Sound and vision blog

606 posts categorized "Sound and vision"

29 September 2023

Ripples of history: Sıbızğı recordings from northern Xinjiang

The Sıbızğı Recordings from Northern Xinjiang Collection (British Library ref: C1960) includes digital copies of several home-made cassettes, radio interviews, and film soundtracks from northern Xinjiang, documenting the repertoire of the bi-phonic, end-blown flute sıbızğı (also: sybyzghy), played among Kerey (also: Kereit or Kerei) Kazakhs. The collection contains more than eight hours of music and folk narratives, 309 recording pieces in total. Historically, the sıbızğı was played by eloquent Kazakh orators, often village leaders, at anniversaries, celebrations, and discussions of village affairs. Each sıbızğı melody relates to a unique folktale, of ancient warriors, modern rebel heroes, animals and hunters, birds, orphans, and famous poets of the Kazakhs. Geographically, the sıbızğı tradition is performed primarily in modern-day Xinjiang and western Mongolia. Most Kazakhs in this region trace their ancestors to the Orta Cüz (Middle Horde) group, and the majority of sıbızğı players, though by no means all, are Kerey Kazakhs, whose clans, families, and villages share cultural memory through performance and recordings of the sıbızğı repertoire.

A map of sıbızğı sound collections in Xinjiang

Above: A map of sıbızğı sound collections in Xinjiang. The collections document performances by musicians in northern Xinjiang, including the regions of Altay, Qumul, and Erenqabırğa, a strip region from Sauan to Urumchi.

The origin

According to oral literature, the sıbızğı was created by shepherds while grazing, making a múñlı (sad, melancholy, or sorrowful) sound, which has a pronounced difference from the ‘cheerful’ sound produced by the dombıra (dombyra). Some folktales take the following form:

During a time of many hardships for the Kazakhs of the steppes, a cruel bay (rich lord) sent two orphans to watch over a flock of sheep and protect them from wolves, threatening to beat them if they failed in their task. One day, the younger boy thought he heard the howl of a wolf and drove the sheep to a new location. Over several days he heard the howl again and again, until he realised that the sound was not a wolf after all, in fact it was the wind blowing through hollyhock reeds that had been eaten by the sheep. Plucking one from the ground, he began to blow into it, putting his fingers over the various holes in the stem to change its pitch. One night, the other boy heard this strange new sound and asked, 'Are you crying?' The younger shepherd boy replied, 'No, I am playing a melodious voice.' Since that day, the boys began playing the hollyhock reeds together, creating new sounds. Later, the practice spread to the people, and the hollyhock came to be called 'sızılğı'. Over time, folk intellectuals adapted the reeds with two, three and four holes to make new sounds, and this came to be called sıbızğı.

While found in hardly any written, published sources, such origin stories about the sıbızğı are abundant among the community of sıbızğı players and their listeners. Most of the folktales refer to the Syr River region as an important place in the origin of the sıbızğı, partially because of the legend of Qorqıt Ata (Grandfather Qorqıt; Korkut Dede in Turkish), a famous poet, philosopher, epic chanter, and a high-ranking baqsı (shaman) in both the historical Turkic world and folk literature. Qorqıt Ata was born in the 8th century AD in the Syr River region and served as the prime minister of five khanates in his lifetime. According to The Book of Qorqit Ata, a compilation of oral literature, Qorqıt and the Prophet Muhammad lived at the same time, and the Kazakh national instrument – the qobız – was invented by Qorqıt, who also left a large number of mythological musical accounts to the later Kazakh nation.

Listening example 1

'Qorqıttıñ Küyi' (The Tune of Qorqıt), performed by Tölegen Qúndaqbay-úlı. There are a few sıbızğı pieces that depict the life of Qorqıt, and many sıbızğı players believe Qorqıt is also the inventor of sıbızğı.

Listening example 2

'Aqsaq Qúlan Cosığan' (The Crippled Red Horse Is Running), performed by Mansur Böreke-úlı.

The complexity of the stories about the early mythological history of the sıbızğı indicates a diverse and cross-regional array of folklore throughout Xinjiang and Central Asia. Sıbızğı tunes often feature folk tales with relatively concrete historical accounts up to the era of Ghengis Khan in the 12th century, also highlighting the shared cultural roots of residents in the Altaic region – merged tribes of Kazakhs and Mongols. For example, 'Aqsaq Qúlan' (Crippled Red Horse) presents a tragic, but philosophical, story of the Mongolian Khan and his son: Genghis Khan loved his son Jöchi, so much so that he ordained that anyone who brought news of the boy’s death to him would have their head filled with lead. One day, the poet Ketquba had a nightmare of Jöchi tumbling from his horse and dying, a vision that proved to be correct. To inform the Khan, Ketquba played his dombıra, making a sound like a galloping horse. Upon hearing the song, Genghis Khan trembled and wept, asking, 'Why does this song make me feel so sad, as if it heralds the news of Jöchi’s death?' The poet put down his dombıra and explained the story of Jöchi’s death in a poem. The Khan was ready to kill Ketquba in the manner he had ordained, until the poet countered: 'It was not I, but the dombıra who told you of your son’s death through sound.' True to his word, the Khan filled the dombıra with lead. In modern-day Kazakh legend, this is how the dombıra got its soundhole.

