Sound and vision blog

99 posts categorized "World & traditional music"

06 April 2020

Recording of the week: 'I didn’t come into the jungle to look at trees and lianas!'

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

Cover of CD release 'Healing, Feasting and Magical Ritual. Songs & Dances from Papua New Guinea'
Cover of 'Healing, Feasting and Magical Ritual. Songs & Dances from Papua New Guinea' (TSCD918)

Former senior producer for BBC Radio 3 John Thornley made this field recording in 1987, in Kei Village, near Mount Hagen, in the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. The field recordings resulting from his three month stay in Papua New Guinea form part of the British Library Sound Archive collections. A selection from his collection was published on the Topic Records CD ‘Healing, Feasting and Magical Ritual. Songs & Dances from Papua New Guinea’ as part of the Topic World Series, done in collaboration with the World and Traditional Music section. The ‘Hunting Song of the Moge and Kopi clans’ features nine unnamed performers from Kei Village playing a song on bamboo flutes. Thornley’s liner notes about the song and players hide an interesting story inaccessible to the ear. I recommend listening first, to sink into the song’s hypnotic melody and then reading Thornley’s words about the song, which reveal a surprising layer of insight.

Hunting Song of the Moge & Kopi Clans

‘This was one of several songs that this group had arranged for bamboo flute, staggering their individual breathing so the song could be played seamlessly. This song is about a hunter who has no luck, and sings: ‘I didn’t come into the jungle to look at trees and lianas, I came to hunt for possum and birds!’ The four holes of the flute are played with the first two fingers of each hand. One player had a missing second finger on his right hand (in the area it is still a tradition to chop off one or more fingers as a sign of mourning for a close relative) so was playing with his first and third fingers.’

If you want to listen to a broader selection of recordings from the CDs published by Topic Records, you can listen to 'Topic World Series', our tenth programme for NTS Radio.

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

09 March 2020

Recording of the week: The dominion of the salmon

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

Caitlín Maude was an Irish poet, playwright, actress and traditional singer from Rosmuc, Connemara, in the west of Ireland. Her version of the traditional Irish song ‘Liam O Raghallaigh’ was recorded by Peter Kennedy in London in 1968, when she was 27 years old.

Caitilín Maude, an file © Daithi Mac Lochlainn

Maude was raised in the Gaelic language and sang unaccompanied in the sean-nós style, which means ‘in the old way’. Sean-nós singing from Connemara is usually characterised by a high degree of ornamentation, using melisma and grace notes to enhance the power of the song’s narrative. To my ears, what is striking about Maude’s voice is the restraint with which she uses this technique, her approach finely calibrated to lend power to the bleak beauty of the song – austere in its matter of factness about what happens to the body of a drowned man, but ornate in its expression of loss and sorrow, and fascinated by the strange transformations that death can bring.

Listen to 'Liam O Raghallaigh'

Maude’s comments before and after the song form a shrewd and witty counterpoint to the tragedy of the story. I particularly love the careful relish with which she translates some of the more gruesome images from the Irish, including my favourite line: ‘Your two snow-white hands are under the dominion of the salmon’.

Caitlín Maude died in 1982, at the age of 41, leaving a small but important legacy of writing and song. The recordings she made with Peter Kennedy are available for listening at the British Library.

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

01 February 2020

Waves and resonances: Catherine Smith's adventures in the sound archive

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The British Library has been very lucky to have Catherine Smith volunteering with our World and Traditional Music team over the last year. As part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, Catherine worked closely with various collections of sound recordings made on the African continent, classifying musical instruments featured in several of the recordings using an adaptation of the Hornbostel–Sachs classification system. More recently, Catherine curated and delivered sound tours responding to artworks on public display in the Library. These tours focused on the lives of three artists and how themes from their works draw on their associations with music, sea and landscape.

Looking forward to the second round of sound tours, which kick off on Tuesday 4th February, we sat down with Catherine to hear more about her volunteer work and explore the thinking behind her sound tour, Waves of Resonance.

