Sound and Vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

24 June 2020

Working from home

For those of us who usually travel to work every day, working from home takes some getting used to. Fortunately we’ve been able to consult our collections for some advice. The British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue lists 56 oral history recordings, across 19 different collections, that mention ‘working from home’. In interviews recorded for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science, three interviewees describe their approach to being productive, creative, and professional in a domestic environment.

Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley

Portrait of Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley
Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley as the first ever national Ambassador for Philanthropy, 2009. Photo credit: Unlimited Photography

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley set up a tech company in the 1960s to enable women with children to work as programmers from home. She had a novel approach to creating a professional atmosphere, which included playing pre-recorded office sounds while making phone calls. In her recording she describes how she got her business off the ground at a time when women with families were expected to forego their careers.

'…I recorded sort of, office type noises… so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going…' (C1379/28)

Audio clip: Stephanie Shirley on programming from home (C1379/28)

At the end of January in ’64, or something like that, we had a tiny mention in the Guardian newspaper, Manchester Guardian it probably still was then, that mentioned this extraordinary woman, Steve Shirley, writing computer programs in Chesham in between feeding her baby and washing the nappies. And that was really the sort of phraseology that was used. And that brought in a flood of women who liked the idea of working from home, and had computer skills, and had, as I always projected I suppose, the need or the – or might be financial need of course, to go on working without being a conventional employee. I had a secretary who came in one afternoon a week and, erm, engaged her through an agency that specialised in part-time work which largely meant women. And, so I got hold of this secretary, who’s still a friend today, called Barbara Edwards, and she arrived, was at home, in my home. She brought her own little portable typewriter. Later on she brought her own baby in a carrycot. And she was instructed really to make sure that I looked – that the correspondence and stuff went out looking as if it came out of a chairman’s office. And I know if I had difficult phone calls to make, or senior phone calls to make, I would wait until Barbara was in, so that she could connect me and give the impression of some sort of infrastructure behind me. The phone was pretty well how business was done, and sometimes of course there would be very domestic noises going on in the background. And so I took a tape recording, which we had a large tape recording then, tape recorder then, which I was using for dictation and other things like that. But I recorded sort of, office type noises, I recorded Barbara at her typewriter, so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going, because although there was a market there, although I did have skills, it wasn’t developed, and I did not have the commercial skills, but I sort of had some marketing skills. I changed my name from Stephanie to Steve, because I felt that I wasn’t really getting any responses from the letters that I was sending out to people offering services. My husband actually suggested that perhaps it was the good old-fashioned sexism, they saw a letter from Stephanie Shirley and it just went in the bin. So I started writing as Steve Shirley. And it seemed to me that I was getting some better response, well I was getting some responses and the work did start slowly to flow in as distinct from just all those private introductions.

Stephanie Shirley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Richard West

Richard West, Quaternary botanist and geologist, continued his research into environmental change after his retirement by working from home. No longer able to access university equipment, and steering clear of distractions on the internet ('I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought'), he continued his work using ‘kitchen science’:

'…if you’re in post you’re – so much of your university time is taken up with committee work, going to meetings, teaching, trying to get money for research, but I can do all the things I need to do with the aid of a low power microscope and these measuring cylinders, sorting out sediment.' (C1379/34)

We moved into this house in 1958. And this part of the building was derelict. Erm, where I am sitting now were two loose boxes, and where you are now is the tack room and it was full of horse medicines and all that sort of thing. And a next door neighbour used to keep a pony in one of the loose boxes at that time. And – but in 1965 we decided to make it into living space. So this room came into operation in about 1967 I think and I used it for my writing and reprint collection and so on and books. There’s not much apparatus here. This microscope is the kind of cheapest version of a low power microscope you can get and I’ve only had it since I started working in Beachamwell. I’ve got several old microscopes going back to the 1930s which used to be used, but they’re all packed away. Those are in boxes in the room somewhere. This is the only one I use. I used to spend a lot of time looking at pollen grains underneath a high power binocular microscope but I haven’t done that for twenty years or so. The drawing board I got very early on in the early 1960s, ‘cause I was engaged in drawing a lot of drawing of sections at that time, and so that’s lasted me very well. I don’t think there’s anything else here, except this computer and so on on. I used to be on the internet and on email but I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought, so I’m not on the internet now, which annoys everybody ‘cause they have to write to me or ring me up. But at least I’m not constantly being bothered by things. I can also go across the road to the public library where I can use a computer and Google and so on as much as I want to. Apart from that, I don’t think [laughs] I don’t think there’s any apparatus here at all. It’s all books and reprints.

