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125 posts categorized "World & traditional music"

05 April 2021

Recording of the week: An interview with Ravi Shankar

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This week's selection comes from Sarah Coggrave, Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In 2017, the Mike Sparrow Collection (C1248) was the first audio collection to be preserved as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Mike Sparrow (1948 - 2005) was a radio producer and presenter for BBC Radio London (UK) in the 1970s and 1980s, and his collection includes music, reviews, current affairs features and interviews from shows he worked on. One of my favourite recordings is of Mike Sparrow interviewing Indian sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar (1920 – 2012), in the 1970s.

Based on the details accompanying the collection and from clues within the audio, it is likely this recording was made in early 1978, shortly before Ravi Shankar’s performance on 20 January at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.), in the same year. In this blog I will share some short excerpts from the recording.

Ravi Shankar playing sitar
Ravi Shankar performing at Woodstock Festival in 1969, image sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Ravi Shankar is known across the world for his teaching and performance work, and for sharing North Indian classical music with a range of audiences. In the interview he gives fascinating glimpses into this work, his well-documented association with other famous musicians (including George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin) as well as discussing how best to define and appreciate different types of classical music.

In this first excerpt from the interview, Ravi Shankar explains what a raga is.

Ravi Shankar defines raga (excerpt 1)

The sitar (a stringed instrument used Indian classical music) presents particular physical challenges due to the length of the fretboard and the method of playing, which, as Ravi Shankar mentions in the interview, results in cut fingers and callouses. In the second excerpt he describes the years of study required to develop the necessary technical and improvisational skills for performances.

Ravi Shankar describes his musical training (excerpt 2)

Throughout the interview Ravi Shankar talks about his desire to bring Indian classical music to new audiences, and reflects on the positive effects of his association with the rock and roll world, including performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (California, U.S.A.) and Woodstock in 1969 (New York, U.S.A.), where the image in this blog was taken. While performances such as these made it possible to reach younger listeners, he also expressed concern about the drinking, smoking and drug taking that took place at such festivals, activities that he thought might undermine the appreciation and enjoyment of the music.

This partially accounts for Ravi Shankar’s subsequent move away from the rock and roll music scene and when Mike Sparrow asks for further clarification, the discussion moves on to what is meant by the term 'classical music'. Their conversation can be heard in the following excerpt from the interview:

Ravi Shankar discusses types of classical music (excerpt 3)

Interview transcript

Later in the interview this theme is explored further in terms of how Western audiences react to their first encounters with classical Indian music and vice versa. Ravi Shankar talks specifically about the greater emphasis on melody and rhythm in Indian classical music, and how this can be disconcerting for listeners who are accustomed to harmony, modulation and dynamics being more central.

Mike Sparrow’s final question concerns Ravi Shankar’s (then) upcoming performance at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.). What might audiences expect? He responds by explaining that he often does not decide on the ragas until shortly before the performance, although avoids starting with a long one in case of latecomers, who might otherwise face waiting outside for up to 45 minutes!

It would not have been possible to share this interview without the kind assistance of Ravi Shankar’s estate, Mike Sparrow’s executor and the BBC. Many recordings of Ravi Shankar’s performances can be accessed at the British Library, as well as his autobiography and other publications describing his life and work. More details on all of this can be found searching British Library catalogues.

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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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01 March 2021

Recording of the week: Friction drum song from Botswana

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This week's selection comes from Dr. Janet Topp Fargion, Head of Sound and Vision.

This song, based on the lyric 'The children of the traditional doctor can kill the medical doctor', is performed by Sebata on the sevuikivuiki friction drum and other Mbukushu villagers in the Tsodilo Hills, in the far north west of Botswana. It was recorded by John Brearley in 1982 during his first field trip to the country, one of many he conducted over the following decades.

The sevuikivuiki is a friction drum constructed over a hole in the ground. A hole is dug, about the size of a bucket, and a fairly flat woven mat is placed over it acting as the drum skin. On top of this sits the core of a corn-cob and a long notched stick kept in place by the performer’s foot. The instrument is played by rubbing two smaller sticks along the notches, producing a percussive sound that is deepened through a resonating hole in the ground.

Performer playing friction drum
Sebata playing the sevuikivuiki friction drum, Botswana, 1982. Photo by John Brearley

Sabata on sevuikivuiki with singing (BL REF C65/4 C5)

John Brearley describes the instrument in detail in his article ‘A musical tour of Botswana’ in Botswana Notes and Records (Volume 16, 1984, pp45-57).

The Tsolido Hills were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001 on account of the roughly 4000 examples of rock art dating back almost 100,000 years. These are beautifully described and illustrated on the British Museum’s African Rock Art website.

Although the Mbukushu, a Bantu people, only moved into this Tsolido Hills region within the last 200 years or so, they live amongst the various hunter-gatherer peoples who would have been responsible for the art works. Indeed hunter-gatherers and farming Bantu peoples have lived in this location for centuries: it is thought that many of the paintings were created by Bantu farmers as early as 800 - 1200 AD.