Throughout the history of the Kazakh nation, there have always been individuals combining the roles of philosopher, poet, and musician, and the same applies to sıbızğı performers. The first widely recognised sıbızğı master was Asan Qayğı Sábyt-úlı, a famous 14th-century Kazakh philosopher, aqın (poet), cırau (folk singer), by (debater and judge), and prophet. He served as an important minister of the Golden Horde and the Kazakh Khanate. According to the sources, Asan Qayğı worried about all matters concerning the life of the Kazakhs, from personal disputes to clan affairs. He rode a celmaya (white camel) all his life, in search of a cerúyiq (paradise), rich in water and plants and free from feuds and inequality.

During the Ablay Khan era in the 18th century, the skilful sıbızğı tradition became highly developed in the Syr River region. Berdiqoja was a famous sıbızğı player of this age, who served the Khan by playing tunes about historical heroes and their martial exploits. In the 19th century, Cılqışı Ahtan-úlı was a well-known sıbızğı master, and later performers called him the Sıbızğı Piri (The Angel of the Sıbızğı). Cılqışı was the first to have the mixed role of sıbızğı master and by, and was highly respected in solving village affairs through gatherings that featured the playing of the sıbızğı. In early 20th-century Altay, there were four prominent bys who are still venerated by contemporary sıbızğı masters, among whom Bensenbi was better known as a composer on dombıra and sıbızğı.

Contemporary practices

Until the later 20th century, any gathering including sıbızğı playing was also regarded with reverence, rather than viewed as normal entertainment. Carole Pegg (1991), writes of the necessity 'for every Kazak family to own one (sıbızğı) and to keep it in a respected place, even if they could not play' (p. 75). In any gatherings where the flute is present, storytelling, mainly in question-and-answer form, and sıbızğı playing function as one, addressing topics of history, social justice, and important public initiatives. Even today, cyın (gatherings or assemblies) and toy (parties) are still important parts of collective life within a Kazakh clan. In such events, talking and discussing issues are major activities, while music-making can serve either as an interlude to such discussions, or sometimes as the central focus.

In recent times, playing dombıra and singing án (folksongs) have become more popular, and the role of the sıbızğırole has diminished, yet historically the sıbızğı played an essential role, and continues to represent a significant cultural memory for Kerey Kazakhs. The use of the sıbızğı to control a crowd’s mood through music, or influence the atmosphere of a gathering during a moment of musical storytelling, is a deeply embedded historical practice that for many Kazakh musicians represents a more ‘true’ vision of Kazakh culture than the dombıra.

Prof. Talğat Múqışov of the National Conservatory of Kazakhstan offers the following explanation of the instrument’s historical development in Kazakhstan: before Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, the sıbızğı was not as popular as now. In 1934, during the Soviet era, the Symphony Orchestra of Qurmangazi was established in the city of Almaty, and the flute replaced other wind instruments, including the ‘unfortunate’ sıbızğı. At that time, musical instruments that could not fully represent the spirit of the entire Soviet people would not be considered 'qualified musical instruments'. A 'real instrument' was one that could play any kind of music in a symphony orchestra. As the sıbızğı only plays Kazakh music, it was regarded as a mere 'national musical instrument' that could only be played on limited stages. According to Múqışov, the sıbızğı currently represents the true 'Kazakh spirit' that has been driving the enthusiasm of the participants in the region’s 'new folk music' (Múqışov 2016).

Sıbızğı player Nığımet Qabdolla-úlı in his home in Qútıby County

Above: Sıbızğı player Nığımet Qabdolla-úlı in his home in Qútıby County, date unspecified.

Sıbızğı player Qúttıbay Sıdıq-úlı in a public assembly

Above: Sıbızğı player Qúttıbay Sıdıq-úlı in a public assembly, 5 May 2002.

Students playing sıbızğı  Qútıby County

Above: Students playing sıbızğı, Qútıby County, 2014. Photo by Xiaoshi Wei. 

Recordings

Since the 1960s, the sıbızğı has been recorded for radio, mainly on open-reel tapes, the first ever medium to capture and preserve the sound of the sıbızğı. Due to the high acoustic fidelity of open-reel tape and to the diffusion of radio, recording artists began to be viewed with respect and to gain higher status across Xinjiang. In the early days of the radio network, artists who were played on radio, e.g., Qoşanay and Tölegen, were held in particularly high regard.

Since the 1980s, the rise of cassettes has given people a more personal connection to their recorded music, with greater autonomy over their use of the medium itself. Because of the compactness of the cassette machine, the sıbızğı community started to believe this was more advanced technology. In village life, being recorded, similarly to being photographed, became seen as an ‘advanced’ act. People began to make personalised programs on cassette to document sıbızğı gatherings, creating playlists with the music in their preferred order. Recording is also an act that can strengthen ties between clan members: events involving the sıbızğı frequently include discussion of migration history, forging strong relationships between performers within the same clans. At parties or gatherings where old friends and relatives reunite after a long time, people play songs and talk about their shared relatives who were lost along the way. Sıbızğı players would intentionally play tunes about the journey of life. Lengthy spoken introductions before each tune talk about those who were lost, and the act of recording helps to preserve these interpersonal moments.

Since the 2000s, historical recordings of the sıbızğı began to appear on VCD (Compact Disc Digital Video) and on the internet. At present, the younger generation can access performances by their fathers’ contemporaries from mobile phones and computer screens. Although the traditional large gatherings that centre on sıbızğı performance have begun to diminish, the historical recordings still function as a means to pass down the music.

Sıbızğı player Mansur Böreke-úlı

Above: Sıbızğı player Mansur Böreke-úlı.

