Sound and vision blog

130 posts categorized "World & traditional music"

01 March 2021

Recording of the week: Friction drum song from Botswana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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08 February 2021

Recording of the week: From feminist utopias to contemporary sound

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

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

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

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

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

She campaigned to change this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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25 January 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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04 January 2021

Recording of the week: Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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28 December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wind yoik (BL REF C1650/73 BD 5)

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

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

Wind nose yoik (C1650/73 BD 6)

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

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

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

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

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

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21 December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recording of carol singing in Ecclesfield, Sheffield, South Yorkshire 

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

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

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18 December 2020

Caulking the ethnographic gap – A Trobriander perspective on the songs, dances, stories and performers of the Malinowski Cylinder Collection (C46)

linus digim’Rina is a Trobriand Islander and an anthropologist. He is currently Head of Anthropology at the University of Papua New Guinea. He provides a Trobriander perspective on the Malinowski Cylinder Collection (C46), which has also been described on the Sound and Vision blog today.

Nigadabuwa canoe with Namwanaguyau doing a slow punt along the shores of Khaulukuba beach. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/4/8

Above: Nigadabuwa canoe with Namwanaguyau doing a slow punt along the shores of Khaulukuba beach. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/4/8

All these items originated from the Bweyowa cultural heritage of the Trobriand Islands, part of its gulagula. With a slight exception on the Gumagabu song dance, the images and recordings have over time been removed from the cultural ambience of the place, Bweyowa, Kilivila, Kiriwina or the Trobriands. As with Rogaewa from the Iwa people, it will probably struggle to find a comfortable niche back at its original home. Yet it is not completely isolated and could potentially and mutually be invited back ‘home’ like the proverbial prodigal son in the Christian bible.

Gumagabu, according to Malinowski, was in 1918 owned by To’uluwa, chief of Omarakhana, and whose ancestors acquired it from the descendants of Tomakam through laga payment. If this claim by To’uluwa was true then laga payments by Bweyowa custom is outright alienation whereby holdership of previous tenant is completely terminated. I have since then not heard of any other group or village that contested this claim by To’uluwa.

Gumagabu dance. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/7/13

Above: Gumagabu dance. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/7/13

Other than this there are no plausible other claims of ownership for Rogaewa, which the Okheboma people occasionally and sentimentally lay claims to, nor is it possible for Ilakhavetega and WosiTuma for that matter. The images too are neither offensive nor emotionally heart-rending. In fact, both the sound recordings, despite the poor quality perhaps, and dance images would generate a mild reminder of perhaps a slipping-by Bweyowa cultural heritage – a certain phase of cultural paradigm that is worth reflecting upon for the future. In this view, I would suggest seeking the endorsement of the incumbent of the Bweyowa/Trobriand office of the paramount chief – GuyolaKilivila. He is the sanctioned overall custodian of Bweyowa/Kilivila gulagula. This immediately disqualifies all Church leaders, politicians of various levels and modern day professionals.

Personally, and after listening to many of the tunes, not to mention themes, of these so called archaic sounds, and generally from South East Asia through to the Pacific region, I recognise a fundamentally common similarity in the tunes, flows, humming and repetitiveness of the songs. (I wish I was a musician to explain this a bit more clearly.) This is found in poems, magical chants, mourning dirges, laments, heralds and songs. For the time being and in the absence of a better label I suspect this alluring similarity to be fundamentally Austronesian!

Malinowski today

As with Malinowski and those immediately before him, the chosen field approach together with its fine field documentation methods generated its own values, and indeed part of which we are appreciating. Over time we have all become part of the journey of documentation hence, ‘caulking ethnographic gaps’ has become our immediate task that has probably opened up more possibilities. These songs, dances and stories are alive, have been enacted, details adjusted and adopted – and continue to live on. This is a result of often mutually combined efforts between the chronicler and the informants and/or collaborators. Insofar as one can see for the Trobriand Islands at least, the anthropologist-informant relationship is by and large ephemeral suggesting unsustainability by average standards. I wonder if this is an unanticipated end result of objective-imbued field observation and documentation approaches. For, and on the other hand, the Christian churches approach do not necessarily document like the anthropologist and yet leave behind apparently a more lasting active legacy with the people – often derided as been subjective. Christian missionaries tend to impose, observe and adjust methods of cultural integration including appropriating cultural spaces such as renaming places and persons – to which the anthropologists do not. Through the institution of baptism for instance, church legacies have lived on as part of the local people’s annual cultural celebrations and personal names like Peter, Jacob, Benjamin, Esther, being proudly carried on and shielded by its received forms of morality. By contrast therefore, the world famous name of Malinowski is faintly recalled, and I know of no Trobriand child named after him. A few of the elders use his books mainly for the images and tales rather than the ideas expounded. Malinowski is not alone and indeed this includes all the other anthropologists that came after him, as well as myself at Basima, on nearby Fergusson Island. Of course, immediate family members playing hosts do rename one or two of their off springs after the anthropologist but this is where it ends, generally. This is perhaps why the world famous Malinowski shall remain obscure and often on the recesses of living Trobriand Islanders’ lives unless one is a travel writer or becomes a student of anthropology, as I have been.

