestic exchanges, often in the form of stock phrases or habitual responses to everyday situations. It is therefore rarely documented in linguistic surveys or conventional dictionaries.

Front cover of Egging Back O' Doig's

Egging Back O’ Doig’s, a 1995 glossary of words and phrases from Grimsby and Cleethorpes compiled by Alan Dowling, lists several such elusive local expressions. It has entries for both egging in the sense of ‘being on an errand’ and orming (a re-spelling of hawming to reflect the local tendency to delete an initial <h> sound) in the sense of ‘lounging about in a sloppy way, messing about’. This applies especially to ‘groups of youths gathered together without purpose’. It also confirms that ‘back o’ Doig’s’ is used in response to a nosy question or as a diversionary tactic to avoid an honest answer, expressing something along the lines of ‘mind your own business’. Lastly, it also confirms that local shipbuilder, J.S. Doig, had a shipyard in Grimsby docks in the middle of the twentieth century.

References:

Wright, J. 1898-1905. English Dialect Dictionary. London: Henry Frowde.
Dowling, A. (ed.). 1995. Egging Back o' Doig's. A Glossary of Words and Expressions used in Grimsby, Cleethorpes and District. Hull: University of Hull.

Follow @VoicesofEnglish and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

12 September 2022

Recording of the week: Childhood memories of D. H. Lawrence

This week’s post comes from Sarah Kirk-Browne, Cataloguer, Digital Multimedia Collections.

Photo of D H Lawrence in 1912

One of the most exciting things about exploring the sound archive is all the unexpected things you stumble across. While researching the Nottinghamshire dialect, I listened to this recording of Mr Arthur Sharpe (British Library reference: C707/190).

Arthur Sharpe was a Co-op grocery manager, recorded for an oral history project in 1971. The Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918 project made recordings of speakers from a range of backgrounds talking about their memories from the late 19th and early 20th century.

Most of the interviews in the collection follow the same structure: with questions about parents, home life, school and employment. They provide a lot of insight into life at the time, plus plenty of linguistic interest too. However, on the final tape with Mr Sharpe the interviewer goes off-topic to ask him directly about something alluded to in some of his earlier answers: how did you know D. H. Lawrence?

What follows is a personal description of his connections with the Lawrence family, with D. H. Lawrence being his close neighbour and sometime teacher. In the clip you can hear Arthur’s anecdote about a disagreement with a schoolmate, which D. H. Lawrence calmly resolved.

Listen to Arthur Sharpe

Download Arthur Sharpe transcript

Somewhat sadly, recordings of this kind are as close as we are going to get in terms of audio documentation of D. H. Lawrence himself. Despite his living well into the era of recorded sound, it seems there are no extant recordings of his voice.

The Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918 collection - often known as ‘The Edwardians’ - was a pioneering project co-ordinated by Paul Thompson, Thea Thompson (who also published as Thea Vigne) and Trevor Lummis at the University of Essex.

Over 500 audio interviews were conducted across all of the UK with people from a range of socio-economic backgrounds and occupations. The collection provided the source material for Paul Thompson’s 1975 classic book The Edwardians: the Remaking of British Society, and Paul then became one of the pioneers of oral history both in the UK and internationally.

All of the recordings in this collection are available at the British Library, and transcripts can also be consulted at the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex.

The Spoken English and Oral History archives are full of ordinary people telling their extraordinary stories - so I look forward to discovering and sharing more hidden gems in the future!

22 August 2022

Recording of the week: Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949)

This week’s post comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

Photo of Sarojini Naidu in profile

Above: Image from the 1928 edition of The Sceptred Flute: Songs of India (Dodd, Mead & Company, New York), first published in 1917. Photographer unknown.

For this week’s archive selection we present a recording by the Indian poet Sarojini Naidu.

As well as a poet, Naidu was a political activist. She was close to Mahatma Gandhi and joined his campaign of civil resistance against the British occupiers of India. In 1925 Naidu became the first female president of the Indian National Congress, the political party that led the independence movement.

‘Awake (“To India”)’ is taken from a 10” 78 rpm disc issued by the Columbia company. It was recorded and made in the UK, circa December 1931. Naidu would have been in London around this time. With Gandhi, she attended the Second Round Table Conference, which ran from 7 September to 1 December 1931. The three Round Table Conferences of 1930-1932 were convened by the British Government and Indian political leaders to discuss possible changes to the constitution in India.

