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108 posts categorized "World & traditional music"

30 June 2020

The Santals, Scandinavian missionaries, and salvage ethnomusicology: an encounter of three worlds

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Since 2015, Christian Poske has conducted his PhD research on the Bengal recordings of the Arnold Bake Collection. A Collaborative Doctoral Scholarship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, situated his PhD within two institutions: the British Library Sound Archive and SOAS, University of London. He conducted his fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Bangladesh from April to October 2017, revisiting the locations of Arnold Bake’s fieldwork. Christian's fieldwork investigated the aims and methods of Bake’s research in the early 1930s and studied the continuity and change in the devotional and folk music and dance documented by Bake. Christian is completing his PhD in Music this year at SOAS and in addition to his research has been engaged as a cataloguer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. He currently works as Bengali Cataloguer at the Department of Asian and African Collections at the British Library.

The audio recordings from the Christian Poske Collection have recently been catalogued and will be available for on-site listening at the British Library when the Reading Rooms re-open. For now, those interested can access the descriptions of the recordings by browsing the Sound and Moving Image catalogue for catalogue entries under collection number C1795. This blog post written by Christian Poske is an insightful introduction to the collection through his fieldwork in Jharkhand and West Bengal.

The restudy of historical sound recordings often gives unexpected results. During my research on the cylinder recordings of the Dutch musicologist Arnold Bake (1899-1963) at the British Library Sound Archive, I came across a number of sparsely documented recordings made at a Christian mission for the Santals, a South Asian aboriginal people centred in the Indian state of Jharkhand today. When I conducted my fieldwork in 2017, I found out that one of the church songs recorded by Bake is still popular among converts in the region.

'Recently, I had the opportunity to start recording Santal music… To really get in touch with the Santals, I have turned to the currently most important authority in this field, Dr Bodding... However, he is a missionary, and as he helped me along, we arrived at a huge boarding school for Santals. But it looks worse than it is. The mission has the policy to change as little as possible. Language, music and customs are, if anyhow possible, retained. All melodies used in the church are pure Santal melodies, although the words were made Christian... The music as such is quite unlike Hindu music, and their whole musical sense is very different. They love polyphony a lot when they get to hear it. I have recorded a sample (which hardly has any scientific value) how the Santal singing master of the school edited a song with four voices without actually ever having a European education, he does not speak a word of English, for example. The boys sing it with passion, which you could never expect from the Hindus…'
(Arnold Bake, letter to Erich M. v. Hornbostel, 15.4.1931, Berlin Phonogram Archive)

With these words, Bake explained his fieldwork at the Kairabani mission to Erich M. v. Hornbostel (1877-1935), the director of the Berlin Phonogram Archive. The Norwegian missionary Paul Olaf Bodding (1865-1938) of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches had arranged Bake’s visit to Kairabani.

1. Kairabani Church 1926
'The new Kairabani Church at the consecration, 1926' (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen/ International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

In the letter to Hornbostel, Bake referred to the church song 'Boge gupi do' ('The Good Shepherd') that had been composed by the Norwegian missionary Lars Olsen Skrefsrud (1840-1910) around 1886 (Gausal 1935: 70). Skrefsrud, one of the founders of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches, settled in India to make sustained efforts to convert the Santals from animist belief to Christianity. He learned Santali language from 1867 onwards and published the first comprehensive grammar of the language a few years later (1873), which introduced a romanisation system providing the language with the first standard script that is still used by converts today, with minor amendments made by Bodding.

Skrefsrud group photo
From left to right: Missionaries H. P. Børresen, H. J. Muston, L. O. Skrefsrud, with Santali hunting priest, chiefs (with turbans), hunters, and musicians (Santal Parganas, 1874) (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen / International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

Bake recorded solo and choral renditions of the song 'Boge gupi do', which is based on a traditional Santali melody, as he correctly noted. However, the choral version had not been arranged by the Santali choir leader of the Kairabani mission, but by an organist of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches (Rạṛ Puthi 1929: preface).

'Boge gupi do' performed by male singer, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/1641)

'Boge gupi do' performed by male choir, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/2128)

Arnold Bake’s views on the Santals and their music and dance were influenced by colonial ethnographic clichés of aboriginal peoples that he replicated in his correspondence and publications (Bake 1936-37: 68), where he portrayed the Santals as a natural and pleasure-loving people, fond of music, dance, and drinking, and overall in a half-civilised state. One month after his visit to Kairabani, he filmed Santali dances at a Hindu festival in the village Kankalitola near Santiniketan. In a letter to his relatives, he described what he had seen in Kankalitola as 'a real nature dance':

'I am so curious what you will think of the films from Kankalitola that we left behind in Calcutta last week to reproduce. It was the typical male and female dances. You will see, I think, why the missionaries are against this dancing, it is very sensuous, yet it has great charm… And so entirely unaffected, a real nature dance.' (Arnold Bake, letter to his mother-in-law, 20.5.1931, Mss Eur F191/8, 191)

