Sound and vision blog

142 posts categorized "World & traditional music"

12 July 2022

Postcard from Dumre

Rahul Giri is one of our Resonations artists-in-residence alongside Yee I-Lann, whose recently published blog you can read online. Also known as _RHL, Rahul Giri is a producer and DJ based in Bangalore, India. While studying broadcast journalism, Rahul became one half of the duo Sulk Station, whose work has been described as ‘hypnotic, downtempo electronica with Hindustani musical influences’. For years, he has been an active developer of Bangalore’s alternative scene and musical identity, running Consolidate – an independent collective-turned-record-label. In this blog he gives us some insight into the start of his online residency at the British Library:

Dumre, a small town in central Nepal, was where my father was posted as a civil engineer in the late ‘90s. It was also where I spent many of my vacations. While thinking about how to approach the Resonations artist residency, I wanted to find a personal connection. This came through ethnomusicologist Carol Tingey’s field recordings of the Gaine community at Tarkughat village, Lamjung. A village that was less than 30 kilometers from our camp in Dumre.

Photo of gaine musicians in NepalPhoto of Gaines at Tarkughat Village, Lamjung with their instruments (madal, arbajo, sarangi, from left to right) taken by Dr. Carol Tingey, 1992

Carol Tingey’s recordings took me back to my childhood days in and around the hills of Dumre. During my father’s office hours I would leave the camp and wander around, following narrow winding paths up the neighboring hills surrounded by terraced farming plots, where a few huts were dotted here and there. My fear of the unknown was eclipsed by a sense of adventure and curiosity. My walk would almost always end at a cliff overlooking the boisterous Marshyangdi river; the climb down - steep and slippery, and thick with vegetation – was one I never attempted.

On my way back I’d stop at the solitary chia pasal (tea shop) just outside our camp for a bottle of Coca-Cola (charged against my father’s tab) and sometimes an order of wai wai noodles. The radio would always be on and tuned to Radio Nepal, playing mostly folk music and popular songs from Nepali cinema. At British Library Sounds you can listen to a selection of lok geet (folk songs) recorded by Carol Tingey at Gorkha, approximately 40 kilometers east from Dumre.

Every once in a while there were parties at the camp, and meat (maasu), alcohol (rakshi) and maadal (hollow drum) would come out. The staff and their family and friends would sit around the fire and sing songs. Paan ko Paat (Marshyangdi Salala), a hugely popular folk song in Nepal and for the Nepali diaspora, was a regular feature. Paan ko Paat is part of the dohori tradition in which a group of men and women sing back and forth in an improvised conversational format tied together by a set melody and chorus. Dohori songs are generally sung at melas (fairs), weddings and other festivities. The improvised lyrics are filled with flirtatious and suggestive metaphors in hope of courtship. You can listen to a rendition of Paan ko Paat by Gaine musicians recorded by Carol Tingey at British Library Sounds.

A lot of the songs recorded by Carol Tingey, especially the folk songs from Gorkha and Tarkughat, were the soundtrack of my time at Dumre. However it was her recordings of the Gaine tradition that really drew me into this sound archive collection.

The Gaines are a caste of professional musicians who traditionally traveled from village to village performing songs in return for money or food. Their primary instrument is the sarangi, a four string instrument played with a bow, generally accompanied by a madal (hollow drum). They have been referred to as bards, historians and journalists of the pre-radio era owing to the fact that they would sing songs about current affairs, socio-political issues, cautionary tales and events from neighboring villages. Their repertoire includes folklore, karkha (songs of historical heroic praise), mythologies, devotional and seasonal songs. The Gaines, once considered untouchable, also fall into the lowest bracket in terms of economic and social standing.

Though it was not the main focus of her research, Carol Tingey explored the Gaine tradition. First while researching the work and sound recordings of Arnold Adriaan Bake. Then later as part of a collaborative postdoctoral research project with musicologist Richard Widdess and musician and ethnomusicologist Gert-Matthias Wegner. Tingey’s own recordings of Gaines in Tarkughat, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, Nepal, made in the ‘80s and ‘90s, document much of the Gaine repertoire.

