Ethnographic recordings have not been a hip commodity for most of the genre’s history, having traditionally been tended by horn-rimmed, tweed-clad academics ensconced in the ivory towers of universities. Historically, “ethno” recordings were meant as tools for future generations of ethnomusicologists (who would in turn bury their own recorded sounds deep within the caverns of university archives, to be assessed solely in terms of esoteric analytical knowledge).
There have always been exceptions to this rule. Paul Bowles, Brion Gysin, Jean Rouch, Charles Duvelle and Samuel Charters are just a few examples of the many people who brought a more bohemian approach to the science and proved that you could find catharsis in a more subjective and immersive recording process.
Hugh Tracey (1903-1977) was definitely not a hip dude. He was very much a man of his time: an English gentleman who seems today like an antiquated, pith-helmeted relic of the colonial age. As a pioneer ethnomusicologist, however, Tracey can be compared favorably to his contemporaries John and Alan Lomax, who worked in the USA from the early 1930s on. Tracey recorded and produced more than 210 records over the course of his life, most notably for his own ILAM (International Library of African Music) label. Other labels — such as Decca, Gallo, Kaleidophone, London, and John Storm Roberts’ Original Music — made some of his more popular material available to the record-buying masses between the 1950s and the 1980s.
In effect, Tracy mapped the collective memory of the southern half of Africa for more than 50 years. And yet, he remains criminally unknown even among devotees of ethno albums; the majority of his recordings have been languishing unheard in university collections for decades.
“As a pioneer ethnomusicologist, however, Tracey can be compared favorably to his contemporaries John and Alan Lomax.”
As a young man in the early 1920s, Tracey left his native Devonshire for southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to become a tobacco farmer with his brother, who qualified for a land grant as a serviceman wounded in WWI. While working on this farm alongside Karanga fieldhands, he learned the Shona language and was exposed to Karanga work songs; this sparked his lifelong obsession with traditional African music.
To understand Tracey’s dedication, you have to understand the racial climate of his time. As a young, ambitious Englishman looking for adventure on the Dark Continent, he was a compulsory member of South Africa’s white colonial culture during a gilded age of inequality. But he was also utterly transfixed by indigenous culture; this put him at odds with formidable controlling institutions like Rhodesia’s white government and virulent Christian missionaries, for whom African culture was something that needed to be purged of its “primitive” and pagan elements — or better yet, stamped out altogether.
Thankfully, Tracey rejected that attitude and made it his life’s work to document local musical styles. He made his first recordings in 1929, when he brought 14 Shona Karanga men to record in Johannesburg, South Africa, with a crew of visiting representatives from Columbia Records, London. These recordings were among the first regional African tribal recordings ever made; back in London, they blew the minds of some of the most respected composers in the Royal Academy of Music. (Ralph Vaughn Williams and Gustav Holst told Tracey to drop the academic pretensions and just “discover and record, discover and record!”) He also managed to broadcast his discs on the BBC, exposing traditional African music to a global audience for the first time.
“These recordings were among the first regional African tribal recordings ever made.”
Tracey recounts the initial difficulty of trying to establish his vision:
“At that time the public showed little interest in African music and did not understand why I constantly stressed the social and artistic value of the music for future generations of Africans. In addition, recordings of tribal music, however good, were not considered to have commercial value, as they would appeal only to a limited audience which was familiar with the dialect in question, few, if any, of whom would have the necessary apparatus on which to play them.”
Nevertheless, over the next five decades, Tracey traveled throughout the southern, central and eastern regions of the continent, documenting tribal, rural and urban music with a diligence and sensitivity that allowed him to get impeccable recordings under a wide variety of conditions.
Tracey’s early recordings were made with a clockwork machine that ploughed a groove into an aluminium disc, much like the father-and-son Lomax team was using in the USA. Later, he had a truck with its own generator built specifically for recording sessions; 100 yards of cable separated the truck from the recording site to reduce noise.
“At that time the public showed little interest in African music and did not understand why I constantly stressed the social and artistic value of the music for future generations of Africans.”
Although an amateur, Tracey was an incredible field recordist. He had the right instincts about sound and made good use of state-of-the-art microphones; his favorite rig was a Nagra tape machine with a single Neumann microphone attached to a short handheld boom, which allowed him to move around the performers and capture the natural ambiance with amazing clarity.
The quality of his recordings is all the more valuable given that some of these performing styles and instruments no longer exist. For example, the Ganda, Nyoro and Ankole palaces in what is now Uganda were seized and burned in 1966; the court musicians were dispersed or killed, and the royal instruments were destroyed! The centuries-old court music was never played again. Fortunately, Hugh Tracey was there in 1950-52 to document it for us.
Tracey’s astounding legacy is now being preserved by Sharp Wood Productions, a label founded by Michael Baird, which has issued an essential 22-volume series of CDs and LPs. Even for the relatively small number of listeners who are already familiar with Tracey’s work, these recordings will be a revelation. Coming directly from Tracey’s archives rather than from previously issued LPs, many of these tracks have never been available in any format, and others are appearing in their unedited form for the first time ever.
A great place to start is with SWP034, The Very Best of Hugh Tracey, which includes one track from each disc in the series, along with six previously unreleased bonus tracks from a session by Jean Bosco Mwenda, arguably the godfather of African guitar.
“The Ganda, Nyoro and Ankole palaces in what is now Uganda were seized and burned in 1966; the court musicians were dispersed or killed, and the royal instruments were destroyed!”
SWP030, Kenyan Songs and Strings, is also a solid compilation, featuring one of Tracey’s better-known recordings: Chemutoi Ketienya & Girls doing the timeless track “Chemirocha.” It’s a stunning example of how Kenyan roots music was able to absorb and transform outside influences — in this case, the country stylings of Jimmie Rodgers (or “Chemi-Rocha,” in the local pronunciation) — using the traditional lyre instead of a guitar. The two girls whisper their vocals nervously; it’s the first time they’ve ever been recorded, and the results are as pure as their haunted interpretation.
SWP015, Origins of Guitar Music: Southern Congo and Northern Zambia 1950, ’51, ’57, ’58, is a fantastic collection detailing the raw beginnings of guitar music in Southern Africa. Along with the aforementioned Jean Bosco Mwenda, this disc features George Sibanda, Ilunga Patrice, Misomba Victor, and many others. Origins of Guitar Music can almost be described as proto-Zamrock; here, you can hear the birth cries of the classic fuzz sound we’ve come to love from artists of the 1970s Zambian scene, such as Witch, Chrissy Zebby Tembo, and The Peace.
Colonial Dance Bands (SWP031) features extraordinary 1952 recordings of the Jauharah Orchestra, led by Shariff Twahir Ahmed, playing Swahili rumbas in Mombasa, Kenya. It’s sublime music that defines the horn of Africa with its musical congress of Indian film music, Arabic modes, Caribbean flourishes and African musical forms.
“If you can briefly tear yourself away from all those $30 vinyl reissues of 'yacht rock' classics and 1980s new-age synth LPs, you’ll find that Tracey’s peerless recordings are the Rosetta Stone for decoding countless musical languages of the 20th century and beyond.”
The rest of this series is an embarrassment of riches, revealing the unsurpassable breadth and depth of music in this corner of the world.
I know some of you abhor the CD medium, but if you can briefly tear yourself away from all those $30 vinyl reissues of "yacht rock" classics and 1980s new-age synth LPs, you’ll find that Tracey’s peerless recordings are the Rosetta Stone for decoding countless musical languages of the 20th century and beyond.