Richard West was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Paul Merchant. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Sir John Charnley

Photograph of John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel
John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel, 2012. Photo credit: Matt Casswell, British Library

Sir John Charnley, aeronautical engineer, would continue working at home in the evening, after dinner, and after a full day in the office. 'If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it.' In the clip below Charnley describes waiting until he was at home, late at night, to do his most creative thinking as a senior scientific civil servant:

John Charnley on problem solving at home (C1379/30)

I wasn’t of the mind that said that you didn’t take your work home with you, that you left it all behind in the office. If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it. When I was in London, I’d catch a train home about half past six, I’d be home half past seven till eight, we’d have supper, which would've been beautiful, prepared, beautiful, drink. And if there was a problem going, there was something on my mind, Mary would go to bed and she’d leave me with a cup of coffee and I would work on. I can easily, and it isn’t a problem, to work in the night. I don’t like working first thing in the morning. There are those people who are that way inclined, but I’m a late night person - in my youth, I don’t know if I can do it now. But then I’d certainly work until one, two – and the fact that I’d been at meetings with, and particularly when I was in London, and meetings of all sorts, technical, financial, with the Treasury, you name it, lots – with the Services, I had the feeling I didn’t have time to think of where I was going, and I would do that at home. So as far as I was concerned, when I was in the office I was at the beck and call of other people, but when I wanted to be creative myself, in satisfying myself I was on the right path and I was going in the right direction, in whatever element of my job, that sort of thinking I did at home, late at night or early morning if you wish. So a) my job came home with me, I could stay late in the office if that made sense, but I’d certainly bring it home with me and work on it at home. And I had a very long suffering and forbearing wife. Bless her. Yep, oh yeah, sure, sure, sure, did a lot at home.

John Charnley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley, Richard West, and Sir John Charnley all feature on the British Library website Voices of Science.

22 June 2020

Recording of the week: Underwater sounds from Cromer Pier

This week's recording of the week comes from Emma Burman, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

Having spent many a childhood holiday on Cromer Pier in Norfolk, you’d think I would know the sounds of the area well. However, having never been adventurous enough to fully submerge myself in the freezing East Coast waters, I was unaware of the beauty of its underwater sounds until now.

Cromer Pier
Courtesy of BurlyBullet via Pixabay

This Underwater recording from Cromer Pier captures the entrancing rhythm of the waves as they flow between the pillars of the pier. The sound of the swirling water moving weathered stones is almost orchestral, like a delicate percussion section, with tinkling xylophones.

Underwater recording from Cromer Pier

The ability to capture these underwater sounds is possible thanks to a device called a hydrophone. The modern hydrophone’s development can be traced back to the First World War, as scientists were developing methods to sense and reveal the bearing of enemy submarines. By the end of the war, Britain had thirty eight hydrophone officers and 200 qualified listeners. The hydrophone continued to be the sole method for submarines to detect targets while submerged until the introduction of the active sonar in the early 1920s.

Modern day recordists still use hydrophones to document and learn more about the underwater world. Sadly, through this research, they have identified that recordings are often ‘polluted’ by the sounds of human noise, which has now become a recognised global problem. Shipping noise has been shown to cause chronic stress in certain species of whales, construction noise has forced porpoises to leave feeding grounds and naval sonar can cause mass stranding of beaked whales.

One of the parts that stands out so much about this recording is the clash between the calm swirl of the natural waters and the metallic creaking of the Cromer Pier. To my ears, the pier didn’t seem like a ‘polluting’ sound in this musical underwater rendition. Nonetheless, this recording does highlight the question of how much our human lives impact upon the watery world below.

This recording was made by Peter Toll in 2012 and forms part of the British Library's wildlife and environmental sounds collection.

Discover more sounds from beneath the waves on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

18 June 2020

Arabic music record sleeves and what they can tell us

Hazem Jamjoum joined the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project in April 2019 as Gulf History Audio Curator and Cataloguer. In this blog post he explores what record sleeves have helped him learn about the early 20th-century music industry in the Arab world.

