Musical returns and revivals

Ikenna Onwuegbuna reworking Igbo sound archive

One of the archival legacies of N. W. Thomas‘ anthropological surveys of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone is a unique collection of around 750 wax cylinder sound recordings. Since they were recorded using a long-obsolete technology, it had been virtually impossible to listen to the recordings until the British Library Sound Archive digitized them a few years ago. It is only now, however, through the [Re:]Entanglements project that we are beginning to appreciate their remarkable value.

The recordings, which include stories, songs, music, conversations and ‘samples of language‘, constitute an important primary source concerning the histories of the various locations and communities included in Thomas’ itineraries. Due to the poor quality of the recordings and linguistic changes in the areas in which they were made, the recordings are challenging to work with. In an earlier article, Revisiting some Awka folksongs, ethnomusicologist Samson Uchenna Eze discusses some of the difficulties transcribing a selection of the recordings.

As part of our collaboration with colleagues at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna of the Department of Music has analysed and reworked a further selection of Thomas’ recordings made in the Igbo-speaking towns of Awka and Agulu in 1911. Onwuegbuna’s grandmother was a well-known singer, and, as an indigene of the Awka region himself, Onwuegbuna is able to provide invaluable insight into the cultural and musical context of the recordings, able to discern nuances and idioms particular to that context. In what follows he provides a kind of masterclass on each of the recordings, before reflecting on their broader significance today.

Ikenna Onwuegbuna [Re:]Entangled Traditions exhibition University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna introducing the traditional music ensemble at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which he directs, at the opening of the [Re:]Entangled Traditions exhibition, February 2020. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Reworking archival sound

As an ethnomusicologist, music performer and studio producer, Onwuegbuna carefully selected, scrutinized and creatively reworked five of the audio tracks recorded by Thomas. These include three vocal songs, a song performed by a Mmọ̄nwụ̄ (a ‘spirit manifest’ or, less correctly, masquerade), and an instrumental track.

As Onwuegbuna noted in conversation, the limitations of the phonograph sound recording equipment that was available to Thomas are very evident in the recordings. In addition to the high levels of noise, the wax cylinders have an extremely limited dynamic range, and reproduce only a narrow frequency spectrum. The duration of the recordings was limited to about 2½ minutes. Another significant limitation was the fact that recording was made not electronically, through a microphone, but via a horn, which funnelled sound waves onto a membrane upon which a cutting needle was attached. The mouth of the horn had to be placed close to the sound source – thus a soloist singing directly into the horn would produce a good recording, while members of a chorus or instrumentalists positioned further away might not register well.

The only photograph from N. W. Thomas’ anthropological surveys showing his wax cylinder phonograph recorder. Photograph by N. W. Thomas, Agila, present-day Benue State, Nigeria, 1913. See Sound recording in the field article. (NWT 4885; MAA P.32756.)
Group of children from Hula singing into an Edison phonograph during the 1898-99 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait. One gets a better sense of the limitations of the phonograph and its recording horn in this photograph. (MAA
N.34988.ACH2.)

Mindful of these limitations, which convey a distorted impression of this sonic heritage, Onwuegbuna has recorded a new version of each of the historical recordings using modern studio techniques, including sampling of the traditional instruments that would have been used, but which are barely audible in the originals. This has provided an opportunity of imagining how the original performances may have sounded, with a much broader tonal and dynamic range, and complete with choruses and full instrumentation.

As well as recording them, Northcote Thomas also collected examples of musical instruments during his anthropological surveys. Pictured is a selection of instruments collected from the Awka region in 1910-11 that feature in Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s reworkings of the historical recordings. Clockwise from bottom left: Ékwé (wooden slit-drum) (MAA Z 14218); Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattle) (MAA Z 14061); Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattle) (MAA Z 14223.1); Ōgénè (clapperless bells) (MAA Z 14236); Ọ̀jà (notched end-blown flute) (MAA Z 14046); Ị̀gbà (membrane drum) (MAA Z 14200).