A family cassette tape of performance by Mansur Böreke-úlı

Above: A family cassette tape of performance by Mansur Böreke-úlı.

A family cassette of performances by Tölegen Qúndaqbay-úlı

Above: A family cassette of performances by Tölegen Qúndaqbay-úlı.

Recording session with sıbızğı players

Above: Múhamet Áubákir-úlı in a recording session with Urumchi-based sıbızğı players Beyilqan Qalyakbar-úlı and Qúsman Maqmırza, date unspecified.

VCD of documentary film

Above: VCD of the documentary film Máñgilik Sarın: Qútby Öñiriniñ Sıbızğı Táryhi (Eternal Melody: History of the Sıbızğı in the Qútby Region), 2007.

Listening example 3

'Marğabıldıñ Qara Qasqa Atınıñ Şabısı - Bastapqı Şabısı' (The Running Posture of Marğabıl’s Horse - Beginning), performed by Nığımet Qabdolla-úlı.

This tune portrays a historical horse-racing gathering among the Kerey and Nayman tribes of Xinjiang Kazakhs. It highlights the historical rivalry between the two tribes and the sense of prideful superiority the Kerey feel over the Nayman, a sentiment that still prevails among Kerey cultural insiders, even those who live hundreds or thousands of miles from their homelands.

Poster for the publication Ripples Historical Recordings of Sıbızğı

Above: The poster of the publication Ripples: Historical Recordings of Sıbızğı, with written text in Kazakh (in both Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets), Chinese and English.

Recovering home cassettes

Starting in 2013, Prof. Xiao Mei at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music has been financially supporting my initiative to collect and document a large number of homemade cassette recordings of sıbızğı performance. With the goal of creating an archival package containing interviews, audio recordings, and edited texts, I conducted fieldwork in Altay, Qútıby, Urumchi, Şiñgil, and Qumul, gaining access to several individuals’ private recordings. At the individuals’ homes, I also created digital copies of their private cassettes; more than 400 recordings of sıbızğı tunes were collected from families in northern Xinjiang, allowing researchers to examine the repertoire, content, and stories behind the music in unprecedented scope. The Sıbızğı Recordings from Northern Xinjiang Collection, now deposited at the British Library, displays the significance of Kazakh musical heritage, documenting a way of life that is rapidly changing and helping to preserve an image of longstanding traditional musical practice, capturing performances by masters of the sıbızğı who have since passed away.

This post was written by Dr Xiaoshi Wei, Newton International Fellow at SOAS University.

Reference

Pegg, Carole. 1991. 'The Revival of Ethnic and Cultural Identity in West Mongolia: the Altai Uriangkhai Tsuur, Tuvan Shuur and Kazakh Sybyzgy'. Journal of the Anglo-Mongolian Society, 12 (1-2): p. 71.

Múqışov, Talğat. Interview. Conducted by Qahar Erbol, 24 May 2016.

Núsúltan Núrahmet-úlı. Múratqan Bybyrál-úlı, and Örken Qaydar-úlı. 2007. Mañgilik Sarın: Qútıby Öñiriniñ Sıbızğı Táryhi (永恒的旋律:呼图壁地区斯布孜额介绍, 'Eternal Melody: History of Sıbızğı in the Qútıby Region'). Şyncyañ Dıbıs-Beyne Baspası (新疆音像出版社).

Various Artists. 2023 (forthcoming). Ripples: Historical Recordings of Sıbızğı in Xinjiang (Толқын: Сыбызғы үнінің тарихы, 波浪:斯布孜额历史录音). Recordings compiled and liner notes written by Xiaoshi Wei.

22 September 2023

Emmanuelle Olivier’s ‘Damara-Nama’ recordings and their return to Sesfontein, Namibia

In March 2022 a full set of digital copies of recordings of ‘Damara-Nama’ musics now archived in the British Library was returned to the Indigenous rights holders in Sesfontein, north-west Namibia. These recordings were made in 1999 by French ethnomusicologist Emmanuelle Olivier, assisted by the late Minette Mans, an ethnomusicology professor at the University of Namibia.

In 2015 they were brought from France to the UK by ethnomusicologist Angela Impey (School of Oriental and African Studies, London). They are archived at the British Library as part of the Emmanuelle Olivier Collection, which contains field recordings made between 1993 and 2001 among several hunter-gatherer and pastoralist peoples living in or near the Kalahari Desert Basin.

The collection mostly focuses on the musical repertoires of Ju|’hoansi, but also features ‘Damara-Nama’, Himba, Ovambo, Ndonga, Kwanyama, Haiǁom and Kxoe musics and songs. Catalogued under collection number C1709, the Olivier collection can be browsed in the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue, and a selection of the Ju|’hoansi and ‘Damara-Nama’ recordings can be streamed through the British Library Sounds website.

Sesfontein is a long-established settlement –now with municipality status– located close to the Hoanib River in Namibia’s Kunene Region. Historically it has been home to dynamic populations of Khoekhoegowab1 -speaking Damara / ǂNūkhoen2 , Nama and ǁUbun3 , as well as otjiHerero-speaking ovaHimba and ovaHerero. Olivier’s recordings focused on the musical repertoire of Khoekhoegowab-speakers in this community.

Google map showing the locations of Sesfontein and the Hoanib River in Namibia

Above: Google map showing the locations of Sesfontein and the Hoanib River in Namibia. 