Last year, you catalogued a recording of Nigerian hammer and anvil music, which turned out to be the 100,000th recording digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. Have you made other discoveries in the sound archive since?

I particularly enjoyed working on Peggy Harper’s Nigeria Collection, which contains that hammer and anvil recording. I’ve listened to an incredible range of material in the archive: from Vaughn Williams’ ethnographic wax cylinders to Hungarian-Romanian folk recordings. The British Library also has an extensive collection of recordings from WOMAD festival throughout the years which, as you can imagine, is infinitely long and eclectic.

I was also fascinated to find an interview with blues and boogie-woogie pianist and singer Champion Jack Dupree, where he is simultaneously accompanying himself on the piano beautifully.  It was great to be able to feature this in an article for the Library’s Sound and Vision blog as ‘Recording of the Week’.

I’ve also been fascinated by the Wildlife and Environmental collections, whether it be Alan Renton’s meticulous collection of lighthouse fog warning signals in Cornwall or a Bluethroat imitating reindeer bells in Lapland.

That blog on Champion Jack was an excellent read; he certainly led a remarkable life. As well as writing on sound archive collections, you contributed recordings to the autumn themed listening session we held in the Knowledge Centre. Could you tell us about some of these sounds?

I had a great time searching the archive for recordings which engaged with the theme of Autumn from as many cultures as I could find. I included recordings from Nigeria, Ghana, Thailand, Nepal and China. Perhaps the most amusing recording I found was from the Peter Kennedy Collection, where Joe Woods and his sister Winifred talk about their local traditions on the Isle of Man and the legends of ghosts and witches and sing traditional Halloween songs.

Shelfmark: C604/387  C11-12 ‘Hunt the Wren’ and ‘Hop-tu-naa’, available to listen to on British Library sounds.

You’ve not just been working with sounds, though; you’ve also been inventorising loose photographs in the World and Traditional Music Collections. Can you tell us more about this work?

Yes, that was a long but interesting task. I went through all of the files for the Unlocking our Sound Heritage World and Traditional Music Collections to check what photos were there and update the inventory. I took a while going over and checking everything to make sure it was accurate and consistent, but it was incredible to discover some stunning photography as well as some unusual finds. It all opened my eyes even more to the incredibly diverse range of collections in the sound archive.

Have you come across any images that have struck you?

The most surprising photograph I found amongst the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage collections was probably this surreal picture of the Male Choir of the Moscow Choral Synagogue (aka. ‘The Moscow Jewish Choir’). It accompanies a recording of their concert from 1993 at the New West End Synagogue in St Petersburg Place, London. The concert was called 'Kindling the Night: a celebration of Russian Chazanut and Jewish music', and included an international selection from Yiddish folk songs to classical and liturgical repertoire.

The Moscow Jewish Choir's album cover for the ‘Golden Pages of Jewish Liturgical Music’
Photo of The Moscow Jewish Choir's album cover for the ‘Golden Pages of Jewish Liturgical Music’

The origin of the photo is unclear, but it looks like it might have been an album cover for the ‘Golden Pages of Jewish Liturgical Music’. Despite its bizarre Daliesque style, with their heads popping up out of the ground, funnily the choir was only established in 1990! 

Outside of UOSH, there is also a beautiful collection of photos that came with the John Brierley Botswana collection, and that led me to discover his wonderful sound recordings which are available to listen to on British Library Sounds.

Can you tell us about Waves of Resonance, the sound tour you curated as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage outreach programme? You develop many interesting connections between sound and a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, a bust of Virginia Woolf and others on your tour. How did you go about bringing these elements together?

I started with some background reading from David Toop’s book ‘Sinister Resonance’, following the brief that Andrea Zarza Canova, my manager and World and Traditional Music Curator at the Library, had created for this project. I was interested in the way he explored the haunting nature of sound and the sense of hidden sound that is within artwork, objects, writing and space.

