Treasure trove of African music gets digital treatment

More than 80 years ago Hugh Tracey made his first recordings of African music and earned himself a reputation as a madman who sallied into the bush with people playing drums.

That was in 1929, today his unique archives have been digitalised and used as teaching aids in two new school textbooks, realising his life dream of preventing the music from dying out.

The International Library of African Music (ILAM) is made of up recordings on 78 rpm discs and magnetic tape. Its contents amount to a running time of six months, gathered from what is now Zimbabwe throughout southern and eastern Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Tracey collection is housed at the Rhodes University campus at Grahamstown in South Africa and is the most important archive of its sort in Africa.

The thousands of hours of music include village ensembles, royal court music, drumming, voices of great beauty; all saved from almost certain disappearance during expeditions carried out until the 1960s in scarcely imaginable circumstances.

“There was dust, there were mosquitoes that would go under the tape,” recalled Tracey’s son Andrew, who has continued his father’s pioneering work by preserving and transcribing the collection.

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