FEAST OF EAST
Paul Vernon's continuing series of delvings into
the history of world music recording touches down in East Africa
In the beginning, there was this; "The Boma Trading Company are our only sole agents in Mombasa and Nairobi, and their trade last year was only _529, or rather less than we did in Mauritius. Bombay do a fair business with this territory and Zanzibar, but I feel sure it is capable of doing a good deal more and strongly recommend that a visit should be paid to it as soon as possible" (from a Gramophone Company report by J. Muir entitled Details And Suggestions re; East & West Coast of Africa, July 1912.)
Muir's comments did not even address the possibility of records for the African population; his remarks were focused upon the sale of English recordings to the colonial settlers end _Vernacular_ recordings to satisfy the tastes of the large community of Indian traders who had settled there. Further, when Muir spoke of "East Africa" his remarks swept over a huge region that today we recognise as Kenya, Uganda and the Sudan but in 1912 was marked on most maps as "British East Africa". British Africa was surrounded by German and Italian Africa. Portuguese Africa sat further south, bordering Rhodesia. Directly opposite its coast was the huge island of French Madagascar. All these old colonial territories, which today are the countries that stretch from Ethiopia to Mozambique, and bring us the diverse styles of Kenyan, Tanzanian and Ugandan Guitar bands and the joyously infectious Malagasy sound, share a history of recorded music with roots in the first decade of gramophone history itself.
In 1902 the German anthropologist Carl Meinhof toured German East Africa (Tanzania) making cylinders of tribal music These important recordings have never been made public and may well be lost to posterity. A decade later - while Muir was musing about trade potential - Alice Werner. operating on behalf of the London School of Oriental and African Studies, took examples of coastal Swahili styles, recordings which have survived and are c currently archived in London
Throughout the 1920s the 78 rpm records commercially available to the vast and polyglot East African public came in three inroad groups; Arabic, Indian and Western. All these recordings were imported; The already considerable trade in vernacular' Arabic and Indian records that existed in Egypt and India was simply shipped into the African territories to satisfy expatriate demand.Western recordings, principally American, English, French, German, Italian and Portuguese, while aimed at colonial professionals, added ingredients to the musical soup that the record industry was unwittingly creating. Along with the increasing availability of the western guitar, these elements would fuse into syncretic styles that would provide the basis for modern guitar-based East African music.
Throughout the 1920s the Gramophone Company (HMV) had a full- time representative travelling the territories, taking orders and providing insightful reports wherever he went. P.B. Vatcha, a university-educated Indian spent over seven years in this position, encountering the frustrations of slow communications, sales-resistant clientele and outright prejudice with a mixture of courage and humour. In the town of Sumburu he was asked to leave a restaurant by the Goanese manager after a group of white farmers complained about his presence. Better dressed and far more eloquent than they, he told them in outraged and very certain terms that he was not about to abandon his meal and how dare they insult a Greek citizen. The farmers. believing what they heard. apologised and sat down to share the table with him!
Vatcha, and men like him working for Columbia, Odeon and Pathé, also helped to prepare the ground by ensuring the sale of gramophones and generally raising public awareness of recorded sound.
In March 1928 the Indian branch of the Gramophone Company sent an engineer to Mombasa to record three Swahili artists: Maalim Shaban. Subeti Ambar and the massievely Important Shahir Sitti Binti Saad
Between them they produced 62 songs. 56 of which were coupled onto 78s and issued in August of that same year. Twelwe months after the initial recording session had been held, the company was back again again, making a further 102 recordings that would produce 48 new double-sided records for the catalogue. They had good reason to return. The first session had generated sales of over 23.000 records, earning the company a gross profit in excess of 6.000. The second
session, garnering more songs by Shaban and Saad as well as new artists, produced even more spectacular results; over 40,000 78s, pressed in India and shipped out to dealers across the territory, had sold within a six month period.
