Repatriating the archives of Africa’s musical history

Tucked away in the Eastern Cape city of Grahamstown, you’ll find a small building housing one of the most important archives of the continent’s history. The building is the International Library of African Music (ILAM), and it contains the greatest repository of African music in the world. 

8.Mbiras, drums, center cube under  skylight

The story goes, that 60 years back, British ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey packed his bags, and along with an old wax cylinder recorder, began travelling across Southern and central Africa, recording and archiving around 35,000 songs for nearly half a century. He would later found ILAM, the now 62 year old research institution that devotes itself to the study of music and oral arts in Africa, and houses countless historical musical treasures. 

ILM00003 1.tif - Hugh Tracey pioneer researcher of African Music and founder of the International Library of African Music.

More recently, ILAM have undertaken efforts to share these archives in contemporary and widely accessible manners. After digitising their entire archives, the idea came to current ILAM director, Professor Diane Thram to actively repatriate these recordings back to their countries of origin. After receiving support from the Abubullah Foundation through an NGO recording studio in Nairobi called Ketebul Music, repatriations began in mid 2014. For the first time, previously recorded songs from all over Africa were being heard by their origin communities. On a recent trip to Mombasa and Malindi, Diane and the team came into contact with the immediate family of one of the recorded artists and subsequently met with a son and two daughters of a musician recorded by Hugh Tracey years back.

ILAM archive - HT  field recordings

“The younger of the two daughters told us that she was only two years old when her father died and this was the first time she ever heard her father’s voice. Tears were in her eyes and she had her hands over her heart as she told me this,” explains Diane. “This is why it’s so important to actually take the time and find a way to get these recordings back to the families of the artists. They are precious to them, and often the family members don’t even know that they exist. In this same case, the son who was the oldest sibling, remembered the day Hugh Tracey recorded his father because he was there, he was just a boy but he even remembered who Tracey recorded after his father on that day.”

D.ThraminMalindi 23Feb 2016 giving CD to children of Chadi Obuyi w recordings of their  father made by HT 13 Oct 1950

Besides repatriating recordings via CDs, flash drives and on site laptops and speakers, the team have now partnered with BeatingHeart who are creating remixes that sample these recordings in contemporary electronic music in an effort to help African musical history reach larger and younger audiences. “The CDs they are issuing not only have the songs that have been created by remix artists by sampling ILAM tracks, but also contain the original tracks, so people purchasing the CD will also have the opportunity to hear the music as it sounds on the original recordings. This should open their ears a bit to African music,” says Diane.

BeatingHeart’s remix album will consist of 21 tracks all recorded in Malawi and will be out on June 3. You can pre-order here and find out a bit more about the history of Hugh Tracey below. Find more about ILAM here.      

Photos courtesy of ILAM/Africa Media Online. 

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