One example of a tragic ballad can be listened to in Tingey's recording of the song Sarumai Rani. The song, recorded in two parts (listen online to part one and part two), revolves around Sarumai Rani's desire to go to her maiti (parental home). She pleads to Raja, her husband, but he keeps refusing, instead he offers her ‘suna bote choli’, a gold studded blouse.

maiti rajako deshni ho

My home is your country too

fulera gayo kesha ni

aba janchhu mero maiti ko desha

My hair has turned gray (I have gotten old)

Now I want to go to my maiti

After much convincing, Raja finally concedes. Unfortunately Sarumai Rani is bitten by a snake on the way home and dies.

The music and story of Sarumai Rani encapsulates ‘dukha’ or sorrow, an emotion that is synonymous with Gaine music. Perhaps this emotion is a reflection of their social standing as well as the plight of rural and marginalized communities of Nepal.

Growing up in Kathmandu - especially during my late teens - I was always looking outwards. I listened to shortwave radio instead of FM or AM and found great joy in picking up albums from music stores in Kathmandu that sold dubbed cassette tapes of international releases. One of these tapes happened to be Radiohead’s Amnesiac. The album was going to be the building block of my musical journey - as a listener and musician. I was constantly looking for music with a similar emotion, which led me to artists like Sigur Rós and Portishead. The common thread joining them was melancholia, a sense of longing and vulnerability that was despairing and comforting at the same time. This experience is something I found in the music of Gaines.

So when I started thinking about the residency and listening to countless recordings in the sound archive, I found myself looking inwards instead. It wasn’t just a nostalgia-driven search but an attempt to find reference points for my musical landscape. A way to find parallels and make sense of what I do as a musician within the Nepali context.

08 July 2022

Starting from here: ‘Interview with Michael Saville’

Yee I-Lann is one of the British Library’s Resonations artists-in-residence. She lives and works in her hometown Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah. Her practice engages with regional Southeast Asian history, addressing issues of colonialism, power, and the impact of historical memory in lived social experience. Yee I-Lann was one of the featured artists in this summer’s Unlimited. This was Art Basel’s section for large scale projects. She presented her work TIKAR/MEJA, 2020 which was created in collaboration with women weavers in her homeland. In this blog, she gives us some insight into the start of her online residency at the British Library:

Perhaps Mr Michael Saville wanted me to find his story buried in the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection at the Bristol Archives. I was looking for stories and sounds on the British Library Sound and Moving Image catalogue and entered ‘North Borneo’, where I am from, into the search box. An interview with him landed first on my screen. In the summary of the interview, I read: ‘He describes the nationalism movement [in Malaysia] and his involvement in it, and he expresses various doubts.’

‘What doubts, Mr Saville?’ I asked the screen. Did you have premonitions of the history I have since lived? I have doubts too, lots of them. What’s your story? What do you want to tell me Mr Michael Saville? What do I want to know from you? What do I want to say to you? Do you want to hear what I have to say?

So I chose this audio file as my first request for the Resonations residency I am part of. I chose it because the recording’s summary contained the word ‘doubt’. ‘Doubt’ seemed a good place to start a conversation.

Mr Saville, his wife and two children arrived in my home town Jesselton, North Borneo in April 1949. The name has since changed to Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah.

Since 1881, North Borneo had been a British Protectorate under the CEO of the North Borneo Chartered Company. When, as a consequence of the war with the Japanese during WWII, the company went bankrupt, the North Borneo Chartered Company handed us over to the British Empire, and we officially became a British crown colony in 1946.

A young Mr Saville, with his education in finance, had come to join the administration. He would work for the secretariat, become a District Officer, and hold the office of Controller of Supplies, dealing specifically with rice.

Playing sports Town Padang with the Jesselton Sports Club in the backgroundPlaying sports, Town Padang with the Jesselton Sports Club in the background, 1950s, Robert Knowles’ Collection, Sabah Museum. Mr Saville speaks of the Sports Club in Jesselton at the Town Padang in his interview. The Town Padang was the site for the Proclamation of Malaysia in Sabah in 1963.

When I first listened to ‘Interview with Michael Saville (1999-04-13)’ - British Library shelfmark: UBC034/700 - I thought, oh, that’s quite benign. The sound of his voice was familiar to me. In 1963, as the British exited North Borneo, it joined the Federation of Malaya, as Sabah, to form Malaysia. Mr Saville left Sabah in 1964. I was born seven years later. I grew up hearing what I’ve come to think of as a British paternalistic tone: earnest, sympathetic at times; defensive at others, with swallowed breath at the racier moments.

