Archive for the ‘Hugh Tracey’ Category

Remembering Hugh Tracey

April 7, 2015



In this podcast, Afropop producer Wills Glasspeigel heads to South Africa to reveal the story of the inimitable Hugh Tracey, a field recordist born at the turn of the 20th century in England. A wayward youth, Tracey found himself in Africa in the 1920s where he became fascinated with music from Zimbabwe.

Tracey became a pioneer field recordist, making over 250 LPs of traditional African music for the Gallo label in South Africa. Like John and Alan Lomax in the US, Tracey was instrumental in preserving hundreds of songs that have since gone extinct. Glasspiegel speaks with Dianne Thram, director of Tracey library in Grahamstown, South Africa; Tracey’s son Andrew, a musician and field recordist in his own right; Michael Baird, an expert on the Tracey catalog; and esteemed South African anthropologist David Coplan.

Excerpt from podcast of interview with Professor David Coplan:

“If not for Hugh Tracey, we wouldn’t have any of this music because you can’t go out in the countryside and hear it as you could then. Or, if you do, like with the bow playing lady who’s now become quite famous, it’s been this sort of world music movement that hit everybody and now there’s a great deal of consciousness now about what you’re doing when you’re playing your traditional music. And that there’s a whole – the sort of, I don’t want to call it the naturalness – but the un-self-consciousness about, “Well, here’s this guy with this microphone. We’re going to sing our music,” is no longer there.

Now it’s got to be a contract thing and there’s got to be agreements even to do that. So, it’s very important to have all this stuff and it will be there as one of the great resources and testimonies. Since we’ve thrown it all away, so to speak, it’s important to have it. People have been talking about African culture dying for years and Africans themselves talk all the time about how we are throwing away our culture. Well, they’ve been throwing it away for a hell of long time – I wonder when they’re going to run out because, as I often tell people, 100 years ago, black newspaper writers were writing exactly this. “We’re throwing away our culture.”

Listen to podcast here.

See also here and here.


“Historical Recordings by Hugh Tracey”

September 2, 2014



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.

Hugh Tracey

August 17, 2014


edited from

When a young Englishman arrived in what was then Rhodesia in 1921 to run a tobacco farm, his workers expected him to be just like the other colonial overlords they’d known. He would be their master; they would be his servants. They would obey his every command, and they would speak to him only when he spoke to them.

After all, he was white and they were black. They were dependent on him for their daily bread. Rhodesia was ruled by the British, and the country’s black people had no rights whatsoever.

But, from their first interaction with him, Hugh Tracey’s laborers saw that he was different. Besides immediately learning the Karanga dialect of their Shona language and sweating with them at work in the fields, the farmer constantly asked them about their culture…and especially their music. Tracey learned Shona folksongs and sang along with his workers as they toiled together among the tobacco crops.

Hugh Tracey went on to become the most important field recorder of African music in history.

Three big trucks – packed with metal lathes, reel-to-reel recorders, heaps of pancake-shaped tapes, hundreds of yards of electric cables and assorted microphones, military tents, tarpaulins and tinned food, a half-ton diesel generator, hundreds of gallons of fuel and five people.

Those were just some of Hugh Tracey’s requirements when he undertook what modern day musicologists consider to be one of the greatest musical journeys ever.

“My father started recording in the late 1920s and 1930s using a lathe on acetate discs in the field, but most of his recordings were done in the 1940s on a quarter-inch, open reel tape. The machines in those days, until the 1960s, used to need (a power supply of) 220 volts, hence the need for that massive generator,” Andrew Tracey explained.

From the 1920s until his death in 1977, Hugh Tracey, an Englishman based in South Africa, lugged his equipment throughout sub-Saharan Africa with one mission – to record as much of the indigenous African music he loved as possible

“He had a vision,” said Andrew Tracey. “And that was to preserve this music for future generations.”

Today, a single person with a palm-sized, battery-driven digital machine with a built-in high quality microphone is able to make broadcast-quality music recordings. In Hugh Tracey’s time, it was very different. “His recording technique was to hold a microphone in one hand, and a stopwatch in the other, to time recordings. The microphone was on a short boom, and he’d move around following the sounds of the musicians,” said Andrew. “It was a physically taxing effort.”

Hugh Tracey’s microphone was linked with a long cable to a large lathe, and later to a reel-to-reel tape recorder, operated by an engineer who would control the sound levels and ensure that the tape ran smoothly.

“Recording had to happen as far away as possible from the noise made by the generator, so my father needed really long cables,” said Andrew.

After his field trips, Hugh Tracey made meticulous notes about each piece of music he’d recorded – on the people making the music, the instruments they used, the recording venue and so on.

He stored his notes and masses of tapes at the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in South Africa, which he established in 1954. Library staff recently digitized Hugh Tracey’s recordings, using the latest technology to improve the original sound as much as possible, and stored it on computer.

