The Future is African -interview with Michael Baird -SWP Records

Last March in South Africa I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Baird, an Englishman born in Zambia, living in Holland. He was playing percussion with some fellow musicians around a campfire during a braai, celebrating the birthday of a friend. Our meeting was a pleasant surprise as  I had reviewed one of the CD’s which Michael releases through his label SWP Records, ‘Lesotho Calling -lesiba & sekhankula music’ (SWP 033).  See my post Sounds & Basotho songs from Lesotho

I became even more fascinated by the fact that Michael also re-releases the famous Hugh Tracey field recordings that are part of the ILAM archives in Grahamstown, South Africa.

So here is an exclusive interview with Michael Baird about his label, his music and his many travels throughout Africa.

Michael Baird & Aaron & 22-06-08

Tell me when you started your label and why?

That was in 1986. I had produced an album’s worth of recordings of my percussion trio Sharp Wood, having spent a lot of time and trouble getting a good sound and performances, and I looked around for a serious label to release it. It was so frustrating – one said “phone back in ten months”, another said “it’s really interesting music, but if only you were the latest thing from New York…..”, yet another said “if you change some things we’ll sell more…..” So I released it myself and we sold the lp ‘Percussion’ at our concerts. In my opinion the existing record business lacked vision.

What is your release policy? You state that SWP releases music that the big companies won’t touch. What makes SWP different from the rest?

SWP stands for Sharp Wood Productions. I release my own music – I am first and foremost a drummer and composer. I want to retain at all times the final artistic responsibility for my music, I don’t want some halfwit money-motivated producer looking over my shoulder telling me what to do! My music is ‘independent’, I think it sounds like nobody else’s. And then there is all the African music I have released: I don’t do it just to make a profit, I do it because I care about the music – and nobody else is releasing it. If SWP doesn’t release this beautiful music, you aren’t going to get to hear it!

Nyeleti Mukkuli – Nchembele Musimbi Wangu (from SWP 036 ‘The Kankobela of the Batonga Vol.1’, recorded by Michael Baird)

You were born in Zambia. Describe your first encounters with the music of that country?

The first encounter was still in my mother’s womb. After that I had a black nanny and she took me down to the compound or village, where singing and dancing is a normal state of affairs, and I’m strapped on her back getting swayed back and forth, you know – music is everywhere in Zambia, because it’s an expression of ‘being together’. I grew up with African music.

What is your most memorable African music experience?

So many. Falling asleep in the evenings as a young kid with drums pounding in the distance. Hearing the magical tinkling of an approaching thumb-piano as the guy accompanies himself while walking through the bush. Sitting-in as a 7-year-old playing the basic patterns with drummers and xylophone players from Zambia’s Western Province. Hearing the thunder of a Rwandan drum ensemble as a 5-year-old. Being totally mesmerized as a 9-year-old by a Chopi xylophone ensemble from Mozambique. All in all, it’s the time patterns, the unity of beat. African music is a communal thing – you can join in if you know the tune or rhythm, but if you mess up you’ll get a clip round the earhole and told to listen!

You describe your style of drumming as ‘voodoo jazz’. Explain

It’s just a name, you know. But it refers to my music as a whole, and not just specifically my drumming. Some German journalist in 1988 wrote a review of a Sharp Wood concert and posed the question: “Is it jazz, or is it voodoo?” Wow, I finally knew what I was doing – I was playing voodoo-jazz! No, I kinda liked it because there is a ritualistic, exorcistic element in my music. Good rhythm is hypnotic, as you know. I try to blend musical concepts from both Africa and Europe into some kind of new music; the tag ‘voodoo-jazz’ will do fine for the time being.

Tell us more about the project The Ritmoloog? How does that fit into your catalogue?

The Ritmoloog Continues – it’s one of my albums, the continuing story of…..Michael Baird. Recorded in 2005, together with guest musicians. I had mixed midi and live playing together already on my cd ‘On Remote Patrol’ in 1996, and I wanted to pursue that. In between I had done other albums – ‘Sirenians’ was distilled from a composition commission for octet and ‘Gongs and Bells’ was all about overtones and sort of buddhists along the Zambesi. But in September I’ll be releasing ‘Ends and Odds’ which is like a continuation of The Ritmoloog concept. The final mixes are just finished, the mastering next week. Now that, folks, is a cd worth checking out! Afro-ambient grooves with weirdness thrown in. I play a lot of instruments on it – kalimbas, keyboards, drums – and again some guest musicians. The new is as old as the world, but I see myself as a ‘modernist’, and all that means is that I am in a position to steal from all over the place. But it definitely is still my soup!

Michael Baird – Heritage Groove (from SWP 029 ‘The Ritmoloog)

Are you working as a musician or cultural anthropologist?