The selection of artworks for the tour came about almost like a moment of serendipity, despite considerable hours researching the public artworks on display in the British Library. I was drawn to Hepworth’s sculpture as a piece of abstract art and recalled a connection to both the sea and Cornwall. I had already selected the bust of Virginia Woolf due to her many connections with music and sound but was delighted to realise that her links to the sea were also deeply rooted in the geography of Cornwall. This triggered an infinite discovery of connections between the two artists also drawing upon their musical and sound inspirations. The decision to then incorporate the Scottish artist Ian McKenzie Smith’s seascape became an obvious choice because it unravelled further connections to the sea and music. I really enjoyed selecting sound recordings to connect with the artworks. I use the sounds as a way in to discover more about the background of the artists, their work and inspiration, as well as changing the way you experience the artwork in the moment. For example, Ian McKenzie Smith was inspired by American colour-field painters, traditional Eastern artwork and Zen Buddhism, so I accompanied the painting with a meditative bagpipe drone composition by Yoshi Wada. Before playing that piece, I used a Shakuhachi flute imitating the sound and motion of waves breaking. They’re two very different pieces, but both were effective in bringing out different visual elements and themes contained in the painting.

I had the chance to attend one of your delightful tours last time round. There were strong themes of the sea, bodies of water, and wave motion present. What is it about these that fascinates you?

I spent most of my childhood holidays by the sea in Pembrokeshire and Cornwall and have always been drawn to the coast so I can relate to how the sea was so inspiring to the artists featured in my tour. I’m constantly fascinated by the latest discoveries within marine life, and like many people, I’m concerned about the damage to our oceans. While composing the final project for my Music BMus (Hons) degree at City, University of London. I became fixated with endless cinematography of coral reefs. This broadened out to editing footage and composing music for a film exploring various life cycles within the sea, from phytoplankton to whales. The project set out to explore the physicality and materiality of this habitat, but I used a strange combination of sounds to do so, including instruments and field recordings that I digitally manipulated into a textural composition. The imagined sound of a coral reef dying actually incorporated a combination of granular synthesis and hydrophone recordings, including some made in my very own bath!

What was the audience response like the first time you delivered your sound tour? Have you made any changes to it this time around?

People were incredibly engaged and responsive, which was encouraging. I had to really streamline it to fit all the interesting content into the half-hour slot, so I’ve removed some material and sounds from the original version of the tour. I tend to do a lot of research, and the tour could have been over twice as long. I’ve gotten more comfortable delivering it as I’ve gone along and the tours turn out a little different each time because everyone has their own response and areas of interest in relation to the works of art and recordings, so it’s really interesting to get different perspectives on the works. If I curate any more tours, I might have to be more careful about the placement of the artwork because the Hepworth sculpture is in front of the smoking area! I somehow didn’t realise that until I was doing my first run-through. I’ve probably left a few confused smokers wondering why a group of people were huddled around a sculpture communally listening to a Nigerian harvest dance.

Join Catherine and Jasmine Pierre for site-specific sound tours of the British Library and hear about the ideas behind some of the public art on display.

What you see is what you hear.

30 December 2019

Recording of the week: Wax cylinder recordings of Nigerian music

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

Northcote Whitridge Thomas
Northcote Whitridge Thomas

The Library’s World and Traditional Music collections include some of the world’s earliest ethnographic recordings, made on wax cylinders. Amongst these is a collection of recordings made between 1909 and 1915 by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote Whitridge Thomas, during his work in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. To learn more about the recordings and to engage researchers and original community members with the sounds, the Library has partnered with the ‘Museum Affordances’ project, funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council and led by Paul Basu at SOAS University of London.

As part of the project, Samson Uchenna Eze, musicologist and lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, chose some of Thomas' recordings to explore through transcription of the lyrics and music, and through engaging musicians in Nigeria to re-record them.