For each of the recordings we include the original (digitized) wax cylinder recording made by Thomas, Onwuegbuna’s re-recording of the track, a short video in which Onwuegbuna discusses the original track and how he has reworked it, as well as additional musicological notes.

Kwà-àjáyámmá – vocal group, Agulu, 1911 (#449)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of vocal group, Agulu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, February 1911. (NWT 449; BL C51/2334.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.449 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

This is a women’s dance song recorded by N. W. Thomas in Agulu, Awka area, in 1911. In reinterpreting the song, I was guided by the thematic contents to supply instrumental accompaniments and vocal harmony to the original. I also enriched the lyrical content by adding some new materials while retaining some of the original contents.

Kwà-àjáyámmá, an onomatopoeic sound and chorused response to the melodic calls of the soloist, is a non-lexical text used in describing the syncopated rhythmic movements of the dancers. As the soloist sings about the innovations that the group has introduced courtesy of their travels to near and far places, this newness is celebrated in chorused response and dance.

Since Igbo musical instruments have gender inscriptions and gender restrictions, I carefully selected the accompanying instruments along the lines of such bounds.

Álō (metal gong)obbligato
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic

Àrụ̀kụ̀ Gbá Ngwā – vocal group, Awka, 1911 (#435)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of female vocal group, Awka, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 25 January 1911. (NWT 435; BL C51/2675.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.435 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

Àrụ̀kụ̀ gbá ngwā (meaning ‘Àrụ̀kụ̀, hasten up’) was recorded by N. W. Thomas in Awka in 1911, as a female duet. In my reinterpretation, I treated the so-called female duet (which is actually two female voices singing in unison) as a vocal introduction to a mixed-gender dance song. The introduction, in irregular rhythm, is preceded with a horn sound, which warns the listener to expect more in the music than merely a female music ensemble. As the music modulates metrically from irregular to regular rhythm, a dance mode is ignited, accompanied by a dense instrumental texture. This dense texture is further deepened by the vocal harmony of the chorused responses. The lyrics chronicle the history of the group – their collective and individual achievements, and their popularity – and, at the same time, highlights the norms and values of the land. While the onomatopoeic sounds in the chorus are used for exclamations, the chanted words that interject occasionally are declamations – a common practice in a male or mixed gender ensemble.

 The instruments deployed in the ensemble include:

Álō (metal gong)obbligato
Òpù (animal horn)speech surrogate
Ọ̀jà (notched end-blown flute)instrumental melody
Ị̀gbà (membrane drum)melo-rhythmic
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic

Íyó-ólòlólō – vocal group, Awka, 1911 (#436)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of female vocal group, Awka, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 25 January 1911. (NWT 436; BL C51/2676.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.436 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

This song, by a vocal group recorded by N. W. Thomas in Awka in 1911, celebrates music, the talent of music-making, and the musicians. In the lyrics, music is metaphorical alluded to as the drum (Ị̀gbà), thereby implying that the group is a mixed ensemble of melodic and rhythmic (melo-rhythmic) instruments. In my reinterpretation, I introduced vocal harmony and instrumental accompaniment.

Ị̀gbà (membrane drum)melo-rhythmic
Ékpílí (pod rattles)time referent
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic

Égwú Mmọ̄nwụ̄ – vocal group, Agulu, 1911 (#442)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of male vocal group, Agulu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 12 February 1911. (NWT 442; BL C51/2686.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.442 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

Égwú mmọ̄nwụ̄ (music of the spirit) captures the reality of the union between the living and the ancestors in Igbo cosmology. Here, two masked singers in muffled voices (ónú mmọ̄nwụ̄) were captured in a vocal performance by N. W. Thomas in 1911 in Agulu. In the call and response vocal interchange, the ‘spirit-manifest’ (Mmọ̄nwụ̄) passes coded information in a simple melody, without any instrumental accompaniment. What I have done, in reinterpretation, is to introduce three instruments while retaining the original vocal melody as recorded by Thomas. In my creative rationalization, a terse texture will still clear the path for the logogenic melody, without masking the message.