I am a musician. I am a colonial kid. Zambians say to me, well if your umbilical cord is buried in Zambia then you are a Zambian! All my live music experiences were African until the family moved to England when, as a 10-year-old, my parents took me to see a european classical concert. I couldn’t figure out where the fun was – no sweating, no dust, no masks, no drumming. It was Hugh Tracey’s recordings which inspired me to also make field recordings. I am self-taught as a musician and if I am also seen as an ethnomusicologist, then I’m self-taught there as well. I have thoroughly researched a lot of African musics – by now I know quite a lot about African music, even if I say so myself, but I approach it all as a musician and not as an academic. Let me add that by making field recordings, I practice ethnomusicology – the people working in university departments just teach the theory!

Why release the historical recordings of Hugh Tracey?

When I walked into the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in 1996 at Rhodes University, South Africa, where Tracey’s archive is kept, there was nothing available on cd. His original field tapes were literally just sitting on an academic shelf gathering dust, doing no one any good. Such beautiful music should be made available to the world! You see, if a piece of music moves me, I want to let you hear it. It then turned out that the condition of the old reel-to-reel tapes was pretty bad – after playing a tape through, there was a little pile of red dust next to the magnetic head: the goddamn coating was just coming off! No time to lose – after all, Hugh Tracey’s unique collection of recordings constitutes the musical memory of half a continent. Two years later I released my first four albums in what ended up as a 21-cd series ‘Historical Recordings by Hugh Tracey’. That took the best part of eight years of my life.

Rwakanembe – Nyoro Royal Horns (from SWP 008 and also SWP 034, recorded in 1952 by Hugh Tracey)

Why choose traditional tribal music instead of a selection of contemporary popular music from those countries?

That’s not totally accurate, as I have released two compilations with Zambian pop music from the 60s, 70s and 80s. But SWP releases music that no one else does – I never planned to do my Hugh Tracey series, but because no one else apparantly had the vision to do it, it fell to me to do it. Life is like that sometimes! If the music is already out there on the market, that’s fine, then I don’t have to do it. But if I know about some great music that no one else seems to know or either care about – which often I had had the priviledge to have heard as a child – then I reckon I should release it. On top of that, the traditional music is dying out.

In what way do you feel that it is important to preserve the music that you record?

The music I have recorded in Africa – 4 cds released so far and a 5th coming before the end of the year – is dying out. You see, first the missionaries arrived and forbade the devil’s music, then in the colonial era, into which I was born, there was this incredible arrogance that all African music was primitive, then in the post-colonial era the new governments had the idea that everything Western was superior anyway, and nowadays most countries don’t have the means to care for their cultural roots. ‘Music Conservatory’ is an interesting name because it contains the word ‘conserve’ – there are only very few African countries that conserve their musical traditions.

In what way do you see the loss of traditional society vs the modern industrialised society?

Well, it’s all about cultural diversity. We need cultural diversity on this earth, because the alternative is a mono culture – and that’s a sad place to be. Vive les differences! Once you’ve got people eating the same, they’ll soon all be thinking the same. Yeah, macmadness… there is so much musical genius to be found in traditional music – it took centuries to create it for godsakes. We can learn so much musically from this music, so don’t let it just disappear. I am a contemporary person, I’m not a purist, I like to mix things up, but there is a cultural tragedy going on and we should care about it! If some young musicians from Zambia are making ‘new music’, then I want to be able to hear that they are from Zambia, i.e. that they are creating from their own rich musical roots, and not copying hiphop or whatever. MTV is destructive for local creativity. But I just love the Kasai Allstars from Kinshasa and Jagwa Music from Dar-es-Salaam – examples of new music from the cities but coming from their own roots.

What was the biggest challenge for you to record this music? And the biggest reward?

The biggest challenge is financial. Malaria, crocodiles, paranoid policemen, I can deal with – but I can’t continue making field trips to Africa because it costs too much money. Meaning SWP is not selling enough of those cds! And I don’t get any funding, I have to pay out of my own SWP pocket. Funnily enough, finding funds to continue his fieldwork was also Hugh Tracey’s constant worry throughout his life. It’s a pity – there are trips to parts of Mozambique, Zambia, Congo, Central African Republic, that I would like to do. The biggest reward is the music itself – finding it, and then making a technically good recording of a great performance. They are my music colleagues you know!

What is more important to you; the rhythms or the words/poetry? Words that you may not understand, why do they speak to you?

Words are also sounds. Languages are also music. Mwa-bu-ka-bu-ti! Kaf-e-keni-po-mu-kwai! You don’t have to understand the meaning of a lyric to enjoy the organic whole. However, if a song has a real social or spiritual message, you’ll miss out on it if you don’t get the translation. But for example, one time I heard this great drumming and there were a couple of sentences repetitively sung in the groove – turned out all they were singing was “yes we’re all here, if you are not here, then where are you?” I was already enjoying the music okay, but when I heard that, it brought tears to my eyes. Words can detract from music, but they can also add to it.

