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93 posts categorized "Sound recording history"

23 March 2021

True Echoes: Daniels Ethnographical Expedition to New Guinea, 1904

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The Daniels Ethnographical Expedition to New Guinea 1904 Cylinder Collection (C62) is a collection of 40 wax cylinders recorded in what is today Papua New Guinea. The collection – formerly known as the ‘Seligman New Guinea Cylinders’ – came into the Library in the 1950s as part of the Sir James Frazer Collection from the University of Cambridge.

This collection is part of the research focus of True Echoes, a three-year research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Learn more about True Echoes in a previous post. It is the second oldest of the eight collections researched by the project, and one of three from Papua New Guinea. The project is overseeing the reorganisation of some of the cylinders within these collections and also the renaming of some of the collections. These changes will be implemented in the British Library catalogue towards the end of the project.

The Daniels Ethnographical Expedition was led and financed by Major William Cooke Daniels (1870–1918), a wealthy American retailer who met the British anthropologist Charles Gabriel Seligmann (1873–1940) by chance on a fishing trip in Hampshire, UK. Seligmann had taken part in the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits and had visited what was then British New Guinea. His interest continued after his return to the UK. The other members of the Daniels expedition were Walter Mersh Strong (1873–1946), a doctor who left midway through to become Assistant Resident Magistrate in Mekeo district, and Arthur Henry Dunning (1884–1959).

Seligmann, Strong, and Dunning arrived in the capital, Port Moresby, on 19 December 1903. The first recordings were made on 5 January 1904 in Port Moresby, when Dunning, assisted by British Resident Magistrate Francis Rickman Barton, recorded three cylinders of lagatoi songs. Lagatoi are the double-hulled sailing canoes used in the hiri, the annual trading expedition that Motu/Koita people took to the Papuan Gulf to trade their clay pots for sago; the hiri is still celebrated today and remains an important symbol for the Motu/Koita people.

Lagatoi canoe, 1904. Photo taken during the Daniels expedition, 1904. British Museum Oc,B119-150 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Above: Lagatoi canoe, 1904. Photo taken during the Daniels expedition, 1904. British Museum Oc,B119-150 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Seligmann, Strong, and Dunning joined a government expedition to the western part of British New Guinea in January, but left early when Seligmann and Dunning fell ill. They did not take the phonograph, the machine used to record and play wax cylinders, on this trip as they could not find any spare cylinders.

Daniels and his yacht, the Kori, arrived in Port Moresby on 23 May. Over the next five months, the team visited Hula and the Mekeo and Rigo districts in what is now Central Province, and islands in Milne Bay including Samarai, Tubetube, Muyua, Gawa, Kwaiawata, Iwa, and the Trobriand Islands. They also visited Dogura in Bartle Bay, and Wagawaga, a village on the coast of Milne Bay.

Seligmann and Dunning recorded eleven cylinders in the Rigo district, including songs in the Sinaugoro, and possibly the Uare and Doromu-Koki languages. They travelled from Rigo to the village of Hula, where five cylinders were recorded. In what is today Milne Bay Province, they recorded five cylinders on Tubetube, two on the Trobriand Islands, and six at Wagawaga.

Map of recording locations from 1904 expedition. Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Above: Map of recording locations from 1904 expedition. Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors.

In October, the expedition returned to Port Moresby and Daniels left. Seligmann and Dunning stayed in Port Moresby, spending time with Barton and Ahuia Ova, the Koita Chief and Village Constable of Hanuabada, the Motu/Koita village near Port Moresby. Ahuia had previously worked with members of the 1898 Cambridge Expedition. Seligmann and Dunning recorded seven cylinders in the Koitabu language, including one by Ahuia Ova himself. Two other lagatoi songs were performed by a Motu man named Igo who had travelled with the expedition in Central district.

From left to right: Unidentified man, Strong and Igo on a beach, 1904. British Museum Oc,B119.52 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Above: From left to right: Unidentified man, Strong and Igo on a beach, 1904. British Museum Oc,B119.52 © The Trustees of the British Museum

27 Osebouta Trobriands [C62/1419]

According to the announcement, this recording is “A sung song at the Kaiwos Womilamala, by [Tobiga]. Trobriand Islands, September 1904”. The word Osebouta is written on the cylinder box lid, but the pronunciation in the announcement sounds more like osiboita.

linus digim’Rina, a Trobriand Islander and anthropologist at the University of Papua New Guinea, and collaborating researcher on the True Echoes project, has contributed this perspective on the two recordings from the Trobriand Islands in the collection:

“Given that Major Daniels’ yacht Kori visited the Trobriand Islands in September 1904, there is a good chance that Seligmann’s recording of the two songs Mamiepo C62/1420 and Osebouta C62/1419 occurred during the Kuboma (south-west coastal district including Luba) Milamala yam festival season. The season customarily falls between July and September. In the local parlance these would be within the moons (tubukona) of Khaluwalasi, Khaluwasasa/Iyalaki and Iyakoki, respectively.