The instruments:

Óké ōgénè mkpị̀ n’ábọ̀ (male twin clapperless bells)melo-rhythmic
Nwúnyè ōgénè mkpị̀ n’ábọ̀ (female twin clapperless bells)time referent
Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattles)rhythmic

Égwú – percussion and flute instrumental, Agulu, 1911 (#448)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of percussion and flute instrumental, Agulu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 14 February 1911. (NWT 448; BL C51/2697.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.448 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

In titling this instrumental dance music, I settled for the generic term, Égwú, which not only could translate to music, but also means song, dance, drama, banter, festival, and games. Since it is an instrumental style, I could not think of a better title. As the rhythmic complexity can be felt in a consortium of percussion instruments, the resultant groove provides a soundscape to support and project the emotional dynamics of the melodic instruments. To further deepen the already dense texture of the original recording by Thomas, I introduced a pentatonic-tuned xylophone that occasionally breaks the dominance of the flute melody.

The featured instruments in my edition include:

Ọ̀jà (notched end-blown flute)instrumental melody
Ngédégwū (xylophone)instrumental melody
Ọ́kwá (double-slab xylophone)melo-rhythmic
Ị̀gbà (membrane drum)melo-rhythmic
Ékpílí (pod rattles)time referent/rhythmic
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic
Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattles)rhythmic
Wooden clappersrhythmic

Cultural loss and revival

by Ikenna Onwuegbuna

This ethnomusicological re-engagement with the sound archive has provided an opportunity to peep into the history of the Awka people, with a view to ascertaining the nature and features of their music, including their compositional practices and performance techniques. It enables us to reflect on continuities and changes in the phenomenon of folk artistry.

Reflecting on the historical recordings, it is clear that the only phenomenon that is permanent is change. Igbo society is undergoing rapid changes due to the influence of globalization on its cultural institutions and practices. This is a consequence of the history of European colonialism in the region and especially the incursion of foreign religion that caused a great change from Igbo traditional religion to Christianity.

For a few decades now, there has been growing consciousness of the importance of cultural revival. Against the background of massive loss of cultural heritage, this cultural revivalist movement has been making slow but steady progress. The effort to conserve what can be conserved, to resuscitate what is almost dead, and to change the mentality of the people about their culture is an ongoing process in Nigeria.

In order to rework the historical sound recordings made by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys one must couple a forensic approach to analysing the originals with an in-depth knowledge of the cultural, linguistic and musicological context. Recreating the full sonic experience using modern studio techniques allows us to recover a musical heritage, which the limitations of Thomas’s wax cylinder phonograph could not capture.

This becomes a significant service to the survival of cultural diversity and to the cultural identity of the Igbo people. This is not merely a matter of historical interest. The musical performances that Thomas recorded in the Awka District in 1910-11 are full of inspirational materials that can be adapted by composers of African popular and art music for their original compositions. They provide resource materials for creative artists in humanities, social sciences and beyond. All these could be harnessed for cultural diversity, advancement and socio-economic development.


Thank you Ikenna for your inspirational work with a small selection of Thomas’s recordings, pointing towards the huge potential of the wider collection. Thanks also to British Library Sounds for providing access to the digitized recordings and a small grant to help facilitate this re-engagement work.

3 thoughts on “Musical returns and revivals

  • November 11, 2020 at 6:20 pm
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    This is a very rewarding academic intervention into the nature and value of indigenous music in relation to African anthropology, antiquities, and cultural memory. Many thanks indeed to both Ikenna and Paul!

    Reply
  • November 11, 2020 at 8:33 pm
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    Wow, great archive and reworking by Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna. It sure took me back to way back then!. I do appreciate this and so much look forward to getting back our good cultures and traditions, passing them down to our children and grandchildren!.

    Reply
  • November 11, 2020 at 9:02 pm
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    This is amazing. Many thanks to Ikenna Onwuegbuna and Paul Basu.

    Reply

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