Why is it important to save traditional African music for the world?

Because it is so beautiful. Also, in African traditional music you find a collectiveness that you will probably find nowhere else in the world: on your own you are nobody, together we are someone. Now that’s a strong philosophical message which us Westerners with all our individualism can learn from! Historically speaking, we are in a crucial fase as far as African music is concerned, many traditions are disappearing as you read this article. But I’m optimistic – I actually think that the future is African.

Sounds of Tongaland

The area known as Tongaland is geographically the north-eastern corner of Zululand, stretching northwards from the Mkuzi Game Reserve to the borders of Mozambique and Swaziland. It includes a tremendous variety of habitats, many of these little known or documented, supporting what is probably the most unique flora and fauna in southern Africa.

One can almost say that whatever form of life exists between tidal pools and mountains, it can be found in Tongaland.

During recent years, progress has been rapid in this area. Each year more and more men have left the hills and plains to seek fortune in the cities, goldmines and sugar-mills. Many traditions and customs have become old-fashioned, much folklore and music handed down from father to son have been abandoned or forgotten as civilization has advanced. The instruments in the  selections are naqueyane -a bow

nGulula -a friction drum, usually played by young girls who sit crosslegged on the ground with a clay bowl of water at their sides. The instrument is played by pulling and sliding the wetted hands along the lenght of the reed.

isiZembe-a small curved bow

These selections are a brief impression in sound of the moods of Tongaland, a glimpse of the music of the people. Imagine a hilltop looking down onto a vast open plain; the calls of a pair of Pel’s Fishing Owls can be heard with the distant croaking of frogs and toads in the swamps. In the evening families and friends gather around their fires talking and this is when folksongs are born. Past experiences are recalled and even events of the day are phrased and sung.  These songs are often only a simple phrase repeated again and again, depending upon the mood of the moment and personalities present. We hear a group of young girls practicing stamping and handclapping-surely one of the most primitive forms of music-and then they sing and dance.

Sounds of  Tongaland -iSizembe

Sounds of Tongaland -folksong 2 with naqueyane acc

Sounds of  Tongaland -clapping and stamping with song

Sounds one would have heard some years ago, before the guitar, mouth organ, penny whistle, concertina and the transistor radio became available

Excerpts from the liner notes of ‘Sounds of Tongaland’ by Tony Pooley 1970

pics Lake Kariba

The Bleached Zulu pt 2 -OST “Tokoloshe” Sam Sklair

thanks to our friends at LP Cover Lover for spreading the gospel about Sam Sklair. I’ve had feedback from a lot of places that I never could have expected. Find the  original posts with MP3’s here Sam Sklair -Gumboot Dance vol 1 & 2 and here  Sam Sklair -POP goes the gumboot

Sam Sklair certainly deserves his title as  ‘Bleached Zulu’ for he not only re-worked traditional Zulu and other South African songs into pop charting material in the 60’s and 70’s but he was also composing for TV and movies with an African theme.

For ”Tokoloshe”  (The Evil Spirit), an independent  movie  produced in 1965, by director Peter Browse,  Sam Sklair composed the soundtrack and  played traditional instruments like the kalimba (m’bira), chopi piano and slit drums together with classical and jazz musicians for the recording sessions. While these instruments play a major role in Sam Sklair’s arrangements he has avoided using them in any traditional sense. There are no ‘jungle music’ clichés but he uses these instruments rather in a way that juxtaposes or blends their primitive sounds with the complex tones of a modern orchestra. Cast includes Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi … Zulu Chief, Sid James … Blind Man, Saul Pelle … Boy, Jimmy Sabe … Witchdoctor

excerpts from the original liner notes of ‘Tokoloshe’  (1965) Teal TL 1136

about tokoloshe

Anyone from Africa, particularly southern Africa will be familiar with the tokoloshe and even those who scoff at its existence will have their beds elevated on bricks just to be sure that the dwarf like tokoloshe can’t reach them while they sleep.
Once the ‘tokoloshe’ is explained to non-Africans they soon recognize this creature. He is the European version of a goblin, gremlin, leprechaun, water sprite, faerie or demon. Whenever something goes awry it is the tokoloshe who is to blame. The tokoloshe is a short, hairy, dwarf-like creature controlled by witches, from Bantu folklore. It is a mischievous and evil spirit that can become invisible by swallowing a pebble.