Therefore I do not think Seligmann’s recorded pronouncement and notation of the songs being ‘sung at kaiwos Womilamala’ [‘sung at Milamala dances’] were completely off the mark. Although I do not have any definite recollections of the named songs, I do not doubt that these two songs belong to the Milamala festival dance songs genre. C62/1419 27 Osebouta is etymologically odd or warped although certain key parts of the lyrics like ‘batagava Bunita’ were recognisable alluding to marine life like sailing. The closest rendition of the name might be ‘wosi bwarita’ which means ‘song of seas’. The performer is Tobiga which, in the recording is repeated by Seligmann after a slip. And Tobiga is a common enough Trobriand male name. In fact the tune is very familiar to the ear as a cheerful Milamala song. There is a charming Kitava song called Yaulabuta but the lyrics and tone of Osebouta nowhere near resemble the former. As I cannot make much of the name Osebouta and its provenance I shall leave it at that.

On the other hand, C62/1420 26 Mamiepo appears rather interesting. Like Osebouta, Mamiepo is most probably a misspelling of the word for the pawpaw/papaya fruit, Momyepu. Although I have not come across a song within the Milamala dance song genre going by that name, the lyrics quite frequently mention the word rarana. This refers to raw pawpaw which due to lack of properly ripened pawpaw fruits available, people may be compelled to eat, sometimes by boiling or baking peeled pieces as a snack or dinner. Listening carefully to the repeated verse, it seems as if pawpaw fruit is metaphorically evoked to convey the image of one taking one’s chances way too early than is necessary. As a result there is this impression of regret over lost opportunity towards the end of the lyric.

Although Mamiepo is a dance song and as pronounced by Seligmann, there were no background sounds of backup by other singers or even drum beats. This might suggest that the recording came about as a result of Seligmann and/or his team’s request, solicitation and insistence.

Unlike Malinowski’s recordings which had a bit more related ethnographic material to augment their contexts, these two recordings will notwithstanding generate much interest and curiosity among the present locals in identifying the songs, performers, composers and place of recording.”

linus previously contributed to a Sound & Vision blog post on Malinowski's 1915 - 1918 recordings from the Trobriand Islands.

Vicky Barnecutt

True Echoes Research Fellow

15 March 2021

Recording of the week: A different kind of national anthem

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

Flag of Maldives 1926-1953
The flag of the Sultanate of Maldives, as used between 1926 and 1953

When we think of national anthems, we usually have in mind grandiose compositions performed by orchestras or brass bands; epic pieces based on European art music styles such as operas, marches and fanfares accompanying sincere and stirring songs of patriotism. Today’s 'Recording of the Week' is a national anthem with a bit of a difference.

‘Salaamathi’ is the earliest known national anthem of Maldives – the small island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It was originally an instrumental piece, performed by the Sultan’s band during official and state occasions at the royal palace, accompanied by a seven-gun salute. No-one knows when it was written.

Salaamathi national anthem (BL REF C996/2 BD 2)

This recording of ‘Salaamathi’ is played in its traditional style – no big European orchestra here. Unlike modern anthems, the tune of this version is not set in stone; instead, the player of the flageolet (a type of shawm, a woodwind instrument similar to an oboe) elaborates extensively on the core melody, with many extravagant ornamentations and improvised elements that make each performance unique. This melody is accompanied by a trumpet and two types of double-headed barrel drums, the funa beru and the maana beru. In Maldivian court music, the drum rhythms are often as important as the melody, and can confer meaning all on their own.

The ‘Salaamathi’ was rewritten in 1948, with lyrics and a tune based on ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and eventually replaced altogether with the current anthem, ‘Qaumee Salaam’, which was adopted in 1972. This particular recording is therefore very rare – it is possibly one of only two recordings of the original ‘Salaamathi’ ever made.