Of the colonial administration and his role within it he says:

Whether we did a good job or not I don't know. We can't be like the Irishman who says, when being asked the way, ‘Well, if I were you I wouldn't start from here’. We started from here. It was one piece of cloth and one was part of the weaving process.

Mr Saville also sounds like he loved my home, or at least enjoyed his time there. I transcribe the interview. Start, stop, rewind, play. What was that? Stop, rewind, play. I hear his intonation and pauses, I hear the doubt and nostalgia that must occupy him and old chaps from the administration like him, swept away as they must’ve been in their youth by the currents of their unquestioned times.

I must not be cynical, I say to myself that is not useful. I must listen to the gaps, hear the rehearsed speech, and hear the guilt and pleasure and joy beneath this tone of ‘one must be loyal to the office’.

I must listen to the rhythms of this voice just as I want to answer back with the rhythm of my own experiences, powered by a hunger to better understand. In many of our native and local communities here in Sabah, our history is told through oral storytelling, and I have belief and loyalty to the power of that.

Mr Saville ends his interview with a tone of regret directed towards his wife and two older children:

I think going out there was incredibly selfish… I enjoyed myself immensely but it was my life and my career, and the people who suffered from it were my two older children.

Perhaps this is my favourite part of the interview because he allowed himself to be vulnerable, to allude to other people’s trauma. I am reminded, as I sit here amongst threads and threads of that ‘one piece of cloth’ to untangle, that his people too were impacted by our shared histories. Perhaps we all need to start again from here, where we each are now, and re-weave anew.

27 June 2022

Recording of the week: Sharing Somali sounds and stories

This week's selection comes from Emma Brinkhurst, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

As Learning and Engagement Coordinator for the British Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage programme, a highlight of my role has been working in partnership with Camden Somali Cultural Centre to develop a listening project. Weekly listening sessions showed the capacity of recorded sound to make connections, bringing listeners in contact with different times and places, as well as connecting those who share the experience of listening together. Ubah Egal, director of Camden Somali Cultural Centre, explained the significance of Somali sound recordings in the British Library’s World and Traditional Music collections, saying 'Camden Somali Cultural Centre wants to re-engage the community with our oral tradition of sharing stories. The collection at the British Library represents a beautiful selection of recordings capturing our oral tradition from many generations of Somalis.'

Poet and storyteller Elmi Ali selected recordings of song and poetry for the group to listen to, which elicited discussion, reminiscence, laughter and a sharing of cultural pride during the sessions. Of particular interest to participants were recordings from the John Low collection, made in Somalia in the mid-1980s during Low’s time as a development worker in the Lower Shabeelle region. On 12 November 1984, Low sent a postcard from Somalia to the British Institute of Recorded Sound (now the British Library Sound Archive). He wrote that 'songs, poems, work songs abound' and set about making recordings representing a diverse cross section of musical styles and practices. Several decades later, following Somalia’s civil war and the disruption and displacement it caused, Somali listeners in London engaged with these songs and poems, which stimulated memories of cultural heritage and former times, places and people.

During the listening sessions, artist and poet Sophie Herxheimer drew and painted, reflecting the words and stories shared by the group. Sophie’s drawings portray recollections of nomadic life evoked by recordings such as this house building song performed by a group of women and recorded by Low:

House Building Song [BL REF C27/13]

This song stimulated discussion about the role of women in nomadic culture and how women were responsible for building nomadic houses, with one participant commenting that this song made her think of her mum. At the end of the project she said: 'this has brought back so many memories.'

Black and white drawing of a nomadic woman with the words 'most come from a nomadic background the woman building the house or hut - using wood, mud, cloth, singing the songs while they build.'

Participants were very moved by lullabies from the collection, such as this one performed by Faadumo Cabdi Maxamed:

Lullaby [BL REF C27/13]

Hearing recordings such as this prompted memories of other lullabies, such as a fondly remembered lullaby that a participant sang to the group, a moment that was captured by Sophie in this drawing:

Black and white drawing of a mother and child and a glass of water, with the words 'We sing lullabies for the boys: "New moon, we need you like a thirst" and for girls: "you are so beautiful...no one is going to hurt you and if they hurt you I will hurt them"'

Low also recorded camel songs, including this watering song for camels at the Shabeelle river, sung by Geedi Maxamed Cali and a male chorus:

Camel Song [BL REF C27/12]

Listening to this evoked much laughter as a participant recounted memories of being a city girl visiting the countryside and running away in fright from various animals – foxes on one occasion and a baby camel on another!