For some decades, the British Library's sound archive routinely discarded shellac record sleeves. The sleeves were flimsy paper envelopes, not particularly suited for protecting the discs. Over time, the paper disintegrates into dust that lodges itself into the grooves on the discs and interferes with playback. To make matters worse, moving discs in and out of old crumbling sleeves without damaging the paper can be quite a delicate task. That said, the sleeves have much to offer researchers, which is why many archives such as the British Library's sound archive now keep the sleeves, and resources permitting, invest the time, effort and hard drive space to safeguard them as digital images. In this piece, I hope to share some of what I have learned by examining shellac record sleeves from the early twentieth century mashriq (Arab East) by focussing on the story of one particular company, Baidaphon.

Baidaphon was founded around 1906 by six cousins from the Syrian-Lebanese Baida family, with one group of brothers living in Beirut, and the other group, in Berlin. The centre labels printed on the company’s early records tell us a great deal, but it is the sleeves that the company begins to use after WWI that I aim to examine here. Baidaphon sleeves from the 1920s, some of which were accessioned into the British Library’s collection through a gift from Emile Cohen and Ezra Hakkak, seem to have been standardized with a revealing message to customers:

'In order to reduce the expense to our generous clients living in American, Australian and African regions, and to ensure timely delivery of goods, we ask that orders be henceforth sent directly to our Berlin shops at the following address: Pierre & Gabriel Baida - Berlin Mittelstraße 55.'

Shellac disc sleeve with Berlin showroom address
Fig 1. Baidaphon record sleeve from the 1920s instructing customers outside the Middle East how to order from Berlin.

Beyond informing us that the company’s Berlin showroom was no more than a ten-minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate, the note to the customers also gives us a sense that much of the company’s business was conducted through mail orders, and that a growing proportion of these orders came from the massive Greater Syrian (and other Arabic speaking) diasporas across the Americas, Australia and Africa. By the time of the Great Depression, Baidaphon was a company operating on a global scale.

At the end of the 1920s, Baidaphon signed the most vaunted of Egypt’s twentieth century singer-songwriters: Mohammad Abdelwahhab. This was a major milestone in the company’s competition with its larger rivals, so much so that it produced a special sleeve for recordings of Abdelwahhab’s songs. Printed at the bottom of the front face of these sleeves was a photograph of the young composer in a tuxedo and tarbūsh (fez), identifying him in Latin script as 'Prof. Mohamed Abdel Wahhab', with Arabic script at the top going into flowery prose that described him as an 'artistic genius' and 'musician to kings and princes'. The back of the sleeve had the now-familiar instructions to the tri-continental diaspora to send their orders to the company’s Berlin headquarters.

Within the same period, the company began producing records by Elie Baida, son of the Beirut-branch’s Jibril Baida. Elie was a musician in his own right, renowned for his mastery of the Baghdādi style of mawwāl, a virtuosic vocal performance, invariably performed a cappella or with minimal instrumental backing, and often serving as a sentimental introduction to a song. Elie was soon dubbed the 'king of the Baghdadi' and later moved to the United States, where he lived for several decades until his tragic death in 1977. The company produced a near-identical version of the special Abdelwahhab sleeve, with the photo of Elie in place of Abdelwahhab’s though without the florid encomium.

The company’s investment in such sleeves gives us a sense of their marketing strategy at the time. Beyond relying on brand recognition, the company had moved into highlighting the considerable celebrity of its recording artists, such as Abdelwahhab and Baida, to appeal to buyers and listeners.

Shellac disc sleeve featuring Elie Baida
Fig. 2 Baidaphon record sleeve from the 1920s specially designed to market records by Elie Baida.

Sleeves also have much to tell us about Baidaphon’s response to the Great Depression, and the death of one of the company’s founding shareholders, Pierre Baida. It appears that the company aimed at restructuring in such a way that parts of the company focussed on particularly lucrative geographic areas were reconstituted as new companies. The most important of these restructuring manoeuvres were those affecting its operations in Egypt, where the Egyptian branch of the company was repackaged in the 1930s as an entirely new label: Cairophon. Though quite minimalist in comparison with the Baidaphon sleeves of the same period, the earliest Cairophon sleeves mark the connection between the two companies quite clearly. With one side in Arabic and the other in French, the sleeves state the new company’s address as 34 Rue Mousky, which matches that of the Baidaphon Cairo showroom in the 1920s. Furthermore, the new sleeves clearly state that Cairophon belonged to the 'heirs of Pierre Baida and their partners.' The new partner in question was none other than the most recent addition to the company’s roster of recording artists: Mohammad Abdelwahhab.

