Sound Archives, Afropolitan Explosiv

Africa: Why Sound Matters?

In many African societies without written records, sound, whether through oral poetry, storytelling and music performance are ways in which we store the past—they are ways in which we remember.

There are forever infrastructures to build, houses to clean, power grids to be put in place; but man does not live on this alone. We are also given the task of discovering who we are. My journey of self-discovery really began when I listened to the sound recordings of Princess Magogo. I sang her songs with her, we danced together. Though she’d been dead for more than 20 years, she became my friend, my mother pouring her wisdom into me through her deep tones. Magogo revealed to me hidden worlds, with wider contours of time. She taught me how to be alone and comfortable. It is this singing of aloness, without audience nor applause, that I discerned in her voice.

contemporary example

Sound had a way of pulling me inwardly, into another dimension of existence, a realm I could not possibly access through written accounts of the past.

Sound therefore matters in figuring self-knowledge. How could the future look like, where sound has as much legitimacy as written-sources of knowledge, in the way institutions remember? Each operates differently in triggering the senses. But sound is supreme in the African imagination of the past. Can you imagine life without Enoch Sontonga’s Nkosi Sikelela, sung in Zambia, South Africa and numerous other countries as the national anthem?

Sound archives then may offer new possibilities for increasing credibility of formerly marginalized voices, by toppling the hierarchy of the written word.

History of Recording & Preserving Sound

Foremost among those who led the race for preserving and studying African music was Devonshire-born, Hugh Tracey. Tracey began taking an interest in African music in 1921, during his early days in Zimbabwe, where he had come to farm tobacco with his brother.

Living with the Karanga people in Zimbabwe, Tracey witnessed the centrality of music in the lives of the people. This was despite the dismissive attitude of the colonial settler community in the area. He relates his experience as follows:

“The history of this collection of authentic African music, songs, legends and stories is in many ways a personal one. It dates back to the early 1920s when I first sang and wrote down the words of African songs I heard in the tobacco fields of Southern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe]. Several years later (1929) I made a number of discs with a visiting recording company (Columbia, London) when I took fourteen young Karanga men with me to record in Johannesburg, five hundred miles south. These were the first items of indigenous Rhodesian music to be recorded and published. Shortly afterwards several of these items were used by John Hammond of CBS, at Carnegie Hall in New York as preliminary music to his program on the historic occasion when he presented on the stage, for the first time in that city, the music and the personnel of a number of southern Negro bands.”[1]


From Tracey’s recollection, it becomes clear that the collection and archiving of music in Africa was not only an academic exercise, but a deeply personal one. It was also strongly linked with commercial interests of recording companies, who understood the value of intellectual property.

From the beginnings of the enterprise in the 1890s, recording was understood as a global phenomenon. But between the First and Second World Wars, the United Kingdom really became the major centre for recording and manufacture of gramophone records, as it captured sounds from all over the British Empire. In 1912, recordings of Swazi chiefs who visited London in the early 1900s were distributed and sold internationally. In addition, recording technicians were sent on expeditions to capture coloured Afrikaans musics and indigenous musics that were advertised and sold as ‘Native Records’ to global audiences.[2]

As recordings began to reach wide audiences, scholars like Austrian Erich Hornbostel (who had never been to Africa) began to use these recordings to construct a theory about African and oriental music. He created a system of classifying musical instruments based on the sounds each instrument produced. Following Hornbostel’s investigation, academic collections of music began to appear. The Lautarchiv in Berlin (some of whose sounds were recorded from African prisoners of war in German concentration camps during the First World War) and the Kirby Collection (now housed at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music and some parts at Museum Africa, in Johannesburg) are but some notable examples.

Archiving of African music increasingly took on a scientific approach, but these were inspired by commercial interests as companies like the British Gramophone Company and later African-based companies like Gallo Music were formed. They began by recording music performed by miners from all over Southern Africa (including Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, to mention a few) who would congregate at the Witwatersrand gold mines in the 1920s, 1930s.[3] Gallo eventually employed Hugh Tracey for this role, who became the leader of African music archiving. Many of his efforts are represented in the International Library of African Music (housed at Rhodes University, South Africa).

These companies benefited immensely from profit streams emerging out of archival recordings of music. Sometimes, in the process, they exploited the musicians. The most well known example of this is Solomon Linda’s Mbube song, recorded by Gallo in 1939. It became so popular that by the end of the 1940s it had sold over 100 000 records, of which Linda received a mere 10 shillings. Mbube was then re-recorded by a U. S.  singing group called The Weavers, who changed the title to Wimoweh, which became a Top 20 hit in America. The track was also used in Walt Disney’s The Lion King movie, under the title The Lion Sleeps Tonight. This was all to the enrichment of the recording company, as Linda died a poor man in 1962.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), established in 1920s, had various satellite broadcasting stations on the continent. As early as 1928, the BBC began recording local musics in its station in Kenya. The station was integrated into the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation after independence.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) which was formed in 1936, recorded songs and kept an archive. However, most of the sounds relating to black people were poorly regarded, and many were lost when the SABC relocated to their new head offices in Auckland Park (Johannesburg) in the 1980s. This was in line with the secrecy of the apartheid state and its unwillingness to cherish African cultures.[4]

Why should we archive Sound?

