THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

85 posts categorized "Archives"

16 July 2019

Magnetic Tape Alert Project

Add comment

The Magnetic Tape Alert Project is an initiative of the Information for All Programme (IFAP) Working Group on Information Preservation.

News_150719_magnetic_tape
Photo: Bernhard Graf, Vienna Phonogrammarchiv

 

Today’s knowledge of the linguistic and cultural diversity of humanity is widely based on magnetic tape recordings produced over the past 60 years. Magnetic audio and video tape formats are now obsolete, replay equipment in working condition is disappearing rapidly and the supply and service of spare parts is fading. As a result, the routine transfer of magnetic tape recordings is likely to cease around 2025. The only way to preserve these sounds and images in the long term, and to keep them accessible for future generations, is to digitize them and transfer to them to safe digital repositories.

While many professional memory institutions have already secured their audiovisual holdings, or have plans to do so in time, a great number of audio and video recordings are still in their original state, kept in small academic or cultural institutions, or in private hands.

With the Magnetic Tape Alert Project, the Information for All Programme (IFAP) of UNESCO, in cooperation with the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA), aims to alert stakeholders to the imminent risk of losing access to their audiovisual documents.

Part of this is to conduct a survey, focusing on unique recordings, to assess the scale of the risk. The information obtained through the survey will serve as a basis for future planning for the safeguarding of these irreplaceable original documents in the long-term. Information gathered will be used to compile a report that will be made publicly available.

For further information and to respond to the questionnaire, please go to the project website.

Deadline for completion: 30 September 2019

The project coordinator, Andrew Pace, can be contacted at: MTAP@iasa-web.org

IFAP logo IASA logo

11 March 2019

Recording of the week: Sora song

Add comment Comments (1)

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

The Sora people, are one of the oldest communities known in India. They are mainly situated in the hilly border area of the east Indian states Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Sora live on the hill slopes just below the remaining forests and in the valleys relatively isolated from the surrounding communities. The Sora habitats are mainly surrounded by Hindu Telugu (south Indian) and Oriya (north Indian) communities. The language of the Sora belongs to the Austro-Asiatic (Mundabranch) language group. The centre of the Sora life within the traditional groups is their traditional belief system of ancestor worship.

Christianity, especially in the form of Baptism (brought in by North American missionaries) made a big impact on Sora villages in Orissa. Less than fifty percent of Sora describe themselves as Hindu, which means they regard their traditional belief system – ancestor worship – as being part of Hinduism. The most important spiritual experts are kudan (mainly women), kudan-boi (women) and kudan-mar (men). Using elaborate rituals, dance and music performances, these experts are able to communicate with the deceased.

All Sora traditional music forms are more or less related to the religious rituals as performed individually or at festivals. Ancestor festivals are celebrated either immediately after the death of one person or after a longer time for several people. Therefore the intricate ritualistic festival Gu-ahr, consisting mainly of funeral stone planting and buffalo sacrifices, is usually performed for all ancestors who died in the previous 13 years.

Vocal music is mainly unaccompanied and the majority of performers are women. For each song one singer leads and the other singers follow with a slight delay. The women sing in a guttural raspy voice and use slight melismatic effects. Sometimes singers are accompanied by the gogoray fiddle, the two-string lute jenjurangrai, or the tiriduy flute. All ancestor rituals require certain lengthy mantras to be performed before the medium falls into trance and is able to hold a dialogue with the deceased.

Sora singers
Lakamma and Masalamma, two Sora priestesses and singers by Rolf Killius. © Rolf Killius. Image not licensed for reuse.

025M-RKDATX0004XX-0100V0

Ethnomusicologist Rolf Killius made this recording of two Sora priestesses in January 2001, inside the mud-thatched house of Mr. Jageya in the village Soyala Guda in the Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh state, India. In the following paragraph, Killius provides us with some contextual information about this mesmerising recording –

Lakkama from the indigenous Sora community first sings solo. Later her co-priestess, Masalamma joins in. Joining means she follows her slightly delayed, just for a fraction of a second. This exciting style of vocal music is - to my knowledge - unique in Indian Music. Indeed the Sora community are unique. They live along the border of the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and the North Indian state Odisha. This is also the border where the south Indian meet the north Indian language speakers. More peculiar is the fact that these two women speak and sing in Sora, a language belonging to the Austro-Asiatic language group. The style remotely reminds oneself of the way in which in Karnatic Music, the art music of South India, the instrumentalist, usually the violin player, follows the singer. When I asked the two Sora priestesses to elaborate on their style, they couldn’t understand my question. For them this is the ‘typical’ Sora music style, practised since the time immemorial. This piece celebrates the green (unripe) mango festival. Similar songs trigger these priestesses to fall into trance and in this condition are able to speak with their long-gone ancestors.