A coloured pencil drawing of a camel and two children with the words: "So when I was out in the wild with my cousin we saw a fluffy animal and I didn't know what it was because I'm from the city. She said "watch out it's gonna get you!" and she followed it so it chased me! I was scared but it was only a baby camel'

One member of the group described the listening sessions as providing 'an opportunity for us to get to know each other in a different way, tell these stories to each other that we never speak about.' Ubah Egal reflected on the project as 'a wonderful moment capturing the reactions and impact the recordings had on our community and participants.' This small selection of recordings demonstrates the potential for sound heritage to unlock memories, connect listeners, and make a deeply personal impact.

The Somali listening sessions took place as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, a major project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund which aims to preserve and provide access to thousands of the UK's rare and unique sound recordings.

With thanks to John Low for allowing us to use the sound clips, Sophie Herxheimer for permission to post her artwork, Elmi Ali for selecting recordings, and to Ubah Egal and members of Camden Somali Cultural Centre for allowing us to include their comments and stories in this blog.

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

The logo of the Camden Somali Cultural Centre Pink waveform logo of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project

14 April 2022

Between the Orange Tree and the Lime

Between the Orange Tree and the Lime (2017) is a short film by artist Duncan Whitley, dedicated to the memory of flamenco singer and tabernero José Pérez Blanco, also known as Pepe Peregil. The film forms part of the Duncan Whitley Collection [BL REF C1338], which documents Seville’s Easter Week processions and is available in British Library Reading Rooms.

For two years there were no Easter processions on the streets of Seville due to the global pandemic. In this blog post, Duncan Whitley marks the renewal of the tradition with some words on his short film:

I was introduced to Pepe Peregil in 2010, thanks to friends in one of Seville’s brass bands who insisted I meet him. Peregil was one of Seville's eminent saeteros (singers of the saeta, a type of flamenco song). He was also known to many people as the affable owner of a bar called Quitapesares, located in Seville’s city centre. I interviewed Peregil in 2010 and the following year he invited me to join him in the Plaza del Museo, where he sang as the penitentiary Easter procession El Museo returned to its chapel. I recorded Peregil singing saetas at an incredibly intimate distance, so much so that I could vividly hear the sounds of his breath through my microphone.

The film Between the Orange Tree and the Lime transports viewers into the Plaza del Museo, Seville, on the night of Lunes Santo (the Monday after Palm Sunday). The film is a poetic meditation on presence and absence through flamenco song in Seville's Semana Santa. It focuses on the saeta, derived from the Latin word sagitta meaning arrow, a flamenco poem or prayer sung acapella to the effigies of Christ or the Virgin Mary as they are carried in procession during Easter Week.

The film’s title1, takes the opening lines of a saeta sung by Pepe Peregil in the Plaza del Museo, where he sang each year without fail from 1967 through to 2011: “Between the orange tree and the lime, is my Virgin of the Museum”. Peregil passed away in 2012 and so this film also captures his last public saetas.

Pepe Peregil singing a saeta

Pepe Peregil singing a saeta in the Plaza del Museo in Seville. Duncan Whitley, 2011

I have been studying the soundscapes of Seville’s Holy Week through my field recording practice since 2006. A fascination for the vernacular world of acoustic communication in Seville’s major fiesta, embracing music, voice and other mechanical sound-making eventually led me to focus on recording the saetas flamencas. At the time there weren’t many published recordings of saetas performed live in the street, beyond those recorded in Jerez de la Frontera in 1993 and published in Saetas: Cante de la Semana Santa Andaluza (BL REF 1CD0111003).

There are however many studio recordings of saetas. Many are performed by the great singers of cante jondo (a vocal style in flamenco) in the 1920's such as La Niña de los Peines, Tomás Pavón or Manuel Vallejo. The controlled environment of the recording studio preserves and magnifies the quality of the voice but what we don’t hear, is the saeta in context: the acoustics of the narrow streets, the murmurs of the public, the screaming of the swifts overhead at dusk. I became interested in the challenge of trying to capture quality sound recordings of contemporary saetas sung in their live, public and religious context: in the streets of Seville or from balconies, addressed to the images of Christ or the Virgin depicted in mourning.

