June 14, 2010
“Thirty years ago I heard my first African song on a farm in Southern Rhodesia. I still know that song by heart, together with dozens of others I learnt from the farm labourers and musicians of the neighborhood. The vitality and genuineness of this Karanga folk music made a deep impression on me and it was not until many years later when I realised that little or nothing was being done to study and encourage the work of these simple musicians that I turned to the making of gramophone records as the best method of doing so.” – Hugh Tracey, July 1951.
The renowned recordist and ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey (1903-1977) spent decades capturing traditional music across Sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve written about Tracey in previous posts, and have avoided attempting to sum up his extensive and dedicated career in a few pat sentences – it’s really impossible to do. However, it’s certainly worth touching on a few points. First, Tracey separated himself from other ethnomusicologists of the day because he recorded both for commercial recording companies, and for his own organizations. Although actively recording across Africa beforehand, in 1946, Eric Gallo, the head of Gallotone Records of South Africa, gave Tracey the budget to travel far and wide across Central and Southern Africa, recording all manner of music. Tracey truly captured musicians and styles that most likely would never have been captured on shellac (or tape, which Tracey moved to, probably because of its portability). Over time, Tracey released hundreds of 78rpm recordings on Gallotone and on a subsidiary of Gallotone named Trek. These disc recordings were available commercially and marketed to educational institutions, “industrial and municipal organisations,” and adventurous listeners. The records would come with a set of library index cards with cross-reference information. Tracey called this service his African Music Transcription Library, which fell under his larger organization, African Music Research. (As I’ve mentioned previously, if you stumble across a Gallotone record and it says “African Music Research” on it, as this one does, you can be sure that this was recorded by Tracey himself, on one of his excursions.) However, Tracey made separate acetate recordings from these sessions, too. In 1954, Tracey began the International Library of African Music, and began releasing LPs of his recordings (he even had a cross-marketing deal with Folkways). Some of these ILAM recordings had already been released commercially, but they drew primarily from Tracey’s own acetates and tape recordings from those same sessions. Some 210 LPs of his recordings were released.
A second aspect of Tracey’s work that separates him from the crowd is that he recorded popular music as well as traditional. As far as I can tell, Tracey was quite skeptical about African music that had absorbed elements of western culture, particularly those elements that came from religion. In 1951, Tracey wrote, “Foreign intrusion into African arts would not matter if it did not break the continuity and so prefer imitation to originality.” At the International Folk Music Conference of 1958, held in Liège, Belgium, Tracey railed against missionaries, jazz, and other commercial music as examples of how traditional African music had been undermined throughout history. A Reverend from Uganda, in the conference audience, took issue with Tracey’s negative perceptions, and claimed that the relationship between Africans, religion, and invading forces, was more complex. Tracey replied that indeed, nothing in Africa was simple, and that in fact there were many missionaries on the board of the African Music Society, of which Tracey was the Honorary Secretary. Regardless, Tracey’s recordings of popular African bands of the day were exceptional. It would appear that despite his misgivings, his ear was still golden.
Today’s piece falls into the traditional category, and comes from February 10, 1952, when Tracey was recording in what was then the southern part of the Belgian Congo, recording examples of music by the Luba people, such as this artist, Kankolongo Alidor. The Luba are found primarily in the Southern Congo, and today there are over 7 million speakers of Luba languages. Many of the Luba men, at the time of this recording, were miners in Belgian and English copper mines. Historically, many Luba miners had been slaves, forced to work in the mines by the Belgians after a series of Luba uprisings in response to Belgian colonialism. I could find little information about Mr. Alidor, though Tracey recorded about a dozen tracks by him on that day. A few made it to his ILAM records, though only four songs made it to the Gallotone label.
My reasons for choosing this track have less to do with history, and more to do with the lovely instrumentation. This track features an instrument that is considered unique to Africa (though other similar examples have turned up in the world): the mbira, known colloquially in the west as the thumb-piano, and an instrument close to Hugh Tracey’s heart. If anyone knew how to record the mbira, it was Tracey, who always recorded hand-held, without a microphone stand. The quality of this recording is stunning. In terms of strict, technical classification, the mbira is in the idiophone family. Idiophones are instruments that create sounds from vibrations without the use of strings or membranes. Plucked idiophones are the branch of idiophones that have a tongue or tongues that vibrate when plucked. Lamellophones are the type of plucked idiophones which have a series of tongues or plates which are fixed in place at one end, and free on the other. Hence: the mbira. The mbira is found in a multitude of variations, in a multitude of local names, across the continent. Tracey calls Alidor’s mbira the chisanzhi mbira. In Tracey’s 1961 article for African Music, “A Case for the Mbira,” he lists no fewer than 8 variations of chisanzhi mbira. Two have 12 notes, three have 10 notes, one has 8, one has 11, and one has 18! Some are tuned in a hexatonic scale, some pentatonic, some heptatonic. Some have a box soundboard, some have a fan. My point is….I don’t know exactly which type of chisanzhi mbira Alidor is using, but Tracey would be able to identify it! As far as I’m concerned, it’s yet another example of Tracey’s impeccable taste.
Issue Number: GB.1593
Matrix Number: XYZ.7174T
For more recordings by Hugh Tracey (including more by Alidor), please see the Sharp Wood label, who reissued many classic Hugh Tracey recordings in a CD series. It appears that some of these are now out of print but still findable, so try and snag them if you can. The notes are terrific. John Storm Roberts, in many of his early LP and CD releases on Original Music, also licensed and released Hugh Tracey tracks.