You can listen to more recordings of the Sora in the Music in India collection on British Library Sounds.

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

 

29 October 2018

Recording of the week: a high fidelity direct recording

Add comment

This week's selection comes from audio engineer Robert Cowlin.

Instantaneous lacquer discs frequently contain unique or rare recordings and, due to the instability of their sound carrying layer, are a preservation priority at the British Library Sound Archive. Also known as acetate discs, they generally consist of a metal substrate coated in a lacquer of cellulose nitrate which is modulated by a cutting stylus. The process is still in use today, comprising the first step in the manufacture of vinyl records. Many of the lacquers in the British Library’s collection were cut ‘on demand’ – direct to disc from radio broadcasts for patrons by independent cutters, such as W. H. Troutbeck of Twickenham. Today’s disc contains excerpts from “Visions of Saint Godric”, by Peter Crossley-Holland, cut on 17 October 1959.

Photograph of a Troutbeck lacquer disc cut on 17 October 1959

Cellulose nitrate degrades continuously over time, as it reacts with water vapour and oxygen, resulting in the eventual shrinkage of the lacquer layer. As the metal substrate cannot shrink, the lacquer cracks and flakes off resulting in the inevitable and irreversible loss of the sound carrying layer, hence their preservation priority status.

Lacquers from the 1950s onwards can be played like any other microgroove disc, with a lightweight elliptical or line contact pickup tracking at around 1.5 grams. Coarse groove lacquers also exist, so playback parameters may need to be modified to accommodate a wider groove. Test with a microgroove stylus first though.

This disc was cleaned in an ultrasonic bath using a solution of 1 parts photographic wetting agent to 70 parts deionised water. Like shellac discs, lacquers should not be cleaned with alcohol. Some instantaneous discs were coated with gelatine rather than cellulose nitrate. Gelatine reacts badly when exposed to water. I always perform a patch test on a non-modulated area before cleaning. Apart from digitising, one should avoid playing lacquer discs due to their fragility.

The disc in question is in very good condition considering its age, with no signs of delamination and only minor scuffing, it retains its deep shine when held to the light. Apart from some pops and intermittent surface noise, the sound quality is excellent. I’ve chosen a short passage that highlights the format’s ability to convey low-level detail – listen out for the audience!

Excerpt from Visions of Saint Godric by Peter Crossley-Holland (BL shelfmark 1LS0001183)

I’m giving a presentation on signal extraction from lacquer discs at this year’s British & Irish Sound Archives conference at the National Library of Wales on 17 November. More information about the conference can be found at http://www.bisa-web.org/next-event

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

08 August 2018

Actors and directors: the Anwar Brett collection

Add comment

Anwar Brett (1966-2013) was a freelance film critic and the author of the book Dorset in Film (Dorset Books, 2011). For around 25 years, from his early 20s onward, he wrote for a broad range of different national and regional newspapers and magazines.  He also contributed to The International Directory of Film & Filmmakers and the 1995 edition of Children’s Britannica.

It is clear he was passionately interested in film and also devoted to his home county of Dorset (he lived in Wimborne). His other interests included boxing and football.

Photo of Anwar Brett at a signing session for his book 'Dorset in Film'

Anwar Brett's wife Tracey donated his massive archive of tapes of interviews and press conferences to the British Library in 2016. The collection numbers approximately 1500 tape cassettes, covering the period 1989-2006; and approximately 900 CD-Rs, covering 2007-2013. This unique set of recordings features film actors and directors, mainly in a press conference setting but also sometimes in more informal settings - on-set or in telephone conversations (a 2001 telephone interview with Rita Tushingham is almost wholly concerned with the fortunes of Liverpool Football Club!). 

Speakers include major international and British stars such as Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson and Helen Mirren; and directors Kathryn Bigelow, Beeban Kidron, Spike Lee, Mike Leigh, Barbet Schroeder, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders -  to give a more-or-less random sample from this hugely varied collection.