The song Igbo bu Igbo (Great Igbo) [NWT 417; C51/2277], is a call to Igbo people to remember their identity and ‘return to [their] truthful ways’. Prof. Eze writes: ‘In this song the female singer repeats the phrase [Great Igbo (all Igbo), come and hear the truth] several times and improvises in the internal variation section, calling on neighbouring villages to come and hear the truth’.

Listen to Igbo by Igbo (BL shelfmark C51/2277)

[Re:]Entanglements is the website of the Museum Affordances project. Prof. Eze has written a blog showcasing some of his work with the recordings.

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

02 December 2019

Recording of the week: Kagura - dancing for the Gods

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

The origin of dance in Japan can be traced back to the age of the gods and the Japanese kagura can be considered a prototype of all Japanese rituals. 

Kagura combines dance with music and theatrical elements; it is both a ritual and an artistic expression for the kami (Japanese Gods) within the mythical narrative. [1]

Dance was a central element in many Japanese rituals and ceremonies, both within the courts and rural areas; especially in the latter, dance was the predominant element of folk religious festivals.

The heavenly kagura originated in northeastern Japan, in Iwate prefecture, and represents the origin of most genres of dance. Kagura is a collective term which refers to different schools of performing arts; it embodies a shamanic tradition in which the gods come dancing to infuse divine energy on people. The group figure of 12 performers also embodies a symbolic significance:

Thus, the kagura group of 12, with all these layers of meanings so typical of Shugendo systems, symbolically constitutes the whole universe and the whole of existence: Time, Space, Heaven, Earth and Humanitiy, based on Shintō, Taoist and Buddhist thought[2]

Photograph of Shinto mask performancePhotograph of Shinto mask performance (courtesy of Etnografiska Museet via Europeana)

The performers travel around the countryside bringing their blessing of prosperity and protection to the local people. Dance is therefore seen as a way to communicate and perpetuate religious tradition; in particular, the emphasis is on the aesthetic aspect of the dance.

Kagura (BL shelfmark 1LP0157766)

Kagura, a flower-hat dance, lion dances and masked dances [3] played a central role in the theatrical arts during the Muromachi period (1333-1615), a time characterized by emperor rivalries. Despite its turbulence, the Muromachi period was a time of great musical potential; a material and psychological build up for a flood of activities that was soon to burst upon the artistic world in a torrent of color and sound[4]

The first kagura ceremony can be traced back to the year 1002 and falls into the category of shamanistic practice[5].  We can divide Kagura into two subcategories: mi-kagura, the court music formal part of Shinto functions, and sato-kagura, which was mainly folk music.

The dance style of kagura consists of performances of approximately 15 mins, and a bamboo pipe (kagura-bue) is one of the common instruments used during such performances; kagura can also be intended as a proper musical genre. [6]

The study of the kagura focus on both the artistic side and religious aspect of this practice. As religion may differ from one culture to another, also a definition of dance as performative art only can lead to a simplistic approach.

It should be remembered that the Japanese view all their traditional performative, theatrical, dance and ritual forms as springing from the same source: the original kagura performance in Heaven[7]



1. Averbuch, Irit. (1995). The gods come dancing : A study of the Japanese ritual dance of yamabushi kagura. (Cornell East Asia series ; no. 79). Ithaca, N. Y.: East Asia Program, Cornell University. BL shelfmark

2. Ibid, p. 58

3. Malm, W. (1990). Japanese music and musical instruments. Charles E. Tuttle, 249. BL shelfmark HUS 789.2956

4. Ibid, p. 33

5. Ibid, p. 42

6. Karpati, J. (2008). Typology of Musical Structures in the Japanese Shintō Ritual Kagura. Asian Music: Journal of the Society for Asian Music., 39(2), 152-166. BL shelfmark 1742.701000

7. Averbuch, Irit. (1995), p. 27

Special thanks to Lyrichord for granting us permission to feature this recording.