The penis of the tokoloshe is so long that it has to be slung over his shoulder. Thus sexually well endowed, the duties of the tokoloshe include making love to its witch mistress. In return, it is rewarded with milk and food.
The witch keeps the tokoloshe docile by cutting the fringe of hair that hangs over its eyes. The way to get rid of a tokoloshe is to call in the n’anga or witch doctor who has the power to banish him from the area. Witch doctors make a magical substance from the body of a dead tokolosh, which makes the tokoloshe visible and paralyzes him, allowing the witch doctor to kill him. This ‘muti’ is sold throughout Africa as protection against tokoloshes and the genuine article leaves a cold mark on the skin where it is rubbed in.

excerpts from an original text by Safari Newsreel. Photo’s by Aiden Chole

Puseletso Seema & Tau Ea Linare -Lesotho

The album ‘He O Oe Oe!’  by the Sotho singer Puseletso Seema,  backed by the group Tau Ea Linares, translated ‘King of Buffaloes, was originally released in 1985 by Globestyle, the UK label of Ben Mandelson and is long out of print. The recordings on this album are unique because Ben, as a passionate music aficionado, arranged for the meeting of Puseletso Seema and Tau Ea Linare, who normally record separately.

Sotho traditional music is an integral part of Sotho social education and traditionally links hearing with the understanding of the natural and social worlds. The Sotho describe instruments as either liletsa tsa matsoho (those sounded by the hand) or liletsa tsa molomo (those sounded by the mouth). The former category includes the moropa and skupu drums, these days often made from oil cans because of scarcity of wood. The latter category includes the lesiba, a mouth-resonated stick-zither sounded by blowing. The primary use of the lesiba is in cattle-herding; bird sounds and actions are seen to affect cattle; these sounds can be imitated on the lesiba and the instrument is thus used to control the animals’ behaviour. The whistles and yipping are herdboy’s calls as recorded for the particular song.


‘thabo’ is a name given to a Sotho boy and by adding ‘ma’ it means ‘mother of Thabo’ and also has the meaning ‘to ever be glad’


translated means ‘lies’ -the song is about the fact that lies get one in trouble especially lovers

Vatse Halenone

translated means ‘land can’t be fat’ -the song is about land that cannot receive rain or nourishment or proper care, cannot yield food to feed it’s people

Traditionally there was no professionalism in Sotho music, although this has developed in response to changes in Sotho culture. Broadcasting and exposure to other styles of African and international music and the demands of the pop music market, even the introduction of the accordion, all have their influences on musicians and singers.

excerpts from the original linernotes of  ‘He O Oe Oe!’ by Puseletso Seema & Tau Ea Linare. Globestyle ORB 003 UK 1985

Ensigo ‘East Africa in Binaural’ -interview with Aaron Appleton

sometimes great music comes as a digital download. After listening to the content of the album  ‘East Africa in Binaural’ I became enchanted by the music and also intrigued by the question why a young American would travel to the heart of rural Uganda and record traditional music in uncertain conditions.

‘East Africa in Binaural’ is an outstanding album of authentic traditional music from Uganda and Rwanda, compiled and recorded between August and December 2006 entirely on location using churches, mud huts, bedrooms, town halls and the outdoors as the studio.

Rwandan Teachers on Lunch Break

The intended purpose of this album was to bring unity and reconciliation among the divided people groups of the communities where the recordings were made, to be used as source of income for the musicians recorded, and to help to document and preserve the traditional music of Uganda & Rwanda.  Now released to the public as a way to raise funds for the non-profit organization Ensigo.

Click here for listening to the full album and downloads.

Here is an exclusive interview for Soul Safari with Aaron Appleton, an ethnomusicologist/producer working in Africa, Central America and South East Asia who produced and recorded  ‘East Africa in Binaural’

Why record music from Uganda & Rwanda?

This is fairly difficult to answer because there are so many factors that have led to my work in Uganda and Rwanda, so I will try to answer this question through a story from my journal:

“September 2006
It’s amazing how the seemingly small action of one person can change your life forever. Radiant sunbeams shone through the crack in the front door washing my face in its brilliance and waking me from my peaceful slumber. The small Ugandan mud hut suddenly became a bustle of activity as the able bodied women hurriedly prepared breakfast for the family over an open flame. Meanwhile Mbaziira, Aboki and I waited in the sitting room. Aboki was a gentle and kindhearted woman. Years of hard labor grinding millet, fetching water, and working in the fields showed in the wrinkles on her delicate face and calloused hands. She was in desperate need of surgery to have a kidney removed. Unfortunately the family was unable to afford the doctor’s fees so she has been in constant pain for the last several months. Daily tasks like physical labor and even talking were an arduous chore for her to perform taking its toll on her now fragile body. Yet there was a vibrant spark of life that I caught from the twinkle in her eye and radiant smile when I asked questions of her favorite memories from childhood.