The tapes are currently being catalogued by my colleague Trevor Hoskins. Trevor is about a quarter of the way through at the moment but it will be a long while yet before the end is in sight.

To follow progress and to see the tapes catalogued so far please go to our Sound and Moving Image catalogue and type in 'Anwar Brett tapes'. All are available to listen to on request via our free Listening and Viewing Service. You will need a British Library Reader Pass though.

Photo of tape cassette from the Anwar Brett collection, with handwritten insert visible. This tape contains recordings made on the set of 'The Mean Machine', 20 June 2001

To whet your appetite, here is a short clip of the then 23-year-old Danny Dyer, recorded on-set by Anwar Brett in June 2001, during the filming of the The Mean Machine.

Please note that this recording was made outdoors on a windy day, with consequent very noticeable wind noise. Contains strong language.

Listen to Danny Dyer

With thanks to Trevor Hoskins and Nick Churchill.

15 June 2018

International research collaboration on South Asian audiovisual heritage

Add comment

In March this year the British Library began a new research project with the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology American Institute of Indian Studies (ARCE) in India, focused around our South Asian audiovisual heritage collections.

Funded through a grant from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the project is part of  the Rutherford Fund – a major UK Government investment launched in 2017 to promote international research collaboration.

In this post, Dr Sangeeta Dutta, ARCE Archivist, discusses the research fellowship she has been undertaking as part of the project, in the World and Traditional Music section of British Library Sound Archive.

 

IMG_E6537
Dr Sangeeta Dutta

The ‘International Fellowship in South Asian Audiovisual Heritage: Preservation, Research and Engagement’ is a collective endeavour, involving the exchange and sharing of resources of two audiovisual archives - the British Library Sound Archive and the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology American Institute of Indian Studies (ARCE), India. It aims to facilitate the exchange of knowledge of archival practices and of collections, or information about collections, held in each location. A particular objective is to exchange historical recordings made in the first decades of the 20th Century on wax cylinders, and to make them accessible for users at both the archives.

In India, ARCE is one of the pioneers of audiovisual archiving. It was established in 1982, with a vision to bring together the recorded collections of music and oral traditions of South Asia. It has collections of field and published recordings, voluntarily deposited or donated by foreign and Indian scholars and institutions, which are preserved in climate controlled storage and made available for users in a well-equipped listening and viewing room. It has recording, transferring and audio and video archiving facilities, across different technologies and formats. It follows global standards of preservation in audio and video formats in the digital era.

Since I began my fellowship in March, I have had the opportunity to explore various South Asian collections, specially the recordings made in India, and to become familiar with the workflows of the British Library Sound Archive. This fellowship has also been instrumental in providing the opportunity to contribute to the Library’s major digitisation programme, the Save Our Sounds Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. As part of my contribution I have created collection preparation documents for 11 South Asian collections, which have been prioritised for digitisation.  

ARCE lab-3
M. Umashankar in the audio lab at ARCE

I have also been involved in the cataloguing process of both the field and published recordings in the World and Traditional Music section of British Library Sound Archive, creating catalogue entries, working with newly acquired collection items and dealing with born-digital collections. These experiences have been a brilliant learning opportunity for me as Rutherford Fellow. The project has also allowed me to compare, develop and share approaches towards making sound heritage accessible for wider dissemination.

During the Fellowship I have had the opportunity to attend various training courses, ranging from metadata creation to developing dissemination processes. Through these I have learnt something of the tools and practices that will be applicable at various stages of audiovisual archiving in future. The Fellowship has also made it possible for me to visit related institutions and exhibitions in and around London, and to meet scholars of various disciplines - archivists, museum curators, ethnomusicologists, etc. These meetings and discussions have immensely influenced my thought processes involving audiovisual archiving in relation to ethnomusicology.

Another component of the project has been the engagement of two Collections Assistants, one at the British Library Sound Archive (Christian Poske) the other at ARCE in India (Dr Divya Shrivastava). The assistants have contributed towards the preparation of the recordings shared between the two archives, exchanging knowledge around respective cataloguing formats, and developing a model for the classification and cataloguing of musical instruments. Both the Collections Assistants have had the opportunity to make short visits to the partner archives, thereby having hands on experience of archival processes in both institutions.  