Looking east over the settlement of Sesfontein in 1995

Above: Looking east over the settlement of Sesfontein in 1995. The large building in the foreground is a German fort built in the early 1900s to consolidate colonial control, following a major regional uprising involving especially (but not only) Nama members of the Sesfontein community. Renovated in the 1980s under Gaob (King) Justus ǁGaroëb’s direction as the then leader of the Damaraland Regional Authority, the fort is now a high-end tourism lodge developed in the 1990s by investors in Germany –currently under renegotiation with the Sesfontein community. The settlement has expanded greatly over the last two decades. Photo copyright © Sian Sullivan 1995.

As outlined below, the recordings made in Sesfontein represent the five key musical repertoires of this community:

1. flute music (ǂā), a Khoe / Nama musical form on the cusp of extinction;
2. Damara / ǂNūkhoe / ǁUbu praise songs (|gais);
3. Damara / ǂNūkhoe / ǁUbu healing songs (arus);
4. bow songs (!gomakhās), a Damara / ǂNūkhoe and ǁUbu musical form rarely played today;
5. Nama-stap, a contemporary Nama music played here on guitar with music composed by Sesfontein resident Jonathan |Awarab.

These musical styles and repertoires are interconnected; they share histories and rights holders and exist in close relationship with each other.

Only one rights holder is named in Olivier’s documentation, but many more are identifiable from the images accompanying the collection. Indeed, the broader community of rights holders in Sesfontein is well known since they and their families and descendants are members of the Hoanib Cultural Group, which continues to play many of the specific |gais and arus songs included in the recordings, as clarified in research over the last few years. For example, the 2020 film The Music Returns to Kai-as, made in collaboration with Sesfontein’s Hoanib Cultural Group and the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority, confirms that a number of the specific |gais and arus songs recorded by Olivier and Mans continue to be curated and played by the group today.

For more information, please see the pdf format booklet for the 2017/2019 Future Pasts exhibition 'Landscape, Memory and Music in West Namibia' and our article 'The Music Returns to Kai-as’ – a film by Future Pasts'.

These performers, their relatives and descendants hold the copyright to the songs and musical performances recorded in the Olivier collection. The Hoanib Cultural Group includes some present members who were recorded in 1999, as well as the descendants and relatives of musicians who have since passed on. The intangible cultural heritage of the five recorded music styles is also part of the jurisdiction of the formally recognised Nami-Daman Traditional Authority (TA), for which Fredrick ǁHawaxab is the Secretary.

Return

The return of copies of these recordings to identified rights holders, their descendants and the broader community of knowledge holders is the outcome of a lengthy process of negotiation. The main parties are the British Library, which digitised and archived the collection, and the Nami-Daman TA based in Sesfontein. The process has been assisted by the lead author of this article who has carried out research in the area since 1992.

Every step in what turned out to be a complex process was carried out in close communication with the Secretary of the Nami-Daman TA, Mr Fredrick ǁHawaxab. It has been shaped by a mixture of delight that the recordings have been tracked down and digitised, and frustration that what was understood in 1999 as an agreement that copies of the recordings would be returned had not previously been acted upon.

This context made the eventual return of the recordings in 2022 significant. The image below shows the moment of transferring the digital files to Fredrick ǁHawaxab’s laptop. It was especially fitting that the files were transferred in this way, given that Fredrick was the translator and facilitator for the original Sesfontein research by Emmanuelle Olivier and Minette Mans. It is Fredrick who has consistently pressed for return of the recordings, as per the terms of the original research agreement.

Mr Fredrick ǁHawaxab  Secretary of the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority  receiving digital copies of recordings from the British Library and downloading them onto a laptop computer

Above: Mr Fredrick ǁHawaxab, secretary of the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority and facilitator and translator for Emmanuelle Olivier’s 1999 research in Sesfontein, receives digital copies of Olivier’s Sesfontein recordings from the British Library, delivered to Sesfontein by Sian Sullivan. Photo copyright © Sian Sullivan, 15 March 2022.

Shortly after this transfer, an initial meeting was held with members of the Hoanib Cultural Group, in which the recordings were formally handed over. This meeting included individuals whose performances are part of the original recordings.

For example, Jacobus ǁHoëb, who leads the |gais and arus recordings, can be seen wearing a red jacket in the front row of seated community members in the image below. Jacobus continues to be recognised in Sesfontein as the ‘king of the |gais’ for his commitment to keeping the |gais songs alive and for his leadership of the Hoanib Cultural Group. Several other performers recorded in the |gais and arus sections of the Olivier collection were also present, as was Jonathan ‘Fritz’ |Awarab, the guitar player and lead singer in the Nama-stap recordings (pictured fourth from the right in the second row of the audience in the image below).

An official celebration with the Hoanib Cultural Group and their families  including some of the individuals recorded by Olivier

Above: The return of the Olivier’s Sesfontein recordings is officially celebrated with members of the Hoanib Cultural Group and their families, including a number of individual rights holders recorded by Olivier in 1999. Photo copyright © Sian Sullivan, 17 March 2022.

Several days later we held a second meeting with the Hoanib Cultural Group in which we explored the possibility of a selection of the recordings being made publicly available on the British Library Sounds website. As an outcome of this discussion –which included several key performers in the original recordings– the group selected one track from each of the five recorded musical repertoires, and permission was given for these tracks to be made available for listening online on the website (links to these recordings will be shared in a future blog post). The Traditional Authority headman attended as well, which was important in terms of confirming agreements made at the meeting.