In Kairabani, he photographed Santali pupils playing their instruments at the mission, but he seems to have been dissatisfied with the sober ambience of the premises. To also have a picture of a Santali musician in a natural environment, he probably arranged a photo with one of the musicians outside:

Santali flute player by pond
Santali flute player by a pond, photograph by Arnold Bake (Kairabani mission, March 1931)

In this period, Hornbostel and other comparative musicologists collected recordings from musicologists and ethnographers worldwide at the Berlin Phonogram Archive 'to save what can be saved' of the traditional musics of the world threatened by the spread of Western culture (Hornbostel 1904-5: 97). Such recordings were expected to be made in surroundings free from European cultural influences. Therefore, Hornbostel marked all of Bake’s recordings from the mission as “worthless” (Ziegler 2006: 101-2), notwithstanding whether these featured traditional Santali or Christian songs. The reason for Hornbostel’s drastic measure was his suspicion that exposure to western church music had affected the Santals’ renditions of their own traditional songs. In his reply to Bake, he only hinted at his reservations:

'I am already very excited about the recordings and hope that you will have more opportunity for interesting recordings... of the Santals. In general: the more you record, the better, provided that the music is not europeanised yet.'
(Erich M. v. Hornbostel, letter to Arnold Bake, 5.7.1931, BPA)

When I began to evaluate Bake’s recordings at the British Library Sound Archive in 2015, I could not distinguish traditional from Christian songs among the Kairabani recordings due to my lack of knowledge of Santali language. Through my fieldwork, I was able to find out more. In Jharkhand, I visited the Kairabani mission school that still exists today. Here, I met the Santali language teacher Ignatius Besra, who helped me with the evaluation of the recordings at his home in Dumka. As he recognised the song 'Boge gupi do' (C52/2128), he rushed from the desk in the living room to another room to bring the church song book Sereń Puthi. He showed me the lyrics and said it was a 'hit' still popular among converts today. When I left, he gave me his copy on the way. I visited the Kairabani mission for the last time the following day and asked a schoolteacher to sing the song for me:

'Boge gupi do' performed by Nalini B. Hansdak Kairabani, May 2017 (C1795/11)

Mansaram Murmu, a doctoral researcher from Visva-Bharati University, translated it for me in Santiniketan two months later:

            Boge gupi do / A good shepherd -
            Ac’ren bhiḍhiko, boeha, / for his sheep, brothers,
            Ạḍiy’ jotonko; / he cares a lot.
            Sahre jaegate / Towards a good place,
            phạria dak’ jharanatey’ / to a spring of clean water,
            Ạyur idiko. / he leads them.

            Mit’ bhiḍiy’ at’len khan, / When a sheep gets lost -
            Ạuri ńame dhạbic’ doe / until he retrieves it,
            Gupi pańjaye. / he searches it.
            Uni ńamkate / When he has found it,
            Tarenrey’ ladeye / he carries it on his shoulder
            Rạskạ monte. / gladly.

            Ac’ak’ oṛak’te / At his home,
            Seṭerkate do boeha / when he has arrived, brothers,
            Peṛae jarwako, / he invites its kin,
            Onkoe metako / and tells them,
            Rạskạk’pe iń tuluc’, / Rejoice with me,
            Bhidin ńamkede. / I have found the lost sheep.

            Tạruc’e hec’len khan /When the tiger comes
            Ṭheṅga epelkate doe / he brandishes the stick
            Teṅgo darame; / and saves them. .
            Ac’ren bhiḍiko / His sheep,
            Maraṅ mũhim khongey’ / from huge danger
            Aḍ bańcaoko. / he saves them.

            Bhiḍi ńutumte / For the sheep,
            Boge gupi do boeha, / a good shepherd, brothers,
            Jiwiy’ alaea; / sacrifices his life.
            Jisui nonkaket’, / Jesus does like this
            Bańcao akat’bonae, / he has saved you
            Soetan tạrup’ khon. / from the grasp of the devil-tiger.

            Sereń Puthi (2015: 168)

Carrying out fieldwork with Bake’s recordings showed me the advantages of reconnecting cultural heritage communities with historical sound recordings that are insufficiently documented. Apart from the ethical imperative of making recordings from the colonial period accessible in countries of origin again, community engagement often brings valuable information to light that makes it possible to enhance the archival documentation of recordings, which ultimately makes the material more meaningful to everyone.

This blog is derived from my PhD research “Continuity and Change: A Restudy of Arnold Adriaan Bake’s research on the devotional and folk music and dance of Bengal 1925-1956”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, Award No. 1664039.

Further Reading:

Rạṛ Puthi: Book of Melodies (Choral Book). 1929. Dumka: The Santal Mission of the Northern Churches.