Shellac disc sleeve for Cairophon label
Fig. 3: Early Cairophon sleeve.

Another shellac disc sleeve that joined the British Library collection through the Cohen and Hakkak gift helps us see yet another connection between Baidaphon and the expansion of the recording industry in the Arab world, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way. Likely dating from the late 1940s or early 1950s, this is a Cairophon sleeve with text exclusively in Arabic, except for the company’s new logo which features its name above a landscape sketch of the Giza pyramids and palm trees.

Cairophon record label shellac disc sleeve from Baghdad
Fig 4. Cairophon-Baghdad sleeve.

Above the logo, and underneath the company name in Arabic, are the words 'for Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Kuwait', a clear indication of the expansion of the company’s business throughout the Arabo-Persian Gulf region. The right and left columns of the busy sleeve feature images of a bicycle, a transistor radio set and a portable record player. The text on either side is an eclectic list of items sold by the producer of the sleeve, including record players and discs, dyes, washing machines, fans, batteries, and children’s bicycles. Centered on the bottom of the sleeve are the words:

’Āref Chamakchi
Baghdad, al-Rasheed Street 295/1
Telephone 7889

There is much to say about al-Rasheed Street, the Chakmakchi family and the role of both the street and the company in Iraqi musical life. For now, it suffices to say that the Chakmakchis’ electronics store in the middle of the most musically significant street in Baghdad soon added a recording studio to its operations, creating the label Chakmakchiphone which was unparalleled in recording, popularizing and preserving the maqām and rīfī repertoires of Iraq. Though the British Library collection includes nearly one hundred Chamakchiphone records, currently being catalogued and digitized under the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme, sadly not one of the company’s sleeves has made it into the collection.

One such undated sleeve in the collection of the Arab American National Museum shows that the phone number for Chakmakchiphone was the same as that of the electronics (and children’s bicycle) retailer appearing on the Cairophon sleeve, but that the company had taken over different storefronts along Rasheed Street for different aspects of its operations. It also shows that they had expanded these operations to Mosul. The Cairophon sleeve itself tells us that the Egyptian company contracted the Chakmakchis to operate as their agents in the Arabo-Persian Gulf, and suggests that this partnership was very likely an important moment in the development of the Iraqi recording industry given the centrality of Chakmakchiphone in that development.

Historians of recorded sound rightly lament the loss of primary source material resulting from the destruction of record company archives. The Odeon company headquarters, for instance, were destroyed in the 1944 Allied bombing of Berlin, and Baidaphon’s was burned down in the 1987 during civil war in Lebanon. In our thirst for any tidbit of information, such seemingly useless ephemera as disc packaging take on all the more importance as sources through which to reconstruct the histories of music production around the world. I hope I’ve managed to show some of the ways in which this is the case, and perhaps encouraged those who have such objects in their possession to photograph and share them, and perhaps consider donating them to a nearby library or archive.

This post was written by Hazem Jamjoum, Gulf History Audio Curator and Cataloguer for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project (BLQF), which produces the Qatar Digital Library. Follow @BLQatar, @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

15 June 2020

Recording of the week: The Kankurang or how to enforce a lockdown

This week's selection comes from Michele Banal, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

The Kankurang is a Mandinka masked figure from the Senegambia region, associated with male societies and more specifically with boys' initiation ceremonies. It is a protective figure and an enforcer of rules, but, as masked figures go, the Kankurang is also pretty scary. It is uncannily tall, entirely covered in strands of red bark, and faceless. As it roams the streets at night, it brandishes and strikes together two machete knives, letting out a blood-chilling, high-pitched cry from time to time.

image of Kankurang
Photo by Dorothy Voorhees, licensed under cc-by-sa-2.0 / cropped and desaturated from original

Only a few initiates know the identity of the person hiding inside the costume; and besides, it doesn’t matter much because, once the costume is donned, the man, as it were, disappears and the Kankurang takes his place.