IMG_6512
Dr Janet Topp Fargion (Lead, Curator of World and Traditional Music, centre) with Collections Assistants Christian Poske and Divya Shrivastava during her visit to the British Library  

One of the most useful outcomes of the sharing of recordings between our two audiovisual archives will be the wider level of dissemination, particularly where users cannot visit the actual site where the recordings are preserved. The project will make information and expert knowledge of ARCE collections available for the first time to British Library users and audiences in the UK. In India, on the other hand, where ARCE is one of the primary research centres for ethnomusicology, being able to provide access to British Library collections will be of great value to users – a mixture of Indian and international scholars.

Thus the Rutherford Fellowship has facilitated a substantial international collaboration between the British Library and the ARCE. This has enabled the Library to share resources preserved in London with the region of origin. At the same time detailed knowledge held at the ARCE, for example of particular instruments and instrument classification systems, will allow these resources to be more usefully described and discovered. We thank our funders for helping to create this new pathway for the circulation of knowledge among the institutions, building a bridge between the archives and their users. 

 

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

 

25 May 2018

GDPR day – changes to data protection law

Add comment

Amanda House, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage reflects on how the new data protection regulation will impact the sharing of audio archives online.

Gdpr2018

GDPR is a new regulation designed to strengthen and combine the existing protection provided by the Data Protection Act (1998) for all individuals within the European Union, replacing the 1995 Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC on which the UK Data Protection Act 1998 was based.

The primary aim of GDPR is to protect EU citizens from privacy and data breaches in an increasingly data-driven world. The UK Parliament is currently in the process of passing a bill that will ensure this protection will remain when the UK leaves the EU next year.

Data Protection law is designed to safeguard the privacy of identifiable living individuals and to protect them from substantial damage or distress in the processing of their personal data and sensitive personal data. The updated regulation includes harsher fines for non-compliance and breaches, and gives people more say in how their data is used.

As part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, the British Library and 10 partner organisations are digitally preserving some of the most at risk audio recordings and sharing them with as many people as possible. Over the next few years we will be publishing 100,000 recordings online, some of these may contain the personal and sensitive personal information of identifiable living individuals. Since many of the recordings are unpublished or broadcast we need to be especially careful to review the material before putting it online.

Article 89 of GDPR allows for ‘archiving in the public interest’ and Article 6(1)(e) allows for processing that is ‘necessary for the performance of a task carried out in the public interest’. This gives archives the permission to publish more material than a first reading of the new law might suggest.  Personal data in a recording is not, on its own, a reason to not share it online.  For the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project all the recordings will be assessed for data protection and sensitivity.  As long as the personal data is not likely to cause substantial damage or distress to a living individual we won’t redact or exclude the recording.  Of course, as well as complying with GDPR, we need make a number of other legal considerations  such as copyright and libel before making recordings available. However that is a topic for another blog!

For more information on how the British Library deals with personal information see the updated British Library Privacy Policy.

For all the latest Unlocking Our Sound Heritage news follow @BLSoundHeritage

UOSH_Footer with HLF logo

04 May 2018

Visual sound works from imaginary archives (part 1)

Add comment

Paul Wilson and Eva del Rey, co-curators of Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound present:

Since 2016 the British Library sound archive has been hosting show-and-tell and listening sessions for students from the Graphic and Communication Design department at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts.

This year we offered the students a tour of our free exhibition Listen:140 Years of Recorded Sound along with an introduction to the Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Guided by a brief from tutor Abbie Vickress, we hoped to inspire the students to develop projects in response to the sound archive collections. The brief asked students to reflect on the role of the archivist; on how sound is used in exhibitions; and how one might attempt to ‘archive the intangible’.

After two weeks of work the creative responses emerged in the form of one-minute sound pieces and video works with accompanying visual art, and one online performance. What follows is a mini-gallery of ten sound works and one video, each presented  with notes provided by the respective artists.

Michelle Lim draws inspiration from the exhibition’s display of historical recording devices and suggests that in our rush to digitise our sonic past we’re in danger of losing something equally precious – our tactile relationship with the physical world. Chang Liu and Julie-Anne Pugh both envisage therapeutic applications in which future ‘sound hospitals’ blend sound and memory to create bespoke treatments. Andrea Li seeks to preserve the endangered sounds of a once leisurely world, now being swept away in the headlong rush toward faster technology. Yuen Wai Virginia Ma and Alice Lin re-enact the ‘hit and miss’ nature of archival selection/survival, and its equally arbitrary neurological counterpart, the human brain.

