Africa's Musical Heritage

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Tuesday, 31st May 2016

Music Without Borders – From its home in Grahamstown, Africa’s musical heritage is finding its way deep into the mother continent’s heartland…

Words: Marion Whitehead. Pictures: Marion Whitehead and ILAM

“Music is the thing that links everyone together – you don’t have to speak the same language, but music speaks for you,” says Elijah Madiba, stroking the wood grain of a large valimba xylophone from Malawi. “Music helps us communicate.”

We’re surrounded by one of the finest collections

of traditional African musical instruments in the world, at the International Library of African Music (ILAM) on Rhodes University campus in Grahamstown. These are not the type of instruments Elijah grew up playing in Phalaborwa.

“I played bass guitar, sax and keyboard. But since I came to ILAM I’ve learnt to play so many more instruments,” says the young sound engineer. “And he plays them well,” chimes in ILAM director Prof Diane Thram, her American accent still strong despite having lived in South Africa for the last 17 years.

Founded in 1954, ILAM has gained recognition worldwide for its role in documenting and studying traditional African music across the continent, as well as promoting this musical culture to a new generation. It also houses the renowned Tracey collection of traditional instruments, including one of the planet’s largest collections of mbiras, a complex thumb piano.

For the first time, they are properly displayed for the public to view at ILAM: drums of all sizes, from shoulder-high ones made from tree trunks to small carved beauties, melodious marimbas with calabash amplifiers, curiously shaped harps, ankle rattles, kudu horns, innovative flutes and pan pipes. The smaller instruments are housed in glass cases, thanks to a grant from the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation.

Since taking over from Andrew Tracey as director in 2006, Diane has also raised funds to digitise the entire library of the Traceys’ extensive collection of original recordings made on field trips from as early as the 1920s. They’re housed in a special air-conditioned room at ILAM for decades to preserve the old reel-to-reel tapes, and Diane now has the joy of taking digital copies of the music back to the original communities where they were recorded in remote parts of Tanzania, Zanzibar and Kenya.

“It’s like a dream come true to find some people still alive who sang on those recordings,” she says of these trips. “It’s very rewarding work and helps people keep their culture alive.”

Tanzanian cow hide drum Tanzanian cow hide drum

It all started back in the 1920s, after Hugh Tracey arrived in Zimbabwe from England to help his brother farm tobacco, and fell in love with the Karanga farmworkers’ music. His field trips saw him bumping along dusty back roads across Southern and Central Africa to record traditional musicians in remote areas. His son Andrew retired at 79 and, still living in Grahamstown with his wife Heather, recalls his father’s adventures.

“He had an old Model A Ford pulling a Model T Ford chassis converted into a trailer. At the drifts over the river crossings, cattle often had to be inspanned to pull him through.” Hugh went into broadcasting and became head of the SABC radio studios in Durban, always promoting the traditional music he loved, despite the prevailing colonial view that all things African were of no value. He set out to give African music the global status it deserved.

“His first recording machine made a groove on a disc, like a long-playing record,” says Andrew. “After World War II, he switched to tapes with big reels that ran off a diesel generator, which had to be parked far from the recording site because of the noise. He spoke Shona well and a bit of Zulu, and travelled with assistants, interpreters and sound engineers, who had to be prepared to camp in the bush.”

Venda drums Venda drums

One of Andrew’s earliest musical memories is of a Mozambican Chopi group his father brought to Durban to play drums. After his parents split up, 12-year-old Andrew was sent to school in England but the music recordings his father sent him remained a strong influence. “I played guitar the African way.”

By the time Andrew returned to Southern Africa to work with his father, technology had developed to the point where he could travel alone on field trips, towing a caravan, with just a portable cassette tape recorder. “I made some really good friends. I visited Venancio Mbande, a Chopi from Mozambique, a number of times, and his large family all play xylophone (marimba). And I met musician and storyteller Gwanzura Gumboreshumba in Harare when I was in Wait a Minim [a popular musical revue show he co-wrote]. He played mbira and his daughter ended up studying here at Rhodes and became an ethnomusicologist.

Andrew’s learnt to play all the traditional musical instruments, but claims competency in only four. “The more instruments you learn, the easier it gets to learn more as they share principles,” he remarks modestly.

Sadly, many of the instruments in the Tracey collection are no longer played or made. This led Hugh Tracey to start African Music Instruments (AMI) to manufacture and promote the use of traditional instruments. Andrew moved the factory and ILAM to Grahamstown after Hugh’s death in 1977, as Rhodes University offered it a home.

MWhitehead_ILAM-17 Kalimbas

AMI is one of the very few companies to make these instruments worldwide using traditional materials, indigenous woods and African-production techniques. Today the staff of 18 people make marimbas, drums, kalimbas, pipes, kudu horns and bows in a large warehouse tucked away behind Grahamstown’s old train station.

Andrew introduces me to Christian Carver, director of the operation, and shows me their stash of old sneezewood fence poles, waiting to be turned into musical instruments. “Kiaat is the best wood, but most of it’s been wasted on furniture,” he says.

Christian points to boxes of kalimbas waiting to be shipped to Japan and the USA, piled next to where Mark Komsana is tuning the next batch of instruments with the help of an ultra-modern stroboscope. He’s part of the staff band, Ingangalala, which performs regularly on the instruments they make, at weddings and parties.

AMI promotes traditional music through its sponsorship of the Access Music Project, which takes music into under-resourced schools. As a result, AMI won the 2015 small business category of the Business and Arts South Africa awards that recognise excellence in sponsorship of the arts.

Andrew notes that one of his greatest lessons in life has come through playing traditional African music. “Co-operation is very tight in a group and you must pay attention to everyone, but you must play your own sounds all the time. This is the spirit of independence and co-operation you learn through African music. It says a lot about African psychology and its approach to life.”

He’s afraid this outlook is being lost in modern society. But Elijah, ILAM’s young sound engineer, offers hope for the future. “A society without music can’t achieve much,” he says simply.

And the Music Plays On Elizabeth Betts and Prof Diane Thram

In 1950, ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey was visiting Elizabeth Betts (pictured above with CD) in her village in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, and an eight-year-old Elizabeth and a group of friends sang a number of traditional songs for him. Tracey recorded 30 of these songs in one day but died in 1977, and Professor Diane Thram (above centre) presented to Elizabeth in 2015 a CD of the music she performed for Tracey 65 years before. All these years later, Elizabeth still knew all the words of each song. Indeed, when the CD was played it was the first time these villagers had heard a recording of themselves.

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