The whole point of the Kankurang is that you do not want to run into it, because although its role in society is useful and ultimately positive, the Kankurang is dangerous. It often roams accompanied by a small group of stick-carrying young men, the Kankurang’s followers and helpers, who can administer punishment on its behalf, and many a person has been beaten just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

'When the mask roamed the streets at night, cooking fires were extinguished, lights were switched off, and women wouldn’t leave their homes” (De Jong 2001: 14).'

This frightening masked figure makes its appearance at liminal times, during the change of seasons, around the time of boys’ circumcision ceremonies. After an extended period away from home, the newly-circumcised boys return from the bush school to their families, where they undergo a period of enforced rest while they heal and get ready to re-enter society as adults. It is important that during this time the boys stay indoors, and the Kankurang is a very effective means of ensuring their lockdown. The temptation to sneak outside to play is easily vanquished when one hears the piercing cries of the Kankurang coming from the street.

From the late 20th century onwards, there has also been a new kind of secular Kankurang mask. Especially in urban environments, at Christmas time and other secular traditions during the dry season, it is not uncommon to see an almost playful Kankurang dancing in the street during broad daylight, with children watching on and laughing rather than running away in terror. However, in spite of this new, more benevolent masked figure, many bear witness to the fact that the real, sacred, dangerous Kankurang still exists. You may not find it in the cities and big towns, but out in the countryside and around the smaller villages, where the dark stillness of the night still hasn’t been conquered by electricity, its knives still clang menacingly.

This week’s recording is a rare aural document of the 'real' Kankurang, made in The Gambia by music researcher and producer Lucy Durán. What follows is the sound recording and her account of the circumstances surrounding the recording of this rather strange piece of audio.

Kankurango and bullroarer [extract] (BL REF C2/269 S1 C1) 

It was the spring of 1986 and I was on my way to Mali with journalist James Fox. We were staying in Brikama, in The Gambia, at the house of my friend Dembo Konte, a well-known kora player. It was late at night and we were sitting in Dembo’s courtyard, chatting. The boys of Brikama had just got back from the bush school after circumcision. At some point, I heard a strange clatter coming from the street outside the compound. I mentioned this to Dembo who, after listening for a second, changed his smile to a frown and almost froze. He then got up and urged us all to go inside and lock all doors and windows. Initially, I thought he was playing a trick on us, but I soon realised he really was scared, and so I got scared too because it seemed that whatever it was that was making those sounds (and it was getting closer) was genuinely dangerous. And so, not knowing what I was running from, I ran inside with the others, went to my room and hastily closed the window and locked it. I then realised that the thing was right outside my window. I could hear metallic noises, a whirring sound like that of a bullroarer,* and strange, high-pitched cries. My portable recorder was just there, so I picked it up and started recording, while Dembo kept signalling us to stay quiet and not make any noise. Only after it was gone I learnt from Dembo that the creature outside our house was the fearsome Kankurang.

*The eerie whirring sound, clearly audible on the recording, is produced by a bullroarer called ngarankulo, also associated with boys’ initiation ceremonies. It was probably operated by one of the Kankurang’s followers.

Many thanks to Lucy Durán for allowing us to share her recording and for all the background information provided. The Lucy Durán Collection has been digitised as part of the British Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

Further reading:

De Jong, Ferdinand. 2001. “Démasqué”, Etnofoor Vol. 14, No. 2: 7-22.
Weil, Peter M. 1971. “The masked figure and social control: the Mandinka case”, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 41, No. 4: 279-293.

UOSH

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 June 2020

Recording of the week: Michiko Hirayama singing Scelsi

This week's selection comes from Lucia Cavorsi, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Between 1978 and 1994 the Institute of Contemporary Arts ran an annual series of contemporary music concerts called MusICA. Among the works programmed were those by Italian-born composer Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988). Little known and ostracised by music academic entourages of the time throughout his life - French composer Pierre Boulez branded him as an amateur - he became well known around the 1980s and is today considered one of the pioneering figures of minimalist and microtonal music.

Fascinated in the 1940s with the teaching of the Second Viennese school and its characteristic twelve-tone music, he shifted in the 1950s towards more radical and experimental avenues. His interest in mysticism and esoterism largely influenced him. Testament to this is a Zen symbol added to his signature on all of his scores. Oriental philosophies didn’t much influence his compositional methods, but rather provided concepts through which to compose music.

