The following is a guest post by Harrison Behl, Reference Librarian at the Library of Congress’ Recorded Sound Research Room.
Previously, I’ve written about my introduction to early African music as recorded by Hugh Tracey and compiled into his “Sounds of Africa” box set which is part of the Recorded Sound Collections at the Library of Congress. In that post, I noted that while the Library does not hold a complete set of the series, we do have the published catalog of all the recordings that Tracey and his team captured during their African expeditions. By utilizing that catalog, I am currently piecing together and tracing these other recordings which can be found scattered throughout our collection of commercially released recordings. among other Library-held collections.
The depth and breadth of culture and creativity cataloged by Tracey is vast, but I came across an entry in the catalog that turns out to have had a significant impact all its own.
The recording in question bears the identifier TR-164. It is made up of recordings made in the Kenyan village of Kapkatet with members of the Kipsigis tribe. Tracey captured three iterations of a song called “Chemirocha.” Tracey notes in his description that the person/character “Chemirocha” is a Kipsigis interpolation of the name “Jimmie Rodgers.” Tracey claims that recordings featuring the yodeling American country star had found their way to the village, possibly via British missionaries, a few years prior to his recording visit occurring in September of 1950.
Tracey points to the similarities between Rodgers’s use of a six-string guitar and the six-string lyre played in a pentatonic scale for why the Jimmie Rodgers song so delighted the Kipsigis. Rodgers, known at the time as the Blue Yodler, incorporated blues elements into his country songs, which can be traced back to Africa via various musical traditions brought to the US via the Transatlantic slave trade.
There are three iterations of the song recorded during that visit to Kapkatet. They are referred to as “Chemirocha I,” “Chemirocha II,” and “Chemirocha III.” The first two are sung by men, but one of the men who sings on “Chemirocha II” explains that it is his sisters’ song but that they were too shy to be recorded. “Chemirocha III” features these young women performing the song themselves.
During this period of his recording project, Tracey was working with Eric Gallo to commercially release African folk recordings that they thought could appeal to a wider audience. The appearance of an American country star in the folk music of a remote African tribe proved to become a source of enduring fascination.
“Chemirocha II” was first released on Gallo’s Gallotone Records in 1952, on 78rpm disc, and the song became popular across Kenya. Its popularity led to a UK release a year later on London Records and it was released by Decca Records in the US by 1958.
As the “Chemirocha” song traveled further afield, the brief story noted by Tracey took on more elaborate ornamentation. Through his Kipsigis interpreter, Tracey understood that “Chemirocha” the character in the song was half-man, half-beast—an antelope specifically–and so Tracey compared him to a Pan-like figure. This short-hand comparison was later interpreted to suggest that to the Kipsigis, Chemirocha was a god-like figure. The lyrical exclamations to “dance your pants off,” through the cross-cultural game of telephone, became seductive exhortations from a fertility deity based on a yodeler from Kansas.
More recently, the International Library of African Music (ILAM), founded by Hugh Tracey, under the leadership of its director Diane Thram, has engaged in a project to repatriate the recordings Tracey collected, sharing them with the communities that originally shared them and to find connections to the people whose voices still echo across time through ILAM’S collections. In the process, Thram and her team gained a perspective on the Chemirocha story that contrasts against the fable that had developed.
Chemirocha has remained a popular figure in Western Kenya over the intervening decades. The song has become a popular touchstone for Kalenjin speakers and remains in rotation on local radio. But the fantastical figure was never thought of as a god-like figure or a fertility symbol, it was only ever a humorous song and not a greater window into their cultural beliefs. According to Josiah Kimutai arap Sang, the son of the paramount chief who gathered the musicians to perform for Tracey in 1950, Chemirocha/Jimmie Rodgers being half-man, half-beast had more to do with the belief that the white people they interacted with were all half-beastly, a sense derived from local impressions of British missionaries describing the Christian eucharist and experiences with medical procedures such as blood transfusions, both of which contributed to the idea that these foreign visitors might also be cannibals.
According to information Thram learned through the ILAM repatriation project, the song has been a fixture across Kenyan radio and is still in regular rotation today.
The various versions of “Chemirocha” can be found internationally as well, in contemporary collections and box sets of African music published today and they show up on video and music streaming sites across the internet. They remain a fascinating document of cultural influence, reinterpretation, and juxtaposition that invites us to explore the deeper context and connections they suggest.
For a more detailed report on ILAM’s repatriation project and the impact of bringing these recordings back to the communities and people who created them, look for Diane Thram’s contribution to the “Oxford Handbook of Musical Repatriation” [//lccn.loc.gov/2018037868]. For more information about Hugh Tracey’s Sounds of Africa catalog and related recordings, please contact the Recorded Sound Research Center [//ask.loc.gov/recorded-sound/].
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