Returning to the songs and dances for the last word, modern day performances lacks systematic documentation except for a few parents and school teachers insisting upon children to learn, display and be involved in cultural performances. The language is spoken everyday but not so much of the singing and dancing of those traditional themes and tunes. The introduced ideas and beliefs together with more dynamic technology have evidently taken over much of the cultural spaces. In fact only the occasional travel writers, tourists, journalists, office of tourism agents, social media enthusiasts and urban based relatives that pick up performance images for various purposes. This casual form of documentation characteristically lacks the vital cultural context. There still remains hope however for the present generation to embrace the potential of today’s technology towards the fosterage of that ‘slipping by’ Bweyowa culture.

The Rogayewo, a slow dance performed by men wearing fibre skirts, and holding pandanus streamers in their hands. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/SOS/58

Above: The Rogayewo, a slow dance performed by men wearing fibre skirts, and holding pandanus streamers in their hands. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/SOS/58

For further information and commentary from linus on the Malinowski Cylinder Collection, please visit the True Echoes website.

True Echoes: Malinowski’s 1915 – 1918 Trobriand recordings

The Bronislaw Malinowski 1915-1918 Trobriand Islands, Territory of Papua Cylinder Collection (C46) is a collection of five black wax cylinders (British Library shelfmarks C46/1397–C46/1401) recorded by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski between 1915 and 1918 during fieldwork in what is today Papua New Guinea. The collection came from the Museum of Mankind to the British Library’s National Sound Archive in 1985.

An example of one of the Malinowski cylinders

Above: An example of one of the Malinowski cylinders

This collection is part of the True Echoes project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Learn more about True Echoes in a previous post. This is the smallest, and most recent, of the eight collections within the project, and one of three from Papua New Guinea.

Malinowski (1884–1942) was born in Poland, and moved to London in 1910 to study at the London School of Economics under Charles Seligman and Edvard Westermarck. He also corresponded with Alfred Cort Haddon and W. H. R. Rivers at Cambridge. These were amongst the leading anthropologists and sociologists of the time.

From September 1914 to March 1915, he conducted anthropological fieldwork in Territory of Papua, the southern half of what is now Papua New Guinea, including three months on the island of Mailu. He made two further trips to Papua from July 1915 to March 1916, and from November 1917 to October 1918. For much of these second two trips, he based himself in the village of Omarakana on Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands.

In his most famous work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), Malinowski described the kula, a ceremonial exchange system involving shell valuables that operates across the Trobriand Islands and throughout much of maritime Milne Bay Province. Many regard Malinowski as one of the founding fathers of British social anthropology, and Argonauts as a seminal work. He is often seen as the originator of the ‘participant observation’ method of ethnographic fieldwork, first described in Argonauts, which became a hallmark feature of the discipline. You can read more about this method on the Cambridge Encylopaedia of Anthropology website. He went on to teach anthropology in the UK, most famously at the London School of Economics, and subsequently at Yale in the USA.

Malinowski’s map of the “Kula District”. The Trobriand Islands are just to the left of the text reading “The Northern Massim”

Above: Malinowski’s map of the “Kula District”. The Trobriand Islands are just to the left of the text reading “The Northern Massim” (Malinowski 1922:30).

For his fieldwork, Malinowski borrowed a phonograph from Charles Seligman, as noted in Argonauts (Malinowski 1922: xix), and purchased 72 cylinders in London. We do not know of any recordings made during his first trip to Papua. At least four of the five cylinders in the British Library appear to have been recorded in the Trobriand Islands; one is dated to 17 July 1918.