Michelle Lim_The Archive of Tactile expression 

 

Michelle Lim - The Death of the Button 🔊

    The Archive of Tactile Expression exists in a future where our relationship with technology has become so intimate that it acts as our intermediary with the physical world. Everything has been virtualized, thus, we have forgotten how it feels to touch. Physical objects have been modelled and re-conceptualised into digital space. All of our motions have been reduced to the limited gestures between our fingertips and the screen.

    The Archive includes The Death of the Button - an audio-narration of the history of the push-button, an artifact that sits in the Archive. It narrates the push-button's transition from an object of wonderment in the 20th century to an intangible idea in an era of 21st-century touchscreens.  More from Michelle Lim

 

Chang Liu _ Sound Hospital

Chang Liu - Sound Hospital  🔊

    The ‘Sound Hospital’ is a place that archives coloured noises. Different coloured noises have different functions. For example, white noise can help people with concentration while pink noise can help people to sleep well….

    So, what I want to do is to provide an experience room for people in this hospital.

Julie-Anne Pugh_Music Remedies

Julie-Anne Pugh - Music Remedies: The Hangover Cure 🔊

    Music Remedies challenges modern attitudes toward well-being and the many new health trends we are adapting to, through an attempt to heal physical illnesses like hangovers without the need of painkillers.

    This 60-second sound piece is a sample of a longer composition designed to guide one out of the depths and into the light through a series of specific layered sounds.

Andrea Li_Obsolete interactions

Andrea Li - Obsolete Interactions  🔊

    ‘The Collection of Obsolete Interactions’ is one of the sound categories within the slow archive that showcases everyday forgotten ephemeral interactions that have become redundant due to developments in technology and the drive for consumers wanting things faster, stronger and better. These interactions relate to the entertainment, service and communication areas of consumers’ lives.

364F50E4-77D7-4F9C-A80F-EA84A98973BC

Yuen Wai Virginia Ma & Alice Lin - Brain as an Archive 🔊

    Brain as an Archive is a performance that shows our minds’ selective archives of memories, conversations and emotional baggage. The main objective of this project is to give authorship to the viewer in creating their own narrative. The sound of this piece is composed of a combined mix of different narratives.

Go to part 2

13 April 2018

T.M. Johnstone’s Modern South Arabian recordings: collaborative cataloguing and ‘footprints’ of biocultural change in Southern Arabia

Add comment

Audio cataloguer Dr Alice Rudge writes:

Thomas Muir Johnstone made many recordings during his research trips to the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which are of endangered and unwritten languages. The British Library now houses these open reel and cassette tapes, which were acquired from Durham University Library in 1995. The collection is archived within the World and Traditional Music collection with the reference C733. As part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, these tapes have now been digitised and are being catalogued. The cataloguing of the tapes in this collection containing Modern South Arabian languages was made possible through a collaborative process, which revealed not only the content of the tapes, but also the webs of intertwining stories and lives that they document. 

Abdul Qadr
T.M. Johstone sits with Abdul Qadr, the head of education in Dhofar at the time. He admired Johnstone for his beautiful Arabic handwriting (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Johnstone had a talent for languages from an early age, learning to speak Polish as a schoolboy, before settling on Arabic (in particular the Gulf dialects) as the language to which he would devote much of his career. However, his work was also invaluable for the documentation and description of Modern South Arabian languages, in particular Mehri, Shehret and Harsusi. He often worked long-term with particular speakers such as ‘Ali Musallam, who in fact spent many months living in London so that Johnstone could continue to work with him. In 1967, Johnstone was also part of a joint civilian and army expedition to the island of Soqotra. Johnstone was the group’s linguist, and accompanying him were also archaeologists, geologists, and botanists (the trip is documented in Doe 1992).  

Map
Map showing the distribution of Modern South Arabian languages in Yemen and Oman. Cartography by Ulrich Seeger. Used with kind permission from the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian team.

The Modern South Arabian languages Harsusi, Mehri, Shehret, Hobyot, Bathari, and Soqotri are distinct from Arabic. They are spoken in Yemen (including the island of Soqotra) and Oman, as well as elsewhere in the Gulf. Whereas Arabic is from the Northern branch of the Afro-asiatic language family, Modern South Arabian languages are from the Southern branch. Each of these languages are endangered, and are undergoing rapid change in response to urbanisation and the ever-increasing use of the dominant contact language, Arabic, in younger generations. This process of language loss was already happening during Johnstone’s fieldwork, and is continuing now. Modern South Arabian languages are also purely oral languages, with no formal script, making the sound archive’s preservation of these recordings vital for documenting the languages as they were spoken by individuals at that moment in time. As they are unwritten languages, recordings are the only documents.