Transcription and translation of the saeta:

Se hinque de Rodillas [Fall to your knees!]
La Giralda2 si hace falta [Even the Giralda finds herself obliged]
Y se vista de mantilla [And she dresses in mourning]
Cuando por su vera pasa [When the Last Breath of Seville]
La Expiración de Sevilla [Passes by her side]

The saeta featured in this extract from the film was written for Pepe Peregil by Pascual González, a singer, composer and poet mainly associated with sevillanas (a lively form of flamenco song and dance from Seville). Peregil’s son, José Juan, tells me that Peregil asked Pascual González to write him a saeta whilst they stood on a balcony in the Plaza del Museo one Lunes Santo, awaiting the arrival of the effigy of Christ of the Last Breath. Remarkably, González improvised these lyrics moments before the arrival of the procession, and stood behind Peregil reading him the lines as he sang, as there was not enough time for Peregil to memorise the words.

Following Peregil’s death in January 2012 I returned to Seville during Easter Week, with the intention of recording in the Plaza del Museo but the processions of Holy Monday were cancelled due to heavy rain. I returned to the plaza again in Easter 2013, and this time opted to wait beneath a balcony at the entrance to the square from which Pilár Velázquez Martínez, artistic name Pili del Castillo, and Peregil sang alongside each other for many years. I had recently interviewed Pili, so I knew she would sing to the effigies of El Museo but she hadn’t told me that she had specially prepared her own saeta to the Virgin of the Waters (colloquially known as the Virgin of the Museum) in dedication to her friend Pepe Peregil.

This saeta, an emotional farewell of sorts, references the absence of Peregil in the plaza:

Madre Mía de las Aguas [My Mother of the Waters]
Tienes la cara divina [Your face is divine]
Pero es tanta tu hermosura [But such is your beauty]
Que no la quiebra la pena [That sadness doesn't break it]
Ni el llanto te desfigura [Nor does crying disfigure you]

Si al llegar a tu capilla [If upon arriving at your chapel]
Notas que te falta algo [You notice that you're missing something]
No llores tú Madre Mía [Don't cry Mother of mine]
Que Peregil desde el cielo [That Peregil from the sky]
Seguro que te está cantando [Is surely singing to you]

Between the Orange Tree and the Lime was first screened in 2017 at the Whitechapel Gallery (London), at the EMASESA (Seville) with the Association of Friends of Peregil, and the Consejo de Hermandades y Cofradías de Sevilla (the governing organisation of Seville’s processional brotherhoods) in an event in honour of Pili del Castillo. Special thanks to Simon Day for working with me as camera operator 2011-2013, and to José Juan Medina for assisting with research.

 

Footnotes:

1. The 'lime' in the title refers to the white, rendered surfaces of the walls of buildings typical of Seville’s historic centre. Orange trees would be in blossom during Easter week and so the title builds a sensory evocation of the Virgin of the Museum carried into the plaza.

2. The Giralda is the iconic tower of Seville’s cathedral. The mantilla is a black lace veil, typically worn over a high comb. It is traditionally worn by women during the Easter Week processions in Andalucia, especially on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. 

28 February 2022

Recording of the week: A personal jazz mystery solved

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

The album cover for High Flying by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. The cover is red, featuring the text of the album name and artists at the top and an image of the three arists: two men wearing shirts and a woman wearing a coat and a green floral hat

I’m a jazz nut. My mental soundtrack is often filled with anonymous changes and walking bass solos. But there is one particular song that has been buzzing around my head for years and years – about a decade, in fact. That song is the version of ‘Popity Pop’, recorded by vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, on their album High Flying from 1961. Specifically, Jon Hendricks’ break-down at about 2 min. 16 sec.:

That break-down is so unexpected, so sweet and so touching; it’s an inspired moment and a great contrast to the frenetic energy of the rest of the song. I couldn’t help but become intrigued by it. It was obviously a quotation from another piece of music… but which one? I had no idea. I asked around, and no-one else seemed to have an idea either. Google was no help. I was certain that the answer must be out there. Where was it?