The musicians that you can hear are the surviving members of the royal band of the Sultanate of Maldives, recorded in 1979 by Hassan Ahmed Maniku. The Hassan Ahmed Maniku Collection (C996) is made up of 28 recordings by these musicians and includes pieces to accompany martial arts, military parades and official events, as well as to announce curfews and various Islamic calendar events. The Sultanate and its royal court were dissolved in 1968 when the country became a republic, and it is thought that these are the only recordings made of this music – including two versions of the original ‘Salaamathi’.

The music of Maldives is rarely heard on the world stage. With a population of about 500,000 people, its culture is often overlooked in favour of its larger South Asian neighbours. The Hassan Ahmed Maniku Collection is an invaluable resource to shed light on traditional Maldivian culture, including aspects of it that may no longer survive – as well as providing a fascinating look at a national anthem like no other.

Thanks to the Maniku family for their enthusiasm about these recordings and for allowing us to share them in this post.

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22 February 2021

Recording of the week: Breathe in

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This week's selection comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Reference Specialist.

Born in 1885 in a small town in the Free State province of South Africa, Tromp Van Diggelen had an unfortunate childhood. He suffered from various respiratory-related illnesses, such as pneumonia.

Supported by his teacher at school, Tromp started studying the functionality of human body which eventually led him to discover that simple circular breathing exercises would improve physical strength and build up body resistance.

Instead of investing in long days of training at the gym, he realised good breathing techniques could in fact help him add a few inches to his chest, thus building up physical endurance. He would later become known as 'The Man with the Perfect Chest'.

This focus on functional strength allowed him much more freedom to finally participate alongside other children in sport competitions.

He understood that muscle flexibility was improved by blood flow, and simple breathing exercises might improve the muscular tone, leaving us with a healthier and stronger appearance. This knowledge is at the core of 'A Lesson in Correct Breathing', released by Columbia.

Colombia disc label

Breathing Made Easy

Download Transcript for Breathing Made Easy

In the recording you hear real intakes, while following Tromp’s clear instructions on how to expand the chest and then release the breath.

These talking demonstrations based on practical and simple advice are sequences that are easy to follow and repeat, accessible to anyone. Ultimately, they show us how much a correct breathing technique can improve the quality of our life as a whole.

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25 January 2021

Recording of the week: Amping up Uyghur music with the electric guitar

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This week's selection comes from Finlay McIntosh, World & Traditional Rights intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In 1988, the investigative journalist Paul Lashmar attended a concert in Kashgar, where he was treated to a performance of traditional Uyghur music. Luckily for us, he recorded the whole event and donated the recordings to the British Library.

The concert includes narrative songs accompanied by the dutar long-necked lute, solo performances on the rawap lute and qalun dulcimer, and large suites performed by a full ensemble of musicians, singers and dancers dressed in colourful costumes.

Uyghur dancers performing to an audience of tourists
Uyghur dancers performing to an audience of tourists. Photo courtesy of Paul Lashmar.

The recordings display the rich musical traditions that have matured over centuries of trade along the Silk Road. Along these trade routes, oasis towns like Kashgar became confluence points, where people coming from far-away places would pass through, bringing new musical instruments, styles and practices with them. This created a fertile ground for the creation of a vibrant musical culture that fused everything from Chinese to Central Asian, Persian and Middle Eastern influences.

A dancer and singer accompanied by musicians
A dancer and singer accompanied by musicians playing the qalun and ghijäk. Photo courtesy of Paul Lashmar.

However, when listening to this performance of traditional music, what really caught my attention was a less-than-traditional instrument—the electric guitar.

Of course, this modern instrument did not come to Kashgar through the ancient Silk Road. The guitar (or rather its sound) arrived through international media like cassettes, which were imported from neighbouring Central Asian countries or further afield. This inspired local musicians to acquire one of these exciting new instruments and start using it to make their own music.

Uyghur singer playing the guitar
Uyghur Singer Playing the Guitar. Photo Courtesy of Paul Lashmar.

Unfortunately, we do not have much information about the performer of these songs but he was probably a wedding singer, hired by the art troupe to entertain the audience of tourists with some popular music.

I have selected an excerpt from each of the three songs he performs. As they were recorded in 1988, I believe they document an early example of the presence of the electric guitar in Uyghur music.

In this first excerpt, we hear that although the performer’s instrument is Western, his music sounds undeniably Eastern. One of the musical elements that contribute to this is the rhythm—specifically the bouncy, limping aqsaq rhythm essential to Uyghur music—which is created by the driving interplay between the electric guitar and drum-kit.

