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Exploring African Music Through the Collections of the Library of Congress

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The following is a guest post by Harrison Behl, Reference Librarian at the Library of Congress’ Recorded Sound Research Room.

One of the consistent joys of reference work is fielding a question that opens a new avenue into a subject and then tracing a lead through our collections.  The scale of our holdings in the Library means that there is always more to explore.

I recently received a query from a researcher looking for songs that mentioned Chief Mumia, a prince of the Wanga tribe, who was highly influential in the region that became known as Kenya with the imposition of British colonial rule.  This question led me to a truly fantastic reference work:  “The Sounds of Africa Catalog,” compiled by Hugh Tracey and his International Library of African Music.  This single volume work thoroughly describes and contextualizes Tracey’s decades of recording projects across sub-Saharan Africa dating back to the 1930s.  Tracey was one of the first people, with access to recording equipment, to seriously study indigenous musical craft and culture.  He took extensive notes on song structure, thematic content, and instrumentation along with tracing the tribal and language connections that tied together geographically separate groups of performers.

The “Sounds of Africa Catalog” presents a wealth of access points for delving into these recordings and correspond to a series of 210 LP records Tracey compiled from earlier releases.  The catalog is particularly valuable because its indexing and cross-references enable even a non-expert in the subject matter to parse the recordings.

It turns out that Tracey had recorded at least two songs in which Chief Mumia was named.

The Library’s holdings include 93 of the “Sounds of Africa” LP series.  It isn’t clear how those discs first came into the Library or why a full set wasn’t acquired.  However, it is likely that more of the recordings described in the catalog are present in our collections through earlier releases of Tracey recordings through Gallo Records, Gallotone, Decca, Kaleidoscope, Canyon, and African Music/Musique Africaine.  I am excited to start on a journey through our collections to see how many of Tracey’s early recordings are represented.  I’m also excited to move from this point to see how recording culture documented and shaped the development of music across Africa, hopefully making our holdings in these areas more visible for researchers on their own unique explorations.

An example disc jacket for an LP from the Sounds of Africa Series of recordings

produced by Hugh Tracey and the International Library of African Music from the Library’s collection.


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