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World and traditional music: wax cylinder collections

The Sound Archive holds a substantial collection of over 3,000 ethnographic wax cylinders.

Collection overview

Many of the wax cylinder recordings are of considerable historical importance. For instance, they include probably the first sound recordings made in Africa south of the Sahara (by Sir Harry Johnston in Uganda in 1901, C107) and the first Australian aboriginal music (by Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen in the same year, C6).

The work of many notable academics is represented, including anthropologists of the stature of A.C. Haddon, C.G. Seligman and Bronislaw Malinowski, and the great Dutch scholar of South Asian music, Arnold Bake. The collection abounds with fascinating material, from the earliest collection (recorded by Haddon's team in the Torres Straits in 1898, C80), to the largest (by prolific anthropologist Northcott W. Thomas, West Africa 1908-15, C51), to numerous intriguing minor collections (such as that brought back by traveller-turned-anthropologist Edith Durham from Albania in 1905, C662) [see Clayton 1996, pp.68-9].

More than 240 ethnographic wax cylinder recordings are featured on the Sounds web site.

Further reading

Clayton, Martin (1996) 'Ethnographic wax cylinders at the British Library National Sound Archive: a brief history and description of the collection'. In British Journal of Ethnomusicology vol.5, pp.67-92.

Further information

Janet Topp Fargion
Curator, World and Traditional Music
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7427
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7441


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