When beginning to catalogue the recordings containing Modern South Arabian languages, the language barrier impeded us from making them accessible, as to us the content was often unidentifiable. In order to give due care and attention to the cataloguing of this significant and at-risk collection of recordings, we were therefore fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of Prof. Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris.

Prof. Janet Watson is Leadership Chair for Language at Leeds University. She works on the documentation of Modern South Arabian languages, alongside Arabic dialectology, phonology, and morphology. She is also a fellow of the British Academy. Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri is a speaker of Mehri, and also understands Harsusi and Shehret. Based in Oman, he collaborates closely with Janet, and has co-published papers with her. Dr Miranda Morris, St Andrews University, has been doing extensive fieldwork in Southern Arabia (including Soqotra) for many years, and has researched and published comprehensively on oral literature and on the ethnobotany of the area. She also worked closely with Johnstone in the past, as he was the supervisor for her PhD at SOAS. They all collaborate on the Leverhulme Trust-funded Modern South Arabian languages project, a three-year community-based project which aims to document the Modern South Arabian languages spoken in Yemen and Oman.

Not only were Janet, Abdullah and Miranda able to contribute their expertise towards our cataloguing work, providing us with information on the languages used in the recordings, the content of the recordings, and in some cases the names of the speakers, they were also able to illuminate a profound sense of the time and place in which the recordings were made through their extensive background knowledge – and to situate this within the current context of rapid language and environmental change in the area.

Indeed, environmental and language loss tend to go hand in hand – with the most linguistically diverse parts of the world tending to also be the most ecologically diverse. When the landscape changes, the language we have to describe it also disappears. The Modern South Arabian languages which Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda speak and work on are rich in evocative metaphors and similies that are connected to the particular landscape of the area. For example, if a man is described as axahēh sīmar ‘he looks like a mar tree’, he is compared to the Boscial Arabica tree, a tree of the desert and drier mountains that looks like an ‘opened umbrella’. In other words, he is characterised by his ‘height, uprightness, slenderness and a shock of hair’ (Morris, p.c., Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95).

In some cases, particular words used to describe the environment are ‘grammaticalised’ – changing from having a meaning as words on their own, to also taking on a grammatical function. For example, in Mehri, the word śaff (śɛf in Shehret) means ‘animal track’, or ‘footprint’. This word, however, has also been historically grammaticalised – and is now used as the particle śaf, having the sense of ‘it transpired’, ‘as it happened’, ‘really’ (Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95). This particle is a kind of metaphorical extension of the noun śaff (‘footprint, animal track’) that now resonates beyond its original, literal meaning, to encode a sense of surprise, or revelation, that something has turned out to be as it has - just like an animal’s footprints reveal an indisputable trace of what or who has passed by. As Janet and Abdullah put it ‘from sight someone might believe that they are following a camel from one herd, but on close examination of tracks [śaff] discover they are tracking a camel from a different herd’ (Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95). Just like tracks reveal someone or something’s true identity or nature, therefore, the particle śaf describes this sense of revelation and surprise that transpires from new information or evidence.

Camel track
A photo of a camel track, taken by Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and used with kind permission.

 

Camels
A photo taken by Johnstone of camels in the Negd. They are desert camels, so they have thin delicate legs, unlike mountain camels who have thicker legs and more splayed feet (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

This experience of ‘revelation’ was reflected in our own process of cataloguing the collection – where tapes that we thought to be one thing turned out to be another, as their true identity was unlocked and thus revealed by Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda. Some of the tapes were unlabelled, others had been placed in the wrong boxes. Our collaborative work was thus fundamental to ensure these sound recordings are preserved for the future with meaning, not catalogued as ‘unidentified’ or ‘unnamed’ and consequently remaining almost invisible in the Library’s catalogue.

