A Conversation

The phonograph sound recordings made during Northcote Thomasanthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are like time capsules. Between 1909 and 1915, Thomas and his local assistants made well over 700 recordings of songs, stories and ‘specimens of language‘. Many of these have been unheard for over a century.

Thanks to digitization of the original wax cylinders by the British Library, these recordings are now accessible once again. As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have been working with communities and local language/dialect speakers to transcribe and translate as many of the recordings as possible. It is not easy work, partly due to changes in the languages over 100 years and partly due to the poor quality of the wax cylinder recordings.

When we are able to obtain a good transcription and translation, the results are often quite startling. They provide remarkable insights into a moment in time: a moment of colonial intrusion, of which the anthropological survey was, of course, a part.

Recording No.465 was made during N. W. Thomas’s 1910-11 tour of what the colonial authorities had designated Awka District, in the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, corresponding approximately to present-day Anambra State. The recording appears to have been made in the town of Umuchukwu, also known as Ndikelionwu, in 1911. It is a recording of a conversation between two young men, John, described as ‘an Onitsha boy’, and Nwile, ‘a Nibo boy’. Judging from the conversation, it seems that they have both accompanied the anthropologist on his visit to Umuchukwu, although Nwile seems to know the local chief and acts as an intermediary.

Conversation in Igbo between John, from Onitsha, and Nwile, from Nibo, recorded by Northcote Thomas in Umuchukwu in 1911. (NWT 465; BL C51/2723)

We worked with Yvonne Mbanefo and Oba Kosi Nwoba to obtain a transcription and English translation from the Igbo. With the translation in hand, we also discovered that Thomas had actually already published a transcription and translation of the recording in the third part of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria, which is devoted to ‘Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar’. Usually Thomas noted the record number alongside published transcriptions/translations, but on this occasion he neglected to do so. It was, however, easy to recognize the text once we received the translation. It is interesting to compare the original phonetic rendering and translation with the new one. (We discuss the orthographic conventions that Thomas employed in a previous blog post.)

Excerpt of the transcription and translation of John and Nwile’s conversation, publishing in Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part III, Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar. (Click on image to enlarge.)

The transcription and translation provided by Yvonne Mbanefo and Oba Kosi Nwoba:

D’anyị, I noo mma?
Ano m noo!
Kedu ka ịmee?
Anọ m no ọfụma
I budi onye ebe?
Abụ m onye Nibo
Oo!
Brother, are you well?
I am just there
How are you?
I am just fine.
Where are you from?
I am from Nibo  
Oh!
Mu na gi na aluko olu na ofu ebe.
Ọmaka no-ofu.
Anyị nwa wee bia n’obodo ndị a.
Anyị bialu ụmụchukwu tata.
We work together in the same place
It is a good thing
We came to this people’s town
We came to Umuchukwu today.
Umuchukwu ndị a bụ ndị ebe?
Fa bụ ndị ikeri-ọnwụ
Ndị Ikeri-ọnwụ?
Eh!  
This Umuchukwu is in which part?
It is in Ikeri-onwu.
Ikeri-onwu?
Yes!
Kedukwa onye anyị no be ya?
Anyi no be Chief a na-akpọ Kanu.
O!
Ya na ndị be ya niile.
Esego nwunye ya na foto?
Esego nwunye ya tata 
Ya na onye du?
Ya na nke onye Ọnicha
Ezi e?
Eh!
Who are we even in his house?
We are in Chief Kanu’s house
Oh!
With his whole family  
Have they taken photograph of his wife?
The wife was photographed today
With who?
She and the person from Onitsha
Truthfully?
Yes.
Munwa bụ John ka eselu mu na ya na foto tata.
Ọ ya ka m fukwalu.
Okwu asi!
Mba, afulu m ya, hahaha!
D’anyị amuna amu n’ofu!
I na-asika asi nwoke m.  
Nwoke m, ọbụghị asi, afulu m n’anya.
Ọ dimma ebe I fulu n’anya na okwu adiro ya. K’anyị norisizi a nu.
Ma gị gwakwa ndị a na abiama bialu be fa.
Nnukwu ife bialu tata.
It is I John, that was photographed with her today.
That is what I have seen.
It is a lie!
No, I saw it, haha!
Brother don’t laugh like that
You are always lying, my man  
My man, it is not a lie, I saw it.
It is ok since you saw it, there is no disputing it. Let us relax.
But tell them that they have a visitor.
A big thing came today
Ị gwago fa na o bụ ndị-oyibo
Agwalu m fa, si fa na ndị-oyibo bialu
Ka fa kwadobe nd be fa nile.
Abụ m onye Ọnicha
Nnọọ!
Gị nwa onye Nibo.
Unu apụtachago ụla?
Ọ dimma.
Nnọọ o!
Kedu ka unu melu?
Anyị nocha nma nma.
Have you told them it is the white people?
I told them that the white people are here, let them prepare their people.
I am from Onitsha.
Welcome!
You, from Nibo.
It is well.
Welcome!
How are you people doing?
We are all fine.
Kene ndị a daalụ o!
Chief achoo I kene gị, gị daalụ o!
Si fa na onye-ocha si fa daalu o!
Onye-ọcha kenelu gị nma nma o!
Greet this people!
Chief, he wants to greet you, greetings to you!
Tell them that the white person greets them.
The white person greets you well.  
Si fa n’anyi bialu k’anyi fu fa anya o!
Anyi bialu nkata bunu
K’anyi wee nolisia o!
K’anyi nolisia olili k’anyị naa o!
Hahahaha!
Omelu agaa du?
Nma nma ka o dị.
Ọ dimma o,Nkata nkata ka ọ bụ.
Ka ọ dị n’ofu.
Nnọọ o!
Ike agwubago m, ka m naa.
Eh?
Eh!
Ọ dimma, kachifo! Ka ọ dibazia!
K’anyị nolikwa, ikekwe anyị ga-afu ozo.
Nodu nma o!
Nnọọ o!
Ka o diba!
Ọ dimma,na-eme ofuma.  
Tell them we came to see them.
We came to have a chat in your house.
Let us stay well!
When we are done enjoying our visit, let us go!
Haha!
How are things?
Everything is fine.  
It is well, they are all conversations.
Let it be like that.
Welcome!
I am getting tired, let me go.
Ok?
Ok.
It is well, goodnight, later!
Let’s be seeing, we will probably see again.
Stay well!
Later!
It is well, be good.

The conversation would, of course, have been staged for the phonograph recorder, perhaps to document the differences in Onitsha and Nibo dialects. But, while the primary purpose of the recording was linguistic, through their exchange, John and Nwile also tell us a great deal about the broader encounter between the anthropologist, the Umuchukwu elite and their own joking relationship. The latter is most evident when listening to the men laughing together.

From this audio recording, we can build up a picture of the visit of the oyibo – the whiteman – to Chief Kanu’s compound in Umuchukwu. This entails multiple linguistic mediations between N. W. Thomas and John, John and Nwile, and Nwile and Chief Kanu. We gain insight into the formal greetings exchanged and the communication that the anthropologist has come to see the chief and to talk. We learn that the chief’s wife has been photographed that day, apparently alongside John himself! (The word ‘foto‘ has clearly entered the Igbo vocabulary by this time.)

Chief of Umuchukwu, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1911. In this and subsequent photographs of the same man, the caption ‘Chief Jacob Mb[onu]’ is crossed out. If not Mbonu, could this be Chief Kanu, who is mentioned in the conversation? (NWT 2507; RAI 400.15387)

Unfortunately, the annotations accompanying the photographs that Thomas made in Umuchukwu are vague and confusing, with crossings out and omissions. The ‘Chief of Umuchukwu’ is, however, identified (though the name ‘Chief Jacob Mbonu’ is crossed out) – is this Chief Kanu? The next photograph in the sequence is of a woman with mbubu scarification marks running down her chest and stomach. Is this one of chief’s wives? (There is no sign of John besides her!) And then there is another photograph of two men dressed in European clothing. They are dressed in a similar manner to Thomas’ assistants and translators elsewhere. Might they just be John and Nwile?

The entries in Thomas’s photographic register contain no information about these two photographs taken before and after those of the Chief of Umuchukwu. The unnamed woman in the photograph on the left may be one of the Chief’s wives. Note the mbubu scarification on her chest and stomach (NWT 2508; RAI 400.15388). The men in the photograph on the right are dressed similarly to other assistants and translators that accompanied Thomas on his travels. Might they be John, from Onitsha, and Nwile, from Nibo, whose conversation Thomas recorded in Umuchukwu? (RAI 2506; RAI 400.15386)

Northcote Thomas’s phonograph recordings constitute an important and untapped historical resource. While they were recorded largely for linguistic research purposes, today they provide a unique opportunity for us to hear the voices of those normally assumed to be silenced in the colonial archive. The Indian postcolonial studies scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously asked ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ – listening carefully to the colonial anthropologists’ wax cylinder recordings we are in no doubt that they can indeed, and that their voices provide a crucial counter-narrative to dominant historical accounts.


Thank you to Yvonne Mbanefo, Oba Kosi Nwoba and the British Library. If you are an Igbo speaker, do please let us know if you spot any errors in the transcription or translation of the conversation between John and Nwile, or have any alternative interpretations! Please leave a comment here or email us at info@re-entanglements.net.

Traces of conflict in the archive

Men displaying fighting techniques, Awka. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1911.
Display of traditional fighting techniques, Awka, 1911. Photograph by Northcote Thomas. NWT 2135; MAA P.30533.

Working through the photographs, sound recordings, artefact collections and written accounts that constitute the archive of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa, the turbulence of the times in which these materials were assembled is not immediately apparent. Of course, it can be argued that the archive as whole is a trace of colonial violence. As the historian Nicholas Dirks reminds us, colonial conquest was the result not only of military force but was made possible and sustained through ‘cultural technologies of rule’. Regardless of whether they actually achieved their governmental objectives, Thomas’s surveys were certainly intended to contribute to the consolidation of British ‘indirect rule’ in what were then the Protectorates of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

It is perhaps indicative of the thoroughness with which local resistance to colonialization had been quashed that Thomas was able to travel around so freely over the six years of his surveys between 1909 and 1915. Thomas worked in the towns of Somorika, in 1909, and Agulu, in 1911, both a mere five years after they had been ‘pacified’ through British military operations; he travelled extensively in areas of Asaba District that, until two years previously, were centres of anti-colonial resistance in the Ekumeku wars; his research in Sierra Leone took place in locations that had seen violent conflict in the Hut Tax War of 1898; and he spent months working in Benin City, just 12 years after the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897. Thomas did not, of course, travel alone – his entourage would have included porters and assistants, and we know from correspondence that, at least some of the time, he was accompanied by a member of the police force. There is just one photograph, from Thomas’s 1910-11 tour, in which a uniformed police officer can be seen – we don’t know whether he was ordinarily stationed at the location, or accompanied Thomas there.