Uyghur concert - excerpt 1 (BL REF C436/1)

This second clip begins with a punchy rock ‘n’ roll-sounding riff. Afterwards, the subtle guitar accompaniment contrasts with the musician’s highly ornamented nasal singing, which employs all of the melisma, minute tone shifts and swooping melodic lines you would expect from Uyghur singing.

Uyghur concert - excerpt 2 (BL REF C436/1)

At the beginning of this final excerpt, we hear another, twangy riff, played on the electro-acoustic guitar as pictured in Lashmar’s photos.

I like this specific clip because we can really hear how the guitar has been adapted to local music. The guitar might sound out of tune to a Western ear but it has probably been tuned to allow the performer to play microtones that lie beyond Western scales.

Uyghur concert - excerpt 3 (BL REF C436/1)

Whereas many ethnographic recordings are made by researchers seeking to document the world’s musical traditions in their purest and highest forms, these recordings are different. They don’t boast the best audio quality and you can even hear people talking throughout the performance. The use of guitar in the region is hardly an age-old tradition and it’s perhaps arguable whether the musician has necessarily mastered it yet.

But I think it is this rawness that makes the recordings so fantastic. They capture an exciting time when new musical elements were first entering the region and local musicians were picking them up, experimenting with them and mixing them with their own traditions. Here, we are not hearing the ‘pristine’ canonized versions of traditional music but the very moment where traditions are developing and morphing into something else.

Throughout the 1990s, the electric guitar would gain notoriety in the hands of musicians like Ekhmetjan, often credited as the first Uyghur superstar. The instrument’s popularity only increased as more and more global music genres entered the Uyghur market. As ethnomusicologist Rachel Harris shows in her article “Reggae on the Silk Road: The Globalization of Uyghur Pop,” guitar-driven styles like rock, heavy metal and reggae all trickled into the region. And in 1996, there was even a flamenco trend inspired by The Gypsy Kings. Musicians soaked up all of these influences and continued to refashion them into their music.

The electric guitar may not be a traditional Uyghur musical instrument but the Uyghurs certainly made it their own.

I am grateful to Paul Lashmar for the generous donation of these recordings and photographs. If you want to find out more about the recordings in the Paul Lashmar Collection, their catalogue entries can be found in the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

References:

Harris, Rachel. 2005. “Reggae on the Silk Road: The Globalization of Uyghur Pop.” The China Quarterly 183: 627-643. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305741005000391.

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18 January 2021

Recording of the week: Dawn in a Gondwana Rainforest

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This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds.

The Gondwana Rainforests of Australia are renowned for their lush landscapes and rich biodiversity. Stretching from Queensland to New South Wales, this collection of rainforests represents 180 million years of our planet’s natural history. It’s here that both ancient and more recently evolved species coexist, each having carved out their own special niche in this World Heritage Area.

Lamington National Park is just one of the Gondwana Rainforests. Running along the Lamington Plateau, an elevated range of valleys and uplands with volcanic origins, this natural wonder is known for its stunning waterfalls, prehistoric terrain and high proportion of rare species.

Dawn in Lamington National Park  Queensland
Dawn in Lamington National Park, Queensland (Photo credit: JohnGGM, CC BY-SA)

Lamington is not just a feast for the eyes however; its soundscape is just as lush as its landscape. In September 1986, wildlife sound recordist David Lumsdaine visited the park and recorded what many consider to be the sonic highlight of the day – the dawn chorus.

Lamington Plateau dawn atmosphere

Recorded in Queensland, Australia on 11 September 1986 by David Lumsdaine (BL ref 151390)

This 4 minute excerpt is a vibrant mix of songs and calls from a wide variety of early morning songsters. From the whip-crack song of Eastern Whipbirds and the yodelling of Pied Currawongs to the hurried rhythms of White-browed Scrubwrens, this recording is just bursting with life.

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11 January 2021

Recording of the week: The voice of Robert Browning (1812-1889)

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This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

Portrait of Robert Browning
Above: British Library digitised image from The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (1888).

Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright born in Camberwell, London.

Like his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), whose great success as a poet exceeded his, at least in her lifetime, he was one of the most popular poets of the Victorian era.

This cylinder recording of Robert Browning is the earliest recording of a major British literary figure that we know of.