One recording was found by Abdullah and Miranda to be of someone speaking in Hobyot – a language we weren’t previously aware was represented in the collection, but are now able to catalogue accordingly. Another recording in Harsusi was rich in ethnobotanical detail. However, as well as doing the essential work of identifying things like language, speakers, and content, Janet, Miranda, and Abdullah were able to unlock something of the time and place that the recordings were made, and in fact, a common theme of some of the stories in the collection was this very experience of revelation, of something turning out to be something else.

Below are three Soqotri stories, translated and interpreted by Dr Miranda Morris:

[C733/8] ‘Story of two thieves’. The two thieves want to learn about thieving from each other. One has a ‘sword’, the other has some ‘honey’. They each don’t know what the other is doing. The thief with the sword offers for the other to buy it, but the other says he doesn’t have money, only honey. They exchange items – only for the man who thought he would receive a fine sword to find it was only a date palm frond, and the man who was given the honey to find he had been given sticks of excrement. They both laughed and said ‘we’re as bad as each other’.

[C733/3] ‘Story of the fisherman from Momi’. The fisherman is looked after by a lady vulture. He feeds her fish and she looks after the house. He goes out and meets some people who ask him to come out with them – he says he can’t because of his ‘old lady’ back home. They say OK – we’ll come to you. He lights a fire and cooks fish for them. He ends up travelling with them for 2 weeks, and gets lost in a foreign country. He finds another boat, lands in another country, and has to live by begging. A man offers him to come and look after his goats, even though he says he doesn’t know anything about goats. He tells him to look after the camels and date palms – but he doesn’t know how to do that either. Finally he says it doesn’t matter, I’ll look after you and give you clothes and food until you die. That night the fisherman dreamed of home and his old life. A witch appears to him in his sleep, and tells him to go to where the sharks are feeding at dusk - you’ll see the sharks with their mouths open waiting to feed. She tells him to cover his face and wade amongst them. He finds the sharks, does as she says, and in the morning finds himself in his own country… In his house, he finds a woman instead of the vulture…

[C733/1] ‘Story of the man and the jiniyya’. A man left Momi [on the Eastern tip of Soqotra]. He is going to see the Sultan in Hadiboh [the capital]. He goes to the home of the representative of the Sultan. He goes to Kam – where the Sultan’s palace is. He meets him at a famous Christ thorn tree called Gidehem. On the way, a woman he meets seems to know him [this is very common of jiniyya] – they go on together, they lie down to sleep – she says how will we cover ourselves – they use his waist cloth. Underneath, he is naked except for his knives. He says ‘come a bit closer’. He sees her ‘tifr’ [this is the one long fingernail which marks out someone as a jiniyya]. Then he knew that she was a jiniyya. He says ‘go away! I know you!’. He grabs his knives and stick and sleeps elsewhere and then runs away. She chased him all the way home to a house that wasn’t his, where he wakes up a sleeping man. He couldn’t explain himself as he was too stunned. The jiniyya says ‘that man has been rude and he will do no good and he will die’. Then he was dead...

Beach
A photo taken by Johnstone of the beach at Duqm, Oman, now a large development (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

In these Soqotri stories, the ‘sword’, the ‘honey’ the ‘vulture’ and the ‘woman’ all undergo a process of 'revelation', and turn out to be something other than was first thought. Here, a date palm frond, sticks of excrement, a human wife, and a jiniyya. Similarly, Miranda also writes that much Soqotri poetry (which the T.M. Johnstone collection also contains) makes use of a poetic device she translates as 'veiled language', from Soqotri di-ḥarf 'concealed', and di-xīlīyə 'placed beneath'. This is where the true intention of the poet is 'intelligble only to people of superior wit and insight' or to those who 'share some secret knowledge with the poet' (Morris 2013:239). A further parallel, therefore, with the 'revealing' of information in the stories, where things also transpired to be something other than was first thought.

As well as being able to describe the content of the stories to us, Miranda was able to provide us with great detail about the context of the stories and the speakers. The jiniyya was ‘revealed’ as not what the man thought, but also ‘revealed’ was the history of the place Gidehem, mentioned in the story. Miranda told of how the place is named after the famous tree of the same name. Thieves’ hands would be hung in this tree after they had been cut off as a punishment for thieving. The hands would first be boiled in shark oil, then hung up for all to see. Though this no longer happens, the place is still called Gidehem, after the tree.