A police officer caught in the background of a panoramic photograph taken during Northcote Thomas's 1910-11 tour of Awka District
A police officer caught in the background of a panoramic photograph made by Northcote Thomas during his 1910-11 tour of Awka District. Detail. MAA P.39412.

The years prior to the formal British colonisation of Nigeria and Sierra Leone were also turbulent. Conflict was ever present; often driven by competition for land, resources (including slaves) and control of trade routes. Much of this conflict was directly or indirectly connected to the Transatlantic trade in enslaved people and other commodities, but also resulted from antics of expansionist states in the interior (the incursions of Samori Toure’s Wassoulou Empire into northern Sierra Leone, for example, or Nupe raids into the north of present-day Edo State in Nigeria). Traces of these conflicts – sometimes mislabelled as ‘inter-tribal wars’ by the colonists – are more evident in the materials Thomas assembled during the anthropological surveys.

Fortified hilltop towns

The longue durée of conflict in pre-colonial Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone is evident in the very location of many of the communities that Thomas visited. Town sites were often selected so as to make use of the natural features of the environment so that the community could be more easily defended against attack. This is most obvious in settlements in upland areas, for example those located in what were known at time of Thomas’s surveys as the Kukuruku Hills in the north of present-day Edo State, Nigeria, or in Koinadugu in north-eastern Sierra Leone. Many of the towns that Thomas visited and photographed in these areas occupied fortified hill-top locations. As a result of the ‘imposed peace’ that accompanied British colonisation, these settlements were subsequently abandoned and the towns moved to more accessible locations.

Oba Sule Idaiya pointing out the old site of Somorika, Edo State, Nigeria
HRH Oba Sule Iadiye, the Imah of Somorika, pointing out the original hill-top location of Somorika, Edo State, Nigeria. In a strenuous but very rewarding excursion, the Imah himself took us around the various quarters of the old town and we were able to identify many locations photographed by Thomas in 1909. Photograph by Paul Basu.
Chief Amadu Baio Conteh at Old Yagala, Sierra Leone
Section Chief Amadu Baio Conteh standing in the site of his old family home in the hill-top settlement of Old Yagala in Sierra Leone. Thomas visited the site when it was still inhabited in 1914. It was finally abandoned in 1954 and a new town created in a more accessible location at the bottom of the hill. Photograph by Paul Basu.

When we have brought Thomas’s photographs back to places such as Somorika, Okpe, Otuo and Afokpella in north Edo, or Yagala in Sierra Leone, community members are usually very interested to see what their old hilltop towns looked like when they were inhabited. In some cases, such as Yagala, the old towns were not abandoned until the 1950s and elderly members of the community have childhood memories of the places. Most community members, however, have known the old sites only in their abandoned state and through the many stories that are told about them. Many such stories relate to the heroism of warriors or the ingenuity of the community in repelling attack. The Imah of Somorika, HRH Oba Sule Iadiye, for example, regaled us with stories of the British attack on Somorika in 1904, which, while ending in defeat, is regarded as a moral victory.

In Yagala we were told the story of the famous warrior Suluku, from Bumban, who came with a war party, threatening attack. As they climbed one of the roads to the hilltop town, they came upon an old woman knitting. Suluku informed the woman that they had come to collect payment from Yagala. She gave him her knitting and said ‘Here it is, take it’. Suluku continued on his way to the town. Afterwards, he left by another route only to find the same old woman by the side of the road. He asked how she came to be there before them. ‘This is my place’, she answered, ‘I am not an invader like you’. Suluku thought that she had special powers and asked her for help. She agreed to help, but only in return for gifts. Suluku agreed, and said he would send his brother, Pompoli, from Bumban, with the gifts. Pompoli duly returned bearing the gifts and the old woman gave Suluku some of her magical powers. Incidentally, while Suluku died in 1906, Thomas photographed Pompoli when he visited Bumban in 1914.

Defensive structures

In the lower lying, forested areas of Awka District, which was the focus of Thomas’s 1910-11 tour, Thomas took several photographs of fortified watchtowers. They are known in Igbo as Uno-aja. None of Thomas’s fieldnotes survive from this tour and he did not publish anything about these structures, so we don’t know if he collected any information about them. Oral traditions about the towers survive, however.

Watchtowers, Awka, 1910-11. Photographed by Northcote Thomas.
Defensive watchtowers (uno-aja) photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka, 1911. Left to right: NWT 1990 (MAA P.30422), NWT 2016 (MAA P.30442), NWT 2057 (MAA P.30480).

These towers were typically two or three storeys high and were accessed through a small doorway on an upper floor, reached by a ladder. They served as both a look-out tower and a refuge, particularly for women and children, when a settlement was under attack. Some were rectangular in plan, such as those in the photographs above, others circular, as in the example at Awgbu (see below).

Professor Anselem Ibeanu, currently head of the Department of Archaeology at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, did some research on these watchtowers in the 1980s. While the majority had long-since collapsed or been pulled down to make way for new buildings, he managed to locate a small number that had survived, even though in ruinous condition. One of these was called Okpala Obinagu in Awgbu, supposedly named after the founder of the community who erected it. The tower can be seen in the background of one of Thomas’s photographs of the obu (meeting house), probably of Chief Nwankwo of Awgbu, who Thomas also photographed.

Obu and watchtower, Awgbu, Nigeria. Photographed by Northcote Thomas, 1911.
Left: Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the obu and watchtower in Awgbu, 1911 (NWT 2340, RAI 400.15967). Right: drawn reconstruction of the watchtower in Awgbu based on oral history accounts collected by Professor Ibeanu (Ibeanu 1989: 28).

Professor Ibeanu was able to speak to the elderly great-grandson of the builder of the tower, and was able to draw a reconstruction of what it had once looked like based on the oral accounts. This matches Thomas’s photograph with surprising accuracy, particularly its construction from concentric mud courses, each of which was allowed to partially dry before the next course was added, and the small apertures for windows. Interestingly, in Thomas’s photo register, he captions the tower a ‘storehouse’, suggesting that it was repurposed once the threat of attack subsided.

Re-enactments of warfare

Thomas seems to have struggled to obtain information about the conduct of war – perhaps his informants didn’t want to give away military secrets to the colonialists! He did, however, photograph men in ‘war dress’ and witnessed demonstrations of ‘mock battles’.

Left: chief clothed in war dress, Sabongida, 1909; right: Ebisua dance, Fugar, 1909.
Left: Chief in war dress, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Sabongida, 1909 (NWT 883c, MAA P.28902). Right: Ebisua dance, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Fugar, 1909 (NWT 1058a, MAA P.29138).

There is a wonderful photograph taken in Sabongida in 1909 of a ‘chief’ (unfortunately Thomas doesn’t name him) posing with a magnificent dane gun and wearing war dress. The chief’s gown is covered in amulets, and the protection it offered was more magical than physical. Later the same year Thomas witnessed the annual Ebisua dance at Fugar. Community members in Fugar readily identified the photographs of this event when we visited. Ebisua is a war dance performed annually by the Uruamhinokhua age grade in honour of the war god Ituke. The men clothe themselves in their war dress for the dance, and, brandishing their weapons, reenact their valiant acts of the preceding year. It is an opportunity for the fighting men to show off their strength and military prowess. We were told that, in times of war, men would display the severed heads of enemies they had killed.

Warriors parading at a funeral while spectators look on, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka, 1911. (NWT 2118, RAI 400.16068.)

Thomas photographed another interesting event in Awka in 1911. According to the sparse notes accompanying the photographs, they were taken at a funeral of a man killed in war. (We do not know if this was a re-enactment staged for Thomas, or an actual funeral.) Before an assembled crowd, a group of warriors parade in their war dress, carrying swords and shields. In some of the photographs they appear to be staging a mock fight (see the photograph at the top of this article). Probably during this same event, Thomas made a wax cylinder phonograph recording of ‘Igbo war shouting’.

Wax cylinder phonograph recording of ‘Igbo war shouting’. Recorded by Northcote Thomas in Awka on February 2, 1911, perhaps at the same event that he photographed. (NWT 438, BL C51/2681)

Thomas also appears to have arranged for some of the participants in the funeral to pose for him to demonstrate traditional fighting techniques.

Demonstration of fighting techniques, Awka, 1911
Men demonstrating traditional fighting techniques and displaying war dress, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka, 1911. (Left: NWT 2132; MAA P.30531; Right: NWT 2127; MAA P.30528.)
Shields collected by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria
Shields collected by Northcote Thomas similar to those in the photographs above. The example on the left was collected in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, in 1911 (NWT 244, MAA Z 14099), the example on the right was collected in Okpe, present-day Edo State, in 1909 (NWT 1865, MAA Z 13191).

Memories of Okoli Ijoma

Not all traces of conflict are so legible in the archive; some traces only reveal themselves in the unexpected comments of community members in response to particular images. This was especially apparent in our fieldwork in the area around Awka, in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. In virtually every town in which we conducted fieldwork, the archive photographs provoked stories of wars with the notorious Okoli Ijoma (‘Okoro Ijomah’ in the Aro dialect). Indeed, it was often because of the threat of attack from Okoli Ijoma and his mercenaries that towns formed alliances with the British, which resulted in a more insidious form of colonisation.

Okoli Ijoma was a powerful warlord from Umuchukwu in Ndikelionwu, a few miles to the south-east of Awka. Ndikelionwu had been founded in the eighteenth century as part of the expanding Aro empire. The Aro, with their homeland at Arochukwu in present-day Abia State, had established a major slave trading confederacy with a powerful military base, often supported by mercenaries. They settled throughout Igboland, forming alliances with some communities, while preying upon others. They are credited with introducing firearms into the region.

Uno Nko Nko with its large ikolo drum, Nibo
Left: Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the ikoro drum in the obu in Nibo, 1911 (NWT 3089a; RAI 400.16463). This would be sounded to warn the community of attack. Right: the ikoro drum today. (Photograph by George Agbo).