“Aaron you have been a blessing to us and are most welcome in Uganda.” Said Aboki, as she presented me with several meticulously handcrafted baskets which had taken her weeks to make. These baskets were her main source of income and she freely gave them to express her love. I struggled to hold back the tears, as I was moved by this incredible act of generosity. After regaining my composure I made the simple promise to Aboki and the rest of the Upendo family that I would be back to Uganda to help musicians like her and others in her country.”

I was first drawn to East Africa because of the richness of its musical history.  Located on top of the African plateau, Uganda’s moderate climate, fertile soil and strategic location drew all three of Africa’s major people groups to settle there thus creating many secondary cultures and musical forms.  The pygmoids brought their intricate vocal styles and body percussion, the negroids brought their heavily rhythmic music and aggressive dancing, and the hamites brought their intelligent and poetic musical lyrics.  With this unique intermarriage of cultures and music from all across the continent one can say that Uganda is in essence the microcosm of Africa.  In this climate of diversity and cross-cultural interaction many creative musical forms and instruments have emerged positioning Uganda as a melting pot for musical innovation.  Equally as intriguing is the traditional music of Rwanda…with its hauntingly beautiful minor melodies sung over the top of complex polyrhythmic beats.

Aside from the research of legendary ethnomusicologists Peter Cooke, Gerhard Kubik, and Klaus Wachsmann on Kiganda music of the Baganda tribe, there has been very little research or documentation of the music of the more than 60 tribes in Uganda.  This also helped to fuel my curiosity of discovering and recording music that has never been heard by Western listeners.

Are you working as a musician or cultural anthropologist?

For this particular project I was working as a student, producer, humanitarian and ethnomusicologist.  I did this project through Food For The Hungry, which is an international relief and development organization.  I recorded and researched for it between August 2006 and December 2006.  It was recorded entirely on location in Uganda & Rwanda using churches, mud huts, bedrooms, town halls and the outdoors as the studio.  Initially the album was used as benefit and academic project in which I produced both a research paper and an album.  It was replicated and distributed to the musicians in the primary villages where the recordings were made (Piswa & Bukwa Uganda) which are members of the Sabine tribe. The intended purpose of the album was to bring unity and reconciliation among the divided people groups of the communities where the recordings were made, to be used as source of income for the musicians recorded, and to help to document and preserve the traditional music of Uganda & Rwanda.  But I am now releasing it to the public to be used as a way to raise funds for the non-profit organization Ensigo.

Acholi is the name of a tribe from Northern Uganda

Why choose traditional tribal music instead of a selection of contemporary popular music from those countries?

In my honest opinion the contemporary music of Uganda and Rwanda is some of the worst music I have ever heard.  The vast majority of popular artists create sequenced instrumental tracks in a Digital Audio Workstation called FruityLoops and mimic Jamaican reggaeton styles.  Many of the musicians and professors that I interviewed in my research voiced a concern with the loss of Ugandan culture.  In conversation with Professor John Ssempeke (son of the famous Kiganda musician Albert Ssempeke) at Uganda’s national Museum the professor of traditional African music expressed “Slowly our culture is being lost to westernization.  I believe that one day in the near future our precious Ugandan culture will become totally lost, and people will long to have it back.”

Through interactions with local musicians and reading about the history and variety of musical instruments across the region I discovered how truly intricate and complex Ugandan music is.  Experiencing the complexities and perfected artform of the music made me even sadder that so many youth are forsaking their traditional music roots for western pop music.

In what way do you feel that this project is different from other aid-organisations?

I feel that Ensigo is unique in that we choose to focus on music as a potential avenue of overcoming both economic and spiritual poverty.  We believe that music is one of Africa’s greatest resources.  If you look at many of today’s contemporary music styles you discover that many of them can be traced back to Africa. Multiple genres ranging from: hip hop, blues, jazz, rumba, bluegrass, funk, soul, R&B, rock & roll, swing, reggae, and many others have emerged from the African diaspora and richly blessed the world. It is our hope to focus on this area of music by deeply investing in, and partnering with virtuous musicians from the developing world.

What was the biggest challenge for you to record this music? And the biggest reward?

I would say that the biggest challenge is adjusting to the various cultural norms in the countries where I work…and tyring to find out how NOT to offend people as fast as I can:)  It is also kind of hard trying to adjust to the differences in how time is viewed in East Africa as opposed to how it is in a Western context.  So I usually have to work on growing in my patience quite a bit:)

There are so many rewards!  The people of Uganda are some of the kindest and most hospitable people I have encountered.  On several ocassions I have found myself meeting a stranger on the street one afternoon then spending the rest of the day with them, meeting their family and eating with them at their home.  I have also been overwhelmed by the appreciation shown to me in some of the rural areas where I recorded, with whole towns coming together and throwing a party…and in one situation giving my friend and I a goat as a present 🙂

The ‘Aids’ song; is this song a warning or promotion for the use of condoms?? Teached in schools probably?