Sereń Puthi ["Book of Songs"]. 2015. Dumka: Dumka Diocesan Council (NELC).

Bake, Arnold A. 1936-7. ‘Indian Folk-Music’. Proceedings of the Musical Association 63: 65– 77.

Gausdal, Johannes. 1935. Contributions to Santal Hymnology. Bibliotheca Norvegiæ Sacræ 11. Bergen: Lunde.

Hornbostel, Erich Moritz von. 1904-5. ‘Die Probleme Der Vergleichenden Musikwissenschaft’. Zeitschrift Der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft 7: 85-97.

Skrefsrud, Lars Olsen. 1873. A Grammar of the Santhal Language. Calcutta: Calcutta School Book and Vernacular Literature Society.

Ziegler, Susanne. 2006. Die Wachszylinder Des Berliner Phonogramm-Archivs. Veröffentlichungen des Ethnologischen Museums Berlin. Berlin: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

29 June 2020

Recording of the week: A charm to ward off evil

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

Fairies dancing in a ring
Unknown author (unidentified "17th-century English chapbook") / Public domain

Staverton Bridge - Holy water (C604/19 C8)

In the 1970s, folk song collector Peter Kennedy taught at Dartington College of Arts in Totnes, Devon. He recorded folk group Staverton Bridge in 1974, when the band (made up of three former students from the college) played a concert at Foxhole school, in the grounds of Dartington Hall. Taking their name from one of Devon’s oldest bridges, Tish Stubbs, Sam Richards and Paul Wilson created a sound characterised by a mixture of vocal harmonies and acoustic instruments, including drum, guitar, recorder, concertina and field organ. The concert rambles freely across the highways and byways of the English folk song repertoire, featuring a lively mix of shanties, dance tunes, wassailing songs, ballads and madrigals. The featured recording, which is based on a poem by Robert Herrick, is introduced by Sam Richards who describes how he found the words, set to a tune by an anonymous composer, in a book in Ealing Public Library. The whole concert is charming in every sense of the word, but this piece has an atmospheric magic of its own.

Holy water come and bring;

Cast in salt for seasoning

Set the brush for sprinkling

Sacred spittle bring ye hither

Meal and now it mix together

Add a little oil to either

Give the tapers here their light

Ring the saints bell to affright

Far from hence the evil sprite

UOSH

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

18 June 2020

Arabic music record sleeves and what they can tell us

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Hazem Jamjoum joined the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project in April 2019 as Gulf History Audio Curator and Cataloguer. In this blog post he explores what record sleeves have helped him learn about the early 20th-century music industry in the Arab world.

For some decades, the British Library's sound archive routinely discarded shellac record sleeves. The sleeves were flimsy paper envelopes, not particularly suited for protecting the discs. Over time, the paper disintegrates into dust that lodges itself into the grooves on the discs and interferes with playback. To make matters worse, moving discs in and out of old crumbling sleeves without damaging the paper can be quite a delicate task. That said, the sleeves have much to offer researchers, which is why many archives such as the British Library's sound archive now keep the sleeves, and resources permitting, invest the time, effort and hard drive space to safeguard them as digital images. In this piece, I hope to share some of what I have learned by examining shellac record sleeves from the early twentieth century mashriq (Arab East) by focussing on the story of one particular company, Baidaphon.

Baidaphon was founded around 1906 by six cousins from the Syrian-Lebanese Baida family, with one group of brothers living in Beirut, and the other group, in Berlin. The centre labels printed on the company’s early records tell us a great deal, but it is the sleeves that the company begins to use after WWI that I aim to examine here. Baidaphon sleeves from the 1920s, some of which were accessioned into the British Library’s collection through a gift from Emile Cohen and Ezra Hakkak, seem to have been standardized with a revealing message to customers:

'In order to reduce the expense to our generous clients living in American, Australian and African regions, and to ensure timely delivery of goods, we ask that orders be henceforth sent directly to our Berlin shops at the following address: Pierre & Gabriel Baida - Berlin Mittelstraße 55.'

Shellac disc sleeve with Berlin showroom address
Fig 1. Baidaphon record sleeve from the 1920s instructing customers outside the Middle East how to order from Berlin.

Beyond informing us that the company’s Berlin showroom was no more than a ten-minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate, the note to the customers also gives us a sense that much of the company’s business was conducted through mail orders, and that a growing proportion of these orders came from the massive Greater Syrian (and other Arabic speaking) diasporas across the Americas, Australia and Africa. By the time of the Great Depression, Baidaphon was a company operating on a global scale.