Conflict with Okoli Ijoma’s forces would have still been fresh in the memory of communities around Awka at the time of Thomas’s anthropological surveys, and the photographs he took of both people and places still bring to mind that dangerous time – even after 110 years. In Nibo, for example, we were told how the great ikolo drum would be sounded as an alarm of impending attack. It was a signal for the women and children to disperse to refuges, and for the men to gather in preparation for the fight. To save Nibo from further attack, Ezeike Nnama Orjiakor of Nibo formed an alliance with Okoli Ijoma, arranging for his younger sister to marry Okoli’s son, Nwene Ijomah. Nnama became a deputy in Okoli Ijoma’s court, but, later, as the threat of reprisals from the British mounted, he switched allegiance, while Okoli Ijoma fought on.

Divided allegiances. Left: Portait of ‘Obuana of Egwoba’, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Amansea in 1911. This was identified as Chief Nwaobuna, who is said to have protected Amansea from the attacks of Okoli Ijoma. (NWT 3452, RAI 400.20006.) Right: Portrait of Nwene of Amansea, 1911. He is said to have sold children into slavery. (NWT 3448, RAI 400.19999.)

In other towns, allegiances were similarly divided. In Amansea, for example, community members were able to identify a photograph of Chief Nwaobuana, a well-respected leader who later became a Warrant Chief. He is credited with curbing the excesses of Okoli Ijoma and defending the town from attack. Another man, Nwene, was also identified, however. Nwene was the ‘black sheep’ of the community, and was known to take stubborn children from their parents and sell them to the Aro traders. The era of Aro slave trading was brought to an end with the British attack on Arochukwu in 1901. Okoli Ijoma died in 1906.

Read more about Okoli Ijoma and the ‘Ada wars’ at the Ukpuru blog, which is also illustrated with photographs from the Northcote Thomas archives.

Pax Britannica?

The coming of the British must have been met with ambivalence. On the one hand, alliance with the Europeans offered protection from local aggressors. On the other hand, of course, this led to the imposition of British colonial rule and the transformation of culture and society. Thomas’s anthropological surveys were carried out during this transformative moment, when new freedoms of the ‘British Peace’ could be appreciated, while the loss of self-determination under colonial rule was perhaps not yet fully apparent.

Some of the stories recorded by Thomas speak powerfully of this time of change and are therefore important historical sources. When local community members in Okpekpe, in the north of present-day Edo State, helped us translate recordings Thomas made there in 1910, it was interesting to listen to their interpretations. One recording compared past and present, celebrating the fact that children could now wander about freely and the town was now safe. We were told this related to the British defeat of the Nupe in 1897, who had, it was explained, on the one hand, brought Islam to Okpekpe, and, on the other hand, captured its people and sold them into slavery.

Left: Children at Okpekpe, 1910. Note the high defensive walls and the cactus, which was planted in dense clumps around towns in the region as a further deterrent to attack. Photograph by Northcote Thomas (NWT 1582, RAI 400.18518). Right: Godwin Gejele and Abdulnur Anidu translating Northcote Thomas’s sound recordings made in Okpekpe. Photograph by Paul Basu.
Recording made in Okpekpe by Northcote Thomas in 1910, thought to be the speech of a town crier. (NWT 302, BL C51/302.)

Godwin Gejele, from Okpekpe, provided the following translation of the recording from the Ibie language:

Eyia bhe amho
We’re coming today

Imiegba ana mhia je, ukha la mhi ayo tse we namhe
I’m going to Imiegba. If you get over there, extend my greetings

Ukha lamhi Imiakebu tsa Adogah na mhe tse we khu namhe, vhe wegbe omo mose ali omo kposo
When you get to Imiakebu extend my greetings to Adogah. I really appreciate him. I pray that God will bless their male and female children

Eye bi na agbo nele ali ona uhiena ono gwuo so mhi ne. Omo ovhe lasa ne na now li vho, ogbo kho oshie yele asha kha sha
In the olden days or in the present, which one is the better to live in? We can see in the old days, a child is not allowed to go out anywhere. Now one can go everywhere. Everywhere is safe.

Oso mhi ni bo, omue mhe gbe
We’re grateful to the white man who had come to teach and taught us many things

When we discussed this recording, elders explained that the speech was delivered in the style of a town crier. This raises the question of whose message the speaker was communicating. Does the speech convey a genuine sense of gratitude to the ‘white man’ for removing the threat of Nupe slave raids, or is this propaganda dispatched from the new invaders?

Further reading

  • Cohn, B. S. 1996. Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge. Princeton University Press. (Foreword by Nicholas Dirks)
  • Falola, T. 2009. Colonialism and Violence in Nigeria. Indiana University Press.
  • Ibeanu, A. M. 1989. ‘An Igbo Watch Tower (Uno-aja)’. Nyame Akuma, 31: 28-9.
  • Ohadike, D. C. 1991. The Ekumeku Movement. Ohio University Press.

Experiments in language

Northcote Thomas experiments in language

Linguistic research formed an important part of Northcote Thomas‘ anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Prior to the early 20th century, most research into West African languages had been undertaken by Christian missionaries. In the context of the emerging colonial sciences, an understanding of local languages was not only useful in terms of communication with local populations, but it also served the project of mapping ‘tribal’ or ‘ethnic’ groups, their territories and their historical relation with one another.

The languages people speak and the tribal or ethnic group names they are given were often used interchangeably. In this respect, Thomas introduced a more nuanced distinction between language and ethnicity. The titles of his published reports therefore refer to the ‘Edo-speaking’ and ‘Igbo-speaking’ people of Southern Nigeria, rather than, for instance, ‘the Edo’ or ‘the Igbo’. Alas, this recognition that language and ethnicity are quite different entities was not reflected in the subtitle of his Sierra Leone report: ‘The Timne and Other Tribes’.

Northcote Thomas, Specimens of Languages from Southern Nigeria
Northcote Thomas’ own annotated copy of his Specimens of Languages from Southern Nigeria (1914). Cambridge University Library, Special Collections.

Collecting specimens of language

Methodologically, Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa between 1909 and 1915 were defined by practices of collecting and documentation. Thus, he collected ‘specimens’ of language in much the same way as he collected ‘specimens’ of material culture or, indeed, specimens of local botanical species. The use of the term ‘specimen’ carries an implicit assertion about the ‘scientific’ status of the anthropological surveys and the knowledge they produced, with its connotations of objectivity, rigour and authority. (Qualities that can, of course, all be contested.)

Northcote Thomas linguistic tour, Edo dialects, ,1909-10
Pages from one of Northcote Thomas’s linguistic notebooks, comparing dialectical differences in Edo-speaking areas of Nigeria. SOAS Library, Special Collections. (Click image to enlarge.)

The process of collecting linguistic specimens included the compilation of word lists, phrases and stories. For this, Thomas enlisted the assistance of interpreters. Finding reliable interpreters was a considerable challenge and there is much correspondence on this issue in the Colonial Office archives, especially relating to Thomas’s initial tour as Government Anthropologist in 1909-10. We learn, for example, that Thomas regarded the first interpreter who had been assigned to him – a schoolteacher named Erumese – as ‘reckless and inaccurate’, while he was frustrated that his replacement – a Corporal Nimahan of the Police Force, who was ‘thoroughly competent’ – was obliged to return to his police duties after a period of four months.

Excerpt from Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part II: Linguistics, in which Thomas lists the names of the interpreters employed during his 1909-10 tour, including Erumese, Corporal Nimahan, Osidora, Ogbebo, James Smart, George, Oganna and Isuma.

Thomas named these interpreters and acknowledged the extent and importance of their contributions in his Edo report. Unfortunately, in his subsequent reports, individual assistants are not named, though there is no doubt that their contributions remained vital. The role of interpreters also went beyond providing linguistic assistance. In a letter sent in 1911, during his second tour in what was then Awka District, for instance, Thomas praised his ‘junior interpreter’, one Alfred Nwile, remarking that he has displayed ‘great intelligence and skill’ in collecting botanical specimens.

The actual ‘collecting’ of words, phrases and stories, whether by Thomas or his assistants, was done either through direct transcription into text or with the use of a wax cylinder phonograph recorder. In appendices to his Edo Report, Thomas provided guidance notes for colonial officials, including use of the phonograph in linguistic documentation, and advice regarding language transcription. He provided a list of 150 words and phrases for translation to allow for comparison across languages, as well as more detailed questions about language usage. These were effectively the same techniques that Thomas and his assistants used during the four anthropological surveys.

Northcote Thomas, linguistic notebook, Igbo dialects, 1910-13
Pages from one of Northcote Thomas’s linguistic notebooks, comparing differences in Igbo dialects. SOAS Library, Special Collections. (Click image to enlarge.)

Recordings and transcriptions

Thomas wrote up and published the results of the linguistic research from the surveys in various books and articles. These included volumes of his main anthropological reports dedicated to ‘linguistics’, ‘vocabularies’, ‘grammar’, ‘tones’ and ‘dictionaries’, as well as separate volumes entitled Specimens of Language from Southern Nigeria (1914) and Specimens of Language from Sierra Leone (1916), which comprise of pages of tables of words translated into different local languages and dialects. These works were distributed to members of the colonial service, as well as to university libraries. How many people actually read them at the time is unknown – one suspects not many!

Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples, Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar
Pages from Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part III (1913), illustrating Thomas’s method of phonetic transcription and comparing dialect differences between Onitsha, Awka and Bende Igbo. (Click image to enlarge.)

Duplicates of the wax cylinder sound recordings were also made available at the Horniman Museum in South London and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford for scholarly consultation. Again, these seem to have been little used. The recordings have now been digitized by the British Library and we have been working with these throughout the [Re:]Entanglements project. In particular, we have been taking the recordings back to the communities in which they were recorded over 110 years ago, and it has been wonderful to witness as people listen to the voices of their ancestors and reconnect with this aural heritage.

In many cases, Thomas published transcriptions of the audio recordings, and it is fascinating to reunite these sounds and texts.