I searched on-and-off for years trying to find the source of that short snippet of tune, but to no avail. That was a long time ago, now, and I eventually gave up the chase and assumed that this would stay just out of my reach forever. Not that that stopped the tune from being permanently wedged in my head, floating into my mind’s ear every couple of weeks. I couldn’t let it go that much.

About my day job: I’m a World and Traditional Music cataloguer at the British Library, and as such, I get to listen to all sorts of wonderful recordings from all over the world, near and far. In December, I was cataloguing the Vic Ellis Collection of English accordion music, and I came across a tape of Tommy Beadle, a concertina player from Middleton-in-Teesdale, County Durham. I made my way through the 1977 recordings of English and Scottish dance tunes, and about half-way through the tape, I heard this:

Fairy Dell [BL REF C1128/1 C11]

Those first notes! Unmistakable, even after one or two seconds: I’d found it! I found the tune! I literally stood up from my desk and cheered in excitement and a decade’s worth of relief. On C1128/1 C11 was a recording of the tune that Beadle called ‘Fairy Dell’ and played with all the charm of those English village dance tunes. But (as the recordist was helpful enough to note in his documentation), it’s better known as ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie’, an American song written by George W. Johnson and James Austin Butterfield in 1864. It turns out that the song had a vogue on both sides of the Atlantic, and even made its way into some jazz repertoires (including those of Sidney Bechet, Fats Waller and Benny Goodman) before trickling down into the consciousness of Jon Hendricks and making its way into that beautiful cameo role in Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’s ‘Popity Pop’. 

How amazing to realise the line of tradition that connects renowned jazzman Hendricks and Durham County Council road worker Beadle – and what a thrill to find that the key to unlocking my decade-long jazz mystery was hiding in the bellows of an English folk concertina in Middleton-in-Teesdale.

A special thanks to Lesley Grey and family, Vic Ellis and Mark Davies for allowing me to use Tommy Beadle’s recording in this blog.

UOSH footer

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

10 January 2022

Recording of the week: A new year song from Vanuatu

This week’s selection comes from Vicky Barnecutt, True Echoes Research Fellow.

In early 1924, just before leaving the island of Efate due to ill health, the Presbyterian missionary Eric Raff used a phonograph to record around 30 songs on wax cylinders. The performers of these songs came from villages around Port Vila on Efate, the capital of what was then the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides, now the Republic of Vanuatu.

Map of the islands of the Republic of VanuatuMap of Vanuatu © Nations Online Project. Efate circled in red.


These twelve cylinders, now digitised, form the Eric Raff 1924 Efate, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C83) at the British Library Sound Archive. The collection is being researched as part of the True Echoes project. Fieldworkers from the Vanuatu Cultural Centre/Vanuatu Kaljorel Senta, a project partner, have recently started to take the recordings back to the communities from which they originate.

The second track of cylinder C83/1502 was described as a New Year song, sung by Tavero and Leiboni from Meli, and Turi from Leleppa.

A new year song from Vanuatu [BL REF C83/1502]

Eric Raff’s widow, Ruth, typed up the translations and transcriptions of the recordings shortly after her husband’s death in 1927. The relevant section for this song includes a translation by Nganga, who was probably a Mele chief at that time:

Transcription and translation of the New Year SongA typed transcription and translation of 'New Year Song' produced by Ruth Raff and held at the British Library Sound Archive (cropped).

Download Transcript

In 1924, 'Meli' referred to the small offshore island of Mele in Mele Bay. In 1950, the government of the New Hebrides ordered the population of Mele Island to relocate to the mainland; today, Mele, or Imere, is a large village a few miles north-west of Port Vila. Around 2000 people speak the Mele language, which is of Polynesian origin. Leleppa, or Lelepa, is an island off the northwest coast of Efate.

Map of Efate, Vanuatu, showing the locations of Mele and Lelepa islands, and Mele village today.Map of Efate, Vanuatu, showing the locations of Mele and Lelepa islands, and Mele village today. Map data ©2021 Google.