An outdoor meeting with members of the Hoanib Cultural Group and the head of the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority

Above: Meeting with members of the Hoanib Cultural Group and the head of the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority in Sesfontein (seated second from the left) to discuss the possibility of a selection of tracks being made publicly accessible via the British Library. Co-author Welhemina Suro Ganuses is seated on the left of the image. Photo copyright © Sian Sullivan, 21 March 2022. 

This return of the recordings to the rights holders brings to completion a long and complex process of negotiation so as to arrive at mutual and respectful understanding across very different contexts. This process will be documented more fully in a forthcoming Future Pasts working paper. It remains to be seen how the rights holders to the recordings may draw on this body of work to support and revitalise their musical heritage into the future.

Notes

  1. Khoekhoegowab spellings used here are from field research by Sullivan and Ganuses, combined with feedback from Khoekhoegowab linguist Wilfrid Haacke, unless quoting directly from the Olivier’s 1999 field notes or from the British Library catalogue. Many of the Khoekhoegowab words in this paper include the symbols ǀ, ǁ, ! and ǂ, denoting consonants that sound like clicks and which characterise the languages of Khoe and San peoples who live(d) throughout southern Africa. The sounds these symbols indicate are: ǀ = the ‘tutting’ sound made by bringing the tip of the tongue softly down from behind front teeth (dental click); ǁ = the clucking sound familiar in urging on a horse (lateral click); ! = a popping sound like mimicking the pulling of a cork from a wine bottle (alveolar click); ǂ = a sharp, explosive click made as the tongue is flattened and then pulled back from the palate (palatal click).
  2. Damara Khoekhoegowab-speaking people tend to refer to themselves as ǂNūkhoen, meaning ‘black’ or ‘real’ people and thus distinguished from Nau khoen or ‘other people’. Historically, ‘Dama-ra’ was the Nama or Khoe name for Black people generally. Since Nama were those who early European travellers first encountered in the western part of southern Africa, they also used the term ‘Dama’ in this way. This gave rise to a confusing situation in the historical literature whereby the term ‘Damara’, as well as the central part of Namibia that in the 1800s was known as ‘Damaraland’, tended to refer to cattle pastoralists who called themselves Herero. The terms ‘Hill Damaras’ and ‘Plains Damaras’ were used to distinguish contemporary Damara or ǂNūkhoen (i.e. ‘Khoekhoegowab-speaking black-skinned people’) from otjiHerero-speaking peoples respectively. This differentiation signals historically-constitutive processes whereby pressure on land through expansionary Herero cattle pastoralism throughout Namibia pushed Khoekhoegowab-speaking Damara / ǂNūkhoen further into mountainous areas that became their refuge and stronghold.
  3. ǁUbun are Khoekhoegowab-speaking peoples who moved between the coastal areas of the Northern Namib desert where !nara melons (Acanthosicyos horridus) could be harvested and areas to the east where alternative foods were found. They interacted especially with different Nama and ǂNūkhoe lineages (!haoti) of Namibia’s north-west.

Acknowledgements

We thank Emmanuelle Olivier for the original recordings and for her support for the return of digital copies of this material to Sesfontein; Angela Impey for retrieving the recordings from France; and Janet Topp Fargion and the World and Traditional Music section at the British Library for their support. Sian Sullivan is grateful to research funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council through the projects Future Pasts (AH/K005871/2) and Etosha-Kunene Histories (AH/T013230/1), which has made the work shared here possible. We especially acknowledge the contributions of all Sesfontein Constituency residents who have sustained their musical heritage despite significant factors of marginalisation, and for their ongoing and generous participation in our research.

Authors

This guest blog is co-authored by Professor of Environment and Culture at Bath Spa University, Sian Sullivan ([email protected]), Senior Councillor and Secretary of the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority (TA), Fredrick ǁHawaxab, and Administrator at Save the Rhino Trust and Councillor of the Nami-Daman TA, Welhemina Suro Ganuses. Together they have worked with the British Library to facilitate the return of digital copies of ethnographic field recordings made in Sesfontein, Namibia, to the source communities who feature on them.

20 September 2023

Unlocking Our Hidden Collections: Sue Steward and Edmundo Ros

Edmundo Ros in 1957

Above: Edmundo Ros in Amsterdam, 1957. Photo by Harry Pot.

The Unlocking Our Hidden Collections initiative is the British Library challenging itself. With over 170 million items in the Library’s collections and an average of over 8,000 new items added every day, it is impossible to keep up. Processing and cataloguing backlogs mean that there are so many treasures that are ‘hidden’ from view and unable to be searched in any of the Library’s catalogues.

Unlocking Our Hidden Collections is a concerted effort to bring some of these to light. We are targeting specific collections across the Library’s many curatorial areas for detailed cataloguing where previously there was none at all. Collections in this initiative include manuscripts from the medieval to contemporary periods, charters, censuses, photographs, correspondences and music manuscripts. They also include recordings from the British Library sound archive. The project that I work on within Unlocking Our Hidden Collections is entitled ‘Rare and Unpublished World and Traditional Music’, which catalogues and ultimately makes publically available collections of sound recordings that would otherwise remain obscure.

As a cataloguer in this process, I have the absolute pleasure of listening to wonderful recordings of some of the most interesting musical cultures in the world, researching their context and diving into the recordists’ own experiences through their documentation and other material. So far, I’ve worked with collections of recorded music from Thailand, Malaysia, India, Nepal and Kenya from the 1960s to the 2000s, but today I want to highlight one specific collection, the Sue Steward Collection, which has the reference C1984 in our catalogue.

