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Africa: Sound recordings

The British Library Sound Archive holds rich and extensive collections of sound recordings of African music, literature, radio broadcasts and wildlife. These holdings can be searched through the Sound Archive Catalogue.

Literature and linguistics

Researchers interested in African literature and linguistics will find much of relevance in the Sound Archive collections. Oral literature exists in many forms; it can be spoken, chanted, sung or musically accompanied. Sound recordings are an invaluable resource for researchers in this field since the printed page cannot convey the nuances or vibrancy of the oral performance. Early field recordings were often donated by European anthropologists or linguists, for example, the Alice Werner collection of language samples recorded on cylinder in East Africa between 1912 and 1915, or B.W. Andrzejewski's acetates, cut in the early 1950s in Somaliland. Contemporary material is more likely to have been collected by African literary theorists or social historians. Increasingly, students are encouraged to collect field recordings as part of literary and historical studies or teaching courses. The Sound Archive has, for example, a collection of Enuani Igbo tales, primarily spoken, collected over a five-year period by Nkem Okoh for his doctoral thesis, 'Tradition and individual creativity in Enuani Igbo tales'.

Other spoken word material includes interviews with and readings by writers, for example, in recordings of the African Writers' Club (a weekly programme broadcast by the BBC African Service from 1959 to 1971) which featured interviews with Chinua Achebe, J.P. Clark, Lenrie Peters and Ama Ata Aidoo. Many of these recordings are now available electronically.  The collection also includes live recordings of plays such as Kola Ogunmola's presentation of Amos Tutuola's Palm wine drinkard at the University of Ibadan, and recordings of conferences.


Radio has long been a powerful information source throughout Africa. The British Library Sound Archive has recordings from many broadcasting institutions, and these can inform researchers from a wide range of disciplines. Recordings include bulletins announcing changes and falls of government and other material of historical significance, for example, speeches by Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya and Patrice Lumumba.

Music and dance

Recordings of African music, traditional and modern, are an important feature of the collections. Traditional music is inseparably bound up with other art forms such as dance and oral literature. The collection of recordings is reinforced by relevant monographs, journals, catalogues and discographies. Through donations, exchange agreements, collaborative fieldwork projects and purchase, the collection of published and unpublished recordings and books continues to grow. It provides a rich resource, unique in Britain, for scholars, musicians, media producers and general music enthusiasts.

More information about the scope and history of the African music recording collections is given here.


The Sound Archive has collected sound recordings of African wildlife since the former British Institute of Recorded Sound established a scientific wildlife section in 1969. Published discs and cassettes are held but the majority of the holdings consist of unpublished recordings contributed by sound recordists, ornithologists and other scientists. The collections include many recordings of mammals and birds, a few recordings of insects and amphibians, and examples of general habitat sounds including savannahs and rain forests from different localities and at different times of day. Copies of many of the unpublished wildlife recordings may be provided for scientific and educational studies and for publishing, broadcasting and film-making.

The recordings of African birds at the Sound Archive represent the most comprehensive collection in existence. Birds of East Africa are particularly well covered. The major collections include those of D. Pearson, R. Stjernstedt and R. McVicker. The C. Carter and F. Dowsett-Lemaire collections cover some of the birds of central African countries and the Dr C. Chappuis collection specialises in West African birds. There are many smaller collections from Madagascar, the Mascarene Islands, Seychelles and southern and North Africa, which include recordings of the extinct Aldabra Brush Warbler Nesillas aldabranus and the recently discovered Cryptic Warbler Cryptosylvicola randrianasoloi. There are also extensive recordings of large mammals and bats, including the Dr S. Bearder collection of bushbaby and spotted hyaena vocalisations, and the Wilma George collection of gundis (Ctenodactylidae) of North African deserts.

The holdings of the British Library Sound Archive can be searched through the Sound Archive Catalogue.


Recorded Sound Information Service
The British Library
Sound Archive
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7676
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7441