Experimenting with tones

Edo, Igbo and Temne are all tonal languages, in which lexical or grammatical meaning is altered by the pitch contour in which words are spoken. Thomas’s anthropological surveys took place at a time when the science of phonetics was becoming established in universities in Europe. Thomas was a friend of the phonetician Daniel Jones, who ran the Experimental Phonetics Laboratory at University College London. Jones had developed a method for determining what he termed phonetic ‘intonation curves‘ using phonograph cylinder recordings. Jones and Thomas worked together applying this technique to document the tonal changes in the specimens of Igbo speech that Thomas and his assistants had recorded during his 1910-11 and 1912-13 tours. According to Jones’ biographers, Beverly Collins and Inger Mees (1999), this was a pioneering piece of research on tone languages.

Daniel Jones, experimental phonetics, UCL, 1918
Daniel Jones demonstrating the use of the kymograph, an instrument for recording air pressure variations during speech. Experimental Phonetics Laboratory, University College London.

Thomas wrote up the experiment in Part VI of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, providing transcriptions with musical annotations for some of the recordings they worked with. The specimens of Igbo language they worked with include such memorable expressions as ‘Does the goat frighten the dancer?’, ‘He took an egg, cried for a cloth, passed the bridge’ and ‘He put his foot on her waist and caused a big palaver’!

Northcote Thomas, Tones in Ibo, 1914
Top: Pages from Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part VI (1914), providing a tonal transcription of phrases recorded in Awka Igbo dialect. (Click image to enlarge.) Bottom: The original wax cylinder recording from which the transcription was made, NWT 505 ‘Spoken sentences in Igbo’, recorded 1911 (British Library C51/2785). Thomas’s voice can be heard between the Igbo phrases giving the translation in English.
Top: Pages an article entitled ‘Some Notes on the Tones of the Ibo Language of Nigeria‘ (originally published in 1914), providing a tonal transcription of vowel sounds recorded in the Asaba Igbo dialect. (Click image to enlarge.) Bottom: The original wax cylinder recording from which the transcription was made, NWT 627a ‘Asaba vowel sounds’, recorded 1913 (British Library C51/2975). After Thomas’ introductory ‘ident’, the voice pronouncing the words is probably that of one of Thomas’ assistants, who also provides the English translations.

Orthographic debates

In his guidance for colonial officers, Thomas wrote that ‘For the collection of Vocabularies or native texts, two things are essential, one is, a certain amount of training of the ear, the other is an adequate system of transcription’. With regard to this system of transcription, he added, ‘the cardinal principles are, that each sound should have a sign peculiar to itself and that each sign should represent one and only one sound’.

At the time of Thomas’s surveys, there were a number of competing phonetic alphabets in use. Thomas used a system based on modifications to Latin script through diacritical marks. This was based on a Standard Alphabet devised by Karl Richard Lepsius for ‘reducing unwritten languages and foreign graphic systems to a uniform orthography in European letters’, published in the 1860s and recommended for adoption by the Church Missionary Society.

Northcote Thomas linguistic orthography and diacritical marks
Excerpts from Appendix A of Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part I (1910), setting out the orthographic system that he uses for different speech sounds. Thomas explained in some detail how it should be used and modified. (Click image to enlarge.)

In a review of Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone published in the Times Literary Supplement published in 1916, the reviewer criticized Thomas’s use of ‘inverted vowels and coined accents’, which he found confusing and wondered if there were not a more simple system. This provoked a lengthy exchange in the letters pages of the TLS that lasted seven months, in which numerous authorities debated various issues concerning phonetic spelling.

In Nigeria, the Lepsius system was superseded, first, by the adoption of a ‘Practical Orthography of African Languages’, developed by the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures in the 1920s, and, subsequently – in the case of Igbo – by the Ọnwụ system in the 1960s. The Ọnwụ system consists of 28 consonants and 8 vowel sounds.

The Ọnwụ system of orthography widely used in Nigeria today, with equivalent sounds as represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet in square brackets.

N. W. Thomas, linguist?

As may be discerned in the discussion above, Thomas was as much a linguist as he was an anthropologist. In 1914, while he was working in Sierra Leone, he was asked to advise on the introduction of linguistics in the training of new Colonial Service staff. Candidates who passed the examination were entitled to salary supplement. In the National Archives in Sierra Leone we discovered a draft paper Thomas had prepared entitled ‘Elementary Sketch of Phonetics’, which was evidently intended as a introductory text for teaching purposes.

Northcote Thomas Elementary Sketch of Phonetics
Handwritten manuscript of Thomas’s ‘Elementary Sketch of Phonetics’ in a correspondence file concerned with language training for officers in the Colonial Service, probably drafted in 1914. The manuscript includes annotated excerpts from proofs of Daniel Jones’ An Outline of English Phonetics (1918). Sierra Leone National Archives. (Click image to enlarge.)

In the event, it appears that this text was not adopted, and George Noel-Armfield’s book, General Phonetics for Missionaries and Students of Languages (1915) was used alongside reprints of the linguistic appendix to Thomas’s earlier Edo report. The latter was used as a guide for candidates who were expected to collect specimens of language from the colonial territories in which they served.

Thomas’s career as a government anthropologist came to an abrupt end in 1915 at end of his Sierra Leonean tour. He did, however, continue to write articles on linguistic themes, including a broader survey of what were then called ‘Sudanic languages‘ (languages of the Sahel belt) published in the Bulletin of the newly established School of Oriental Studies in 1920, and an attempt at reconstructing historical population movements through linguistic analysis in a paper entitled ‘Who were the Manes?‘ published the same year in the Journal of the Royal African Society.

Thomas also taught African languages, as an occasional lecturer at the Imperial Institute in London’s South Kensington, as part of the Tropical African Services Course. Candidates were evidently required to collect and transcribe language samples, as evidenced in a letter we discovered from Llewellyn Travers Chubb, sent to Thomas in 1925 from Bende in present-day Abia State.

Travers Chubb letter to Northcote Thomas regarding Tropical African Service course, 1925
Letter from Llewellyn Travers Chubb to Northcote Thomas, 21 February 1925, from Bende, Owerri Province, referring to Thomas’s teaching on the Tropical African Services Course in the autumn of 1924, and enclosing his word list assignment. (Click image to enlarge.)

Nothing of significance?

What are we to make of all this endeavour today? More recent linguists have been quick to dismiss the value of Thomas’s work. Betram Okolo, a linguist based at the University of Benin, Nigeria, argues that ‘nothing of significance’ was written on Igbo linguistics between 1890 and 1930, and describes Thomas’ efforts as ‘grossly inadequate’ and ‘misleading’. However, his remark that Thomas’ work ‘represents one of the most idle performances offered to the public on the Igbo language’ seems somewhat unfair. Indeed, it seems Okolo was not aware that the records on which Thomas conducted his tonal experiments were also recorded by him and his assistants over six years of fieldwork using primitive equipment in challenging conditions, or just how pioneering were his attempts with Daniel Jones at documenting tonal languages using ‘scientific’ methods.

Excerpt from Betram Okolo article, The History of NIgerian Linguistics
Excerpt from Betram Okolo’s article ‘The History of Nigerian Linguistics: A Preliminary Survey‘, published in 1981, in which he dismisses Thomas’s linguistic research, perhaps without fully appreciating its vast scope or pioneering nature.

While we might contest the assertion that Thomas’s linguistic work was an ‘idle performance’, its entanglement in the colonial project cannot, of course, be denied. Joseph Errington argues that ‘Colonial linguistics needs to be framed … as a nexus of technology (literacy), reason, and faith and as a project of multiple conversion: of pagan to Christian, of speech to writing, and of the alien to the comprehensible’ (Errington 2001: 21).

Furthermore, as Judith Irvine has recently noted, ‘These early projects contributed to the shape of African linguistics as we inherit it today, and – as part of the colonial enterprise – they had effects on the lives of the African languages’ speakers’ (Irvine 2008: 324). This is perhaps most evident in the use of (modified) European scripts to render many of Nigeria’s and Sierra Leone’s languages, and in the use of English as their national languages, such that younger people especially are turning away from their local languages.

Revisiting Thomas’s linguistic research

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have been collaborating with colleagues in the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In a future article, linguists Gloria Tochukwu Okeke and Ogechukwu Miracle Uzoagba will report on their experimental research on dialect change, comparing Northcote Thomas’s historical sound recordings with recreations of the same texts by present-day speakers of the same dialect. Their fascinating work suggests that the value of Thomas’s recordings may lie in the future rather than in the past.

Dr Gloria Okeke of the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages, University of Nigeria, introduces her work exploring sound changes in the Awka Igbo dialect using Northcote Thomas’s historical sound recordings.

Selected references

  • Collins, B. and I. M. Mees (1999) The Real Professor Higgins: The Life and Career of Daniel Jones. Berlin & New York.
  • Errington, J. (2001) ‘Colonial Linguistics’, Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 19-39.
  • Irvine, J. T. (2008) ‘Subjected Words: African Linguistics and the Colonial Encounter’, Language & Communication 28: 323-343.
  • Okolo, B. A. (1981) ‘The History of Nigerian Linguistics: A Preliminary Survey’, Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics 6: 99-125.

[Re:]Entanglements on the radio

[Re:]Entanglements on the radio
Click above to listen to SOAS Radio’s Professor Playlist with Paul Basu talking about the [Re:]Entanglements project and especially its work with Northcote Thomas’s historic wax cylinder recordings.

The [Re:]Entanglements project’s work on the historic sound archives from Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone has recently been the subject of two radio programmes.

Project lead, Paul Basu, was interviewed in November 2019 by Fred Molin for a programme on SOAS Radio called Professor Playlist. Like BBC Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs, guests are asked to select a number of audio tracks. Paul chose to talk about the [Re:]Entanglements project and selected a combination of original Northcote Thomas wax cylinder recordings from the early twentieth century, field recordings of communities’ responses when these archival materials are returned, and re-recordings of the original tracks sponsored by the project.

A programme about Northcote Thomas’s sound recordings and the [Re:]Entanglements was also broadcast on the German radio station BR Klassik in March 2020. This was the first in a series entitled Virtuelle Archive für Feldaufnahmen (Virtual archives for field recordings) produced by ethnomusicologist Helen Hahmann. The German-language programme, which also includes many clips of Northcote Thomas’s wax cylinder recordings, can be accessed by clicking on the screen shot below.

Click above to link to listen to the programme via the BR Klassik website.

For more on [Re:]Entanglements’ work with Northcote Thomas’s wax cylinder recordings see:

Traditional Nigerian Folktales

Pages from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria; Part IV: Proverbs, Stories, Tones in Ibo (London, 1914). Click here to open in a new browser window.