Sue Steward was a British journalist and DJ with a passion for the music of Latin America. Her British Library collection is composed of interviews that she made throughout her career from 1980 to 2005. Her coverage of Latin American musicians spans those of the classic dance styles of son, merengue and mambo and the pan-Latin styles of salsa, jazz and pop, including interviews with huge stars such as Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan and Tito Puente. Many of her recordings were made in the UK, but she also recorded on her travels to the USA (particularly in the Latin American hotspots of New York City and Miami), Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Colombia, and the interviews became a significant part of the research for Steward’s book Salsa: Musical Heartbeat of Latin America (1999). Her renown and the fondness in which she was held within the world of Latin American music led to her being affectionately known as ‘La Reina’ and ‘La Stewarda’.

Her music interests were wider than just Latin music, however, and her collection reflects that, with interviews with musicians from the worlds of punk, post-punk and new wave, free jazz, sound art and the avant-garde (her interview with Diamanda Galás - see Diamanda Galás catalogue entry -  is a particular highlight), African and Middle Eastern music – sprinkled with recordings of live performances and radio clips too. And it doesn’t stop there – an interesting thread of interviews with visual artists becomes apparent, with sculptors, photographers, painters, ceramicists and art dealers all represented in the collection.

Cassette tapes from the C1984 collection

Above: The tapes of the C1984 Sue Steward Collection at the British Library. Photo by Jim Hickson.

The jewel of Sue Steward’s collection, however, has to be her extended interviews of Edmundo Ros. These have the British Library reference C1984/1-30. This is an example of one of the many Edmundo Ross catalogue entries.

Ros was a Trinidadian-Venezuelan musician who became famous as a bandleader and club proprietor in London in the 1940s. Through both his dance bands and his clubs, Ros was the first to bring Latin American music to wide appeal in the UK, performing arrangements of cha-chas, sambas, rumbas, mambos and tangos tempered with big band swing and light music to suit the tastes of a British audience unused to such exotic sounds. As well as his music, Ros also became famous as a respected member of high society, a rarity for a Black man at that time.

Intending to write an exhaustive biography of Ros, Steward recorded multiple interviews with him at his home in Xàbia, Spain between 2000 and 2005, when Ros was between 89 and 94 years old. These interviews are so detailed, thorough and lengthy that they essentially represent an oral history. All told, Steward recorded over 27 hours of interview, including sections where the two of them look through old photographs, watch video tapes and listen to his old records.

What becomes clear is Ros’s abilities as a storyteller, his flair for the dramatic, and a playful enjoyment of his own self-mythology. Together, Ros and Steward discuss his musical life, including his time as a student at the Royal Academy of Music (where he was later made a fellow); performing at clubs during the height of the Blitz; the ins-and-outs of running a high-class ‘dinner and supper club’ from the 1940s to the 1960s; his fame, struggles and the eventual dissolution of his band.

They also talk about his (just as explosive) personal life such growing up in Trinidad and Venezuela, and his endeavours to become a perfect English gent, which led to many encounters within high society, including performing at the personal invitations of George IV, Elizabeth II and Rainier III of Monaco, his run-ins with Prince Philip, future Duke of Edinburgh, and his part in the first great post-war sex scandal. Clearly opinionated, Ros always seemed keen to give his strong (and perhaps, at times, controversial) thoughts on race, status, music and politics.

Although Steward’s biography of Ros was never completed before her sudden death in 2017, these interviews amount to Ros’s own autobiography, his stories told in his own words. Through the diligent work of Sue Steward, and now through the activities of the Unlocking Our Hidden Collections initiative, those stories – and those of many other musicians, artists and arts professionals – are now discoverable to the world through the British Library.

By Jim Hickson, Hidden Collections Audio Cataloguer, World and Traditional Music

11 September 2023

Recording of the week: Memories of school

As September starts in the northern hemisphere, for me (and I suspect many others) this means one thing - 'back to school'. This could be both memories of one's own school days, or the relief as a parent or carer that ordinary term time routines can resume. From my childhood I think of the restrictive feeling of school shoes on my feet, the formality of school uniform, the confines of the classroom and - for those of us for whom school was a mostly happy experience - the reunion with classmates after a long summer break.

Almost all of the oral history interviews in the British Library’s vast collection cover educational experience - as it is a foundational era in most lives. This means we have myriad accounts that explore a variety of time periods, educational establishments, social experiences, teaching methods and learning styles through personal testimony.  

A great example is from the interview with Elisabeth Standen (1944-2020): a writer, community organiser and consultant on disability and equalities. It was common in the 1950s for children with disabilities to attend specialist boarding schools, even if their parents wanted them at home - as was the case with Elisabeth.

In this recording, made in 1999 with Helen Lloyd, Elisabeth describes bedtimes at her first boarding school, Exhall Grange in Warwickshire. When she was a few years older than the period she recounts in this clip, Elisabeth describes how she became blind, which to me makes the detailed visual description in this interview even more compelling. Close your eyes, listen to Elisabeth and see if you can picture the school setting and bedroom she describes.

Photo of Elisabeth Standen

Listen to Elisabeth Standen interviewed by Helen Lloyd

Download Transcript of Elisabeth Standen interviewed by Helen Lloyd

If you want to hear more about experiences of home and the sounds of domestic life, dip into 'If homes had ears' a rich resource of over 70 audio clips explored in themed essays. This resource was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of 'Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.'