The AIDS poem was recorded on a mountaintop in the very rural village of Piswa Uganda.  It was recited by 4 female students from the Kapchoros Secondary School.  The poem mentions nothing about being for or against condoms.  While abstainance is a widely taught method for HIV/AIDS prevention in primary and secondary schools, I found that condom usage is strongly promoted for adults in Uganda and Rwanda.

Who is the singer on ‘Luganda Improv’? and what is the song about?

This singer on the track “Luganda Improv” is my good friend Ntare Davis.  This song was recorded in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala.  Ntare and I would often write and record music together.  One day I came up with this guitar part and started recording and Ntare started singing the first words and melodies that came to his head.  It is sung in the language of Luganda, which is the language of the Buganda tribe.

The Nnabagereka (queen) of Buganda, Sylvia Nagginda, is adorned in traditional Samburu jewellery.

The Nnabagereka (queen) of Buganda, Sylvia Nagginda, is adorned in traditional Samburu jewellery.

What is more important to you; the rhythms or the words/poetry? Words that you may not understand, why do they speak to you?

I believe that both the lyrics and musical structure of a song are vitally important.  However for me personally the thing that I notice first about a song is the musical structure.  For some strange reason it seems that the songs which ignite my creative imagination most are ones sung in languages I don’t understand.  Groups and artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Muzykoterapia, Oliver Mtukudzki, 椎名 林檎, and Sigur Rós demonstrate a wonderful ability to transcend barriers and divides. Their music stands out as a form of communication that has an incredible ability to initiate intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding.

I think what draws me so much to African and “world” (I hate the term world music…because it always makes me think of cheesy synthesizers and way too much reverb:) music is the creativity and the utter joy you feel when first encountering that music and realizing that you’ve never heard anything like this before in your life; it transports you to a place where words seem to be irrelevant.

Why is it important to save this music for the future?

These songs are beautiful artifacts of a vibrant culture that I believe are not only important for the tribes where they come from to preserve but for the world to hear.  The raw beauty and honesty portrayed in these songs that reflect a nation’s pulse should be as important to preserve to Ugandan’s and Rwandan’s as Spirituals like Swing Low Sweet Chariot or Oh Mary Don’t You Weep are to American culture.

An excerpt of a poem by 19th Century American poet  Augustine Joseph Hickey Duganne titled The Poet And The People aptly describes this:

“Songs are a nation’s pulses, which discover
If the great body be as nature will’d ;

Songs are the spasms of soul,

Telling us when men suffer :
Dead is the nation’s heart whose songs are still’d.”

Recommended Listening

To download or stream the album “Ensigo: East Africa In Binaural” click here

more African tribal dances from the Witwatersrand Gold Mines

YEBO! greetings from South Africa!

I just came back from a few weeks in South Africa where I was on a vinyl  safari throughout the land.  Some real great moments spent this time with a few hunters and  kindred spirits alike and brought back a big selection of rare vinyl and some books as well. Watch these pages the coming months as I will share some of these treasures …

On one of my hunting trips I found this beautiful book with gorgeous photographs by Merlyn Severn. The content is very well documented and researched as the dances have been selected by Hugh Tracey at the Witwatersrand Gold Mines. Hugh Tracey has long been known for his intimate studies of the music, dances and stories of many of the Bantu Tribes of South and Central Africa. His enthusiasm for the art of the genuine African musician, dancer and storyteller was largely responsible for the establishment of the African Music Society.

Merlyn Severn has specialised for many years in the photography of dance action. Her two well-known books on ballet placed her in the front rank of dance photographers in England many years before she visited Africa and collaborated with Hugh Tracey to produce this series of brilliant studies of African mine dances.

African country dances have been transported into the environment of modern industry and undergone a corresponding mutation, but these excellent illustrations convey at once the eternal fascination and sincerity of this age-old recreation,  the most important of  all the African arts.

here is a selection starting with the Mchopi tribe. The Chopi or Mchopi tribe may well be one of the most musical of all Bantu tribes. Their xylophone orchestras have made them famous. The skill with which they make their instruments, the complexities of the dance itself, the excellence of their lyrics, all combine to place their music, poetry and dancing on a plane well above those of most African peoples.

Mchopi tribe -Timbila dance

one of the rattle players or ‘mdoto wanjele’


there are three distinct dances performed by Xhosa men. The first is done by the Amakwenkwe or youths; the second is danced ritually by the Abakweta, the initiates to manhood; and the third is performed only by the Amadoda, grown men after their initiation and acceptance into full social responsibility.

Amakwenkwe Xhosa tribe -dance for young men accompanied by concertina and whistle


The Shangaan people are distantly related on their father’s side to the South African Nguni. They are one of the splashes thrown out by the Zulu melting pot of the early 19th century. Today they are a conglomerate of tribes speaking  three or four languages in the Tsonga group all calling themselves ‘Shangaan’.