This much activity in a 'new' territory excited the interest of the Gramophone Company's competition. German Odeon sent an engineer to Mombasa at the beginning of 1930 and made over 200 recordings, poaching Sitti Binti away from the Gramophone Company with cash payments of _1 per recorded title and four shillings a day living expenses. From this stock they issued ten records a month for the next year, selling them through their agent, Hansing & Company. The Odeon engineer then travelled north-east to Kampala, in Uganda, and undertook the first ever commercial recordings held in that country. Paid for and marketed by the various branches of the Uganda Bookshop. a Christian Missionary retail company, the few traditional songs recorded sold well, but the 'Christianised' African church music which made up the bulk of the catalogue failed completely to generate interest. As the Uganda Bookshop were under contract to take 500 copies of each pressing, this expensive mistake precluded any further Ugandan recordings being made for a long time to come.
[picture: Shahir Sitti Binti Saad & group 1930]
In an effort to capture as wide a territory as possible Odeon also send their engineer into Portuguese Mozambique, specifically Lourenço. Marques. to record, again for the first time ever, Lusophone-African music including syncretic marimba bands, choral groups, thumb pianos solo songs. A 1931 report by a rival company provides an interesting contemporary insight, not only into what happened but also into eurocentric views and practices;
"Odeon are the only firm who have recorded in this territory. Their recorder visited Lourenço Marques and Beira last year and sessions were held in both towns at which records were made of all the principal languages. The first issue was made three months ago and comprises records covering the whole territory. In Lourenço Marques, large stocks were received and dealers state that demand has been enormous. I have been unable to obtain any statistics in proof of the large sales claimed in Lourenço Marques but it is probably true on account of the natives in the area having money by reason of the fact that they go to Johannesburg to work in the gold mines where they earn good wages. It is stated that there are 100,000 of these natives always working in the mines and after working out their contract period they return to their native lands and are replaced by others. In common with all natives on the East Coast they spend liberally when they have money in their possession. The cost of the recording is stated to be small as the artists were only paid nominal sums and the average per title is 10/-." (From a Gramophone Company report of 1931.)
In keeping with the avowed policy of recording in every country it possibly could, Odeon also sent their roving engineer to Madagascar. Here a truly remarkable catalogue of over 100 records was made, probably in the town of Tamatave. Traditional choral singing and boatmen's songs. solos on the voatavo (a zither-like calabash), Protestant hymns in Malagasy, dance troupes. comics telling folk tales and rather stiff orchestral pieces conducted by "M. Charles Rasoanaivo. professeur de musique, officier d'Academie" all found their way into an eighteen-page catalogue. Perhaps the most astonishing fact. though. is that the initial pressing order for the Malagasy records was a mere 200 copies of each disc Evidence that indicates both the paucity of gramophones in the country at that time and the cheapness with which records could be made.
Columbia records entered the field in 1930. making recordings of Mombasan and Zanzibaran (Omani) artists in Dar-es- Salaam. French Pathé brought Swahili artists to Marseilles to record, and Polydor made recordings in Paris of Malagasy artists appearing at the Colonial Exhibition of 1931. These three companies, however, arrived a little too late to reap any real benefits for themselves.
The early 1930s brought with them the depression that so violently hit record sales worldwide East Africa's fortunes were no better than anywhere else and recording came , to a sudden halt 'Fine old records remainder catalogue but looked increasingly stale as the years rolled by. In 1931 L the giant EMI company had forged itself by me rging HMV, Columbia Odeon, Pathé and other companies into one organisation.
Eventually some 'rationalisation' of the catalogues took place and slow selling items were deleted. Sitti Binti Saad remained a steady seller, but it was obvious that fresh recordings were necessary. By 1937 recording was again under way, most of it now being issued on the Columbia label.
[picture: Cover of the Odeon Malagasy catalogue, 1930]
Competition between companies having been eradicated by the merger, it mattered little what label the new records appeared on. Everything was ultimately controlled by the head office at Hayes, in Middlesex..
EMI appointed the East African Music Stores in Nairobi as its agent, an aggressive retail and wholesale distributor who set about recording a wide variety of music in all the principal languages. For the first time. commercial recordings were made available in Apawanga, Bunyore, Chinyanja, Jaluo, Kikuvu, Luganda, Nandi and over a dozen other languages as well as Swahili. Gujarati and Arabic. To add to the mosaic of available music, large quantities of Cuban records were also sold.
