Hugh Tracey’s African recordings now on display

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Hugh Tracey came to southern Africa in the 1920s to become a tobacco farmer but ended up compiling the largest known archive of traditional African music, recording performers from Congo to Zimbabwe over nearly five decades.

Now hundreds of CDs featuring Tracey’s recordings are on exhibition in South Africa along with traditional instruments he collected from across the continent, from Malawian gourd resonators to ingalaba drums played in Uganda.

The Hugh Tracey archives are a valuable resource that could contribute to dignity and restoration of African culture, said Luvuyo Dontsa, an arts and culture professor at Walter Sisulu University in South Africa.

“White colonialists saw our music as being heathen and they tried to kill it because they did not understand our culture. The recordings of Hugh Tracey are a valuable resource that could explain the missing parts of our culture,” says Dontsa.

The exhibition organized by the International Library of African Music based at Rhodes University features musical performances recorded between 1928 and the 1970s and will run until next January. It includes lullabies, funeral songs, battle cries and melodies women sang while grinding maize.

There are also 20 instruments on display at the Origins Center at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Tracey collected more than 300 instruments during his visits to 19 sub-Saharan African countries.

Decked in a safari suit and broad-brimmed hat, he would gather villagers to sing and dance and record them on a diesel-fueled recorder so large that it had to be carried by four people. He never sold his recordings for profit.

Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Uganda dominate the assembly of the early African cultural instruments at the show in Johannesburg. South African instruments also feature, including the uhadi, a gourd bow made famous by the late Xhosa traditional music matriarch Nofinish Dywili.

Several of the instruments suggest a common ancestor among groups from disparate corners of the continent.

The hand-held mbira, for example, is played by the Budya in Zimbabwe, the Linkembe in Congo and the Vendas in South Africa. Across Africa there are more than 200 known varieties of the instruments, says Tracey’s son, Andrew Tracey.

A Ugandan wooden ingwara covered in animal skin is believed to be a precursor to the South African vuvuzela, the plastic trumpet that became known worldwide during the 2010 soccer World Cup for its droning buzz.

Tracey also visited South Africa’s mines to record dancing mineworkers and their multicultural songs.

His archives preserve music that has largely disappeared from the continent because of colonialism and the influence of Western music. Many Xhosa traditional songs in South Africa were banned by missionaries because they sang about ancestors, which was considered pagan or wrong by white Christians.

Hugh Tracey, who died in 1977 at his farm in western Johannesburg, had been devastated to see how traditional music, dance and instruments were vanishing, Andrew Tracey said, adding that future generations can learn about Africa’s musical heritage through his father’s efforts and displays like the current one.

“We want these archives to be better known, especially by schoolchildren, because one of our projects is to create teaching material for schools,” he said.


Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.