Elisabeth's interview (reference C900/18556) was recorded in 1999 by Helen Lloyd for BBC Radio as part of the ground-breaking BBC and British Library Millennium Memory Bank project which explored British life at the end of the 20th century. The Millennium Memory Bank holds over 5,000 oral histories recorded by local and national BBC radio stations, from which each participating station broadcast a series of programmes on 16 common themes. All of the full unedited recordings and the subsequent programmes are archived and made available at the British Library.

This Recording of the Week is by Mary Stewart, Lead Curator of Oral History. 

18 August 2023

Parkinson in the archive

This week the sad news of Michael Parkinson’s death was announced. Known as the ‘king of the chat show’, Parkinson had a rich television and radio career. Which included most famously presenting his own show Parkinson, and, from 1986 to 1988, Desert Island Discs.

Row of Michael Parkinson tapes

Whilst cataloguing audio for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, I had the pleasure of working on some Parkinson show excerpts from the LBC/IRN collection (C1438). You can listen to these recordings onsite at the British Library by searching Michael Parkinson AND C1438’ on our Sound & Moving Image catalogue. Some personal highlights include interviews with Anthony Hopkins (C1438/92/0078) and Tony Benn (C1438/90/0098). Parkinson had a real charm for interviewing, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to these recordings.

The Library holds many more recordings featuring Parkinson, which can be found by searching ‘Parkinson, Michael, 1935-2023’. His legacy and contribution to broadcasting will continue to be appreciated, archived and made accessible to the public.

This post was written by Grace Johnston, Reference & Technical Specialist, Sound Archive & Listening Service. 

15 August 2023

'Breathe in, Breathe out' - a soundscape

Experience a new sound installation, 'Breathe in, Breathe out', in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library. The project looks at the positive effects of sound on well-being and relaxation. It is the first in a series of new initiatives in the Treasures Gallery, exploring innovative ways of working and engaging with diverse audiences. It runs until Sunday, 26 November 2023. The gallery is free to enter.

We have installed an open-walled structure with dimmed lighting and comfy seating, which provides a cosy space for visitors to relax and unwind. A calming, dreamlike soundscape plays on an endless loop. The mix blends spoken word, music, wildlife, and environmental sounds. All the sounds are drawn from the Library's collection.

A visitor looks at the 'Breathe in  Breathe out' tracklist. Photo by Simon Leach Design

A visitor looks at the 'Breathe in, Breathe out' tracklist—photo by Simon Leach Design. 

Relaxation starts with conscious breathing. The title 'Breathe in, Breathe out' encourages listeners to take a deep breath and focus on the present moment. Nature sounds transport us to peaceful places, offering tranquillity amidst daily distractions. Dreams and dreamscapes also feature, highlighting the importance of rest and recovery. Research shows that we activate different parts of the brain when we listen to music. The impact of sound on our bodies is significant, particularly when it comes to our emotions, memories, and movement. It influences our breathing, heart rate, and mood.

The soundscape is mixed for 8-channel playback, creating an immersive surround-sound experience. The mix juxtaposes calming sounds with hints of suspense. Key elements include 'Jetsun Mila' by Éliane Radigue, inspired by the 11th-century Tibetan yogi and poet Milarepa. There are poems by Langston Hughes, W. S. Graham, and Caroline Bergvall. The music covers a broad spectrum of gentle tones, including the delicate notes of water bowls performed by Tomoko Sauvage and the eerie sounds of 'Iká' by Skull Mask, played by Gosha Shtasel, who created the mix and is one of the British Library's sound engineers. You can explore the entire tracklist on one of the display walls.

Two women fill out feedback forms at the 'Breathe In  Breathe Out' sound installation desk. Photo by Eva del Rey

Two women fill out feedback forms—photo by Eva del Rey.

Curating this mix has been an enjoyable experience, as sound and well-being are topics of particular interest to me. We wanted to provide a serene space for visitors to pause and recharge. We also sought to improve how sound is showcased in the Treasures Gallery, pushing the limits of our traditional displays. Surround sound offers an immersive sensory journey that has transformed the gallery space. Listening together cultivates a sense of relaxation, and connection, enhancing our general well-being. Each listener brings their unique perspective and emotions, yet we find common ground in the soothing embrace of sound.

Feedback is encouraged. Responses so far tell us that listeners feel captivated, as if they were part of a movie, with most finding it soothing and some even finding it stirring. It is an effortless and refreshing experience. The display highlights the power of sound to create a peaceful escape and a transformative experience for all who engage with it.

The British Library holds over 6.5 million recordings, ranging from spoken word to music, wildlife and environmental sounds. You can learn more about our sound collections on our Sounds subject web page and at British Library Sounds online

This post was written by Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings.

07 August 2023

Recording of the week: Cycling

A photo of a man cycling

Photo by Keswick Sportive, used under CC 2.0 licence.

The BBC made their final recordings for The Listening Project last year, and we are currently in the process of adding these to the British Library collections. With over 2,000 conversations recorded over 10 years, the archive is a real treasure trove of stories and voices - full of laughter, tears, and human connections.

With the Tour de France taking place in July, I was reminded of this sweet and funny chat between two cycle enthusiasts. This was one of the earliest recordings added to the archive, and was made by Radio Cumbria in 2012. The conversation took place between partners Geoff and Midge, who discuss their shared history and love of being out and about on their bikes.