19 November 2019

Recording of the week: the pampapiano of Rafael Achomccaray Quispe

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

Although that was not their primary intention, it was the Europeans who first brought the pampapiano to Peru’s Andean region of Cusco. Music was seen as an important component of evangelisation, but churches in the mountainous areas of Peru lacked the hefty pipe organs that accompanied mass and other religious functions back in Europe. So, they imported small and portable organs to fill the recently-built churches of those remote Andean communities with music. Variably called pump organs, reed organs or harmoniums, those pedal-pumped, free-reed instruments had only four or five octaves and a very limited set of timbres or stops. But they did the job.

Time passed, and as grander organs were brought into the churches, those earlier, smaller models were gradually dismissed. They were, however, adopted by the local population, who started using them outside the church to play religious music but also secular local styles. It was then that this locally-repurposed instrument got its new name. The melodio, as it was known in Spanish, became the pampapiano, from the Quechua word pampa, which means ‘land’ but also ‘ground’ and ‘floor’. Having left the church, the pampapiano could be played almost anywhere in the land. You just had to place it on the ground and start pedalling.

Pictured below is the pampapiano of Rafael Achomccaray Quispe, a professional musician living in San Jeronimo, a very religious village eight miles south-east of Cusco. It is a foldable model that can be carried around by the handle, not unlike a bulky suitcase. It is also an old and quite battered model, with many of the keys worn out by repeated use.

Photograph of Rafael Achomccaray Quispe's pampapianoThe pampapiano of Rafael Achomccaray Quispe, photographed by Peter Cloudsley. Judging by the marks on the keyboard, it seems that Rafael’s repertoire was mostly in G and D major.

A small plaque on Rafael’s pampapiano (not visible in the picture) says: ‘Piano made by Stevens, Kentish Town, London NW5’, and I wonder what tortuous routes brought this instrument from North London to a small village located at over 3,000 metres high up in the Andes.

Rafael was about 55 years old at the time of this recording, and his hearing was seriously compromised. This did not stop him from performing regularly at weddings, birthdays and baptisms with a group that also included harp, violin and quena (a notched flute). He played entirely from memory, although he was able to read music.

Photograph of Rafael Achomccaray Quispe at his house in San JeronimoRafael Achomccaray Quispe at his house in San Jeronimo, photographed by Peter Cloudsey.

Rafael’s repertoire included sacred music but also huaynos, marineras, yaravís and other secular styles. In this week’s recording, made by Peter Cloudsley in San Jeronimo on 12 February 1981, Rafael plays an instrumental yaraví titled Kusco (the clatter of the pedals and keys of the pampapiano is clearly audible throughout).

Kusco played on the pampapiano by Rafael Achomccaray Quispe (C9/16 C3)

Many thanks to Peter Cloudsley for allowing us to share his recording and for providing the pictures that accompany this post.

The Peter Cloudsley collection at the British Library holds many more recordings of Rafael’s pampapiano, including songs sung in Quechua, Spanish and Quechuañol (see shelfmarks C9/13, C9/14, C9/15, C9/16). For a short interview with the musician, see C9/19. A recording of a pampapiano being played during Easter mass inside Cusco Cathedral is also part of the collection (see C9/28 and C9/29).

The Peter Cloudsley collection has been digitised as part of the British Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

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

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28 October 2019

Recording of the week: Champion Jack Dupree interviewed by James Hogg

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This week's selection comes from Catherine Smith, World & Traditional Music volunteer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Champion Jack Dupree (1910-1992) was a blues and boogie-woogie pianist and singer from New Orleans. James Hogg’s 1968 interview with him for Radio 4 gives a fascinating insight into his life as a blues musician, amongst various other professions. The interview was recorded on January 4th 1968 at Dupree's home in Halifax, West Yorkshire. It was broadcast on January 6th 1968 on the BBC Radio 4 programme It’s Saturday.