In the early 20th century, the disciplines of anthropology and folklore studies were very close. Prior to his appointment as Government Anthropologist in 1909, Northcote Thomas was a member of the Councils of both the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Folklore Society. Folklorists, in particular, documented traditional stories and songs, and Thomas had edited a number of such collections.

During his anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone, Thomas recorded many stories on wax cylinder phonographs. He transcribed and published many of these in his Anthropological Reports and in articles in the journal Man. Other than regarding these as specimens of ‘native texts’ (though, of course, they were not ‘texts’ but oral traditions), he provided little explanation or commentary. Given that his surveys were intended to be of practical value to the colonial governments that were funding them, neither did he attempt to explain the utility of collecting the stories from a governmental perspective. As with so many aspects of Thomas’s surveys, while the value of the research at the time was unclear, the significance of the recordings as historical documents is now considerable.

The recordings are, however, challenging to listen to and the transcriptions and translations Thomas provided have many errors and inconsistencies. The potential for future research is immense. To illustrate this the [Re:]Entanglements project has worked with Yvonne Mbanefo of the Igbo Studies Initiative and Ugonna Umeike of the Department of Fine and Applied Art, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to bring some of the stories to life. Yvonne has rendered some of the stories into contemporary Standard Igbo, re-recorded and translated them, while Ugonna has illustrated the stories, drawing upon Northcote Thomas’s photographs for visual reference. Here is one of the stories Thomas recorded in Asaba in 1913…

Akuko onye isi, onye ngwuro, ogbenye na Eze

(The Story of the Blind Man, the Cripple, the Poor Man, the Thief and the King)

Above: Ugonna Umeike’s illustration of the story; below: some of Northcote Thomas’s photographs used as visual references informing the illustration.
Northcote Thomas’s original 1913 recording of the story. NWT 613. (British Library C51/2930.)
Re-recording of the story in Standard Igbo. Transcription/translation by Yvonne Mbanefo; voiced by Oba Kosi Nwoba.

Otu nwoke onye isi nọ n’obodo ọ maara ọfuma oge oke ụganị dakwasara ya.
A blind man was in a town that he knew very well when a great famine befell him.
Ọ gara na be Eze obodo ahụ, wee yọọ ya nri.
He went to the king of that town, and asked him for food.
Eze nyere ya ji na anụ, ọ wee were obi aṅụrị pụọ.
The king gave him yams and meat, and he walked away rejoicing.
Mana tupuu ọ pụọ, Eze nyere ya ndụmọdụ, gwa ya ka ọ ghara ịgwa onye ọbụla na e nyere ya nri.
But before he went the king advised him not to tell anyone that he was given the food items.
Ọ pụwara, wee hụ onye ngwụrọ bụ onye oke agụụ ji,
He walked  away and  met the cripple who was very hungry
Wee gwa ya ka ọ gaa na nke Eze ka ọ nata ya ihe oriri.
And he told him to go to the king to receive things to eat from him.
Onye ngwụrọ gakwuuru Eze wee yọọ ya nri.
The cripple went to the king and asked him for food.
Eze jụrụ ya onye gwara ya na ọ nwere nri.
The king asked him who told him he had food.
O kwuru na ọ bụ onye isi gwara ya.
He said it was the blind man that told him.
Eze weere ji na anụ nye ya, ka o si nye onye isi.
The king took yams and meat and gave to him as he gave to the blind man.
Ọ nyekwara ya otu ndụmọdụ ahụ.
He gave him the same advice.
Ozugbo nje, onye ngwụrọ wee jiri nwayọọ wee laa.
Immediately the cripple went quietly.
Ọ gatụrụ n’ụzọ, wee hụ ogbenye, malite kwuwe n’olu ike
He went a little way, then met a poor man and began saying in a loud voice,
“Gakwuru Eze maka oke nke gị; ọ na-eyere ndị nwere nsogbu.”
“Go to the king for your share; he is aiding the helpless.”
Ogbenye gakwuuru Eze wee yọọ ya oke nke ya.
The poor man went to the king and at once asked for his own share.
Eze jụrụ ya onye gwara ya na ọ na-enye ndị mmadụ nri.
The king asked him who told him he was giving food to people.
O kwuru na ọ bụ onye ngwụrọ.
He said it was the cripple.
Eze nyere ya ihe ka o sị nye Onye ngwụrọ, wee gwakwa ya ihe ọ gwara ya (onye ngwụrọ).
The king gave to him as he gave to the cripple, and told him the same word he told him (the cripple).
Ogbenye pụwara, wee hụ onye ohi.
The poor man went away and saw a thief.
Onye ohi yọrọ ya gwa ya ebe ọ nwetara ji na anụ mana ogbenye ekweghịị.
The thief begged him to tell him where he got yams and meat but the poor man refused.  
Onye ohi gakwuuru Eze ka ọ yọọ ya nri.
The thief went to the king to ask for food.
Eze jụrụ ya onye ọ hụrụ n’ụzọ.
The king asked him whom he met on the road.
Ọ gwara ya na ọ bụ onye ngwụrọ.
He said it was the cripple.
Eze jụrụ ya ma ọ nwere ihe ọ gwara ya, ọ wee sị mba.
The king asked him whether he told him anything and he said no.
Ọ gwara ya gaa n’ụlọ onye isi na onye ngwụrọ, zuo ihe ha nwere.
He said go to the house of the blind man and cripple and steal what they have.
Eze gwakwara ya hapụ ogbenye, ka a ghara ikpe ya n’aka Eze.
The king told him to leave the poor man alone so that he does not get reported to the king.
Onye ohi zuuru ihe onye isi, ma onye isi ahụghị ya, zuo ihe onye ngwụrọ ma onye ngwụrọ enweghi ike iso ya.
The thief robbed the blind man who didn’t see him, he robbed the cripple who couldn’t chase after him.
Ọ bụrụ na o zuuru ihe ogbenye, Ogbenye ga- ekpe ya n’aka Eze.
If he had robbed the poor man, the poor man would have reported him to the king.


Many thanks Yvonne, Kosi and Ugonna for bringing this story to life for us!

Archival Soundscapes with Onyeka Igwe

Northcote Thomas wax cylinder records at British Library
Wax cylinder recordings made by Northcote Thomas stored in their original cases in the British Library Sound Archive.

[Re:]Entanglements is collaborating with the Art Assassins, the young people’s forum of the South London Gallery in Peckham. As part of the project, the Art Assassins are working with a number of London-based artists and researchers with connections to West Africa. The idea is for each artist or researcher to use their creative practice to help the Art Assassins explore the Northcote Thomas collections and archives, and consider its relevance for young people in South London today. The Art Assassins’ work will culminate in an exhibition at the South London Gallery in May 2020, which they will curate themselves.

The first artist to collaborate with the group is Onyeka Igwe. Onyeka is a filmmaker, programmer and researcher. She is widely known for her video work which uses dance, voice, archive and text to expose hidden narratives. Her work explores the physical body and geographical place as sites of cultural and political meaning. Onyeka won the 2019 Berwick New Cinema Competition for her film the names have changed, including my own and truths have been altered. The film explores three interconnected narratives – a story of the artist’s grandfather, one of ‘the land’, and another detailing an encounter with Nigeria.

Onyeka Igwe, still from 'the names have changed'
Onyeka Igwe. Still from her prize-winning film the names have changed, including my own and truths have been altered.

For her project with the Art Assassins, Onyeka has been exploring the sound recordings made during Northcote Thomas’ anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The work is ongoing, so here we report on our activities so far and our plans for developing this strand of the project over the coming months.

Listening to the archive

At an initial workshop with Onyeka, the Art Assassins explored the [Re:]Entanglements SoundCloud site, at which the complete set of Northcote Thomas’ digitised sound recordings have been made available. They spent time listening to a selection of the recordings on high quality speakers in the South London Gallery’s Clore Studio. Participants were struck by the texture of the phonograph recordings and how the crackles and pops created their own rhythms. This led into a discussion about how the recordings were made and Onyeka explained more about the wax cylinder recording process employed by Thomas. To give a more contemporary context, Onyeka set up a vinyl record player so the group could get hands on with the analogue sound equipment and learn how sounds can be manipulated.

Onyeka Igwe and the Art Assassins listening to Northcote Thomas recordings at SLG
Onyeka Igwe and the Art Assassins listening to a selection of the digitized Northcote Thomas recordings in the Clore Studio, South London Gallery.
One of the first recordings made by N. W. Thomas. Recorded in Benin City on February 2nd, 1909, a few days after his arrival in Nigeria, this song is performed during the Ugie Ewere festival to bring ‘Ewere’ blessings to all homes.

Visiting the archive

The group visited British Library Sound Archive in Kings Cross to find out more about its huge collection of historical ethnographic and ethnomusicological wax cylinder recordings. The British library holds over 700 discrete recordings made by Thomas between 1909 and 1915. It was also responsible for producing the digitised versions of the recordings that the Art Assassins were able to access online. Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music, hosted the visit. After travelling down several floors deep into the basement of the British Library the Art Assassins were amazing to find themselves face-to-face with shelves of Thomas’ original wax cylinders. They were then introduced to the team responsible for digitising the wax cylinders and witnessed a live demonstration of the process.

Janet Topp Fargion showing the Art Assassins the Northcote Thomas wax cylinder records at the British Library
Dr Janet Topp Fargion showing the Art Assassins the Northcote Thomas recordings in archival storage at the British Library.
Janet Topp Fargion showing the Art Assassins the Northcote Thomas wax cylinder records at the British Library
The Art Assassins gained an insight into the work of conservators and researchers at the British Library Sound Archive.
Wax cylinder phonograph recorder at the British Library
The British Library’s sound conservation department has a large collection of historical recording equipment, including this wax cylinder phonograph recorder similar to the one Northcote Thomas would have used during his anthropological surveys of Nigeria and Sierra Leone, 1909-15.
In order to digitize the wax cylinders, the British Library had this bespoke machine built for them. British Library sound conservators demonstrated the digitization process.

Making an audio archive

Back at the South London Gallery, Onyeka and the Art Assassins started to plan how they might create their own archive of sounds reflecting their own lives. Relating back to the Thomas’s work, Onyeka asked the group to consider the categories he had used in his anthropological reports. Would these same categories work for understanding young people living in London today? The group debated this and offered up other categories to guide their sound recording process.