His main musical teaching was that the whole world depends on sound. The repetition of a single sound, in particular, is central to his ideas. He writes: ‘my music is not this, nor that, it’s not dodecaphony nor pointillism, it’s not minimalist either [...]. Notes are just wrappers […]. Sound is spherical, but we always tend to see it in terms of duration and frequency. That is not right. Every spherical element has a centre […]. We need to get to it. By hitting for a long time the same note, the note itself becomes bigger, it grows so much that its own harmony surfaces and enlarges within it’. A single sound loses then its status of one among equals with other notes in a piece, and becomes the essence of it, through the continuous elaboration of its frequency.

Scelsi's research determined, between 1952 and 1978, avant-garde compositional techniques which mainly involved improvisations both with piano and instruments producing quarters and octaves of tones, like the ondioline. His musical journeys were not only free of any constrictions, but also free from transcriptions (which he left to his collaborators, after recording his works on tape). The appreciation of the verticality of a sound, led him to further investigate musical timbre, and to appreciate the human voice as one of the most powerful instruments capable of breaking sonic structure.

Michiko Hirayama
Courtesy of Fondazione Isabella Scelsi

Among his closest collaborators was Michiko Hirayama (1923-2018), the Japanese singer historically associated with the performance of ‘Canti del Capricorno’, the 20-song cycle that Scelsi wrote specifically for her voice. The microtonal inflections in her technique while interpreting classical Japanese pieces had in fact soon captured him.

Scelsi officially wrote the cycle between 1962 and 1972. During an interview with musical artist Arturo Tallini though, Hirayama explains how it actually took her four decades to reach interpretative perfection of the cycle’s vocal part. Firstly, the manuscripts contained notes with just phonemes pencilled down to which she had to add her own improvisation and vocal experiments so as to become the instrument of the song itself rather than its interpreter, quite an open-ended task; secondly, she felt the intensity of both emotional and mental state required to make Scelsi’s work come to life was only achieved when she was 82. In 2005, towards the end of a performance of the entire cycle held in Berlin, she indeed found herself in a state of unconsciousness. Only then she considered ‘Canti del Capricorno’ finally completed.

C611/49 Scelsi No. 2

This is an extract from Michiko Hirayama’s performance of ‘Canti del Capricorno’, No. 2 performed at the ICA on 8 February 1981.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage for all the latest news from the project.

04 June 2020

Sea sounds

Many of us find comfort in the sounds of the sea, particularly when we're feeling anxious, stressed or overwhelmed. Though it's not as easy as it was to just pack up and head to the coast, there are still always in which you can bring the sea to you.

The British Library has almost 400 recordings of waves in its sound archive. More if you count those recordings where they are just one element of a larger soundscape. Recorded on beaches and along coastal areas all over the world, these recordings demonstrate the sheer variety of sounds that the sea can produce. So many factors come into play here; the weather, type of coast, time of day, season etc. No two recordings of the sea will ever sound the same.

Below is a selection of some of our favourite recordings. So put on your sunglasses, grab an ice cream and let us transport you to the coast.

Gentle waves, Isles of Scilly, September 2009, Richard Beard (BL ref  163300)

Waves breaking on sand

Waves bubbling through rocks, Australia, November 2007, Richard Beard (BL ref 148677) 

Rocky coast

Waves flowing over seaweed, Republic of Ireland, August 1996, Nigel Tucker (BL ref 124878)

Seaweed

Lapping waves on Pak Bia Island, Thailand, March 2009, Richard Beard (BL ref 149165)

Small waves on a sandy beach

Waves breaking on rocks and shingle, New Zealand, February 2005, Richard Beard (BL ref 148299)

Waves breaking on a sandy beach with rocks

Some of these recordings were digitised as part of the Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. The project has also created a new web space dedicated to the sounds and stories of Britain's shores. Visit Coast to discover more.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

01 June 2020

Recording of the week: Herrings' heads

This week's selection comes from Harriet Roden, Digital Learning Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Johnny Doughty was always singing songs about the sea and the shore. Born in 1903, he grew up in a fishing family in Brighton, Sussex. His grandmother took in washing, his uncle supplied the horses for the lifeboat.

Brighton Net Arches in the 1860s
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, CC BY-SA

The start of Johnny’s singing career was rocky, and striking a balance between the school choir and his love of the beach proved difficult. As a child, Johnny spent Sundays helping fishermen with their boating and his mother often had to fetch him in time to perform at the local church. On one occasion he forgot his boots and stockings. Although he attempted to march in with the rest of the choir in just his cassock, he got the sack instead.

