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World and traditional music: sound recordings

The British Library Sound Archive holds one of the world's largest collections of recordings variously described as traditional, folk or 'world' music. It is a valuable resource for musicians of all backgrounds and an essential reference collection for the study of ethnomusicology and anthropology.

Collection overview

The collection contains published and unpublished recordings of music from all countries and represents most of the world's major religions, work songs, wedding and funeral music, accompanied songs and instrumental music, as well as popular styles based on folk traditions such as bhangra, rumba, soukouss, highlife, son, cumbia, tango and rebetika. 

Important collections on wax cylinders by pioneering fieldworkers, as well as more recent recordings made on a range of formats during ethnographic research are held. In addition to its own selection of recordings, The British Library Sound Archive provides access to recordings from the BBC sound archives.

Published recordings

  • Almost all recordings issued in the UK, donated by the record companies
  • complete runs of many specialist labels in the UK, Europe, the United States and further afield (such as Topic, Ocora, Folkways, Library of Congress, International Library of African Music) and rare recordings published only in the country of origin and obtained through donation or purchase from local shops and distributors
  • an extensive back-catalogue of acquisitions including over 10,000 78rpm discs (for instance pre-1914 Egyptian and Central Asian, 1920s Greek, 1940s Decca West Africa discs) which provide a fascinating insight into older styles of music. For further information on some of the more significant holdings see Collections by region.

Unpublished recordings

  • Original field recordings collected by leading scholars and enthusiasts [for example Mike Yates in the UK and the US (C796), Bert Lloyd in Europe (C200), Klaus Wachsmann in Uganda (C4), Brian Moser and Donald Tayler in Colombia (C207)]. See Collections by region.
  • the Sound Archive's own recordings of concert performances, workshops and festivals in the UK, by visiting musicians from overseas (for instance at WOMAD). See World and Traditional Music Section's Recording Programme.
  • over 3,000 ethnographic wax cylinders, such as the collection of field recordings made during the A.C. Haddon expedition to the Torres Strait in the late 1890s (C80). See Ethnographic wax cylinder collections.
  • the Traditional Music in England Project (sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund) seeks to preserve and make accessible important collections of recordings held in private hands.
  • Traditional Music in India Project - digital audio and visual recordings made in rural areas of 4 Indian states from 2002-2004.

Broadcast recordings

  • Selected recordings taken directly off-air from the national BBC radio stations, primarily Radio 2 (Folk on 2, for example) and Radio 3, as well as Andy Kershaw's programmes on Radio 1.
  • selected television broadcasts on both BBC terrestrial channels, plus ITV and Channel 4, such as BBC2's Rhythms of the World series and Channel 4's Beats of the Heart.

Accessing the collection

To access sound and moving image material:

  • Use the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue to search for recordings.
  • The Listening and Viewing Service provides free public access to the Sound Archive's collections of recorded sound and video in St Pancras. Sound recordings can be accessed in Boston Spa also.
  • The Sound Archive Information Service is based in Humanities - floor 2 in St Pancras where books, discographies, periodicals and magazines are available on open access.
  • Many sound recordings have been digitised and are presented on the British Library Sounds website. A large number of the recordings are freely available for listening online though some are restricted to users in accredited Higher Education establishments.
  • The Transcription Service can provide copies of recordings once the appropriate copyright has been cleared.

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