‘Awake’ (or ‘Awake!’, as it was titled in print) was dedicated to the Muslim leader and eventual founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The poem was recited by Naidu at the end of a public speech to the Indian National Congress, in Bombay (now Mumbai), in December 1915.

It is an appeal to all Indians to unite against British rule.

What is clear only in the published poem is that the final series of exhortations, beginning, ‘Mother!...’ are each attributed to different religious groups. This gives an effect something like a Greek chorus.

The closing lines are credited to ‘All Creeds’.

Photo of Columbia disc label

Above: Columbia LBE 51. British Library ref. 1CS0092386.

Our original disc is not in the best condition, so we offer two versions of the recording. The first version is a ‘warts and all’ archival dubbing.

Listen to Sarojini Naidu - original

Download 'Awake!' transcript

The second version has been - quite dramatically - de-noised through the application of a new machine learning model developed by the Aalto University School of Electrical Engineering.

Note: the model was ‘trained’ using recordings of 78 rpm coarse-groove noise profiles and clean recordings of classical music. So we are not really using it as intended here, given that our disc is spoken word, not music.

Listen to Sarojini Naidu - de-noised

The paper by E. Moliner and V. Välimäki - ‘A two-stage U-Net for high-fidelity denoising of historical recordings’, in Proc. IEEE International Conference on Acoustics, Speech, and Signal Processing (ICASSP), Singapore, May, 2022, may be of interest to those of a technical bent.

With thanks to Karl Jenkins, Audio Engineer, and Adam Tovell, Head of Technical Services.

01 August 2022

Recording of the week: Women’s work on the record

This week’s post comes from Myriam Fellous-Sigrist, Data protection and Rights Clearance Officer.

Women picking netted gooseberries in Bedfordshire  1941

Above: Wartime Activities, women picking fruit, Bedfordshire, 1941. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Source: LSE Library.

One of the many joys of oral history is learning about unexpected topics. Whether recording an interview or discovering another interviewer’s work, oral history - and especially life story recordings - is full of information that we would not suspect if we were to only read the catalogue records and summaries.

In the last few months, I have worked on three collections of interview cassettes that were preserved by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. These are An Oral History of British Horticulture (British Library ref. C1029), An Oral History of the Post Office (C1007) and the Hall-Carpenter Oral History Archive (C456). Most of the interviews are several hours long, sometimes up to 13 hours. Unsurprisingly, they cover much more than the topics of horticulture, the Post Office, or gay and lesbian experience in the United Kingdom. Some of the transversal themes are fascinating to observe, and one of them is women’s work in the mid-20th century, across social classes and geographical areas.

A large part of my work as an UOSH Rights Officer is to review newly digitised and catalogued sound recordings before deciding whether they are suitable for online open access. When it comes to oral history recordings, conducting a sensitivity review requires paying attention to the interviewee’s family members, key life events and relationships. Each time, I am reminded of the wealth of sociological and historical information that is usually captured in the first hour of most interviews, which often depicts the origins of two parents and four grandparents, as well as their occupations and roles inside and outside the home.

Listening to these recordings shines a light on the power of sound archives, and on the limits of their written description. The four extracts below show the importance of diving into the audio version of any interview, to go beyond the misleading categories that are inevitably created by cataloguing and summarising. This includes the simplistic, and often wrong, category of 'housewife' used to describe an interviewee’s mother. Often the interview summary also hides the many paid and unpaid occupations that many women had in the 20th century. These jobs are revealed when oral history narrators talk about their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and themselves. Although my selection is only of female narrators, the shift in women’s and men’s roles is also described through these personal accounts, as can be heard in the last extract.

My selection starts with Pamela Schwerdt, who was co-interviewed for the Oral History of British Horticulture project in 2002. She was born in Esher, Surrey in 1931. Her father was a naval officer and her mother’s occupation is described as 'none given' in our catalogue. Yet, the first part of the interview unveils a busy trio of women who, between themselves, set up and chaired for a century the National Wildlife Society. Its success culminated in Pamela’s mother receiving a CBE in 1986 for her work as President of this Society.

In this clip Pamela talks about the three Presidents of the National Wildlife Society. The British Library ref. is C1029/08.