Outside of school and home, he spent his time on the beach – the cockle and whelk stalls, the boats and St Margaret’s Net Arch by the Palace Pier. Here Johnny listened to the hum of songs from sailors and fishermen mending their nets.

One such song he learnt at the Arch was Herring’s Heads. A cumulative song with a simple harmony, Johnny himself describes the song as a ‘beer-shop song’. Each verse dissects the body of the fish and transforms each part into something new. First, the head is turned into ‘loaves of bread’, the eyes become ‘puddings and pies’ and the bellies ‘jams and jellies’. A version of each verse and chorus is repeated until the performers’ reach the herrings' tails.

Herring's heads (BL REF C1047/39)

Beyond the Arch, Johnny learned more songs through his time spent in both the Royal and Merchant navy and his years spent trawling the ocean for fish.

It wasn’t until he was in his early seventies that he was discovered by Mike Yates to record for Topic Records. Ever the performer, Johnny would take the time to entertain with funny asides and winks here-and-there, very often with a ‘pot’ of Guinness in one hand.

Discover more sea shanties and sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

29 May 2020

In search of the ramkie in the Karoo and the Olifants River Valley

Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper is a researcher and writer with an expertise in mythology and folklore. Since 2011, he has been recording and investigating the culture of Afrikaans-speaking Khoisan descendants living in rural areas in the Western Cape and the Northern Cape provinces of South Africa. In March 2018 he carried out field work focussed on music with the support of the British Library. Jose Manuel's previous field work had been devoted to understanding and documenting narrative traditions and oral histories.

The Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper Collection has recently been made accessible at the British Library though until Reading Rooms re-open, readers won't be able to access the videos that make up this collection. For now you can browse Jose Manuel's detailed catalogue entries on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue under collection number C1760. As an introduction to the collection, Jose Manuel has written a guest blog post about his encounters with the ramkie instrument in his field work.

In October 2012, while on a field trip, at a lovely restaurant and junk-shop that has the unlikely name of Williston Mall, in the South African Karoo town of that same name, my wife Helena and I saw a magnificent ramkie made of wood. The price was very affordable, so the temptation to purchase it was strong, but since my wife and I were about to return to Spain in December, after more than two years living in South Africa, and had plenty of things to pack, I finally decided to give up the beautiful instrument. Of course, it was not long before I regretted that decision.

A year and a half later, in April 2014, another field trip brought me again to Williston. Of course, at the first opportunity Helena and I went to the mall with some hope that perhaps the item we had not bought in our previous visit would still be there. Stranger things have happened to us in the Karoo. But just as we were asking one of the owners of the place about the ramkie, I saw it hanging from one of the walls, among other not-for-sale items. Fortunately, noticing our disappointment, our interlocutor said he was going to give, rather than sell, us another ramkie, and soon we had it in our hands.

Ramkie
Ramkie made with a primus stove, given to the author in Williston

Made from the tanks of two Primus stoves, the instrument is a fine example of the Karoo folk luthiers’ ingenuity for making the most of whatever is at hand. I would rather have had the other one, but this was certainly an excellent consolation prize. By then, the ramkie had become for me more than a mere curiosity, since it featured in some of the most intriguing stories I had been recording in the Karoo and neighbouring areas. More on this later.

The ramkie is a string instrument similar to a guitar. According to the eminent musicologist Percival R. Kirby, in his monumental book The Musical Instruments of the Indigenous People of South Africa (first published in 1934), the name comes from the Portuguese rabequinha, meaning “a little violin”, and the instrument “shows traces of Portuguese influence”. The earliest mention of the instrument, Kirby writes, comes from the 18th century German author O. F. Mentzel, who lived in the Cape from 1733 to 1741. Mentzel attributes a Malabar origin to the ramkie, but according to Kirby “it is either definitely of Portuguese origin, or else a hybrid instrument”. It was soon adopted with enthusiasm by the Khoisan servants of the European colonisers. Originally made using as a resonator a calabash to which a wood handle was attached, as described by Mentzel, it normally had three or four strings which were plucked, not bowed. Different accounts by early travellers suggest that variations in the material used for the resonator appeared early on. In recent times it is usually made with a 5 litre oil can, hence the name of blik kitaar, “tin guitar” in Afrikaans, by which it is also known.