[picture: From the Odeon Swahili record supplement, 1930]
The HMV 'GV' label is one of the record industry's great success stories. Inaugurated in 1933 it devoted itself largely to music. either from Cuba or of Cuban influence. Initially aimed at a British market in order to capitalise on the then current vogue? for Cuban dance music,, the records started being exported to Africa and sold in huge quantities right across the continent In West Africa they influenced an entire generation of musicians, and while that influence is not so apparent on the east coast,, sales were markedly high in the main cities like Lourenço Marques. Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi. Over 250 records, containing some of the finest ( Cuban music, were eventually issued in this series. The influence that they had may be measured in part by older musicians recalling Cuban tunes by the HMV catalogue number rather than the proper title.
In the spring of 1940 a censorship issue arose that quickly became increasingly bizarre and complex: The correspondence that passed between Hayes and Nairobi speaks for itself; 13th March, from Haves to Nairobi;
"Very late in the day we have received a report from the gentleman we employed to censor certain of your recordings: No. 338, (in the Sesse language): The ending of this record is now queried as apparently the censor did not understand it. No. 337 (Sesse); Badly recorded, words of recitative are inaudible. This, of course is very serious as obviously a record cannot be passed from the censorship point of view unless every word of it is clearly understood. We shall be obliged, therefore. if you will have these numbers heard by three natives whom you can trust, if possible under the supervision of a white man who understands the language and let us have, as quickly as possible, the script in the native language together with an English translation; In the meantime we would ask you to withhold the issue of the coupling in question. It should not go out unless its contents are clearly understood and known not to contain any subversive matter."
26th March, Nairobi to Hayes: "We note your remarks regarding the two recordings but unfortunately these have already been sent to our distributors. and we have no doubt that a great many have already been sold. It is impossible to obtain a translation of this recording in Nairobi. as it is a local Uganda dialect,, peculiar to the Sesse islands in Lake Victoria, but we have asked our Kampala branch to obtain an exact translation."
12th April: From Nairobi to Hayes "We regret to have to advise you that we have been informed by the police in Uganda that tier? subject matter of record No. 337 is such as to make it entire!\ unsuitable for sale in that country The Police have assisted us in getting a translation and we find that the subject matter recorded does not agree with the script of the words which Were supposed to have been recorded. We? should tee glad if you will cancel l any orders which you have for this number aim have the master destroyed to ensue? that no further pressings are made. We very much regret that this should have occurred and the only explanation we can offer \was that it was made in the native dialect. of which we in Nairobi know nothing A copy of the words complained of is given herewith:
Lubaga by & Arajubu & Party: Be quiet while I tell you about the religions. I followed Catholicism anti I cast it on one side and then Protestantism and I threw that away but I placed the Mahommedanian [sic] first because this is the true religion. The truth of Mahommedanianism since it came from Kijungute is always going forward. If you have a Mahommedan as a guest you can be sure that he will get up early in the morning and be progressive. Even the water he passes he throws forward and not backward. "
The outbreak of European hostilities frustrated the growth of the record industry in East Africa, but the war itself remained distant. In the meantime, local radio broadcasting was gaining increasing popularity, and both recorded and live performances were starting to reach wider audiences.
By 1946, with the war over and new radio sets available for the first time, broadcasting started to play an increasingly important role in disseminating new music.
By 1946 also, EMI's virtual monopoly of the East African record market was now under threat from a number of sides; Decca records, with their new and technically superior 'Furl Frequency Range Recording' system launched a major campaign right across the African continent from 1945 onward, biting deeply into what had previously been an almost exclusive market for EMI.
Further, Eric Gallo's South African 'Gallotone' label was making increasing inroads into East African music, aided by Hugh Tracey, one of the most knowledgeable and sensitive folklorists ever to work in Africa. Unlike many traditional musicologists, Tracey immediately saw the value in the new, urban syncretic styles, especially guitar-songs, and recorded them with obvious care and attention. In addition, a number of small, locally-operated, labels such as Bluebird, Famous, Jambo and Troubador sprang up. A little shaken, EMI re-organised by establishing new studios in Mombasa, Nairobi and Dar-es Salaam and also by re-introducing the HNIV logo to run alongside Columbia.