They first met through a local cycling club, and during the recording they reminisce about many of their experiences travelling together. In this clip they talk about riding on their tandem, including an accident they once had, and going on holiday to Mallorca:

Listen to cycling clip 1

Download Transcript for cycling clip 1

Throughout the conversation they speak of the amazing feeling they always get from cycling. Midge describes the magical buzz from being out in nature, and they agree cycling gives them so much freedom. In this clip, Geoff describes when he first learned to ride a bike as a child, and they then talk about how they plan to continue on their bikes for as long as possible. They hope that other people will also leave their cars, and join them on two wheels:

Listen to cycling clip 2

Download Transcript for cycling clip 2

The Listening Project is an audio archive of personal conversations, collected by local and national BBC radio stations. From 2012 to 2022, people were invited to have a conversation recorded and broadcast (in edited form) by the BBC, and archived by the British Library. You can currently listen to over a 1,800 of the recordings in full through our Sounds website, and learn more about the project at the BBC.

Today's post was written by Sarah Kirk-Browne, Digital Multimedia Collections Cataloguer.

31 July 2023

Recording of the Week: Flamenco runs in the blood

Dr Alejandro Martínez was a London-based GP with a passion for flamenco. An amateur guitarist himself, he was well connected within the professional scene and counted among his friends some of the greatest singers (cantaores), guitarists (tocaores) and dancers (bailaores) of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these flamenco stars would visit Dr Martínez when they passed through London on tour and participate in the informal sessions he hosted in his living room on Sunday afternoons. He recorded many of these private performances on his reel-to-reel tape recorder purely for fun and the novelty of playing them back instantly to the performers.

Dr Martínez’s recordings do not just capture outstanding performances from some of the biggest names in flamenco; they capture stories, conversations and jokes, and are punctuated with outbursts of raucous laughter, clapping, feet-stamping and even sung improvisations about the performers’ time in London with Dr Martínez. All of these details help to paint a vivid portrait of the artists and give us a glimpse of their personalities beyond the stage and recording studio.

Although Dr Martínez did not necessarily make the recordings to preserve them as an archive, they were later deposited at the British Library along with a number of his photographs. Now his collection offers a fascinating window into the vibrant flamenco scene of the time. The collection has since been digitised and a small selection of the recordings has been made accessible through the British Library Sounds website with kind permission from his daughter and the performers’ relatives.

Dr Martinez sat with guests

Dr Alejandro Martínez (first from right) and guests at a music session in Martínez’s living room. Photograph by Mina Martínez.

The recordings online feature performances from the likes of Antonio Mairena, Manuel Morao, Fernando Terremoto, René Heredia and Carmen Amaya. However, for this ‘Recording of the Week’, I have selected a clip from a session with the guitarist José Motos, recorded in 1959.  

Motos was born in 1930 to a gitano family in Salamanca and later moved to Madrid, where he studied under the influential flamenco guitarist Ramón Montoya. Motos became known for his technical virtuosity and was admired by his contemporaries, performing with respected artists including Paco de Lucía and Sabicas and touring with bailaores Antonio el Bailarín and Carmen Amaya. He was also the first flamenco guitarist to tour internationally as a solo artist, likely making this recording during one
of his London tour stops.

Jose Motos performing

José Motos (right) performing with an unnamed singer. © Dr Alejandro Martínez.

Here Motos performs a soleá, which is one of the slower, more solemn palos or flamenco sub-genres. Although the whole session is outstanding – and I encourage you to listen to the entire recording – this particular piece caught my attention. It displays the complete mastery Motos has over his instrument: we hear the percussive strummed chords, fiery tremolos and lightning-fast picado runs emblematic of flamenco, sharply juxtaposed with beautifully delicate passages and subtle colour changes. It is impressive to hear such virtuosic skill in such an intimate setting.

Listen to the recording of Soleares performed by José Motos (C993/16 S1 C4)

Though many of the performers Dr Alejandro Martínez recorded have since passed away, it was interesting to discover that many of their children and grandchildren are active performers in the flamenco world today. Flamenco truly is a tradition that runs in the blood.

This was the case with José Motos, who unfortunately passed away in 1978 at only 47 years old. His son Pepe Motos has followed in his footsteps and now works as a flamenco teacher, singer-songwriter and musician, and has collaborated extensively with other artists within and beyond the genre. After I got in touch with him and sent the audio recording of his father, I was delighted to receive this heart-warming reply:

You have no idea how happy you have made me.

I am 52 years old and this is the first time I have listened to my father’s voice.

He passed away when I was 8 years old and we have never had a document [of his voice] like this. Now I will show it to my son who is 21 years old and plays the guitar as well. He also looks a lot like his grandfather and is equally as talented.

I sincerely thank you for this gift.

[Translated from an email in Spanish]

This reminds us that these archival recordings are not just significant because they preserve exceptional musical performances – sometimes what is recorded alongside the music is just as valuable. While there are many commercial recordings of Motos available, this unedited session offered Pepe the unique opportunity to listen to his father’s voice for the first time in memory and is now a memento that can be passed on to his own son (also named José).

It is touching to see how historical audio recordings when reconnected to the right people can make such an impact on a personal level. The hope is that this recording will not only preserve the memory of José Motos but also inspire future generations of the Motos family to carry on their flamenco legacy.

I would like to thank Pepe Motos and Mina Martínez for their permission to share the recording and their contributions to this post.

This week’s post was written by Finlay McIntosh, World and Traditional Music curator.

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