When in March 2018 I undertook a field trip to the Olifants River Valley and parts of the Upper Karoo, one of my main objectives was to find out if the instrument was still alive among the rural, Afrikaans-speaking communities of those areas, most of whose members descend from the original Khoisan inhabitants of that part of southern Africa. I wanted to record, if possible, people playing it, to film the making of one and even bring at least one to the British Library if I was fortunate enough to obtain it.

In the event, what I could mostly do was gather memories of the instrument, yet memories that, to my surprise, were of not so long ago. The majority of the musicians I interviewed were middle-aged people who now played the guitar but had learnt music in their youth by observing a parent, a relative or a friend play the ramkie. At some point, many had made their own instrument, usually with the 5 litre oil can.

The very first person, my assistant Patrick Hanekom and I interviewed, had learnt to play in this way. He was Alfred Basson, of Clanwilliam, who had grown in the Heunnigvlei area of the Wupperthal Mission, in the Cederberg Mountains. Mr. Basson has won several prizes at rieldans competitions and is an accomplished guitarist. Using just three strings from his guitar he gave us a glimpse of how the ramkie sounds, and offered to make one for us. We jumped at the opportunity, but on our way home after the recording session Patrick told me he doubted Mr. Basson could finally make good his offer, for the simple reason that the 5 litre oil cans are nowadays almost impossible to come by. And sadly, that was what happened.

                                                       

The ramkie people remember is the one made with the oil can. It had from 3- to 4 strings, normally made from fishing-line, although some people mentioned a more archaic material: sheep-gut. From what we were told by several of the people we recorded, it appears that really affordable guitars became available in the area around the 1980s, and they have gradually replaced the ramkie. There are, however, still many people around who know how to make and play this wonderful instrument.

Although Oom Dawid de Klerk (born in 1944) of the farm Kriedowkrans, showed us a related instrument, the blik viool or tin violin, which he couldn’t play for us for want of a bow, Patrick and I were not able to see a really traditional ramkie during this field trip. The closest we got was in the Sandveld town of Graafwater, west of Clanwilliam, where a wonderful musician, Ephraim Kotze, with whom we had a most stimulating conversation, showed us an electric ramkie he plays occasionally while performing with his band. He played the instrument for us acoustically, since he lacked an amplifier at the moment. The sound was unlike the guitar, but this ramkie had six strings and the fretboard and other additions to the blik were certainly not made of recycled material.

                                                       

We asked Ephraim about a local character called Dirk Ligter, about whom many stories are told in this part of the world. Ligter was (and for many still is) an unbeatable sheep-thief, who stole and slaughtered the sheep of the farmers without ever being caught. He is reputed to have supernatural powers, among them that of being so fast that he could outrun any horse. More wonderful still, is his gift of being able to transform into virtually anything: an anthill, a broom, a bush…

Ephraim told us that he knew about Ligter, but couldn’t tell us any of the narratives himself. This was not surprising, because the Sandveld is somewhat outside the usual range of this legendary sheep-thief, whose natural territory lies to the east and north of the Sandveld, and encompasses most of the Bokkeveld, Cederberg, Tankwa and Hantam Karoo areas.

The reason I was asking about this character during my fieldwork in March is because, in addition to being a master sheep-thief, Ligter was also an accomplished ramkie player. As was to be expected, his instrument was not an ordinary one. Patrick’s father, Petrus Hanekom, of Algeria, a village in the Cederberg Mountains, told us that when Ligter felt like listening to music he just had to hang the instrument somewhere and say “Elom!”, and the ramkie played on its own.

James Zimri
James Zimri, Algeria, Cederberg Mountains

It was from Oom Petrus from whom I first heard that Dirk Ligter never stole from the common people, just from the farmers. Yet there was an exception: once he stole a ramkie from a labourer. Oom Petrus remembered only this far, but we got a few more details from his brother-in-law, James Zimri, whom we went to visit next. Besides being an excellent harmonica player, Oom James is also a storyteller and of course he knew about Ligter. Among other things, he told us the specific farm at which Ligter stole the ramkie, and also that the instrument in question was broken, and Ligter mended it. Yet, again, he could not go beyond this. The rest of the story, however, is in all likelihood still there and I hope to be able to record it in the near future.