Ambong Thompson, Manager of the National Film, Sound and Photo Unit at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, spoke to Jimmy Lulu Subuso, the fieldworker at Mele village, to ask him about this New Year song. Ambong shared the following via email on 7th December 2021:

Jimmy Lulu Subuso […] confirmed that the singers on C83/1502 were from Mele village. The two singers were Leiboni Sael Taravaki and Tavero Sarapera whose generations are still living today at Mele village. The people of Mele were excited to hear the old voices and Jimmy told me this morning that they are working on recording the same song with more people taking part in the singing. The people of Mele are very well known for singing old and new songs celebrating the new year. They can sing for whole night till dawn. Between Christmas and New Year they can also visit surrounding villages on Efate including some parts of Port Vila capital with their singing and at the same time welcoming new year 2022.

A photo of Jimmy Lulu Subuso holding a guitar at the Vanuatu Cultural CentreJimmy Lulu Subuso, Vanuatu Cultural Centre fieldworker for Mele village.

The song is interesting for many reasons. It shows how concepts introduced through colonial government and Christian churches, such as the Gregorian calendar and the New Year, were celebrated in local languages and local music styles. We do not know exactly when the people of Mele started their tradition of singing in the New Year like this, but it may have been well-established by 1924. To welcome in 2022, we are proud to share with you, 98 years after it was recorded, the song sung by Tavero, Leiboni, and Turi.We thank Ambong, Jimmy Lulu, and the villagers of Mele for their support in producing this recording of the week.

True Echoes – funded by the Leverhulme Trust and BEIS – is a three-year research project centred on the British Library’s collection of Oceanic wax cylinders. These cylinders were recorded between 1898 and 1924 in the Torres Strait Islands (Australia), Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. True Echoes is working with national cultural institutions in Australia and the Pacific to increase the visibility and accessibility of the collections and reconnect the digitised sound recordings with the communities from which they originate.

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

27 December 2021

Recording of the week: 'Kuli milimo', there is work in the house of the Lord

This week’s selection comes from Edoardo Marcarini, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Inspired by the festive atmosphere, I bring you not one but two recordings this week. These are meant to be appreciated together just like the turkey and gravy some people will have indulged themselves with this Christmas.

It’s 1973 and we are in Zambia, Brian Stubbings is currently spending his second year among the Tonga people of Kafue and surrounding areas. Over the course of seven years Stubbings will record many traditional songs sung on different occasions. This is the case of our first recording, a kutwa song sung by two women pounding grains using a mortar and pestle.

Women pound maize with a pestle in a mortar Women pounding grains with a pestle in Kalabaya village, Chief Sinadambwe chieftancy, Gwembe Valley, Zambia, 1973. Photo by Brian Stubbings.

They sing:

Kuli milimo (4x), kun'ganda ya ba nasi kulimilimo, alimwi cilabilikita yalila, wailesi njemilimo

[There is work, there is work in the house of the nurse there is work]

Kutwa Song [BL REF C1417/2 BD1]

The pounding of the mortar provides a rhythmical framework for the song, while singing makes the pounding more regular and the workload lighter.
You would probably be surprised to hear the same tune sung in a church, yet, that same melody was arranged into a Christian song by the Kafue Composer's Club, a group of dedicated students who worked closely with Stubbings.

The lyrics have been changed, and the rhythmical pounding of the mortar has been replaced by handclaps and single notes played on a kalimba, a wooden idiophone – not to be confused with the homonym lamellophone!

Here, they sing:

There is work, there is work in the house of the Lord there is work

Christian song based on a pounding tune [BL REF C1417/2 BD2]

Re-arranging popular and traditional melodies for religious purposes is a fairly common practice around the world. In fact, I was very surprised when, as a child, I found out Simon and Garfunkel’s 'The Sound of Silence' wasn’t originally an Italian Catholic song.

In this specific case the use of a traditional tune is rather important, as it signals a necessary transition from a purely European form to a more grassroots approach to Christian music that uses local tunes.

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08 December 2021

Documenting Bengali music in Britain

Written by Val Harding and Julie Begum from the Swadhinata Trust ahead of their British Library event 'Songs of Freedom: Celebrating Fifty Years of Bangladesh' on 16 December 2021.

In 2016 we set up an oral history project at the Swadhinata Trust aiming to document multi-generational experiences of Bengali music in Britain. The Swadhinata Trust is based in East London and is a secular group that works to promote Bengali history and heritage amongst young people. To date we have collected 30 interviews and various musical recordings that are now available to listen to in British Library Reading Rooms as the 'Bengali music and musicians in the UK Collection' (BL REF C1796).