Onyeka Igwe and the Art Assassins discussing Northcote Thomas recordings at SLG
Onyeka Igwe and the Art Assassins back at the South London Gallery, reflecting on what they have learnt about sound archives and considering how they might include sound recording in their response to the Northcote Thomas collections.

The group are continuing to build up their own archive of sound recordings ranging from everyday sounds and actions to capturing their own and their families’ accents and phrases. They will also be conducting oral histories with people living the UK with a connection to Nigeria and Sierra Leone which will become part of their larger archive.

Onyeka Igwe and the Art Assassins discussing Northcote Thomas recordings at SLG
Comparing the categories that Northcote Thomas used to order his anthropological data and collections with the Art Assassins’ lists of topics that reflect their own experiences in contemporary South London, and which will guide their sound collecting work.

In preparation for the exhibition in at South London Gallery in May, the group will be working with Onyeka to explore how this developing sound archive can take shape as an artwork. Some of the early ideas are to draw on the technologies and techniques of sound systems and other urban music cultures, using sampling and remixing to produce new arrangements of sound.


The Art Assassins are making a film to document their project. As part of this they are interviewing each other about their experiences. In this clip Art Assassin, Sam Baraitser Smith, reflects on the visit to the British Library and some of the issues raised engaging with the sound archives.

It is I who come, Onyeso …

Onyeso, Agukwu Nri, photographed by N. W. Thomas was oton and ofo.
N. W. Thomas photographs of Onyeso of Agukwu Nri, pictured with oton, ofo and goat skin bag. NWT 2563 and 2564; RAI 400.15415 and 400.15416.

There is a wealth of cultural and historical knowledge locked away in the sound recordings that Northcote Thomas made during his anthropological surveys of Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early twentieth century. Recorded on wax cylinders using a phonograph and without the benefit of a microphone, these sound archives are, however, some of the most challenging materials to work with. The audio signal is often weak, and the levels of noise very high.

Working with Yvonne Mbanefo of the Igbo Studies Initiative and thanks to a small grant from the British Library, which cares for Thomas’s wax cylinder recordings today, we have begun to transcribe, translate and re-record some of the the audio tracks. We have also been revisiting some of the transcriptions and translations that Thomas published in his Anthropological Reports. The original transcriptions and translations have proven to be invaluable in re-engaging with the recordings, but they can also be quite inaccurate.

During his 1910-11 tour of what was then Awka District (corresponding more or less to present-day Anambra State, Nigeria), Thomas spent a considerable amount of time at Agukwu Nri. Nri was an extremely important town in Igboland, the seat of the ‘highest ritual political title’, the Eze Nri. The reigning Eze Nri at the time of Thomas’s visits was Obalike. During the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have had the privilege of presenting Eze Nri Obalike’s grandson with a hitherto unknown photographic portrait of his grandfather made by Thomas.

Chief Onyeso and family, photographed by N. W. Thomas, Agukwu Nri, 1911
‘Chief Onyeso and family’, photographed by N. W. Thomas, Agukwu Nri, 1911. NWT 2236. RAI 400.15837.

Another important figure in Nri at the time of Thomas’s anthropological survey was Chief Onyeso. Onyeso was the son of the previous Eze Nri, Enweleana, and had served as regent during the interregnum between the reigns of Enweleana and Obalike. Whereas the Eze Nri was a spiritual leader, it appears that Onyeso remained a powerful ‘secular’ leader. As well as photographing him and his family, Thomas recorded a speech by Onyeso. In this case, the original recording seems not to have survived, but there is a transcription and translation of the speech in Part III of Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria; a volume devoted to ‘Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar’.

Pages from N. W. Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part III: Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar, pp.92-3 featuring transcription of speech by Onyeso.
Re-recording of Onyeso’s speech translated into standard Central Igbo by Yvonne Mbanefo and read by Oba Kosi Nwoba.

Below is a rendering of the text of Onyeso’s speech in standard Central Igbo together with a revised English translation, both provided by Yvonne Mbanefo.

Ọkwa mụ na abịa, Onyeso, nwa Ezenri,
It is I who come, Onyeso, son of Ezenri
Nna m bụ Eze. Egburu m ichi n’epughị eze
My Father was the King, I got Ichi marks before I got teeth

N’izu iri na anọ, nwa eze na-enwe eze,
At fourteen weeks the son of the King has teeth,

mana ọ bụrụ na ọ nweghị ichi,
But it happened that he didn’t have ichi marks.

Eze pụta, ma ichi adịghịị, anaghị ekwe, aga etufu ya.
but if the teeth come out without the marks, it is forbidden, they throw him away.

Obodo ọbụla mere mkpọtụ.
All the towns made noise.

Mana nwa eze, gaa n’obodo ahụ,
But the son of the king, went to the town.
Wee sị, emena ihe ọjọọ, e buna agha , anụna ọgụ
and said, ‘Don’t do bad things, don’t start wars, don’t fight’.

Ọ ihe a ka nwa Eze na-eme.
That is what the son of the King does.
Anyị na-eyi akpụkpọ agụ
We are the wearers of leopard skins

Ife siri ike n’obodo.
Things are hard in the town.

Anyị bụ ụmụ eze. Anyị ga-eje dozie ya.
We are the children of the King.

Ọbịa ka Gọọmentị jị bịa kpọlụ ndi Igbo niile.
The Government was visiting and took all the Igbo people.

Anyị wee sị ndị Igbo niile na ife anyị na-eme, ka ala dịrị anyị mma.
We are then saying that all Igbo that what we do, to make the land good.

Anyị bụ Nri, Isi ala Igbo niile.
We are Nri people, head of the entire Igbo land.

Anyị bụ isi ọbọdọ niile, mmadụ niile .
We are the head of all the towns, and all the people.

Oge ụwa Gọọmentị bịara , anyị wee lee, obodo mebie.
When the Government came, we looked, and the town got spoiled.

Prince Ikenna Onyesoh, Agukwu Nri, looking at N. W. Thomas's photograph of his great-grandfather.
Prince Ikenna Onyesoh, the current Regent of Nri, looking at Northcote Thomas’s photographs of his great-grandfather, Onyeso, Agukwu Nri, 2018. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Onyeso’s speech is remarkable for many reasons. In this text, we can hear the voice of one of Thomas’s prominent interlocutors – a known, named individual, who Thomas also photographed. It is the voice of a confident, defiant member of an aristocracy, highly critical of the British colonial government, which has usurped the authority of traditional rulers, and undermined the status of the royal town of Nri. Onyeso asserts the primacy of the Nri people as the ‘head of the entire Igbo land’, a ritual and political status discussed at length by the Nigerian anthropologist M. Angulu Onwuejeogwu in his book An Igbo Civilization: Nri Kingdom and Hegemony (1981).

Onyeso also provides first hand details about some of rituals around his office and the political functions of the nwa eze, the son of the king. He refers, for example, to the traditional practice of infanticide. A newborn child is not supposed to have teeth, and if it does this was traditionally considered an abomination, resulting in the child being left to die in the forest. Similarly, a baby who cut his upper teeth first was also considered an abomination. Onyeso states that the sons of kings cut their teeth early, but that it is important for them first to have the ichi facial scarification marks made – if they haven’t received the ichi marks, the child, he says, will be thrown away. Onyeso proudly states that he received the ichi marks as a baby before his teeth came through.

Onyeso also explains that the nwa eze acts as a peace-maker, travelling to towns, quelling disturbances and quarrels, advising towns under the Nri hegemony to keep the peace. This was an important role for Onyeso since the Eze Nri himself was traditionally prohibited from travelling outside of Nri after his coronation. As Onwuejeogwu argues, the Eze Nri ‘ruled but was never seen by the people of his hegemony’. The sacred status of the Eze Nri was undermined by the British colonial authorities; part of the destruction of the traditional order to which Onyeso alludes in his speech.

And what of the Government Anthropologist? Thomas’s position seems to have been ambiguous. On the one hand, he was surely associated with the forces of colonialism that were destroying the Nri hegemony. On the other hand, however, he contradicted colonial officials and sent despatches to the Colonial Office arguing that the ritual authority of the Eze Nri should be respected. He also documented the voices and words of people like Onyeso, representing the experiences of colonisation from the perspective of the colonised in his official Reports. One wonders how many people, even to this day, have actually read Onyeso’s speech or recognized how subversive an act it was of Thomas to include such anti-colonial sentiments in publications funded by the colonial government and distributed to colonial administrators.

Many thanks to Yvonne Mbanefo, Oba Kosi Nwoba, Janet Topp Fargion and British Library Sounds for supporting our research on Northcote Thomas’s sound recordings.

Revisiting some Awka folksongs, guest blog by Samson Uchenna Eze

Rerecording folksongs originally recorded by Northcote Thomas in 1910-11
Performers recreating folksongs originally recorded by Northcote Thomas in Awka in 1910-11. Photograph by George Agbo.

Northcote Thomas recorded hundreds of folksongs, stories and proverbs during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone at the beginning of the twentieth century. These were recorded through a sound horn, diaphragm and needle onto wax cylinders using a phonograph. This technology has long been obsolete and it is only now, through digitization, that we have been able to begin exploring the ‘sound heritage’ that has been locked away in these fragile cylinders. The British Library holds Thomas’s original recordings and, having undertaken the painstaking work of digitization, has made them available to the [Re:]Entanglements project to experiment with.

Even once they are digitized, Thomas’s sound recordings are not easy to work with – the recordings are often faint, the noise levels high. Just as challenging are the linguistic changes that have taken place over the past 100 years. In Nigeria, for example, Standard Igbo has replaced the local dialects that Thomas recorded in many areas. It has, however, been especially rewarding collaborating with local experts, who have been helping us to explore this rich archive and its contemporary affordances.

Samson Uchenna Eze, for instance, is a lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He has been working on a number of folksongs recorded by Thomas in Awka in 1910-11. In this guest blog, he describes the process of transcribing and re-recording three of these songs with local performers. Eze was even inspired to compose a contemporary choral piece based on one of Thomas’s recordings – NWT 417, Igbo bu Igbo – and has made his score available here. Eze’s account is interesting for many reasons, not least in highlighting the amount time and effort required to fully engage with these historical recordings. His closing reflections on the significance of Thomas’s recordings as well as the challenges of conducting research on them in contemporary Nigeria are profound.

Samson Uchenna Eze, Lecturer in the Music Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Samson Uchenna Eze at work on the Northcote Thomas sound recordings. Researchers such as Eze have to make do with the very limited resources available at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Photograph by George Agbo.