In partnership with Prof Don Niles at the Institute of Papua New Guinea studies, we have been able to correct the metadata in our records and find out much more about both the songs and the performers through archival and historical research. This research is highlighted on the True Echoes website. We have been assisted in this research by Michael Young, Gunter Senft and linus digim’Rina. As both a Trobriand Islander and current Head of Anthropology at the University of Papua New Guinea, linus has given us his own perspective on these recordings in a document on the True Echoes website and accompanying blog post ‘Caulking the ethnographic gap – A Trobriander perspective on the songs, dances, stories and performers of the Malinowski Cylinder Collection (C46)’.

The recordings feature songs sung by men with no accompanying instruments. The cylinder boxes have some information written on them in blue crayon. Michael Young, Malinowski’s official biographer, has confirmed that this is Malinowski’s handwriting. For four of the cylinders, the song or genre title and performer’s name is written.  

For example, C46/1399 has the words 'Usi Tuma by Monakeu' and 'Ragayewo by Tokulubakiki' written on the side of the cylinder box.

The cylinder box for Usi Tuma (C46/1399) showing part of the notation in blue crayon

Above: The cylinder box for Usi Tuma (C46/1399) showing part of the notation in blue crayon

Malinowski wrote about both Monakeu - also spelt Monakewo - and Tokulubakiki in his diary and in letters home. Tokulubakiki was from the chiefly clan of the village of Omarakana; Malinowski described him as his “best friend” and his “favourite informant in Omarakana,” (Malinowski 1929:148. 161). In a letter to his wife, Malinowski noted that Tokulubakiki was “a decent, honest, straightforward man” (Wayne 1995:151). Tokulubakiki features in a number of Malinowski’s photographs.

Tokulubakiki and his wife Kuwo’igu in front of their yam house. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI_3_SOS_26

Above: Tokulubakiki and his wife Kuwo’igu in front of their yam house. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI_3_SOS_26

There is no information about the contents of the song or story of Ragayewo. The only time that Malinowski mentioned it is in his diary: in Kiriwina, on the evening of 30 June 1918, he “sat and wrote down and translated Ragayewo” (Malinowski 1967:295). We do not know what has happened to this transcription and translation.

Usi Tuma by Monakewo and Ragayewo by Tokulubakiki [C46/1399]

In 1985, a television documentary series on early anthropologists, Strangers Abroad (Central Independent Television) featured an episode on Malinowski’s work, Off the Verandah. The production team took at least one recording back to Kiriwina, probably 'Gumagabu by Paluwa' (C46/1398). An older man, Bwabwa’u, remembered Malinowski and translated this recording. Translation was difficult as the song was several generations old and used an archaic dialect. . In a letter to the British Library’s Sound Archive in 1985, producer Steven Seidenberg noted that the song was “about a man from Kiriwina who has been ship-wrecked … on Dobu [Island] and who has been eaten by cannibals (possibly for ritual sacrifice?). Gumagabu is the name of the man who has been cooked.”

Gumagabu by Paluwa [C46/1398]

Don Niles, Acting Director of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, said of the True Echoes project:

“In working with these early collections from Melanesia, we will gather as much information as possible about the recordings, from the cylinders themselves, the collector’s diaries, photographs, collected artefacts, and published accounts. We aim to contextualise the collections with information about the collector(s), their fieldwork, and their academic involvements. With this most basic information, we will attempt to reconnect the recordings with the people for whom they have the greatest significance: the descendants of those recorded and others whose traditions are represented. We very much hope that they will be able to tell us more about the music and the performers, their intertwined histories, as well as the recordings’ significance today.”

Vicky Barnecutt

True Echoes Research Fellow

Further reading:

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge. [British Library shelfmark Asia, Pacific & Africa V 10295]

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1929. The Sexual Life of Savages in Northwestern Melanesia. New York: Liveright. [British Library shelfmark General Reference Collection YC.1993.b.3568]

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1967. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Trans. Norbert Guterman. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. [British Library shelfmark General Reference Collection X.809/4015]

Wayne, Helena, ed. 1995. The Story of a Marriage: The Letters of Bronislaw Malinowski and Elsie Masson. Vol. 1, 1916–1920. London: Routledge. [British Library shelfmark General Reference Collection YC.1997.b.1016]

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