At the end of the 1920s, Baidaphon signed the most vaunted of Egypt’s twentieth century singer-songwriters: Mohammad Abdelwahhab. This was a major milestone in the company’s competition with its larger rivals, so much so that it produced a special sleeve for recordings of Abdelwahhab’s songs. Printed at the bottom of the front face of these sleeves was a photograph of the young composer in a tuxedo and tarbūsh (fez), identifying him in Latin script as 'Prof. Mohamed Abdel Wahhab', with Arabic script at the top going into flowery prose that described him as an 'artistic genius' and 'musician to kings and princes'. The back of the sleeve had the now-familiar instructions to the tri-continental diaspora to send their orders to the company’s Berlin headquarters.

Within the same period, the company began producing records by Elie Baida, son of the Beirut-branch’s Jibril Baida. Elie was a musician in his own right, renowned for his mastery of the Baghdādi style of mawwāl, a virtuosic vocal performance, invariably performed a cappella or with minimal instrumental backing, and often serving as a sentimental introduction to a song. Elie was soon dubbed the 'king of the Baghdadi' and later moved to the United States, where he lived for several decades until his tragic death in 1977. The company produced a near-identical version of the special Abdelwahhab sleeve, with the photo of Elie in place of Abdelwahhab’s though without the florid encomium.

The company’s investment in such sleeves gives us a sense of their marketing strategy at the time. Beyond relying on brand recognition, the company had moved into highlighting the considerable celebrity of its recording artists, such as Abdelwahhab and Baida, to appeal to buyers and listeners.

Shellac disc sleeve featuring Elie Baida
Fig. 2 Baidaphon record sleeve from the 1920s specially designed to market records by Elie Baida.

Sleeves also have much to tell us about Baidaphon’s response to the Great Depression, and the death of one of the company’s founding shareholders, Pierre Baida. It appears that the company aimed at restructuring in such a way that parts of the company focussed on particularly lucrative geographic areas were reconstituted as new companies. The most important of these restructuring manoeuvres were those affecting its operations in Egypt, where the Egyptian branch of the company was repackaged in the 1930s as an entirely new label: Cairophon. Though quite minimalist in comparison with the Baidaphon sleeves of the same period, the earliest Cairophon sleeves mark the connection between the two companies quite clearly. With one side in Arabic and the other in French, the sleeves state the new company’s address as 34 Rue Mousky, which matches that of the Baidaphon Cairo showroom in the 1920s. Furthermore, the new sleeves clearly state that Cairophon belonged to the 'heirs of Pierre Baida and their partners.' The new partner in question was none other than the most recent addition to the company’s roster of recording artists: Mohammad Abdelwahhab.

Shellac disc sleeve for Cairophon label
Fig. 3: Early Cairophon sleeve.

Another shellac disc sleeve that joined the British Library collection through the Cohen and Hakkak gift helps us see yet another connection between Baidaphon and the expansion of the recording industry in the Arab world, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way. Likely dating from the late 1940s or early 1950s, this is a Cairophon sleeve with text exclusively in Arabic, except for the company’s new logo which features its name above a landscape sketch of the Giza pyramids and palm trees.

Cairophon record label shellac disc sleeve from Baghdad
Fig 4. Cairophon-Baghdad sleeve.

Above the logo, and underneath the company name in Arabic, are the words 'for Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Kuwait', a clear indication of the expansion of the company’s business throughout the Arabo-Persian Gulf region. The right and left columns of the busy sleeve feature images of a bicycle, a transistor radio set and a portable record player. The text on either side is an eclectic list of items sold by the producer of the sleeve, including record players and discs, dyes, washing machines, fans, batteries, and children’s bicycles. Centered on the bottom of the sleeve are the words:

’Āref Chamakchi
Baghdad, al-Rasheed Street 295/1
Telephone 7889

There is much to say about al-Rasheed Street, the Chakmakchi family and the role of both the street and the company in Iraqi musical life. For now, it suffices to say that the Chakmakchis’ electronics store in the middle of the most musically significant street in Baghdad soon added a recording studio to its operations, creating the label Chakmakchiphone which was unparalleled in recording, popularizing and preserving the maqām and rīfī repertoires of Iraq. Though the British Library collection includes nearly one hundred Chamakchiphone records, currently being catalogued and digitized under the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme, sadly not one of the company’s sleeves has made it into the collection.

One such undated sleeve in the collection of the Arab American National Museum shows that the phone number for Chakmakchiphone was the same as that of the electronics (and children’s bicycle) retailer appearing on the Cairophon sleeve, but that the company had taken over different storefronts along Rasheed Street for different aspects of its operations. It also shows that they had expanded these operations to Mosul. The Cairophon sleeve itself tells us that the Egyptian company contracted the Chakmakchis to operate as their agents in the Arabo-Persian Gulf, and suggests that this partnership was very likely an important moment in the development of the Iraqi recording industry given the centrality of Chakmakchiphone in that development.

