I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of readers of Excavated Shellac were familiar with the incredible Kenyan recording of “Chemirocha,” which was captured by the South African ethnographer and recordist Hugh Tracey on his 1950 expedition across East Africa. If ever there was an early recording from Africa that could be described as infamous, “Chemirocha” is it. Decades ago, that recording was issued by Tracey on his long out-of-print Music of Africa LP collection (#2: Kenya), then later by John Storm Roberts on his groundbreaking and long out-of-print Nairobi Sound LP, and later, sounding clear as a bell, on the recent SWP Records CD Kenyan Songs and Strings.
“Chemirocha” is deservedly infamous because of it’s backstory. Tracey arrived in Kapkatet, Kenya, inland from the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, to record the music of the Kipsigis. The Kipsigis were then known (and it seems still are) as a pastoral people whose livelihood, on the whole, depended on cattle, tea, and millet. Their language, interestingly, is not a Bantu language, and is part of the Nilotic language group, centered around southern Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda (Luo is also a Nilotic language). Anyway, Tracey discovered on his apparently rainy visit that the Kipsigis had heard numerous recordings by American country music star Jimmie Rodgers – likely purchased and/or brought to Kenya by the British, as Jimmie Rodgers discs were reissued in Britain on the Zonophone label. The Kipsigis, after hearing Rodgers’ music, were, according to Tracey, fascinated by his voice, which they deemed magical, and created a legend around him, calling him Chemirocha: Chemi (Jimmie) Rocha (Rodgers). According to the Kipsigis, Chemirocha, because of his prowess as a singer and player, had to have been half-man, half-antelope. The younger Kipsigis invented songs about him. This well known and beautiful version of “Chemirocha” can be heard, introduced by Hugh Tracey himself, here.
However, that was not the only song about Chemirocha that Tracey recorded. In fact, he recorded THREE Chemirocha songs – and the famous one described above technically was known in Tracey’s archive as “Chemirocha III.” They are all slightly different. This version, far less known and sung by young men, is “Chemirocha II,” and is slower, and more methodical. Tracey wrote in his notes that the other two versions of Chemirocha tunes were in fact songs usually performed by women, but the young men clearly knew them well enough to perform them, despite the embarrassment of their sisters, who were reticent to perform themselves. They are accompanied, as usual, by the 6-string bowl lyre of the Kipsigis known as the chepkongo (also chepkong, chemonge, or sometimes bukandit). In fact, the lyrics to this track are about the chepkongo, and how Chemirocha’s guitar playing sounds so similar to their own instrument. The instrument is used for both entertainment and ceremonial purposes. According to one source, in 1952 chepkongo songs by the Kipsigis were banned by the colonial-era Nandi African District Council.
These songs have continued to marvel, probably due to the fact that the two main elements, the Kipsigis and the American country star, seem incongruous to most. Their music in theory appears incompatible. Yet, despite distance and difference of culture, and with help from the rampant dispersal of the gramophone record, one influenced the other. Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. Quite possibly, the devastating effects of colonialism played a part in bringing those Jimmie Rodgers records to Kenya. As Barry Mazor points out in his book “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers,” some patronizing hyperbole abounds in the writing on these recordings – one source I came across stated that the Kipsigis developed a “Jimmie Rodgers cult.” This appears to be, at best, an extreme exaggeration. Mazor, referencing Tracey’s notes, states that the name “Chemirocha,” from the Kipsigis standpoint, stood for anything new and different that came from outside of their country. Further, according to Tracey’s notes, the singers of “Chemirocha I” ask why their country has been taken over by white men. That, in itself, is a tip-off that we’re not talking about a Jimmie Rodgers personality cult. The Kipsigis were fascinated by the quality of Rodgers’ voice and playing – not his personality, his career as a country music star, or his lyrics, which they could not understand. At any rate, Hugh Tracey loved the region and was impressed by the Kipsigis, and for that we can be thankful.
I have noticed since returning home that whenever members of my party refer to our recording sessions with the Nandi or Kipsigis they do so with a smile of pleasure…I can think of no single area where greater pleasure for any research man is inherent in the countryside. In human talent it has a special contribution to make to African music. – Hugh Tracey, 1951*
It should be mentioned that many of Tracey’s recordings can be accessed, via cooperation from Tracey’s ILAM (International Library of African Music), on the South African Music Archive Project website. The samples are low-resolution, stereo, and often poorly transferred, with sometimes incomplete or incorrect metadata – but still, it’s a phenomenal wealth of important content for researchers that deserves far more than lip service on a blog.
I could find nothing about the duo of Joash Makaya and Joseph Sambili, members of the Luhya people of Western Kenya. Which one of them is providing the guitar, soda bottle, and vocals, is unknown – conceivably it could be just one of them. But Makaya was the writer of this piece, which was likely recorded in Nairobi in the summer of 1956. I discuss this a little in the notes to Opika Pende, but this entire series was funded by the African Mercantile Company (the “AMC” on the label), and organized by a British ex-patriot named Peter Colmore, a gregarious entrepreneur based in Nairobi. Every disc I’ve heard on this rare series has been terrific. Makaya and Sambili take a little while to get into a groove (indicating yet again that there was no time for second takes with most 78 recording), but then glide smoothly into beautiful singing and playing.
So…five years of Excavated Shellac. Admittedly, the last few have been erratic in terms of posting, I realize. And who celebrates the anniversary of a website, anyway? I had an entire screed written, filled with complaints, anecdotes, opinions on blogging, opinions on collecting, the meaning of why on Earth I continue to do this…but I erased it. Ultimately, the meaning of why I do this is tied to the experience of listening and meeting people for whom this music (as opposed to merely the records) generates a response. It is entirely personal. Through it, I’ve met some generous people, incredibly knowledgeable contributors, and have had the lucky chance to release work publicly. I’ll keep updating Excavated Shellac so long as it continues to modestly make attempts to bridge a gap between ad-free interactive scholarship and entertainment. While the transfers have, and the writing has, I believe, improved over the years, I’ve kept to the same format and design. It’s a less-is-more approach…although with Opika Pende and Strings the amount of music released under the Excavated Shellac rubric has approached the 11-CD boxed set range, so the “more” part of “less-is-more” might be winning that battle. While it’s pretty easy to figure out who I am, at least on this website I will only be ‘JW,’ your (vaguely) anonymous moderator. And my one plug will be that if you have enjoyed these 150+ tracks on this website and have appreciated the commentary, please support my analog releases. You will not be disappointed.
Issue Number: GB.1472
Matrix Number: XYZ.5530
Issue Number: AMC.29
Matrix Number: 0AM 69
*Tracey, Hugh. (1951). Recording Tour, May to November 1950 East Africa. Newsletter. African Music Society, 1(4), 38-51.
Oh…a few posts that I had taken down over the years have been brought back to life. Have at them, if you hadn’t downloaded them already…