The recording forms part of the John Brearley Collection (C65). More recordings from this collection can be listened to on British Library Sounds.

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08 February 2021

Recording of the week: From feminist utopias to contemporary sound

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This week's selection comes from Harriet Roden, Digital Learning Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Imagine a land where flowers pave the streets, energy is solely reaped from the sun and air-cars transport people to universities, laboratories and observatories. Imagine this land is run entirely by women, because the men are all locked away in purdah.

This is 'Ladyland', a fictional utopia envisioned by Begum Rokeya (1880 – 1932) in her 1905 novel Sultana’s Dream.

Book cover of Sultana's Dream
Sultana’s Dream was originally published in the Indian Ladies’ Magazine in 1905.

Rokeya was a Bengali feminist writer and educator who is widely regarded as a pioneer of women's liberation in South Asia. She held the belief that women in her society were disadvantaged because of ignorance around their own rights and responsibilities.

She campaigned to change this.

In 1909 Rokeya founded the first school in Bengal for Muslim women which is credited as allowing the first generation of women to become literate.

She later established the Muslim Women’s Society, which advocated for women’s legal and political rights. The actions of the society has since been praised by Tahmima Anam as ‘the cornerstone of the women’s movement in Bengal’, creating a foundation for a politically progressive feminist movement in contemporary Bangladesh.

Her influence has continued to be felt in the creative outputs and work of women across the globe.

A small, white cassette tape sits on a shelf in our sound archive. The four tracks of Aliyah Hussain’s EP take their titles from key moments in Royeka’s novel. This track titled ‘Koh-i-Noor’ is directly inspired by the conversation between the main protagonist, the Queen and Sister Sara who, whilst touring ‘Ladyland’, describe its creation. With universities, ‘manufactories’, laboratories and observatories on the horizon, the Queen states:

Koh-i-Noor from Sultana's Dream, EP by Aliyah Hussain

Men, we find, are rather of lower morals and so we do not like dealing with them. We do not covet other people's land, we do not fight for a piece of diamond though it may be a thousand-fold brighter than the Koh-i-Noor, nor do we grudge a ruler his Peacock Throne. We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find out the precious gems, which nature has kept in store for us. We enjoy nature's gifts as much as we can.

In the year that Bangladesh turns 50 years old, join us on 22nd February when Tahmima Anam and friends Monica Ali, Nasima Bee and Leesa Gazi take this visionary work as a starting point in an exploration of fiction from across the Bangladeshi diaspora. Book now.

Explore the worlds imagined by women science fiction writers on the Women’s Rights webspace.

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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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04 January 2021

Recording of the week: Happy New Year!

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

Centre label of African Acoustic Vol.1 - Guitar Songs From Tanzania  Zambia & Zaire
'Bonne Année' was released on the album African Acoustic Vol.1 - Guitar Songs From Tanzania, Zambia & Zaire by record label Original Music

In this recording made by John Low, three boys in their late teens perform a song called 'Bonne Année' (which means Happy New Year in French) that they composed for the New Year celebrations of 1979.

Bonne Année recorded by John Low (BL C27/5 S1 C9)

Singing are Mukuna, Chola Piana and Soki Nambi, who also plays the guitar. Normally they would have played together in their electric guitar band, Orchestre Makosso (possibly named after another band that was famous in the 1970s) but on the night of the recording, they borrowed the recordist’s guitar.

John Low had been staying in Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to study the guitar music of Jean-Bosco Mwenda. While he was there, Bosco arranged for Low to go to Likasi, where Bosco was brought up, with a Cultural Officer called Tshibuyi Katina. This was to see more of the region, and record there if possible. Likasi is in the Katanga copper belt, and it was in a neighbourhood called Zone Mpanda that Low and Katina unexpectedly met the three boys.

In John Low's forthcoming book ‘Two Guitars to Katanga’, he describes this moment with beautiful clarity –

Perhaps the best things in life are always unexpected. What followed was a performance of rare beauty. Soki picked intricate and varying patterns on the guitar, full of melodic interest. The boys sang in three parts: low tenor, high tenor and falsetto. Their young voices blended perfectly and the vocal lines soared and floated unhurriedly above the more urgent, choppy rhythms of Soki’s guitar work. The relationship of the vocal parts to the guitar patterns was very complex, yet Soki played and sang effortlessly. He was supremely talented.

These teenagers would have honed their musical skills already as young boys, almost certainly by playing in banjo groups like Yumba and his friends who we’d recorded earlier on. But now they’d moved up into a different league, and were avidly absorbing the idioms of modern Congolese dance music. Their first song, the more beautiful of the two I recorded, was called Bonne Année, and had been composed for the New Year celebrations that year.

The song, in Kikongo language, was published  on the album 'African Acoustic Vol. 1 - Guitar Songs from Tanzania, Zambia and Zaire' on John Storm Roberts' record label Original Music. In fact, all the tracks on that album are field recordings made by John Low and these, and many more, are available to listen to at the British Library as part of the John Low Collection (C27).

Thanks to John Low for allowing me to feature his recording and for his generous correspondence over email, which I've paraphrased in this post.

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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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