It was made at a dinner party given by Browning's friend, the artist Rudolf Lehmann on 7 April 1889, on a phonograph brought to the party by Thomas Edison’s representative in Europe, Colonel Gouraud.

Here is Browning attempting to read his poem ‘How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’.

Unfortunately, he runs into a bit of trouble trying to remember how it goes, but all is resolved in good-humoured fashion.

Listen to the voice of Robert Browning

Download Robert Browning transcript

Browning was then in the last year of his life. He was to die that December.

It is not unusual nowadays for a recording of the deceased to be played at a memorial event honouring a poet or a writer. Recording technology is now more than 140 years old. It no longer brings with it the shock of the new.

In 1890, however, when this recording was replayed at an event held on the first anniversary of Browning’s funeral, it was by no means common to hear a voice from ‘beyond the grave’.

It was all too much for Browning's sister Sarianna, who called it 'an indecent séance', and wrote to a friend:

Poor Robert's dead voice to be made interesting amusement! God
forgive them all. I find it difficult.

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28 December 2020

Recording of the week: Sámi Yoik; evoking reindeer, the wind and 'wind nose'

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This week's selection comes from Finlay McIntosh, World & Traditional Rights intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Although in the UK, reindeer are associated with Christmas and winter wonderlands, for Europe’s only recognized indigenous community, the Sámi, they are a part of everyday life.

A herd of reindeer
A herd of reindeer at Jukkasjärvi in Lapland. Man in a Sami costume. Courtesy of Swedish National Heritage Board

The Sámi inhabit Sápmi—a territory stretching from the northern areas of Norway, through Sweden and Finland to the Kola Peninsula in Russia—and their livelihoods traditionally revolved around reindeer herding. This way of life has largely changed throughout decades of modernization and cultural assimilation into nation-states but the reindeer has remained central to Sámi culture and identity.

We see this strong bond between the Sámi and their animals in these examples of traditional yoik or joik, recorded by Maggie Hamilton in 1997, in Jokkmokk, Sweden.

Yoiking is an age-old Sámi tradition that can have many functions. In the past, some yoiks were used in shamanistic rituals to contact the spirit world, whereas nowadays some tell epic narratives and stories for entertainment. Some yoiks can be extremely personal and are used to evoke an ancestor or friend, whereas others can act as a personal signature, which if performed, can be seen by others as boastful. Sámi parents can yoik their children to sleep like a lullaby or even drown out a baby’s crying with their powerful performances.

A yoik is a direct reflection of its subject, which can be anything from a person, place or landscape to an animal, including, of course, the reindeer. Through performance, the yoiker tries to express the soul of what is being yoiked, and in effect, yoiks the subject into being. This is why it is often said that a yoik is not about something; it is that thing.

This also brings up interesting questions about musical ownership. As a World and Traditional Music Rights Intern, I spend a lot of my time contacting rights holders, who we consider the owners of the recordings in our collections. Whereas we may think the creator or performer of a piece of music is its owner, the Sámi hold a different view: as yoiking attempts to evoke the subject into being, it is thought that the subject owns the yoik, rather than the performer.

This is certainly the case when yoiking people but perhaps yoiking reindeer is another matter. Needless to say, I have not asked any reindeer for their permission to use these recordings!

In this first example, the performer yoiks an adult reindeer, which he describes as heargi, or a big and strong reindeer. This is just one of the hundreds of different and often poetic descriptive words the Sámi reindeer herders use to differentiate the reindeer in their herds. The Sámi language’s extensive reindeer-related vocabulary describes every possible size, shape, colouring, temperament and antler position of the animal. We can hear how the performer evokes this heargi reindeer bull with his rich, deep voice.

Adult reindeer yoik (BL REF C1650/73 BD 4)

In this second example, the performer yoiks the wind. Introducing the yoik, he tells us how the wind helps the reindeer herders to navigate vast expanses of tundra and locate their herds. He says that because reindeer often run face-first into the strong-blowing north wind, the wind tells the herders which way the reindeer are travelling – North. This also helps the herders to find their animals easily.

Wind yoik (BL REF C1650/73 BD 5)

This is a fascinating example of how yoiks can contain and transmit knowledge specific to the Sámi lifestyle. They can pass on knowledge about reindeer management practices and navigation as well as expressing the close connection between animal and environment.