Historians of recorded sound rightly lament the loss of primary source material resulting from the destruction of record company archives. The Odeon company headquarters, for instance, were destroyed in the 1944 Allied bombing of Berlin, and Baidaphon’s was burned down in the 1987 during civil war in Lebanon. In our thirst for any tidbit of information, such seemingly useless ephemera as disc packaging take on all the more importance as sources through which to reconstruct the histories of music production around the world. I hope I’ve managed to show some of the ways in which this is the case, and perhaps encouraged those who have such objects in their possession to photograph and share them, and perhaps consider donating them to a nearby library or archive.

This post was written by Hazem Jamjoum, Gulf History Audio Curator and Cataloguer for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project (BLQF), which produces the Qatar Digital Library. Follow @BLQatar, @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

15 June 2020

Recording of the week: The Kankurang or how to enforce a lockdown

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

The Kankurang is a Mandinka masked figure from the Senegambia region, associated with male societies and more specifically with boys' initiation ceremonies. It is a protective figure and an enforcer of rules, but, as masked figures go, the Kankurang is also pretty scary. It is uncannily tall, entirely covered in strands of red bark, and faceless. As it roams the streets at night, it brandishes and strikes together two machete knives, letting out a blood-chilling, high-pitched cry from time to time.

image of Kankurang
Photo by Dorothy Voorhees, licensed under cc-by-sa-2.0 / cropped and desaturated from original

Only a few initiates know the identity of the person hiding inside the costume; and besides, it doesn’t matter much because, once the costume is donned, the man, as it were, disappears and the Kankurang takes his place.

The whole point of the Kankurang is that you do not want to run into it, because although its role in society is useful and ultimately positive, the Kankurang is dangerous. It often roams accompanied by a small group of stick-carrying young men, the Kankurang’s followers and helpers, who can administer punishment on its behalf, and many a person has been beaten just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

'When the mask roamed the streets at night, cooking fires were extinguished, lights were switched off, and women wouldn’t leave their homes” (De Jong 2001: 14).'

This frightening masked figure makes its appearance at liminal times, during the change of seasons, around the time of boys’ circumcision ceremonies. After an extended period away from home, the newly-circumcised boys return from the bush school to their families, where they undergo a period of enforced rest while they heal and get ready to re-enter society as adults. It is important that during this time the boys stay indoors, and the Kankurang is a very effective means of ensuring their lockdown. The temptation to sneak outside to play is easily vanquished when one hears the piercing cries of the Kankurang coming from the street.

From the late 20th century onwards, there has also been a new kind of secular Kankurang mask. Especially in urban environments, at Christmas time and other secular traditions during the dry season, it is not uncommon to see an almost playful Kankurang dancing in the street during broad daylight, with children watching on and laughing rather than running away in terror. However, in spite of this new, more benevolent masked figure, many bear witness to the fact that the real, sacred, dangerous Kankurang still exists. You may not find it in the cities and big towns, but out in the countryside and around the smaller villages, where the dark stillness of the night still hasn’t been conquered by electricity, its knives still clang menacingly.

This week’s recording is a rare aural document of the 'real' Kankurang, made in The Gambia by music researcher and producer Lucy Durán. What follows is the sound recording and her account of the circumstances surrounding the recording of this rather strange piece of audio.

Kankurango and bullroarer [extract] (BL REF C2/269 S1 C1) 

It was the spring of 1986 and I was on my way to Mali with journalist James Fox. We were staying in Brikama, in The Gambia, at the house of my friend Dembo Konte, a well-known kora player. It was late at night and we were sitting in Dembo’s courtyard, chatting. The boys of Brikama had just got back from the bush school after circumcision. At some point, I heard a strange clatter coming from the street outside the compound. I mentioned this to Dembo who, after listening for a second, changed his smile to a frown and almost froze. He then got up and urged us all to go inside and lock all doors and windows. Initially, I thought he was playing a trick on us, but I soon realised he really was scared, and so I got scared too because it seemed that whatever it was that was making those sounds (and it was getting closer) was genuinely dangerous. And so, not knowing what I was running from, I ran inside with the others, went to my room and hastily closed the window and locked it. I then realised that the thing was right outside my window. I could hear metallic noises, a whirring sound like that of a bullroarer,* and strange, high-pitched cries. My portable recorder was just there, so I picked it up and started recording, while Dembo kept signalling us to stay quiet and not make any noise. Only after it was gone I learnt from Dembo that the creature outside our house was the fearsome Kankurang.

*The eerie whirring sound, clearly audible on the recording, is produced by a bullroarer called ngarankulo, also associated with boys’ initiation ceremonies. It was probably operated by one of the Kankurang’s followers.

Many thanks to Lucy Durán for allowing us to share her recording and for all the background information provided. The Lucy Durán Collection has been digitised as part of the British Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

Further reading:

De Jong, Ferdinand. 2001. “Démasqué”, Etnofoor Vol. 14, No. 2: 7-22.
Weil, Peter M. 1971. “The masked figure and social control: the Mandinka case”, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 41, No. 4: 279-293.