What this meant for the customer was a fairly sudden increase in activity and choice. As radio continued to gain in popularity and the economy remained largely stable. the 1950s became a fat time for the music business. The classic 'dry' guitar sound, first heard on record as early as 1937, remained one of the dominant sounds, but with the increasing availability of electricity came the rise of amplifiedmusic. By the middle of the 1950s embryonic guitar styles were starting to take on a shape that today we recognise as the classic East African sound. What also helped to shape this music was the extraordinarily eclectic selection of music provided by, of all people, the BBC.
Broadcasting with powerful transmitters from Nairobi to listeners equipped with cheap receivers and a communal spirit that ensured large audiences, the Kenya Broadcasting Company (essentially an autonomous BBC operation) ran three national channels, one in English, one in Punjabi, Gujarati and Goan and a third in Swahili, Kikuyu and Luo. The English channel was filled with classical and popular music, jazz, news, religious services and comedy. One could hear the Goons every Wednesday and Tony Hancock on a Thursday night. For ex-pats it was Just Like Home.
The Indian channel also mixed news and comment with a staple diet of Ghazals, ragas, film-music and classical pieces. Thursday evenings was devoted to Goanese subjects.
The African National Radio channel, however, featured a specific format that highlighted a 'focal star' every morning on a fifteen-minute show, another at lunchtime, and variety shows in the afternoon and evening, sponsored by commercial companies like Coca- Cola and Shell Oil. Jean Bosco appeared often, as did Spokes Mishayane and the Manhattan Brothers, artists who essentially had South African careers, but whose popularity often brought them to Nairobi.
Local artists included Eduard Masenga, a singer-guitarist who appeared several times a week and also featured in his own Saturday night show, the Kiko Kids, Kolombo Albino and his Biguine Band, Gogo and Biskit (a sort of Shirley & Lee for Nairobi), the Four Spades Skiffle Band, and a large assortment of pennywhistle trios, dry guitarists and saxophone bands.
The recorded music ranged from Fats Domino and Count Basie through old Cuban bands and Nashville country singers to Elvis, Cliff and Ricky; proof that tact is often stranger by far than any fiction that could be concocted.
The dreadful and bloody Congo wars of the early 1960s created an influx of refugees into Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania that had profound stylistic influence on the music throughout the decade. As Peter Manuel explains (Popular Musics of the Non Western World), many Zairean musicians, fleeing the war, came to dominate the music scene in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, so that a new syncretic style, comprising the classics elements of dry guitar with the Congolese sound, was forged. That, essentially is the genesis of the sound one hears today, but the history that preceded these catalytic events provided the both the foundation and several of the key ingredients to the music of Bisani, Kanda Bongo Man and Misiani. Further reading The Rough Guide to World Music contains excellent information about current styles and places them neatly in contextual settings. Beyond that, there are a number of older anthropological tomes that will provide extra information for the seriously committed. Hugh Tracey's classic study of M'Chopi tribal music is worth hunting down. Recommended Listening The Original Music label (USA) has issued several excellent anthologies of vintage East African music, and both CD and cassettes are available, as are vinyl albums if you want to spend time looking for them. Look especially for these:
Kenya Dry Town & Country Guitar 1950- 65 CD021, Cassette 110, LP OMA110
The Nairobi Sound, Cassette 101, LP OMA101
Songs The Swahili Sing CD024, Cassette 103, LP OMAI03
The Kampala Sound 1964-68 CD013, Cassette 109, LP OMA109
Of Malagasy vintage music there is only one isolated track currently available on the anthology You Can Tell the World About This (Morning Star 45009, all formats), but a new release. featuring some twenty vintage recordings from the early 1930s, has been announced by Yazoo. It will probably be my favourite album of the year. The music is entirely wonderful and deserves to be heard as widely as possible.
With thanks to: Keith Chandler, Lucy Duran, Ruth Edge. Edgar Georgestone & Dr Janet Topp
This article was originally published in the magazine FolkROOTS.
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997