November 2, 2009
There’s much to discuss with this very interesting record, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from its simply stated printed information. Neither the language, culture, or country is listed, unlike most Sub-Saharan African 78s. Usually, at the very least, a culture is printed on the record label, but we are left with only a few visual clues. Before looking at those, however, we can listen.
What immediately sets this piece of music apart from other Sub-Saharan styles is the ethereal sound of the European autoharp. The simple, plucked melody accompanies an otherwise completely traditional band with percussion and vocals. This particular style of music comes from the Pedi people of Northern Transvaal, specifically the present-day Limpopo province. The Pedi people are thought to have migrated to Southern Africa from Central Africa about 500 years ago. They established a territory known as Bopedi (“the place of the Pedi”), and resisted colonial Afrikaners numerous times throughout the 19th century, until 1879, when they were defeated by the British. In the 19th century, proselytizing Lutheran ministers introduced the Pedi to the German zither or autoharp. By the 1920s, the instrument had become fully assimilated by the Pedi into their culture and music, and was known as the harepa. They used the autoharp to replace their own plucked mbira (known as the dipela), and adapted the instrument to their own 5-note scale – there was no European embellishment whatsoever. Though, interestingly, the Pedi apparently preferred to have their autoharps tuned by Europeans. According to Deborah James in her book Songs of the Women Migrants, mission elites felt that the use of the autoharp in the Pedi’s traditional music was completely distasteful, most likely because the instrument completely reinvigorated the Pedi’s traditional repertoire.
Since the label states “African Music Research,” we know without doubt that this is a Hugh Tracey recording, and this is a good thing. There’s little that can be said about Tracey (1903-1977) that hasn’t been said numerous times by people far more close to his work than I. The fact remains that Tracey’s recorded legacy of Sub-Saharan music is unparalleled. He had the foresight to travel across the continent not just recording the music of rural cultures, but dance bands, guitarists, and urban pop. He recorded for Gallotone records, the first Sub-Saharan independent label. He recorded for Trek, a separate 78 label. Some of his recorded music came out on Columbia and other labels, as well. And of course, he built the ILAM (International Library of African Music) from the ground up, releasing 210 LPs over approximately 30 years. Today, a vast swath of Tracey recordings, lovingly presented, are available on the Sharp Wood label.
This recording, according to the ILAM, was made in 1948. However, the South African Music Archive states it’s from 1945. Tyson’s Autoharp Band were recorded throughout the late 1940s, cutting 11 tracks. The leader, Tyson, also recorded 7 tracks with a women’s choir, under the name “Tyson and company.”
Issue Number: DC. 292
Matrix Number: ABC.3693