Click here to skip to content

World and traditional music: Africa

The British Library Sound Archive's collection of world and traditional music includes a considerable amount of material from Africa.

Collection overview

The African collections of unpublished sound recordings comprise over 100 separate ethnographic collections including 10 made in the first decades of the 1900s on wax cylinder. Published African recordings include early 78rpm discs by the large international companies, in addition to those by local African labels, as well as international and local publications from the late 1950s to the present.

Published African recordings

Until fairly recently, ethnomusicologists have tended to focus on 'traditional', frequently rural musical expressions. The last ten to fifteen years has seen a rebalancing, with more work being done on urban traditions. This is not to say that early urban styles have not been documented, and commercial companies have published much of it. See, for example Tribal, Folk and Cafe Music of West Africa, a publication with field recordings of urban music styles made by Albert S. Alberts. The recordings were originally published on 78rpm disc in 1950, but have been reissued on CD by Rykodisc: Tribal, Folk and Café Music of West Africa, shellac record WA1-24 (1950) or compact disc Rykodisc RCD10401 (Sound Archive reference 1CD0212621).

Hugh Tracey's field recordings of southern, eastern, and central African music, dating from 1929 to the early 1960s, also included a number of urban styles. The early recordings were published by the South African company Gallo, with later recordings coming out in two series - the Sound of Africa (210 LPs for educational purposes) and the Music of Africa (selected items for general release) - published by the International Library of African Music. For the Tracey recordings search for AMA TR on the catalogue. Some of these recordings are being reissued on CD by Sharp Wood Productions.

The early decades of the twentieth century saw a great deal of publishing activity in African countries by large international companies, as they became aware of the market potential in those regions. Many recordings were made and released by the Gramophone Company and after 1931 through other EMI labels such as Odeon. Catalogues of these labels' output are available on microfilm for onsite research at the British Library. Notable among these historic back catalogues are almost 500 items of Ghanaian and Nigerian recordings put out by Decca West Africa, large holdings of Egyptian and other north African recordings on the Gramophone label, and 64 items (representing virtually the total output) of the little-known South African USA label, that operated for only 18 months from around 1956.

The policy of collecting African 'popular' or 'modern' music has continued, with local bands published on EP, LP, cassette, and CD. While an attempt is made to keep up with international publishing, we also try to capture a picture of local publishing in other countries. Radio presenter Charlie Gillett recently made a significant contribution to this effort by donating local pressings from Zimbabwe and Zambia dating from the 1980s. As the collection grows it documents aspects of continuity and change, as well as "world music" trends as certain artists and styles move in and out of vogue in the global market.

Unpublished African recordings

African music is an important component of the Sound Archive's collection of world and traditional music. In some ways this is accidental in that curators in charge of the collection have been Africanists themselves, resulting in a natural bias. A previous director, Anthony King (C1), whose primary research was done among the Hausa (Nigeria/Niger), Swahili (Kenya, Tanzania), Somali, and in Mande societies (Gambia, Sierra Leone) deposited his archive comprising of some 425 recordings made by himself and others in these areas.

In 1978 Lucy Durán (C2), also with a primary focus on Africa, became the first full curator of the World and Traditional Music Section. Over the next 15 years she developed the collection's holdings of African music, expanding the selection policy to include 'popular' music and documenting the beginnings of the world music explosion from the mid-1980s. Her main areas of interest were West Africa - her own collection comprises field recordings made in The Gambia primarily - and Central Africa. The current curator, Janet Topp Fargion, was appointed to replace Lucy Durán in 1994, her own areas being Southern and Eastern Africa (C724).

The earliest African recordings in the Sound Archive were made in 1901 in Uganda by British explorer, naturalist, author, and colonial administrator, Sir Harry Johnstone. Some 1,350 wax cylinders recorded in Africa, dating from this time up until the early 1920s, are in the Sound Archive's collections. The majority of these were made by Northcote Whitridge Thomas (C51), who made some 700 recordings in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1908 and 1915, where he worked as an anthropologist for the Colonial Office. Thomas was concerned primarily with gathering as many examples of languages and dialects in the region as possible. The recordings thus take the form of conversations, stories, vocal solos, and vocal groups. There are also examples of instrumental music, such as the balangi, a xylophone, in Sierra Leone. The recordings are consistently reasonable in quality and provide an invaluable document of the time. Most of the African cylinders were transferred to tape in the 1970s and they are currently the focus of a large-scale digitization process and to enable them to be accessible on CD-R.

The late British ethnomusicologist Arthur Morris Jones's recordings are notable (C424). He bequeathed his collection of non-commercial acetate discs and some commercial recordings to the Horniman Museum, which gave them to the Sound Archive in 1983. The recordings date from ca. 1938-55 and feature musical examples to aid and illustrate his many areas of research on African music, on which he is a well-known authority.

The renowned ethnomusicologist, and former Sound Archive staff member, Klaus Wachsmann, also used acetate discs in the late 1940s to record music in Uganda (C4). Wachsmann described his 'portable' Admiralty recording set as weighing half a ton and needing the full crew of a ship to transport it. Life got easier for Wachsmann in 1950 when he acquired a tape recorder on which he made over 1,000 recordings in various regions of the country. Indeed Uganda is a well-documented country in the collection, with Ken Gourlay's collection (C105) recorded among the Karamojong of northeast Uganda in the 1960s. These are some of the very few and thus perhaps most important existing musical and written documents of this cattle-raiding people group. Peter Cooke's (C23) recordings made from the 1960s to the present day - some 1,505 Ugandan recordings (81 tapes) - represent an astonishing achievement in terms of the breadth of coverage and detailed documentation.

In addition to these field recordings, the Sound Archive has a long-standing remote recording program that began in the late 1970s and continues to be updated. We have documented, for example, the annual WOMAD festival at Reading, UK (C203) - where African musicians frequently top the bill - with recordings since the festival's inception in 1982. Other, one-off, events at various venues around London, including concerts, workshops, and conferences, are recorded whenever possible. These represent a valuable record of 'African music abroad' and assist in the documentation of the world music boom that began in the mid-1980s and featured a great number of African performers now considered household names.

Video recordings

When considering the documentation of music and dance, perhaps especially in Africa, film and video are in many ways better media. Video intake is increasing rapidly as recordists turn to digital technology on which a far superior sound recording can be made. The Sound Archive therefore has a considerable collection of videos and DVDs. There is a collection of 8mm films made by anthropologist Peggy Harper in Nigeria in the 1960s (C1074). To complement this, Roger Blench deposited his digital video recordings made in the same country in 2003. Carolyn Pugh's Hi-8 recordings of Yemba funeral ceremonies in Cameroun (C1065) are another example of recent film acquisitions.

Further information

Janet Topp Fargion
Curator, World and Traditional Music
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

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

E-mail: worldandtradmusic@bl.uk

PDF files

The links below are to Adobe PDF files. Accessibility solutions and free Reader software are available from Adobe.