Amakwaya Shangaan tribe -Makwaya Dance

The song with miming gestures often sung in mine patois, ‘Fanakalo’.

all photographs by Merlyn Severn, excerpts from the book ‘African Dances of the Witwatersrand Gold Mines’ by Hugh Tracey. Published by African Music Society, first edition October 1952


all musical selections from ‘African Tribal Dances at the Witwatersrand Gold Mines’. CBS ALD 6624

sounds & Basotho songs from Lesotho

I could not believe my luck when I found this album; “Lesotho sings”, songs from the kingdom of Lesotho, a mountainous country that is completely surrounded by South Africa. There are a few  recordings by Hugh Tracey that were recorded during his fieldwork in 1957 known to me,  but I must admit that not many records from Lesotho have crossed my path before…

lesotho sings cover

“Lesotho Sings” consists of a collection of hymns and folk songs as sung by The Maseru and Hlotse Methodist Choir conducted by Alex Gwinsta.

The Basotho, like their fellows the Zulus, the Xhosa and Tswana, love to sing! The Negro Spirituals of the deep South, and the natural harmonies of the African in his own habitat, share a bond, indicating a common heritage intensified by the deep felt religious convictions of the African folk at heart.

They sing of their honoured founder, Moshoeshoe; they sing well-loved hymns from their wide repertoire, they sing in English and in Latin, as well as in their sister languages, Tswana and Xhosa and of course in their own Lesotho tongue.

lesotho sings label

Thesela e Mocha

a spirited call to the Basotho to exult in song and jubilation in honour of the young king, son of Moshoeshoe the Great, founder of the Basotho nation


a Latin song of praise to God

Tlong Thaka

a fervent call to all Basotho youth to rise and exult in the natural beauties of the land

Sala Sentle

a Tswana farewell to one’s beloved
alex gwinsta foto

Excerpts from the original liner notes of “Lesotho Sings” The Maseru and Hlotse Methodist Choir conducted by Alex Gwinsta–private pressing Lesotho

…and another excellent compilation of lesiba and sekhankula music, “Lesotho Calling”

The lesiba is a blown mouthbow, whereas members of this family of instruments are struck or plucked. At well over a meter in length, it is among the longest. This ancient instrument of the Khoi people, known as gora was once widespread throughout present day South Africa, as it was readily adopted by several newly arrived Bantu peoples –called ughwali by the Xhosa, kwadi by the Pedi, lesiba by the Sotho. But only the lesiba survives today.

Michael Baird & Dada Moqasa

Dada Moqasa & Michael Baird

‘the beauty of this instrument immediately knocked me out. A meditative sound, almost abstract but definitely breathing, an array of overtones, music of the ancestors, music of birds and mountains, a sound that could only come from Africa’ . Words by Michael Baird who recorded what he found on his trip through Lesotho in 2006; lesiba players and another herdsman’s instrument, the sekhankula bow and some old-style Sotho concertina.

Molalehli Matima with his lesiba Molalehli Matima with his lesiba

Tselane Ngoanak’eby Molalehli Matima

Sehloho Lebusa with his lesiba Sehloho Lebusa with his lesiba

Ntate Nkuebe balha lehlanya “Mr Nkuebe running away from the madman”by Sehloho Lebusa

The title comes from an expression used by some players to announce themselves before starting to play ‘Move aside, I’m the man!’

Another herdsman’s instrument of Lesotho is the sekhankula, also known as maohorong depending on which district. It is a musical bow that is played with a bow stroking the strings and is widely distributed throughout South Africa. A curved stick or sometimes a straight steel rod, of the type used for reinforcing concrete, is put into a 5 –liter paraffin can through the top end, which is open having been removed by sawing and the stick/rod is jammed in place. The string is a length of tin iron wire, which is attached to the top of the stick and fixed to the outside of the far corner of the can; the can acts as a resonator, sometimes with an opening cut in the bottom and small holes punctured in the sides.

Mocholoko satane “Graduate of witchcraft by Motsoetla Letsie.

Motsoetla plays instrumental only, no singing. At the beginning of this track, we can hear him rubbing his bow across the top of his instrument a few times where he had his resin reserve. This is something all the sekhankula players do before commencing a piece.

Samuel Tolosi en Motsoetla Letsie with his sekhankula Samuel Tolosi and Motsoetla Letsie with a sekhankula

Excerpts from the original liner notes and photographs courtesy of “Lesotho calling” SWP 033

Recommended listening

“Lesotho calling” SWP 033

lesotho country cover

see Lesotho kids singing in a traditional smoke hut

Basotho young men and kids are singing traditional songs.