In this final example, the performer yoiks biegganjunit, or wind nose, which is a very specific metaphor embedded in Sámi culture that conjures up the image of the reindeer as they are running against the blowing wind with the ice-cold air rushing up their noses. The performer tells us that although this yoik contains few actual words, it depicts the scene of these reindeer as they run, smelling for the scent of wolves and other predators that are being carried in the wind.

Wind nose yoik (C1650/73 BD 6)

Again, this shows that the meaning of a yoik does not just come from the lyrics. In fact, some yoik do not have any words at all. Yoiks can express a meaning that goes beyond words but this can only be understood when the performer and their audience are closely connected.

Yoiking and other elements of Sámi culture were repressed throughout periods of Christianization and state assimilation efforts. However, since the 1960s, it has experienced a revival. Sámi yoik has been incorporated into a variety of popular music genres and has gained more visibility on the international stage—it even made an appearance at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest with Norway’s entry “Spirit in the Sky,” performed by Keiino. By continuing to yoik throughout history, the Sámi manage to maintain their cultural identity and now the tradition is thought to be one of the oldest continuous musical practices in Europe.

However, yoiking is an oral tradition at its core and some have questioned the value of documenting it in archives. As these recordings show, much of a yoik’s meaning is created between the yoiker, what is being yoiked and an initiated audience who can construct meaning by connecting the dots. When yoiks have such a strong attachment to a specific place, people and environment, some argue that if removed from that context, written down, recorded or translated, yoiks lose their complex layers of meaning and feeling. How can they mean anything to people who are not Sámi and do not know the specific contexts from which they come from? Despite this, without archives, many of these traditional yoiks—untouched by folklorizations and Eurovision song contest sparkle—would have been forgotten and not passed onto the younger generation of Sámi.

If you want to learn more about the yoik recordings in the Maggie Hamilton Collection, you can read the catalogue entries in our Sound and Moving Image catalogue. There are examples of yoik evoking bears, moose, mountains, the performer’s grandfather and even Christianized yoik, with the performer providing fascinating information about the tradition, its history and meanings.

These sound recordings were donated by Maggie Hamilton to the British Library and have been digitised as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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21 December 2020

Recording of the week: Sheffield’s pub carols, a secular tradition

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

Recorded by Ian Russell on Christmas Day 1974, in The Black Bull public house, Ecclesfield, Sheffield, this rousing rendition of ‘Six jolly miners’, followed by ‘Hark! Hark! What news’, captures the democratic and exuberant nature of the local ‘pub sing’, a tradition which goes back to the 19th century, and still thrives in certain pubs in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

Map displaying view of Sheffield from Park Hill in 1740
View of Sheffield from Park Hill in 1740, taken from ‘The illustrated guide to Sheffield and the surrounding district etc.’, published Sheffield, 1879

The Sheffield carol tradition has its roots in reforms carried out by the Oxford Movement, an influential group of Victorian clergymen, whose attempts to make worship more serious resulted in a purge of certain carols, which were thought of as not really suitable for singing at Christmas. The village musicians, whose presence was no longer required in the west galleries of their parish churches, took the rejected carols to their local pubs, where they have remained ever since. The pub carols often feature different words and tunes to the more familiar Christmas repertoire, and there are variations from pub to pub and village to village. Each area is proud of its own tradition, and some have their own carols, often named after the location itself, such as ‘Stannington’, written in 1950 by Mina Dyson, who was the organist at the local church in that part of Sheffield.

Despite the subject matter, the fervour you can hear in these songs is really an expression of community spirit and uninhibited enjoyment, rather than an outpouring of religious feeling. In many of the recordings you can hear the clinking of glasses, the exchange of Christmas greetings, general pub chatter (including the odd swear word) and an atmosphere of communal enjoyment that rings out in every line. ‘Awake to joy and hail the morn’, sing the locals in the Black Bull, sounding like they’re about to raise the roof. It’s hard to listen without wanting to join in.

Recording of carol singing in Ecclesfield, Sheffield, South Yorkshire 

Made by Ian Russell in 1974, as part of his research towards his Ph.D. thesis 'Traditional Singing in West Sheffield, 1970-1972', this recording is part of the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, which consists of sound recordings of the former Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies (IDFLS), part of the University of Leeds from October 1964 to September 1983, and dialect-related sound recordings made prior to the establishment of the Institute.

The sound recordings were donated to the British Library in 2019 for digitisation as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The Ian Russell Collection (C331), documenting traditional English carol singing in the north of England from 1984, will also be digitised and readily available as part of this project.

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