In another recording from Soqotra, the speaker talks about mekoli (shamanic healers in Soqotra). He talks about how mekoli can help to ‘wash away’ your sickness, by pointing out which woman has done witchcraft on you. He then describes the process by which an accused women would be tried for being a witch: she would have a millstone tied to her neck and then be thrown overboard from a dugout canoe. If she sank, she was innocent. If she floated, she was a witch and sent on the next boat to Sur (in Oman). Miranda was able to translate the speaker talking about these past practices – and also to share her memories of her Soqotri friends recounting their older relatives talking about how this practice came to be abolished.

Children
A photo taken by Johnstone of children on the beach in Oman. One of the children wears a silver earring, suggesting that his mother may have lost a lot of children. The earring attracts witches away from the child, and so keeps him safe (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Working with Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda was therefore invaluable for revealing the 'footprints' not only of the content of the recordings, but also the landscape they grew from – the environmental landscape and the cultural landscape that Johnstone and the speakers he recorded were immersed in, alongside other British colonial activities taking place in Aden. Recording and preserving this knowledge accurately is an essential part of the preservation work we are engaged with in the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. To use Miranda’s words:

‘many of the traditional uses described have undergone modification or have already been lost. One result of recent development on the islands [of Soqotra] is that certain traditions or procedures are now seen as unsuitable or ‘backward’ and at odds with the more conservative views of modern Islam. Other uses and customs are seen as representing a time of desperation and poverty which many would prefer to forget. In this way, the recent rapid changes affecting the islands threaten to obliterate expertise and knowledge that have passed down the generations over hundreds of years’

(Morris & Miller 2004:3)

To return to our footprints metaphor: as Janet and Abdullah describe, many young speakers of Mehri will use the particle śaf in sentences to mean ‘it turned out that’ or 'it was revealed', but are unaware of the link between this word and the social importance of using footprints to track people and animals in the past. This unawareness is likely to be related to the environmental change caused by increasing urbanisation – you don’t use tracks or footprints to discover information when walking on solid asphalt (Ali Ahmad al-Mahri, quoted in Watson & al-Mahri 2017:96).

To help preserve this unique knowledge, therefore, we have been delighted to work with Prof. Janet Watson, Abdullah al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris – and we will further extend this work on the sound recordings of Modern South Arabian languages contained in the the T.M. Johnstone collection by reconnecting them with the speech communities in Soqotra and Oman. This will continue the process of revealing hidden information through the sharing of expertise and knowledge.

Jibjat
Johnstone walks on the plane behind Jibjat in Oman, amongst Chirst thorn trees. This area is now all desert, with no trees (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Thanks to Professor Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri and Dr Miranda Morris for their enthusiasm and for adding their insights on the collection. Many thanks also go to curator of World and Traditional music Andrea Zarza Canova, and to members of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project team, for facilitating the research.

The T.M. Johnstone collection can be found by searching the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue with collection call number C733

Copies of Johnstone’s published lexicons can also be found at the British Library:

Mehri, 1987 [YC.1987.a.5434]

Shehret [Jibbali], 1981 [X.950.11437]

Harsusi, 1977 [X989.51585]

References:

Doe, B. 1992. Soqotra: island of tranquillity. London: IMMEL Publishing Ltd.

Miller, A.G. & Morris, M.J. 2004. Ethnoflora of the Soqotra Archipelago. Edinburgh: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Morris, M.J. 2013. The use of 'veiled language' in Soqoṭri poetry. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 43: pp. 239-244. 

Watson, J.C.E. & al-Mahri, A.M. 2017. Language and Nature in Dhofar. In Linguistic Studies in the Arabian Gulf. Edited by Simone Bettega and Fabio Gasparaini. Turino: Quaderni di RiCOGNIZIONI, pp. 87-103.

Related links:

Alice Rudge talking with Rowan Campbell and Andrew Booth about the project on the Linguistics at the Library podcast

British Academy podcast in which Prof. Janet Watson discusses the relationship between environmental and linguistic diversity

Friends of Soqotra charity

Deposits of Modern South Arabian linguistic materials can be found at the Endangered Languages Archive

Information on the major, international, community-based project that focusses on the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian languages, and is coordinated by Dr Janet Watson and funded by the Leverhulme Trust  

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage 

World and Traditional Music collection

British Library Sound Archive on NTS Radio

HLF-english_compact_black

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is a five year project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, that will digitally preserve some of the most vulnerable sound recordings in the UK and establish the ways for our audio heritage to be shared with a wide range of audiences now and in the future.