Archive Africa: The Now Way Back then

On a visit to the SABC Archives in the Western Cape I found a well preserved selection of inspiring South African music of many different periods.
Finding a store of music that defines a period and represents an era honestly and accurately is always a privilege. And finding that store of music for a period like the 50's in South Africa is a miracle. Just about nobody recorded it because nobody thought it was worth anything more than everything itself. Just about nobody documented it because everybody wanted to be it and just about nobody remembers it, because everybody felt it so dearly. Yet it's a period of sublime style, fashion and taste. It's time ageing gracefully. It was the music of people discovering themselves, their mission.
All the music in the archive, all these recordings was a tribute to every story I had ever heard before. The passion suddenly made perfect sense. On listening to the music, the stories of how this music was created came to life.
For weeks Chris Mcgregor would be behind the piano, furiously composing, considering, constructing. Not sleeping, how could you sleep? South Africa was intense and chaotic. And in listening to the music such an experience of South Africa is presented.
In the backyard somewhere out in Langa a big band rehearsed furiously. There were no gigs, no sessions but this horn line of 9, 10 horns spoke all the time. Mankunku, the bull is dancing with anger, sparring poetically with an insurmountable opposition. Christopher 'Columbus' Ngcukana, the original, the founder, the adventurer, is whispering melodies in a delicate and persuasive tone, whilst Cups n Saucers holds back and comments appropriately. The emotions came out, bounding and rebounding between restraint and release.
Jazz had the power to transcend anything. I heard a band called Les Vbros that played the ‘I feel happy now cha cha.' These were guys in zoot suits, with duck tails and groupies playing surf soul jazz. And I heard the Cool Cats. I could picture at 6am after The Cool Cats late-night heavy petting jazz set at a club downtown somewhere, the saxophonist, instrument set on the floor next to him, his hair slightly ruffled, bow-tie rather loose, the rain pouring down washing his feet in the gutter as he sat and smoked: in complete control. Jazz sweated a self-destructive sex appeal. It was hip, super hip.
The jazz had become a period and a generation. It was the release, the joy. When listening to this music, immediately those fleeting moments, those illuminating experiences and eccentricities that define a period so vividly became imaginable.
These were the memories that almost always remained anonymous, always talked of: timeless music of artists that only few have ever heard and compositions that only few can ever have imagined. The discovery was so rich and priceless.

"There were the ‘jazz dazzlers', ‘jazz ambassadors,' ‘disciples', ‘epistles' and the ‘jazz assassins'. Jazz in South Africa had assumed a missionary position, passionate dedicated, almost suicidal with the life blood that pulsed through the rational of every major city across the country."

The Archives of Traditional Music

"If the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own Soil, and that soil has anything to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own soul." RV Williams.