Swadhinata Trust OrganisationBengali Women and children at Shahid Minar at Altab Ali Park in Tower Hamlets, London, for a trans-national commemoration event © Swadhinata Trust

There has been a South Asian presence in Britain for over 400 years, and music has inevitably played a part in this presence. In the first half of the 20th century lascars and seamen from the north east of India who worked for British owned ships and the Merchant Navy began to settle in London’s East End, the Midlands and Northern cities. The Bangladeshi community of today grew from these roots.

In 1971 the nation of Bangladesh was born after a war of liberation from the rule of West Pakistan, and this year, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of independence. The suppression of Bengali language and culture by West Pakistan was a key trigger in the liberation struggle. The celebration of Bengali language and culture is thus an essential and prominent aspect of Bengali identity in the UK today.

In his interview from our 'Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK' collection, Mahmudur Rahman Benu tells the story of the troupe of artists he led singing liberation songs in 1971. Like many of the interviews in this collection, it is in English and Bengali language and includes many musical demonstrations.

The history of 1971 is again reflected in an interview with singer and songwriter Moushumi Bhowmik who wrote the well known song 'Jessore Road' - inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s 1971 poem 'September on Jessore Road'. Other stories from 1971 come from two sisters, Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair, whose parents were activists in London during 1971.  Yasmin and Rumana sang as children at meetings and rallies supporting the war effort. They describe their experience in this excerpt from an interview:

excerpt of interview with Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair [BL REF C1796/15]

Download Transcript

From the mid-1950s through to the 1970s Bengali migrants to the UK faced many barriers. The late 1970s saw the emergence of community activism to fight racism, and with it, a gradual emergence of music that hitherto had been kept hidden behind closed doors. In her interview, Julie Begum explains how her experience of music started when she was a teenager in London, living in Tower Hamlets in the late 80s and early 90s. She describes how her and her Bengali friends were part of the community around the 'Asian underground sound', going to raves in warehouses where artists such as brothers Farook and Haroon Shamsher began to DJ as 'Joi'.

Since then, there has been a prolific growth of music making. Our interviews document migration and musical development in the UK, annual cultural events such as the Boishaki Mela (Spring Festival), music history from Bangladesh and West Bengal, theatre, and the music of the younger generations in the UK and in Bangladesh itself.

These areas are illustrated across various interviews in the collection. An interview with Mukul Ahmed, director of the theatre group Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers, demonstrates the integration of Bengali music and song into theatre. Present-day interest and innovation from the younger generation is illustrated in the interview with a ten-year-old performer, Anvita Gupta. The sound artist Abdul Shohid Jalil talks about his composition of Bengali inspired electronic music. The history of music in Bengal itself is also reflected in the interview with sarod player Somjit Dasgupta.

Bengali music is a broad term that encompasses musical practices in both Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. Before partition in 1947 this was one region, Bengal, sharing the same language, culture and music. The music of this region includes classical, folk and modern traditions, and notable composers of songs such as Rabindranath Tagore and Kobi Nazrul Islam. Our interviews include those who learn and perform these genres, and even present-day songwriters and composers, and the younger generation who are producing a fusion of music that reflects their Bengali and British backgrounds.

Our aim is to document music in the community and the culture that surrounds music. Our interviews are with community members and community music schools. The more professional and well-known musicians that we have interviewed are musicians working with the community, running classes and teaching, and involved in everyday community music making, such as Himangshu Goswami, Mahmudur Rahman Benubhai, tabla player Yousuf Ali Khan, singer Alaur Rahman, and teachers at the Udichi School of Performing Arts. Some of our interviewees are also people from other South Asian and non-Bengali backgrounds who participate and enjoy Bengali music.

Amongst those interviewed who migrated to this country, either as children or adults, there is often an expression of the hardship of psychological adjustment to living in the UK. For some who were practicing musicians or students of music back in Bangladesh and or India there was a period of time on arrival here when they could not find their voice and found themselves unable to express themselves through singing or music in the way they did back home. The process of overcoming this has been gradual, and only achieved through the encouragement of friends and family. These processes are succinctly expressed in interviews with Alaur Rahman, Moushumi Bhowmik and Nadia Wahhab.

We hope you will enjoy the interviews in the 'Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK' collection both at the British Library and also at the Swadhinata Trust. Please get in touch as we are always happy to hear from you regarding any aspect of our project.

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