Photograph of Champion Jack DupreeChampion Jack Dupree, Hamburg, 1973 (photographed by Heinrich Klaffs and licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

As well as being a wonderfully expressive vocal storyteller, Dupree also plays the piano throughout the interview. He accompanies his recollections with simultaneous improvisations on the piano; the cadences of his wandering blues complementing the musicality of his voice. This is demonstrated in the following clip as Dupree explains how he came to learn piano from a young age, after his parents were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan when he was just one year old. He goes on to explain how he grew up alongside Louis Armstrong, who was living in the same orphanage, and began playing trumpet with a paper cone before moving onto playing with jazz musician King Oliver.

Clip 1 - Champion Jack Dupree on learning piano and Louis Armstrong

Dupree played alongside members of the New Orleans jazz and blues scene from the age of eight, learning from the barrelhouse pianist, Willie ‘Drive 'em Down’ Hall. Here he gives his insight into his experience of the music scene at the time and why New Orleans was the ‘home of jazz’, rather than blues.

Clip 2 - Champion Jack Dupree on the jazz scene

He later worked as a prize fighter in Chicago, becoming a successful boxer, hence his nickname ‘Champion Jack’ Dupree. He also worked as a Navy cook during World War Two, spending two years as a prisoner of war in Japan, before returning to professionally make blues records. His first and most well-known album was Blues from the Gutter, released in 1958 by Atlantic Records. 

By 1969, Dupree surprisingly settled in Halifax, Yorkshire with his English wife. He explains to Hogg why it made sense for him to settle there:

Clip 3 - Champion Jack Dupree on living in Halifax

This brief but captivating interview led me to research Dupree in more detail, uncovering the remarkable life of a man who used his music to overcome a huge amount of pain and hardship. Later in the interview he explains what the blues means to him, describing it as a ‘medicine’. He explains how the blues is something you have to have lived: 'if you’ve never had no miserable life you cannot do it…it’s always a life story, it’s not just playing.’

Clip 4 - Champion Jack Dupree on what the blues means

The full interview is fourteen minutes long and if these four highlights have interested you, I recommend listening to all of it in the British Library Reading Rooms and learning more about Dupree’s adventurous life story. Full recording details can be found on the British Library Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

This recording has been digitised as part of the British Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

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

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07 October 2019

Recording of the week: No prisoners

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This week's selection comes from Mat Hart, World & Traditional Music volunteer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

This beautiful song is composed and performed by Madi Lehbib, who sings and plays percussion on this track, with accompaniment from guitarist Mahmud Bara. The song is sung in local Arabic dialect – Hassaniya. Madi’s lyrics reject the idea of political imprisonment and oppression, which his community – the Saharawi’s – have experienced as refugees living in exile in the Tindouf Province of South-Western Algeria.

The Saharawi’s are ethnically mixed descendants of Berbers, Arabs, and Black Africans. They have been living in exile since the mid-1970’s after fleeing from Moroccan forces during the Western Sahara War. Today, their people and communities live in refugee camps set up across the Tindouf Province. Having lived for centuries in the deserts of the Western Sahara, known as Africa’s last colony, the Saharawi’s land is, to this day, still occupied by Morocco and pending decolonisation.

Musical performances at the camps are common, as there are many musicians within the Saharawi community, though the lack of resources in the refugee camps forces musicians to constantly improvise with their instrumentation. In this recording, Madi is playing percussion on the body of his friend’s guitar. There is a humble beauty to his performance, which brings the Arabic voice and acoustic guitar together in gentle harmony.

No Prisoners performed by Madi Lehbib & Mahmud Bara, recorded by Violeta Ruano (C1640/1)

Photograph of Madi Lehbib during the sessionPhotograph of Madi Lehbib during the recording session

This recording was made by sound recordist Violeta Ruano Posada. Violeta spent six months staying in the various refugee camps during 2013 and 2014 conducting ethnographic fieldwork as part of her PhD research at London’s SOAS University - commissioned by the sound archive. This recording was made at the “Cape Bojador” refugee camp and was recorded at the camp’s shabiba (youth centre) with the help of a group of local Saharawi sound students.

To listen to more sound recordings of Sahrawi Music, browse the Violeta Ruano collection on British Library Sounds

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