Historically, the prevailing discourse on the importance of archiving music in Africa was about vanishing cultures. They believed African music would become “contaminated” with Western influences, due to modern lifestyles.[5]

This was clearly a paternalist view, that strove to erase global trends of multi-culturalism. It cannot be our motive for archiving music today, because we can now agree that we are at once African, but also citizens of a global humanity. Two musicians singing on the streets of Lagos, may decide to record a track and post it on Facebook. Immediately the circulation of that music and its ability to cross-influence gets a global audience.

What an opportunity this brings, for tracking those transnational movements of music, in our journey of self-discovery! Any archival attempt today, would have to take seriously the advent of digital technologies and the possibilities they provide for creating and preserving music, and for re-visiting older archival practices. Already such trends are evident in the example of the Somali expatriate community in London.

The Somali community in the King’s Cross of area of London are neighbours with the British Library, where many archival recordings of Somalian music are kept. Their close proximity has created the opportunity for the exchange of ideas and information about the British Library’s historical records, as well as the creation of new digital recordings of Somalian music of today. This has enabled Somalians to respond to the information constructed about themselves by the official institutions.[6]
Similarly, on the African continent, calls have been made for the repatriation of sound archives stored abroad. This is the case in Uganda, where people asked for the return of recordings of music made by Klaus Wachsmann in the 1940s and 1950s, stored in London.[7] Therefore, the range of motives for archiving have widened from just ‘preserving of vanishing cultures’ to issues of social justice and in the case of Ethiopian Harari music collections, communal approaches have been explored.

Observers have noted how integrating local role-players in collecting music and manuscripts of Ethiopian ritual songs can lead to more sustainable management of archives and increase accessibility in order to engage audiences.[8]

Future Possibilities

If we assume it is important to archive music, then the challenge remains how to increase access to technology in Africa—governments and institutions must invest in infrastructure and skills necessary to maintain delicate collections.

In October 2003, the General Conference of UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). “It emerged out of UNESCO’s quest to promote the functions and values of cultural expressions and practices, and of monuments and sites. By signing the Convention, states commit to ensuring the safeguarding of ICH within their territories, as well as to identify and define this living heritage through the participation of communities, groups and relevant non-state organizations.”[9]

African states need motivation to adhere to international standards for protecting and promoting musical cultural heritage. The recent report released by the Archival Platform, on the State of the Archives: An analysis of South Africa’s National Archival System is an excellent example of this civic motivation. It can be used elsewhere on the continent as a best-practice model.

Lastly, private recording companies have benefited tremendously from recordings of local music, as illustrated in the case of Solomon Linda. They too, must be challenged to fund archiving initiatives, as a way of restoring dignity to those communities whose folk songs they commercialized.

My encounter with Princess Magogo in the archives made me who I am today. It was not simply performance. It was like God speaking directly to me. It did not prompt any outward reaction. Rather, it pulled me inwardly to contemplate the domain of my own imperfection. Imperfection not in the sense of impairment, but the sense of connection to another world, the world of ancestors and the still-to-be-born. The sense of ones place in time, not as yet arrived, but riding in infinite circles of closed and open time.

Agogic, a term used in European classical music, describes a technique of ‘stealing time.’ Whereby, as one is performing music from a score, with its measured bars and beats, becomes driven by a different imperative, a consciousness of a time that moves in-spite of the rigid straight lines on the score. Magogo, in her archival songs, lives in that realm of simultaneity. Perhaps this is why attempts to transcribe her work into the score format have been so unsuccessful. She stands in defiance of the written form, calling us back to the sound source.

Any African archival and records management service that seeks to position itself at the global cutting-edge, must give sound the serious attention it deserves.§

By Thokozani Mhlambi, editor

[1] International Library of African Music, Archives.

[2] Cowley, John (1994). “Recordings in London of African and West Indian Music in the 1920s and 1930s,” Musical Traditions. 12, 13-26.

[3] See Allen, Lara (2007). “Preserving a Nation’s Heritage: The Gallo Music Archive and South African Popular Music,” Fontes Artis Musicae. 54/3, 263-279.

[4] Mhlambi, Thokozani (2009). The Early Years of Black Radio Broadcasting in South Africa: A Critical Reflection on the making of Ukhozi FM. Mphil thesis, University of Cape Town;  Erlmann, Veit (1991). African stars: Studies in black South African performance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[5] Tracey, Hugh (1954). “The State of Folk Music in Bantu Africa,” International Folk Music Journal, 6, 32-36. For an analysis of this see Mhlambi, Thokozani Ndumiso (2008). The Early Years of Black Radio Broadcasting in South Africa: A Critical Reflection on the Making of Ukhozi FM. Mphil. thesis, University of Cape Town;

[6] Brinkhurst, Emma (2012). “Archives and Access: Reaching Out to the Somali Community of London’s King’s Cross,” Ethnomusicology Forum, 21/2, 243-258.

[7] Nannyonga-Tamasuza, Sylvia et al (2012). “The Audible Future: Reimagining the Role of Sound Archives and Sound Repatriation in Uganda,” Ethnomusicology, 56/2, 206-233.

[8] Tarsitani, Belle Asante & Tarsitani, Simone (2010). “Integrating Local Knowledge in Ethiopian Archives: Music and Manuscripts in the Collection of Abdulahi Ali Sherif,” African Study Monographs, 41, 5-18.

[9] Mhlambi, Thokozani (2009). Report on The Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Southern Africa Meeting in Windhoek, 17th -18th November 2009, for the Archival Platform.