UOSH

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

01 June 2020

Recording of the week: Herrings' heads

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

Johnny Doughty was always singing songs about the sea and the shore. Born in 1903, he grew up in a fishing family in Brighton, Sussex. His grandmother took in washing, his uncle supplied the horses for the lifeboat.

Brighton Net Arches in the 1860s
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, CC BY-SA

The start of Johnny’s singing career was rocky, and striking a balance between the school choir and his love of the beach proved difficult. As a child, Johnny spent Sundays helping fishermen with their boating and his mother often had to fetch him in time to perform at the local church. On one occasion he forgot his boots and stockings. Although he attempted to march in with the rest of the choir in just his cassock, he got the sack instead.

Outside of school and home, he spent his time on the beach – the cockle and whelk stalls, the boats and St Margaret’s Net Arch by the Palace Pier. Here Johnny listened to the hum of songs from sailors and fishermen mending their nets.

One such song he learnt at the Arch was Herring’s Heads. A cumulative song with a simple harmony, Johnny himself describes the song as a ‘beer-shop song’. Each verse dissects the body of the fish and transforms each part into something new. First, the head is turned into ‘loaves of bread’, the eyes become ‘puddings and pies’ and the bellies ‘jams and jellies’. A version of each verse and chorus is repeated until the performers’ reach the herrings' tails.

Herring's heads (BL REF C1047/39)

Beyond the Arch, Johnny learned more songs through his time spent in both the Royal and Merchant navy and his years spent trawling the ocean for fish.

It wasn’t until he was in his early seventies that he was discovered by Mike Yates to record for Topic Records. Ever the performer, Johnny would take the time to entertain with funny asides and winks here-and-there, very often with a ‘pot’ of Guinness in one hand.

Discover more sea shanties and sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

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

29 May 2020

In search of the ramkie in the Karoo and the Olifants River Valley

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Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper is a researcher and writer with an expertise in mythology and folklore. Since 2011, he has been recording and investigating the culture of Afrikaans-speaking Khoisan descendants living in rural areas in the Western Cape and the Northern Cape provinces of South Africa. In March 2018 he carried out field work focussed on music with the support of the British Library. Jose Manuel's previous field work had been devoted to understanding and documenting narrative traditions and oral histories.

The Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper Collection has recently been made accessible at the British Library though until Reading Rooms re-open, readers won't be able to access the videos that make up this collection. For now you can browse Jose Manuel's detailed catalogue entries on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue under collection number C1760. As an introduction to the collection, Jose Manuel has written a guest blog post about his encounters with the ramkie instrument in his field work.

In October 2012, while on a field trip, at a lovely restaurant and junk-shop that has the unlikely name of Williston Mall, in the South African Karoo town of that same name, my wife Helena and I saw a magnificent ramkie made of wood. The price was very affordable, so the temptation to purchase it was strong, but since my wife and I were about to return to Spain in December, after more than two years living in South Africa, and had plenty of things to pack, I finally decided to give up the beautiful instrument. Of course, it was not long before I regretted that decision.

A year and a half later, in April 2014, another field trip brought me again to Williston. Of course, at the first opportunity Helena and I went to the mall with some hope that perhaps the item we had not bought in our previous visit would still be there. Stranger things have happened to us in the Karoo. But just as we were asking one of the owners of the place about the ramkie, I saw it hanging from one of the walls, among other not-for-sale items. Fortunately, noticing our disappointment, our interlocutor said he was going to give, rather than sell, us another ramkie, and soon we had it in our hands.

Ramkie
Ramkie made with a primus stove, given to the author in Williston

Made from the tanks of two Primus stoves, the instrument is a fine example of the Karoo folk luthiers’ ingenuity for making the most of whatever is at hand. I would rather have had the other one, but this was certainly an excellent consolation prize. By then, the ramkie had become for me more than a mere curiosity, since it featured in some of the most intriguing stories I had been recording in the Karoo and neighbouring areas. More on this later.

The ramkie is a string instrument similar to a guitar. According to the eminent musicologist Percival R. Kirby, in his monumental book The Musical Instruments of the Indigenous People of South Africa (first published in 1934), the name comes from the Portuguese rabequinha, meaning “a little violin”, and the instrument “shows traces of Portuguese influence”. The earliest mention of the instrument, Kirby writes, comes from the 18th century German author O. F. Mentzel, who lived in the Cape from 1733 to 1741. Mentzel attributes a Malabar origin to the ramkie, but according to Kirby “it is either definitely of Portuguese origin, or else a hybrid instrument”. It was soon adopted with enthusiasm by the Khoisan servants of the European colonisers. Originally made using as a resonator a calabash to which a wood handle was attached, as described by Mentzel, it normally had three or four strings which were plucked, not bowed. Different accounts by early travellers suggest that variations in the material used for the resonator appeared early on. In recent times it is usually made with a 5 litre oil can, hence the name of blik kitaar, “tin guitar” in Afrikaans, by which it is also known.