Check here for CDs of Tracey’s collection.

“Origins of Guitar Music”

April 24, 2013




Hugh Tracey issued a staggering total 210 recordings in his career so what we know as the received canon is not even the tip of the iceberg. A tobacco farmer in the thirties, Tracey learned work songs alongside his field-hands and was surprised no one else was remotely interested in the music.

A true African explorer, Tracey was the first to devote his life to finding and recording the music, and set off with two sound trucks and a crew of four to operate the recording equipment on his musical safaris from the Cape as far as the border of Sudan in the north. In those days, like today, the roads were non-existent in many places.

He needed 240 volts of power to run the recording machines, so his noisy generator truck had to be parked behind a hut or anthill, and he also had to deal with crowds that would show up to watch him record. He didn’t use mike stands but personally held the microphone rather than leave it to the inexperienced performers to play to the mike.

Four of the songs here were on AFRICAN ACOUSTIC … FROM THE COPPERBELT (the LP) issued by John Storm Roberts, a couple of tracks are on the GUITARS OF AFRICA put out by Kaleidophone in 1972, and a couple more are on the classic 1954 MUSIC OF AFRICA 5: “The Guitars of Africa,” which includes the “Classical Gas” of Africa (“Masanga” by Mwenda Jean Bosco) as well as the “Stairway to Heaven” of African guitar (Bosco’s “Mama na mwana”).

The latter is included on this new compilation; we’ll have to wait for a further issue to collect the other tunes. Six of the songs here have never been released before, so clearly there is a wealth of material in the archives. In addition there are the scholarly notes on each track by Tracey. (On the original albums he would tell you what the song was about and add other comments in his charming British accent. The only remnant of that here is his counting in one intro.)

Many of the original tapes were destroyed in a fire in the late fifties. This is a tragedy, but may have prompted Tracey on a further visit to the same regions to rerecord the musicians he could find. But the music was evolving rapidly as people moved to urban centers, particularly to find work in the copper mines, and became exposed to Western music through the radio.

Tracey points out echoes of Glenn Miller and Chet Atkins in some of the songs. The area covered by these recordings received British rather than French-run radio and, though the Congo was Belgian-controlled at the time, there’s a very different feeling in the music from the rumba sound that was emerging in Kinshasa concurrently.

Two other perennial favorites from the Tracey archives are here: “Elube,” by De Ndirande Pitch Crooners of Malawi and “Gwabi Gwabi” by Zimbabwean George Sibanda.

The recordings have been digitally restored. You can hear the simple percussion clearly (knife on Fanta bottle, or scraper), backing the vocals. This is one of the cornerstones of African popular music. There are 21 volumes in the series.

“Chemirocha (Jimmie Rodgers)”

April 13, 2012

Jonathan Ward of Excavated Shellac gives the background of the 1950 Kenyan recording of “Chemirocha” by a tribe that, after hearing Jimmie Rodgers’ music, were fascinated by his voice and created a legend around him, calling him Chemirocha: Chemi (Jimmie) Rocha (Rodgers).

I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of readers  were familiar with the incredible Kenyan recording of “Chemirocha,” which was captured by the South African ethnographer and recordist Hugh Tracey on his 1950 expedition across East Africa. If ever there was an early recording from Africa that could be described as infamous, “Chemirocha” is it. Decades ago, that recording was issued by Tracey on his long out-of-print Music of Africa LP collection (#2: Kenya), then later by John Storm Roberts on his groundbreaking and long out-of-print Nairobi Sound LP, and later, sounding clear as a bell, on the recent Sharp Wood CD Kenyan Songs and Strings.

“Chemirocha” is deservedly infamous because of it’s backstory. Tracey arrived in Kapkatet, Kenya, inland from the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, to record the music of the Kipsigis. The Kipsigis were then known (and it seems still are) as a pastoral people whose livelihood, on the whole, depended on cattle, tea, and millet. Their language, interestingly, is not a Bantu language, and is part of the Nilotic language group, centered around southern Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda (Luo is also a Nilotic language). Anyway, Tracey discovered on his apparently rainy visit that the Kipsigis had heard numerous recordings by American country music star Jimmie Rodgers – likely purchased and/or brought to Kenya by the British, as Jimmie Rodgers discs were reissued in Britain on the Zonophone label. The Kipsigis, after hearing Rodgers’ music, were fascinated by his voice, which they deemed magical, and created a legend around him, calling him Chemirocha: Chemi (Jimmie) Rocha (Rodgers). According to the Kipsigis, Chemirocha, because of his prowess as a singer and player, had to have been half-man, half-antelope. The younger Kipsigis invented songs about him. This well known and beautiful version of “Chemirocha” can be heard, introduced by Hugh Tracey himself, here.

Read entire article here.

Jimmie Rodgers