I am Samson Uchenna Eze, a lecturer in the Department of Music, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and an alumnus of the same institution. I hold a Diploma in Music Education, a BA in Music and MA in Music Performance. My participation in the transcription and re-recording of some of Northcote Thomas’s recordings was born out of a passion for music archaeology and ethnomusicology.

I was introduced to the [Re:]Entanglements project by Prof. Paul Basu during a workshop he organized at the University of Nigeria in 2018. Following the workshop, I presented a proposal to work on some Igbo folksongs recorded by Northcote Thomas in Awka, Southern Nigeria, in 1910-11.

Having selected three recordings, for which I could hear and understand most of the lyrics, I invited a group of indigenes of Awka to work on these tracks with me. They were Goodness Okwuchuckwu, Kosisochukwu Sandra Adigwe, Confidence Kosisochi Ndụdinanti, Agatha Oby Mba and Mmesoma Dilichukwu Emekwisia. Together we set about listening, transcribing, rehearsing and exploring the meanings of the songs. Due to the poor sound quality, I used audio editing software to amplify the voices and reduce noise on the historical recordings, making it possible for everyone to hear the playback well.

Samson Uchenna Eze
Indigenous performers from Awka are introduced to the historical folksong recordings.

I spent time in Awka, enlisting the help of others in understanding the meaning of the lyrics and other details of the songs. At Ọkpụnọ Awka, I met two elderly men and an old woman. After listening to the songs they directed me to Ụmụdịọka where they believed the songs were recorded. When I got to Ụmụdịọka, I met three elderly men at Ụmụ Udeke Ndị Ichie Hall who confirmed that the voices have the intonation of the Ụmụdịọka people. They identified the songs as Egwu Ọnwa – ‘moonlight songs’; songs performed as part of communal music-making activities during the evening and accompanied by dancing. They explained that the word Odumodu, which features in one of the songs means ‘leopard’, and that ana bụ ana, which features in another, means ‘all communities’. These elders preferred to remain anonymous.

Rehearsals for new recordings of folksongs originally recorded by Northcote Thomas in 1910-11
Rehearsal at Nsukka. Having transcribed and listened to the original recordings, Eze’s research participants recreate the songs.

Meanwhile the five performers and I met several times to recreate and rehearse the songs. Each of the rehearsals was very fruitful because it helped us to understand these ancient recordings more. In June 2019, with the assistance of George Agbo, we video recorded performances of each of the tracks. We recorded each twice: firstly, with one or two voices as can be heard on the original recordings; secondly, as a rendition of mixed structural ensemble. The major difference when one compares the new recordings with Thomas’s originals is the sense of regular rhythm and tonality in the new work. Percussive instruments – an Udu (pot drum) and Ichaka (gourd shaker) – were added to make the music danceable.

Igbo bụ Igbo (Great Igbo)

Northcote Thomas Record No.417 (British Library: C51/2277), recorded in Awka on December 16, 1910.

Northcote Thomas’s original recording of Igbo bu Igbo. Recorded in Awka, December 16, 1910. (NWT 417; BL C51/2277)

Lyrics in Igbo
Igbo bụ Igbo bịa nụlụ ife eziokwu, hm eziokwu
Ana bụ ana bịa ifve eziokwu, hm eziokwu
Ogbe m dị n’Enugu Omekome bịa nụlụ ifve eziokwu, hm eziokwu
Enugu Omekome, unu ana-eme nma, eziokwu
Igbo bụ Igbo bịa nụlụ ifve eziokwu, hm eziokwu

Lyrics in English
Great Igbo (all Igbo), come and hear the truth
All lands, come and hear the truth
Enugu people, my great neighbours, come and hear the truth
Enugu people, you keep on doing good, the truth
Great Igbo (all Igbo), come and hear the truth

In this song the female singer repeats the phrase several times and improvises in the internal variation section, calling on neighbouring villages to come and hear the truth. The song begins on F pentatonic mode that maintains compound duple time. It is a song of admonition that calls on the Igbo-speaking peoples to stick to the truth. It is a moonlight song.

Recreation of Igbo bu Igbo led by Confidence Kosisochukwu Ndudinanti, June 2019. Video recorded by George Agbo.

With the incursion of colonial power in the early twentieth century, the identity of the Igbo nation was lost, and the repercussions of this are felt to this day. This song issues a maternal call for all Igbo to return to our truthful ways. The message in this song inspired me to compose a short four-part vocal piece. I included a few additional words to support the call for sticking to the truth, but they remain minor features to the central theme. I thought of the message and its possible acceptance as a choral piece for social gatherings within Igboland and beyond. You are welcome to download the score (pdf). It can be performed by any choral group that wishes to do so.

Nwa mgbọtọ (The Young Woman)

Northcote Thomas Record No.405 (British Library: C51/2625), recorded in Awka on December 12, 1910.

Northcote Thomas’s original recording of Nwa Mgboto. Recorded in Awka, December 12, 1910. (NWT 405; BL C51/2625)

Lyrics in Igbo
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgboto oo oo, Nwa mgboto oo oo
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgboto oo oo, Nwa mgboto oo oo
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgboto akpagbuo m na nganga
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgboto akpagbuo m na nganga
Nwa mgboto akpagbuo m na nganga
Nwa mgboto akpagbuo m na nganga
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgboto oo oo, Nwa mgboto oo oo
Iyooo Iyo, Iyooo Iyo
Iyooo Iyo, nwanyi ogbirigbi I ga taa gba kwa?
Iyooo Iyo, Iyooo Iyo

Lyrics in English
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman! The young woman!
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman! The young woman!
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman is showing off
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman is showing off
The young woman is showing off
The young woman is showing off
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman! The young woman!
(Wailing)
Woman, the good dancer, will you dance today?
(Wailing)

Nwa mgbọtọ (The Young Woman) is a mother’s lament. The melody emphasizes the B hexatonic minor mode in compound duple time. Most people who listened to this song wondered what the young woman did to the mother, which provoked such a lamentation. It is also sung by mother’s as a corrective against unseemly behaviour.

Recreation of Nwa Mgboto led by Kosisochukwu Sandra Adigwe, June 2019. Video recorded by George Agbo.

Onye Ilo na-akpọ (The Enemy Keeps Calling)

Northcote Thomas Record No.433 (British Library: C51/2671), recorded in Awka on January 25, 1911.

Northcote Thomas’s original recording of Onye Ilo na-akpo. Recorded in Awka, January 25, 1911. (NWT 433; BL C51/2671)

Lyrics in Igbo
Onye Ilo na-akpọ – Ojeme, Ojeme
K’lakụ nwa nna m, Igbo bụ Eze nwa nna m
Onye Ilo na-akpọ – Ojeme, Ojeme
K’lakụ nwa nna m, Odumodu nwa nna m
Onye Ilo na-akpọ – Ojeme, Ojeme

Lyrics in English
The enemy keeps calling
Clerk my brother, kingly Igbo my brother
The enemy keeps calling
Clerk my brother, Leopard my brother
The enemy keeps calling

The music is on D tetratonic mode in compound duple time; it is a repetitive call and response song. During the colonial era, people expressed their grievances through songs. The use of the word K’lakụ or ‘Clerk’ in the song indicates its connection with the colonial oppression of the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria. It is a song of praise as well as protest. The ‘Native Clerk’ was a controversial and ambiguous figure in the early twentieth century when Thomas recorded the song – they were local people, but also functionaries within colonial governance. It is a historical fact that Native Clerks took advantage of their positions and exploited the people to enrich themselves. We hear a statement of praise – ‘Clerk, my brother, kingly Igbo my brother, Clerk my brother, Leopard my brother’ – and a statement of protest – ‘The enemy keeps calling’. The people praised the Native Clerk, but referred to the ‘White Man’ as the enemy. In our discussions with elders, the dominant interpretation of the meaning of the song is that the British colonialists were the enemy that kept issuing instructions (the enemy that keeps calling). It would have been performed during moonlight dance.

Recreation of Onye Ilo na-akpo led by Goodness Okwuchukwu, June 2019. Video recorded by George Agbo.

Challenges and possibilities

The aesthetic value as well as the socio-cultural implications of Northcote Thomas’s recordings calls for further academic inquiry. Contemplating this remarkable sound archive has led me to ask many questions. Does such music still exist in Nigeria? How did people respond to such music at the time it was recorded and how might they respond to it now? How were these folksongs performed then? In what contexts are they performed now, if any? What about the influence of Westernization/globalization? What about the structural differences in tonality, harmony and rhythm when compared to contemporary interpretations of the folksongs?

The educational value of Thomas’s recordings is huge, especially as a body of indigenous instructional material amid calls for the decolonization of musical arts education in Nigeria. The records led me to consider how ordinary people responded to colonial oppression through song. The songs are an important historical source for understanding the experience of colonialism ‘from below’, and much more research of the kind we have begun here could be conducted in this respect.

One challenge I encountered in this research, however, is that many people here in Nigeria are seemingly either indifferent or ill-disposed towards these historical recordings. The task of finding local people to work with and reproduce the songs was not easy. Some people expressed that they were afraid of listening to the songs; some stated that they sounded frightening or esoteric; others said that it was the music of the dead. As a result they distanced themselves from any further discussion.

Furthermore, the present security challenge in Nigeria made people cautious when talking to me. In Nigeria today, a well-dressed young man moving from street to street, asking people for locations and begging them to listen to his music can be interpreted as a ‘419er’ – a fraudster. This is the situation of things; many persons ignored me because they thought I was on a mission to hoodwink them.

Despite all this, research for the [Re:]Entanglements project has spurred me to rethink my own Igbo culture and heritage, and to consider the important place of our indigenous music traditions in building national consciousness.

Thank you, Samson, for your inspiring and thought-provoking article and the brilliant research on which it was based! — Paul

All surviving recordings from N. W. Thomas’s four anthropological surveys are available at the project’s SoundCloud site. Do let us know if you are interested in translating, transcribing or recreating any of the tracks! We’d like to acknowledge the additional support of a small grant from British Library Sounds that has contributed to making this research possible.