When in March 2018 I undertook a field trip to the Olifants River Valley and parts of the Upper Karoo, one of my main objectives was to find out if the instrument was still alive among the rural, Afrikaans-speaking communities of those areas, most of whose members descend from the original Khoisan inhabitants of that part of southern Africa. I wanted to record, if possible, people playing it, to film the making of one and even bring at least one to the British Library if I was fortunate enough to obtain it.

In the event, what I could mostly do was gather memories of the instrument, yet memories that, to my surprise, were of not so long ago. The majority of the musicians I interviewed were middle-aged people who now played the guitar but had learnt music in their youth by observing a parent, a relative or a friend play the ramkie. At some point, many had made their own instrument, usually with the 5 litre oil can.

The very first person, my assistant Patrick Hanekom and I interviewed, had learnt to play in this way. He was Alfred Basson, of Clanwilliam, who had grown in the Heunnigvlei area of the Wupperthal Mission, in the Cederberg Mountains. Mr. Basson has won several prizes at rieldans competitions and is an accomplished guitarist. Using just three strings from his guitar he gave us a glimpse of how the ramkie sounds, and offered to make one for us. We jumped at the opportunity, but on our way home after the recording session Patrick told me he doubted Mr. Basson could finally make good his offer, for the simple reason that the 5 litre oil cans are nowadays almost impossible to come by. And sadly, that was what happened.

                                                       

The ramkie people remember is the one made with the oil can. It had from 3- to 4 strings, normally made from fishing-line, although some people mentioned a more archaic material: sheep-gut. From what we were told by several of the people we recorded, it appears that really affordable guitars became available in the area around the 1980s, and they have gradually replaced the ramkie. There are, however, still many people around who know how to make and play this wonderful instrument.

Although Oom Dawid de Klerk (born in 1944) of the farm Kriedowkrans, showed us a related instrument, the blik viool or tin violin, which he couldn’t play for us for want of a bow, Patrick and I were not able to see a really traditional ramkie during this field trip. The closest we got was in the Sandveld town of Graafwater, west of Clanwilliam, where a wonderful musician, Ephraim Kotze, with whom we had a most stimulating conversation, showed us an electric ramkie he plays occasionally while performing with his band. He played the instrument for us acoustically, since he lacked an amplifier at the moment. The sound was unlike the guitar, but this ramkie had six strings and the fretboard and other additions to the blik were certainly not made of recycled material.

                                                       

We asked Ephraim about a local character called Dirk Ligter, about whom many stories are told in this part of the world. Ligter was (and for many still is) an unbeatable sheep-thief, who stole and slaughtered the sheep of the farmers without ever being caught. He is reputed to have supernatural powers, among them that of being so fast that he could outrun any horse. More wonderful still, is his gift of being able to transform into virtually anything: an anthill, a broom, a bush…

Ephraim told us that he knew about Ligter, but couldn’t tell us any of the narratives himself. This was not surprising, because the Sandveld is somewhat outside the usual range of this legendary sheep-thief, whose natural territory lies to the east and north of the Sandveld, and encompasses most of the Bokkeveld, Cederberg, Tankwa and Hantam Karoo areas.

The reason I was asking about this character during my fieldwork in March is because, in addition to being a master sheep-thief, Ligter was also an accomplished ramkie player. As was to be expected, his instrument was not an ordinary one. Patrick’s father, Petrus Hanekom, of Algeria, a village in the Cederberg Mountains, told us that when Ligter felt like listening to music he just had to hang the instrument somewhere and say “Elom!”, and the ramkie played on its own.

James Zimri
James Zimri, Algeria, Cederberg Mountains

It was from Oom Petrus from whom I first heard that Dirk Ligter never stole from the common people, just from the farmers. Yet there was an exception: once he stole a ramkie from a labourer. Oom Petrus remembered only this far, but we got a few more details from his brother-in-law, James Zimri, whom we went to visit next. Besides being an excellent harmonica player, Oom James is also a storyteller and of course he knew about Ligter. Among other things, he told us the specific farm at which Ligter stole the ramkie, and also that the instrument in question was broken, and Ligter mended it. Yet, again, he could not go beyond this. The rest of the story, however, is in all likelihood still there and I hope to be able to record it in the near future.

20 May 2020

Exploring the sounds and stories of Britain's shores

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Last week the British Library launched Coast, a new web space dedicated to sounds and stories from Britain's incredible coastline.

Covering everything from superstitions and working conditions to wildlife and entertainment, this collection brings together field recordings, interview excerpts and music from across the sound archive. Many of these recordings have been digitised as part of Unlocking our Sound Heritage, a UK-wide project that will preserve and provide access to thousands of rare and unique sound recordings.