Filmed in nightshot in a traditional basotho housse ( full of smoke) during the Afropeaks pan african mountain expedition in Lesotho.

dances from the Witwatersrand Gold Mines

gumboot 1 gumboot dancers are commonly sighted on the streets and plazas of tourist areas in South Africa, such as the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. The dance likely originated among South African gold miners , and especially among their tough working conditions. ‘Gumboot’  hit the charts in the early to mid-60’s through the popularisation by white South African bandleaders like Sam Sklair and Dan Hill a.o. who scored big hits with adaptions of gumboot song themes.  See my earlier posts on the music of  Sam Sklair  and POP goes the gumboot.


about the origins of gumboot dances…

the floors of the mines were often flooded, with poor or non-existent drainage. For the miners, hours of standing up to their knees in infected waters brought on skin ulcers, foot problems and consequent lost work time. The bosses discovered that providing gumboots (Wellington boots) to the workers was cheaper than attempting to drain the mines. This created the miners uniform, consisting of heavy black Wellington boots, jeans, bare chest and bandannas to absorb eye-stinging sweat. Many of the steps and routines are parodies of the officers and guards who controlled the mines and workers’ barracks.

gumboots 2

The gold mines of the Witwatersrand reef, which runs east-west through Johannesburg, have drawn thousands of African men from South Africa and nearby countries Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Botswana and Malawi to work since the late 1800’s. From early days, one of their main off-duty recreations was dancing. ‘Inter-tribal’ dances were open to the public, but it was only in 1943 that the first semi-circular arena was specifically built for the purpose ‘so that the art of African dancing should receive its proper recognition from white and black alike’ as Hugh Tracey wrote in his illustrated book ‘African Dancing of the Witwatersrand Gold Mines*

witwatersrand cover
Each ethnic group’s dancing could be better shown off both to the other miners –some of the mines employed over 10.000 men- and to visitors and tourists. It was not long before scores of dance arenas appeared along the whole line of gold mines. The Mine Dances became a huge tourist attraction, and with good reason; the dances of southern Africa are among the most dramatic, energetic and exciting of the whole continent, and this was the one place where so many of them could be seen together.

onlookers at reef gold mine watching mpondo dancers
onlookers at reef gold mine watching mpondo dancers

However, it was soon the Apartheid era, when all inter-racial relations became obsessively fraught with political tension. By the 1980’s the separations inherent in this hugely popular event began to be suspect with liberal thinkers in the mining houses, not only because white and black watched from separate parts of the arenas, but even because each ethnic group present on the mines danced its own styles separately. There are now no more Mine Dances, except at Gold Reef City, a nostalgic retrospect with professional dancers.

  • published by the African Music Society. Gives full details and photographs of the dances. Available from ILAM

witwatersrand dances 2
Ndhlamini–by Baca men. The Baca are related to the Swazi, but live further south in the Cape Province of South Africa.  The singers start the performance, and once the rhythm and tempo are established the dancers begin their routine. The end of each movement is marked by the dancers turning to one side and kneeling on one knee, with sticks pointing over the shoulder of the man in front.

Malira –by Zingili men. The Zingili clan from the northern end of Zululand and the southern part of Swaziland are the most popular exponents of the Ndhlamu dance. A group of friends of the dancers provide the dance music by singing, humming and clapping.

Wo Yo Yo –by Mpondo men from Pondoland in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.

The Mpondo version of the Ndhlamu dance is taken at a slightly faster tempo. The nonsense words sung by the leader are intended to reinforce the rhythm rather than provide a lyric.

The Muchogonlo Tumbling Dance –of the Ndau from the Mpanda district of Mozambique.

The dancers perform a series of athletic steps and routines to the accompaniment of drums, most of which are intended to evoke laughter either by their antics or by the brilliant syncopation of their performance

The Umeyo Shaking Dance–of the Xhosa from the Ciskei in the Cape Province of South Africa.

The sound of the leg rattles and of small bells which are strapped across the chests of the dancers enhances the urgency of the action. By rapidly flexing and unflexing alternate knees the dancers appear to ripple the whole length of their bodies. They take their orders from the whistle player, while the concertina provides the simple ground music that keeps the team dancing in unison

Xhosa dancers
Xhosa dancers

The Isicathulo Gum-boot dance –by Baca men from the Cape Province

The dancers exploit their Wellington rubber boots to the full by slapping them with their hands or by clapping their feet together. Each syncopated routing is given a name that the leader calls out to his men so that they will know which action to perform on the word of command. A single guitarist who strums one chord only provides the simple background music.

teenage Xhosa boys in costume for umtshotso dance, a dance for the youth

photographs courtesy of ILAM

Recommended reading

‘African Dancing of the Witwatersrand Gold Mines’ by Hugh Tracey

Recommended listening

African dances from the Witwatersrand Gold Mines part 1 and 2

Music from Africa Series 12 & 13

published by ILAM