A musical journey in the footsteps of N. W. Thomas

Musical journey in the footsteps of N. W. Thomas in Sierra Leone

Between 1909 and 1915, Northcote W. Thomas, made hundreds of sound recordings as part of his anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. His recordings included stories, ‘specimens’ of languages, and especially samples of local music traditions. These wax cylinder records are now in the collections of the British Library Sound Archive – one of the [Re:]Entanglements / Museum Affordances project partners. The fragile wax cylinders have recently been digitized and we are working with the recordings in our fieldwork.

During our fieldwork in Sierra Leone we have been retracing Northcote Thomas’s 1914-15 itineraries and returning copies of Thomas’s photographs and sound recordings to local communities. We have been collecting lots of new information about these archival materials. Supported by a small grant from the British Library, we have also been making some new field recordings of music in the same locations that Thomas worked in. Here, then, is part of our musical journey through northern Sierra Leone, in the footsteps of Northcote Thomas…

Kamalo, Sanda Loko Chiefdom, Karene District

Nandawa Kargbo, Kamalo, Sierra Leone

Nandawa Kargbo, from Makankoi near Kamalo, singing a traditional Makama style Temne song accompanied by a ‘5 gallon’ (a five-gallon plastic container, replacing a bass drum). Nandawa sings Eye ye minɛ soli-o [I am worried], A tey mi thonɔŋ-o ka ȧŋwula [I am left in the wilderness], Eye ye I bayɛ sɔ wuni ŋȧsu abɛra I bayɛ su wuni ta mɔnɛ [I have no one left on my side, my fellow women, for the sake of poverty].

Sendugu, Sanda Tendaren Chiefdom, Karene District

Women singers at Sendugu, Sanda Tendaren Chiefdom, Sierra Leone

When we arrived unannounced in Sendugu one afternoon, we were greeted by a group of women singing and led by the oldest member of the community (the woman pictured above on the right). At the time of Northcote Thomas’s visit in 1914, Sendugu was the seat of the Paramount Chief, Bai Lama Munu. Since those days, however, the chieftaincy has been elsewhere. The song told of the return of power to Sendugu and the Munu lineage. The song included here has the words: A yɔ mi kare, ye [They wronged me], A yɔ kare ro rȧsu a yɔ mi kare [They wronged me by our people], Ye kare ŋa yemu, kare ka rȧbȧy-o [It is wronged, wronged by our leaders].

Matotoka, Tane Chiefdom, Tonkolili District

Digba Nasoko Turay and Bondo society women at Matotoka, Sierra Leone

A Bundu society song performed by Digba Nasoko H. Turay, Matotoka. Accompanied by Bundu society women, saka (gourd shaker), saŋbori (Bundu drum), saŋgba (hour-glass-shaped drum) and ‘5 gallon’. The song is a warning to non-members to not interfere with Bundu society business. Digba Nasoko sings Yirȧ gbo əŋ kəli-o, Eya ye gbeleŋ bȧki yirȧ kəli-o [Sit and watch! Our elder sit and watch!], while the refrain, Gbenleŋ say, gbeleŋ kənəmla gbeleŋ say, is a Bundu chant that cannot be translated into ordinary language. The original location of Matotoka that Northcote Thomas would have visited is now the society bush and it is forbidden for non-members to visit it.

Mabonto, Simiria Chiefdom, Tonkolili District

Tambah Koroma

This beautiful song is sung by Tambah Koroma from Kolifaka, and recorded in Mabonto. Tambah accompanies himself on the kondene, a 10-stringed bow (somewhat like a kora). This is originally a Yalunka instrument played by hunters. Traditionally, the kondene‘s bow was inserted into skin-covered gourd, which acts as a sound box. These days a metal pan is often substituted for the gourd. Tambah is a well-known kondene player locally, though when we visited him in Kolifaka, he explained that he hadn’t played in a long time and he showed us his kondene in pieces with no strings. The following day, however, when Tambah met us in Mabonto he had completely restored the kondene. This is a Koranko song his grandfather taught him. It tells of the hunters’ prowess and their ability to attract women, since they could provide food. It was played to hunters to give them courage as they left for the forest and its many dangers.

Bendugu, Sambaya Chiefdom, Tonkolili District

Mohammed Gibateh, Bendugu, Sierra Leone

Northcote Thomas did not visit Bendugu, but he photographed a number of balaŋ players in Mabonto – praise singers of Paramount Chief Ali Suri. When we asked about local balaŋ players, we were told about Mohammed Gibateh in Bendugu, some hours drive away on very rough roads. The balaŋ is a xylophone, traditionally associated with the Mandingo, Soso, Koranko and Yalunka areas of Sierra Leone. This recording includes two balaŋ one played by Mohammed Gibateh, the other by his brother Fassaleh Gibateh. They come from a famous family of Koranko praise singers (Yelibah). This song speaks of the value of life – even if one has nothing, if there is life, there is hope. If there is hope, there is life.

Bumban, Biriwa Limba Chiefdom, Bombali District

Ma Binty Conteh, Bumban, Sierra Leone

A song led by Ma Binty Conteh welcoming us to Bumban. The song, sung in Biriwa Limba, expresses how the community is happy – someone has come to bring development to Bumban.

Gbawuria, Kabala, Wara Wara Yagala Chiefdom, Koinadugu District

Mohammed 'Medo' Kuyateh, Kabala, Sierra Leone

Mohammed Kuyateh is known as ‘Medo’ (‘the famous’), and is a well-known balaŋ player and praise singer in Kabala in north-east Sierra Leone. He is praise singer to the current Paramount Chief, Chief Gbawuru III, and his forefathers were praise singers to Chief Gbawuru I, who Northcote Thomas photographed in Kabala 1914. Thomas also photographed two balaŋ players in Kabala, including one called Fode, likely to be Mohammed’s grandfather, who was indeed named Yelli Fode. The first thing Mohammed did when we showed him this picture was count the number of ‘keys’ or gbene on the instruments – there were 15, while these days it is more typical to have more (Mohammed’s balaŋ has 18). Mohammed explained that the Yellibah always performs his songs in the Maninka language, regardless of what language he speaks normally. He is accompanied here by Salu Conteh on the bata (hour-glass shaped drum), and by his sons, Lansana Kuyateh (second bata) and Alusine Kuyateh (dundun or bass drum). Mohammed himself plays the balaŋ with a hand rattle or bell on one wrist.

Yagala, Wara Wara Yagala Chiefdom, Koinadugu District

Sidi Conteh, Kamaloko, Yagala, Sierra Leone

There are many different languages and dialects spoken in Sierra Leone, and Northcote Thomas was among the first to systematically document these. In Kabala and near-by Yagala we struggled to find anyone who could understand a number of recordings made by Northcote Thomas in Kabala in 1914. We were told, however, about a blind singer named Sidi Conteh who lived in a remote farming hamlet who might be able to help us. Guided by a friend from Yagala we set off for Kamaloko and, sure enough, Sidi was able to sing along to the 105-year-old recordings – they were actually in the local Wara Wara Limba dialect! Sidi accompanies himself on the kututen, a kind of finger piano. Sidi’s kututen is made from an old tin gallon can, one side of which is replaced by a wooden finger board to which are attached metal tongues made from old umbrella stretchers beaten flat. The can is filled with pebbles and shaken at the same time as being played to provide the rhythm. We love the way this song builds and how the voices of Sidi and other members of the Conteh family – Thunkeh, Marie and Koda – interweave with one another

Musaia, Dembelia Musaia Chiefdom, Falaba District

Sukaria Sigisa Samura, Musaia, Sierra Leone

A Yalunka Bundu society song led by Sukaria Sigisa Samura. The women explained that this was one of their oldest songs, dating to the times of the great Yalunka chiefs. It was sung also as a demonstration of their pride in the women’s society, and in gratitude for our visit with photographs and recordings of their ancestors.

Copies of these and other songs recorded ‘in the footsteps of Northcote Thomas’ will be deposited with the British Library Sound Archive. We are grateful for the British Library for supporting this aspect of our fieldwork.

Fieldnotes: Kuranko flute

Hassan Jalloh, flute player from Bendugu, Sambaya Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.
Hassan Jalloh, flute player from Bendugu, Sambaya Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.

As part of our fieldwork in Sierra Leone, we are recording contemporary musicians and singers in the locations in which Northcote Thomas worked in 1914-15. Indeed, the majority of the wax cylinder phonograph recordings that Thomas made during his Sierra Leonean tour are ethnomusicological.

On 21 October 1914, while conducting research in Mabonto in what is now Simera Chiefdom, Tonkolili District, Northern Sierra Leone, Thomas recorded a flute player. Mabonto is now largely Temne-speaking as a result of in-migration due to mining activities. In 1914, however, Mabonto was a Koranko-speaking town.

Recording of Koranko flute made by Northcote Thomas in Mabonto on 21 October 1914. NWT 681; British Library C51/3076.

When we asked whether there were any traditional flute players in Mabonto, we were told that there were none, and that one would have to go deeper into ‘Koranko country’ in order to find one. We were told about a flute player named Hassan Jalloh, who lived in Bendugu in neighbouring Sambaya Chiefdom. The following day, after a long, arduous drive through the hilly terrain, we arrived at Bendugu only to find that Hassan had been called away to play his flute at a men’s society ceremony. Thankfully, however, we were able to arrange for him to come to Mabonto the day after, where he played for us.

We played Hassan Northcote Thomas’s 105-year-old recordings of the flute player in Mabonto. Hassan confirmed that this was the same instrument he played. He immediately recognized the music and began playing a version of the same song, which he told us was played in the men’s society camp.

Hassan Jalloh playing a version of the flute music recorded by Northcote Thomas in Mabonto in 1914.

Thomas collected two examples of these flutes and they were some of the most fragile objects that we photographed in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) stores in 2018. They are made from reeds that grow on river banks in the region. Hassan explained that he learnt to make and play the flute (locally called fuli or fullii) from his father who had learnt from his father before him. The finger holes are burnt into the reed using a hot stick and one can still see where the stick has singed the reed in the examples in the MAA collection. It appears that the MAA examples were not played, however, since they are missing the mouthpiece, which is fashioned from a kind of resin produced by insects.

Flutes collected by Northcote Thomas in Koranko country in 1914. NWT SL 0139; MAA Z 14559.1-2.
Reed flutes collected by Northcote Thomas in northeastern Sierra Leone in 1914, now in the collection of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. NWT 139; MAA Z 14559.1-2.
Hassan Jalloh's flute
Hassan Jalloh’s flute. Note the mouthpiece formed of resin that is missing from the examples collected by Northcote Thomas.