Listen to Pamela Schwerdt

Download Pamela Schwerdt transcript

In the same oral history collection dedicated to horticulture, Peggy Cole described in 2003 the many paid jobs that her mother had in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite being catalogued as a 'housewife', her mother worked as a hospital cleaner, a woodcutter and fruit picker. In this extract, Peggy, who was born in 1935, recounts how her mother worked after the birth of her last son in 1950 as one of a hundred other female seasonal workers near Easton, Suffolk. The British Library ref. is C1029/11.

Listen to Peggy Cole

Download Peggy Cole transcript

In the third extract, we hear about Gladys Hillier who worked as one of the few postwomen in the 1940s in Gloucester, where she was born in 1917. In the interview that she gave in 2002 as part of the Oral History of the Post Office project, she described how she went from working in an aircraft factory during World War II, to delivering the mail in 1947 until her retirement in 1982. The British Library ref. is c1007/57.

Listen to Gladys Hillier

Download Gladys Hillier transcript

Women’s new paid professional activities during World War 2 are discussed in our fourth interview. Jackie Forster, who was born in 1926 in London, reflected on the impact this social change had within her own family. In an interview for the Hall-Carpenter Oral History Archive, she explained how her mother worked as an ambulance driver during the war and started making money in the Stock Exchange to support her two children. Jackie’s mother became the breadwinner after her husband, who was an army doctor posted in India, was declared missing in 1939. In this extract, Jackie describes the new family roles and dynamic, and how these had to be accepted by her father, who eventually returned to England in 1945. The British Library ref. is C456/87.

Listen to Jackie Forster

Download Jackie Forster transcript

18 July 2022

Recording of the week: ‘Living open-handedly’

This week’s selection comes from Holly Gilbert who was, until recently, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections at the British Library.

Colour photograph of Michael and Paddy

Photo of Paddy Taggart & Michael McEvoy © BBC

One of the many highlights of working with the Listening Project collection for nearly a decade has been the joy of hearing the wisdom that other people have gained from their own lived experiences.

The recordings are mainly conversations between two people who know each other well so it is almost inevitable that some profound insights are made in the course of what can often be quite deep and personal discussions.

As I leave the British Library for a new path in life I’m thinking about the parallels between meditation and wild swimming that two friends, Michael and Paddy, discuss in their Listening Project conversation in Belfast. They talk about how they met through their shared interest in both these activities and remember some of the swims they have been on together.

They describe the magical experience of being immersed in nature and the wildlife they encounter in and under the water.

They also discuss how being in water allows you to see things from a different perspective, and reflect on the meditative and philosophical side of swimming as well as how much fun it can be.

In this extract Paddy describes very eloquently what you can learn from the nature of water and how it can be applied to life on land as well. I invite you to turn up the volume, let go and jump in!

Listen to Michael and Paddy

Download 'Living open-handedly' transcript

Listen to the full conversation on the British Library Sounds website

12 July 2022

Postcard from Dumre

Rahul Giri is one of our Resonations artists-in-residence alongside Yee I-Lann, whose recently published blog you can read online. Also known as _RHL, Rahul Giri is a producer and DJ based in Bangalore, India. While studying broadcast journalism, Rahul became one half of the duo Sulk Station, whose work has been described as ‘hypnotic, downtempo electronica with Hindustani musical influences’. For years, he has been an active developer of Bangalore’s alternative scene and musical identity, running Consolidate – an independent collective-turned-record-label. In this blog he gives us some insight into the start of his online residency at the British Library:

Dumre, a small town in central Nepal, was where my father was posted as a civil engineer in the late ‘90s. It was also where I spent many of my vacations. While thinking about how to approach the Resonations artist residency, I wanted to find a personal connection. This came through ethnomusicologist Carol Tingey’s field recordings of the Gaine community at Tarkughat village, Lamjung. A village that was less than 30 kilometers from our camp in Dumre.

Photo of gaine musicians in NepalPhoto of Gaines at Tarkughat Village, Lamjung with their instruments (madal, arbajo, sarangi, from left to right) taken by Dr. Carol Tingey, 1992

Carol Tingey’s recordings took me back to my childhood days in and around the hills of Dumre. During my father’s office hours I would leave the camp and wander around, following narrow winding paths up the neighboring hills surrounded by terraced farming plots, where a few huts were dotted here and there. My fear of the unknown was eclipsed by a sense of adventure and curiosity. My walk would almost always end at a cliff overlooking the boisterous Marshyangdi river; the climb down - steep and slippery, and thick with vegetation – was one I never attempted.