Without wanting to spoil the adventure, here are a few choice recordings to whet your appetite.

In May 2012 field recordist Peter Toll made this underwater recording of a rock pool. It includes the sounds of limpets, periwinkles and anenomes and lets us listen in to an otherwise silent world.

Rock pool ambience recorded on Bantham Beach, Devon, England (BL ref 212536)

Colour photograph of a rock pool(c) Avalon/ Contributor via Getty Images

All Aboard For Margate perfectly captures the excitement and popularity of visiting the British seaside in the first years of the 20th century. This version was performed by music hall star Florrie Forde,

All Aboard For Margate sung by Florrie Forde (BL ref 1CYL0001004)

Colour photograph of holidaymakers at the seaside(c) PhotoQuest / Contributor via Getty Images

The bright sounds of the amusement arcade is often one of the first things you'll hear when approaching the seafront. For me it's like a siren and very rarely am I able to resist its enticing call.

Better luck next time (uncatalogued)

Colour photograph of the inside of a seaside amusement arcade© Prisma by Dukas / Contributor via Getty Images

Fishermen are a superstitious bunch and are always on the look out for potential harbingers of misfortune. In this interview extract from The Listening Project, Wilfred Keys asks his friend Thomas Kyle about some of these superstitions.

Fishermens superstitions (BL ref C1500/416)

Black and white photograph of fisherman in a fishing boat(c) Image: Hulton Archive / Stringer via Getty Images

Seabird colonies are a seasonal highlight of the coastal calendar. This recording was made in 1986 by Chris Watson and is dominated by the raucous calls of nesting kittiwakes. 

Seabird colony at Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland, England (BL ref 24697)

Guillemots at nesting colony© Education Images / Contributor via Getty Images

Sound is such an evocative medium. It has the power to transport us to a completely different time and place. And, at a time when so many of us are confined to our houses and local areas, being able to escape, even for just a few minutes, has never been more important. 

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

All Aboard For Margate: Public Domain; Sounds from a seaside amusement arcade: CC-By-NC; Fishermen’s superstitions: © BBC; Rock Pool: © Peter Toll; Seabird Colony: © Chris Watson.

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20 April 2020

Recording of the week: Makame Faki, legendary singer from Zanzibar

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This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Zanzibari musician, Makame Faki, affectionately known by the nickname ‘Sauti ya zege’ ('Voice of gravel'), passed away aged 77 on 18 January 2020. He was known for his exuberance, always with a big smile on his face. Of course, he was mostly known for his musical talent, as a distinctive singer, orchestra leader and violinist in the Zanzibari orchestral taarab tradition with the group Culture Musical Club. He also led musicians - as singer and violinist - in the closely related but much more fiery genre of kidumbak.

Makame Faki
Makame Faki leading a kidumbak performance at a wedding on the outskirts of Zanzibar Town. © Janet Topp Fargion, 1989

I went to Zanzibar for the first time in 1989 to do fieldwork on taarab music for my doctorate in ethnomusicology. I had the immense privilege of knowing Bwana Makame and recording him on many occasions as he led the kidumbak sessions then extremely popular at wedding celebrations throughout the backstreets of Zanzibar Town. Some 15 years later, in 2004, he appeared at the WOMAD Festival in the UK with Culture Musical Club playing both the orchestral version of taarab - joined on this occasion by the late legend Bi Kidude - and kidumbak.

Zanzibar Town panorama                                        Zanzibar Town Panorama. Janet Topp Fargion, 1989

This week’s recording(s) of the week are a tribute to Bwana Makame. The first recording is an extract from a very long kidumbak performance I made with a very excitable audience at a wedding on the outskirts of Zanzibar Town in 1989. To me this was one of the most pleasurable days of my year-long fieldwork: seated right in the middle of the circle of musicians playing violin, sanduku (tea chest bass), cherewa (coconut shakers), mkwasa (beating sticks) and singers, the recording (on a good old Sony Professional Walkman cassette recorder and a single stereo microphone) tells something of the way the audience participated and the whole event was led by Bwana Makame.

Kidumbak in Zanzibar 1989 (C724/2/52)

The second recording, made by the British Library, is the last couple of minutes of the Culture Musical Club performance at WOMAD in 2004. Before an audience of at least a couple of thousand, and after a full hour of performance, the recording demonstrates Bwana Makame’s ability to please crowds on an international stage.

Culture Musical Club at WOMAD 2004 (C203/1174)

He was a truly remarkable ambassador for the music and for Zanzibar. I shall always be grateful to him for the days and weeks he spent imparting to me his huge knowledge of, and enthusiasm for this music.

Further reading:
Zanzibar says goodbye to legendary 'King of Kidumbak', musician Makame Faki

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

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