Hugh Tracey was born in 1903 in England. His father was a country doctor and preacher. In 1929 he came to Southern Rhodesia to join his brother an ex serviceman in the second world war, to help on the farm. He was near Mashingo and he loved Karanga, which he spoke fluently. While learning the language he learnt the songs and drumming on the farm. He published his first book ‘Songs of the Kraal.' Hugh Tracey's achievements are well known in the recordings of indigenous African music. He made recording an art in communicating and decoding the expression of the musicians; in translating the language in the lyrics and narrative into English; and the music into high quality sound recordings. Hugh Tracey was known as magadagada, like a sewing machine that never stopped. He achieved to put African music on the map. He had a great love for the composers and musicians of Southern Africa. He wrote: “Accomplished musicians the world over belong to a kind of a guild which can be detected in their manner and bearing – regardless of social, racial or economic background. It was largely on this account that I managed to discover so large an elite of musicians at all levels of African society during the course of the tours,” The liner notes of the records state, “Tracey's hand held microphone technique was a reason for the clarity of his recordings; he never used a stand, on the principle that the performers had no experience of working to a microphone. At the end of each session he invariably played back the tape to the delight of the performers. He noted on one occasion, an mbira player on hearing himself played back, said, “I can die now, it does not matter, because I am inside that record now.” “In 1931 Hugh Tracey visited the Royal College of Music in London and met composers Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. He played his recordings from Zimbabwe to them and they enthusiastically encouraged him to discover and record. Future musicians, they said, would greatly benefit.” In his career spanning 50 years, he lead 19 field excursions throughout sub-Saharan Africa. These were long trips with a crew, several vehicles and a diesel generator that would have to be parked a long way away so that it would not be heard. He kept notebooks detailing the environment and circumstances in which the communities were living. He recorded over 3000 musical items and collected over 400 musical instruments, wrote a dozen books and countless essays, presentations and scripts. He published as much as he could in his own lifetime through the establishment of ILAM (International Library of African Music), and their publication African Music Journal. ILAM was built in 1954 on a farm in Johannesburg. It has been called, “One of the greatest depositories of African music.” The majority of all this music of Africa Hugh Tracey recorded has been not so much composed as remembered. It is folk music. “Knowledge of this kind is the very stuff of education,” wrote Hugh Tracey. “It may well be that local folk music is one of Africa's most important social assets,” he writes. “Folk musics are handed on from father to son, from musician to musician. Folk music is always alive in the minds of the people. It requires the immediate response of the folk around to participate in a form which they can manage.” Hugh Tracey draws an interesting comparison between African music (which he describes as dynamic) and Western music (as aesthetic). All African music shares practicality in common. “Every piece of folk music works for its living,” he writes. Hugh Tracey's life work was to ensure that African culture would not be lost or forgotten to the African people. Traditional cultural practices of dance, music and instruments are preserved together with a foundation of great wisdom. “The musical arts of Africa provide a channel, a veritable fiord, into the heart of African spiritualities. If the composers know their own hearts, they become our mouths," says Hugh Tracey. It is believed that ancestral spirits mediate between the living and the ‘Supreme being.' They are watching over their families like a ‘cloud of witnesses.' He wrote: ‘Ancestral spirits mediate between the living and God, the supreme being 'Mulingqangi'. His/Her pleasure is music and dance.' Music is a calling. “Patriotic and nostalgic considerations apart, there should always be room in formal education for a study of one's own national music, and today more so than ever, with radio entertainment making unparall eled demands upon musicians, and “majority rule” in music threatening to make Americans of us all,” writes Hugh Tracey. Hugh Tracey presented a paper on the 24th September 1965 at Liverpool University entitled ‘A Plan for African Music.' He quoted Sir Herbert Read as saying “art is a token of mutual understanding,” and then saying himself that “Art is identical with Education.” Hugh Tracey's ideal was “to bring indigenous African arts and particularly African music into the normal curriculum of African schools, colleges and eventually into the Universities themselves. ” “We are to codify the logic which lies behind the creation of indigenous styles of music a nd thus to bring it naturally, without prejudice, into the realm of African education, ” said Tracey. Hugh Tracey was fascinated by the mbira (thumb piano). This instrument is unique to Africa. From the design of the mbira he created an instrument called kalimba which was ‘a blend of the traditional African idea of the mbira and a western scale.' The company African Musical Instruments (AMI) was born to accommodate the demand for this instrument that came initially from America in the late 1950's. The instrument factory, African Musical Instruments (AMI) was set up on the farm.

A special passion for Chopi Music

Chopi musicians by Hugh Tracey “I have devoted most of my holidays from official duties to visiting those areas where the Chopi are to be found, and taking notes in the hope of learning all I could before making gramophone records.” Chopi play large orchestras of Timbila orchestras and orchestral dances called Mijodo. A Ngodo is an orchestral dance in 9 to 11 movements. “They speak with one voice and move with one spirit by mystical participation in the compelling music.” … “The orchestral ground is developed by the composer himself and by his fellow musicians as they play. The composition becomes communal with the players of the various pitches of Timbila (treble, alto, tenor, base and double bass) improving their own parts. They all conform to the master pattern set by the composer. Southern Mozambique 1943 – 63: Music of Chopi, Gitonga, Bonga, Tswa, Tsonga, Sena, Nyungwe and Ndau Opening track features young girls on gourd flutes (ocarinas) recorded in the Quissoca District. “These ocarinas are made from the hard spherical flute of the mutamba orange tree and have 3 holes, one for blowing and 2 for fingering. Notes can also be easily lipped down in pitch. Small girls from 5 or 6 start to play these home-made 3 note instruments for amusement, usually in duet with one chigowilo, always smaller, thus higher pitched.” On track 3 we hear 13 xylophones led by Shambini, recorded at Quissoco. Mtsitso are introductory movements played by the orchestra alone, without song or dance, before the dancers enter. On track 7 we hear the mzeno movement from the timbila dance, it is considered to be the climax. Hugh Tracey notes, “Komakomu's sparkling playing style is in evidence, playing kudala, single note melody on the high notes, or doubling the song in octaves.” On tracsk 8 to 10 we heard mandowa dance played on mbira recorded at Nova Mambone District. The mandowa acrobatic tumbling dance uses four drums. On track 16 we hear the music of the Tswa people, who live North of the Chopi and play an almost identical xylophone called muhambi. On track 19 we hear the hexatonic mbira performed by Jose Machokole, from Save River Mozambique. This is one of the very few African mbiras with 3 ranks or manuals of keys and a 3 octave range, played with 2 fingers and 2 thumbs…

This research was prepared for "Traditional Instruments of Southern Africa:" A film script developed together with Lianne Cox