In the markets that are fast becoming a feature of urban SA’s weekend experience, there is usually a busker playing a hand-held musical instrument. It produces a sound that is quite charming. Some play it with one thumb; others use several fingers.
The African thumb piano is an indigenous musical instrument that has been played for thousands of years across sub-Saharan Africa. Today, it is popularly known as a mbira. It is essentially a sound box with metal tongs that are plucked.
This, and other instruments used in African traditional music, will form part of an important exhibition that will also include recordings of African folk songs that have existed for centuries.
Titled For Future Generations — Hugh Tracey and the International Library for African Music, the exhibition will showcase the International Library of African Music at Rhodes University.
It is the result of the efforts and dedication of one man who had the foresight and wisdom to document African traditional music instruments and record indigenous music across sub-Saharan Africa.
The late South African ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey was born to British parents in 1903. As a young man growing up in Rhodesia, he was charmed by songs sung by farm workers.
From 1929, he began making high-quality recordings and taking meticulous notes about the music and the instruments. This became his life-long calling and he produced the most extensive repository of African indigenous music and instruments globally.
In 1954, he founded the International Library of African Music. Tracey edited more than 200 commercial releases and preserved the musical legacies of many cultures that have since disappeared. Some of these recordings and instruments will constitute the exhibition.
Tracey had the foresight to record music that at the time was not taken seriously — especially by musicologists trained in western classical music traditions. Tragically, this omission still persists at South African tertiary institutions today — ironically when concepts such as decolonising the curriculum are buzzwords among students.
International Library of African Music director Lee Watkins says this oversight has to be corrected at tertiary institutions. "In SA, most musicologists still do not take traditional African music seriously.
"The bias is evident at most universities, where a curriculum based mostly on western art music persists," he says. "The anomaly speaks volumes about SA in general and its tertiary institutions, in particular."
Watkins says he prefers to describe Tracey’s work with indigenous sound and instruments as "conservation" rather than "preservation".
"Yes, the record preserves the sound, but as the sound travels around, it is disseminated and reused for educational purposes and by DJs as is the situation at present," he says.
"The sound enters a different realm where it is no longer preserved but conserved in its various mediations beyond the moment of being recorded.
"In the context of traditional music, conservation is important because it is part of who we are as human beings.
"When listening to most of the music recorded by Tracey, and others such as Klaus Wachsmann and John Blacking, one gains a sense of how much is contained in the music.
"In much of the Tracey collection, for instance, one will be exposed to extinct or disappearing languages, one will learn about social values, relations among people and, on occasion, the politics or the history of a community. The music is a platform for understanding the complexity of human relations and it is all there in the music, lending a study of the recordings to multidisciplinary interpretations and analyses."
There is also a large number of instruments collected mainly by Tracey on his travels around the continent. The most important family of instruments in this collection are the various types of mbiras. Many are extinct and no longer in use
Watkins says that although the exhibition is coming to Johannesburg for the first time, it has been travelling around SA since 2010. It has already been to 12 locations, including Klerksdorp, Mahikeng, Durban, Cape Town and Kimberley.
The collection, which is the property of Rhodes University, comprises recordings, photographs, documentaries and instruments. There are more than 3,000 Tracey recordings, with many only a few seconds long. The exhibition will also showcase recordings by Blacking, Dave Dargie and Tracey’s son Andrew, who lives in Grahamstown.
"The collection of recordings is growing. In December 2016, for example, the library received a substantial number of tapes and cassettes from the estate of Derek Worman. This collection is in the cold room and it will be digitised and catalogued once, and if, funding is obtained from somewhere," says Watkins.
"There is also a large number of instruments collected mainly by Tracey on his travels around the continent. The most important family of instruments in this collection are the various types of mbiras. Many are extinct and no longer in use.
"Visitors could take from the exhibition a sense of our musical past, a sense of how we are connected to the rest of Africa through music and a sense of relief in realising that all is not lost," he says.
Besides the controversy around the collection of artefacts from people without their consent or remuneration, the work undertaken by Tracey is astounding and exceptional.
"Hopefully, this exhibition will revive — or initiate — an interest in the value of African traditional music," says Watkins
The digitisation and cataloguing of donations requires millions of rand. Staffing is another challenge — the library has only three fulltime staff with a full workload.
"We require an archivist-cataloguer plus one or two more qualified ethnomusicologists to pursue our research agenda," he says. There are fewer than 10 ethnomusicologists in SA. The task is impossible, but we persevere.
"Other challenges include making sure the original collection remains in a pristine condition, to make sure that the collection and the archive are relevant to the needs of the community at home and abroad, and to raise funds in a context where there is little money for conservation and heritage concerns," he says.
The International Library of African Music intends to launch many projects that will make its collections more current and at the vanguard of archival and museum practices, but this is frustrated by the lack of funds.
"I spend an inordinate amount of time applying for funding, but this mostly leads to nothing. The university pays only our salaries and makes provision for certain research activities," Watkins says.
The museum is Rhodes University property but the collections belong to all South Africans, he says.
"The library is merely the custodian providing a service to which all members of the public are welcome.
"Unfortunately, there is very little interest in SA. Most of the researchers are from Europe, the US and other parts of Africa. In 2016, we had two Fulbright scholars from the US, and two doctoral students from the UK have also been conducting research with and on the collections," Watkins says
"South Africans generally seem to have a lack of interest in realising the value of our musical pasts and the situation is compounded by the fact that there remains a huge investment in western art music at universities, at the expense of African music studies or ethnomusicology," he says.
"We are trying to address this lack of interest through the teaching programmes we offer at the university and through this, the students will hopefully realise that being an ethnomusicologist is an exciting career full of adventure."
For Future Generations — Hugh Tracy and the International Library for African Music launches at Museum Africa on September 2.