The Sharp Wood series of reissue CDs titled “Historical Recordings by Hugh Tracey” ended last year with vols. 20 and 21, but there’s lots to be explored and I am constantly on the lookout to complete my set. It’s a modest enough shelf but already expanded considerably over the 10-inch LPs that were issued in the fifties (with Tracey’s inimitable spoken introductions), including many previously unreleased gems of roots music as well as the unexpected pleasure of the modern dance band sets that wind up the list.
Sharp Wood has put out a new sampler that grazes the surface and gives one track from each album. This is welcome enough, even if you have most of the CDs, because it is well programmed, but here’s the kicker: there are SIX bonus tracks of previously unreleased recordings from the famous 1952 Tracey encounter with Jean Bosco Mwenda.
This is the cornerstone of modern African guitar music and anyone with any interest in soukous, benga, mbaqanga, makossa, or any of the other Central African pop sounds, needs to get hold of this crucial set to hear how a genius guitarist took the likembe style of interwoven arpeggios and turned it into sublime guitar patterns.
You will hear an eerie Zulu reedpipe orchestra that is followed by the punk rock thrum of the nguni, also from South Africa, timbila xylophones, thumb pianos, and another of Tracey’s notable guitar discoveries, George Sibanda, giving us his classic “Guabi guabi.” I find myself singing along to “easy weechy lay banana…”
And then the big bomber: the song I consider Tracey’s single most outstanding recording, “Chemirocha,” a paean to Jimmie Rodgers (yes, the country singer) by some Kenyan girls. The song is haunting but made more so by Tracey’s introduction on the LP record (not included on the CD): “The mysterious singer and dancer Chemirocha has been turned into a local god Pan — a faun — half man, half antelope. He is urged by the girls to do the leaping dance, familiar to all Kipsigis, so energetically that he will jump clear out of his clothes… Who could resist such an offer?” Tracey concludes. The charm of the spoken introductions is they make each record like a radio show with real educational value.
Hugh Tracey (1903-77) was an English farmer in South Africa who couldn’t understand why no one was interested in native music or traditions and set out to document it. His archive constitutes the collective musical memory of half the continent. He had great taste and superb skill with the simple recording equipment he used.
The Bosco material is particularly important because two songs, “Masanga” and “Mama na mwana,” were included on the breakthrough GUITARS OF AFRICA record (Decca LF1170 1952) and one of them, “Masanga,” was picked to lead off the African Music Society’s LP BEST MUSIC FOR 1952. Consequently Pete Seeger and other American folkies learned to play it and the finger-picking style of Bosco became a test of musical prowess for young guitarists.