On my way back I’d stop at the solitary chia pasal (tea shop) just outside our camp for a bottle of Coca-Cola (charged against my father’s tab) and sometimes an order of wai wai noodles. The radio would always be on and tuned to Radio Nepal, playing mostly folk music and popular songs from Nepali cinema. At British Library Sounds you can listen to a selection of lok geet (folk songs) recorded by Carol Tingey at Gorkha, approximately 40 kilometers east from Dumre.

Every once in a while there were parties at the camp, and meat (maasu), alcohol (rakshi) and maadal (hollow drum) would come out. The staff and their family and friends would sit around the fire and sing songs. Paan ko Paat (Marshyangdi Salala), a hugely popular folk song in Nepal and for the Nepali diaspora, was a regular feature. Paan ko Paat is part of the dohori tradition in which a group of men and women sing back and forth in an improvised conversational format tied together by a set melody and chorus. Dohori songs are generally sung at melas (fairs), weddings and other festivities. The improvised lyrics are filled with flirtatious and suggestive metaphors in hope of courtship. You can listen to a rendition of Paan ko Paat by Gaine musicians recorded by Carol Tingey at British Library Sounds.

A lot of the songs recorded by Carol Tingey, especially the folk songs from Gorkha and Tarkughat, were the soundtrack of my time at Dumre. However it was her recordings of the Gaine tradition that really drew me into this sound archive collection.

The Gaines are a caste of professional musicians who traditionally traveled from village to village performing songs in return for money or food. Their primary instrument is the sarangi, a four string instrument played with a bow, generally accompanied by a madal (hollow drum). They have been referred to as bards, historians and journalists of the pre-radio era owing to the fact that they would sing songs about current affairs, socio-political issues, cautionary tales and events from neighboring villages. Their repertoire includes folklore, karkha (songs of historical heroic praise), mythologies, devotional and seasonal songs. The Gaines, once considered untouchable, also fall into the lowest bracket in terms of economic and social standing.

Though it was not the main focus of her research, Carol Tingey explored the Gaine tradition. First while researching the work and sound recordings of Arnold Adriaan Bake. Then later as part of a collaborative postdoctoral research project with musicologist Richard Widdess and musician and ethnomusicologist Gert-Matthias Wegner. Tingey’s own recordings of Gaines in Tarkughat, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, Nepal, made in the ‘80s and ‘90s, document much of the Gaine repertoire.

One example of a tragic ballad can be listened to in Tingey's recording of the song Sarumai Rani. The song, recorded in two parts (listen online to part one and part two), revolves around Sarumai Rani's desire to go to her maiti (parental home). She pleads to Raja, her husband, but he keeps refusing, instead he offers her ‘suna bote choli’, a gold studded blouse.

maiti rajako deshni ho

My home is your country too

fulera gayo kesha ni

aba janchhu mero maiti ko desha

My hair has turned gray (I have gotten old)

Now I want to go to my maiti

After much convincing, Raja finally concedes. Unfortunately Sarumai Rani is bitten by a snake on the way home and dies.

The music and story of Sarumai Rani encapsulates ‘dukha’ or sorrow, an emotion that is synonymous with Gaine music. Perhaps this emotion is a reflection of their social standing as well as the plight of rural and marginalized communities of Nepal.

Growing up in Kathmandu - especially during my late teens - I was always looking outwards. I listened to shortwave radio instead of FM or AM and found great joy in picking up albums from music stores in Kathmandu that sold dubbed cassette tapes of international releases. One of these tapes happened to be Radiohead’s Amnesiac. The album was going to be the building block of my musical journey - as a listener and musician. I was constantly looking for music with a similar emotion, which led me to artists like Sigur Rós and Portishead. The common thread joining them was melancholia, a sense of longing and vulnerability that was despairing and comforting at the same time. This experience is something I found in the music of Gaines.

So when I started thinking about the residency and listening to countless recordings in the sound archive, I found myself looking inwards instead. It wasn’t just a nostalgia-driven search but an attempt to find reference points for my musical landscape. A way to find parallels and make sense of what I do as a musician within the Nepali context.

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