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.

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.

Sound recording in the field, Agila, 1913

Northcote Thomas photograph at Agila, showing wax cylinder phonograph
N. W. Thomas’s phonograph. Recording sound in Agila in present-day Benue State, Nigeria. 4 June, 1913. Photography by N. W. Thomas. NWT 4885. MAA P.32756.

Between 1909 and 1915, over the course of four anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, Northcote Thomas made about 750 sound recordings using a wax cylinder phonograph. He recorded samples of speech (for linguistic analysis), stories, songs and musical instruments.

To date, we have found just one photograph that shows Thomas’s phonograph in use in the field. This photograph was taken in Agila (then spelled ‘Agala’), in present-day Benue State, and is captioned in Thomas’s photo register merely as ‘dancing’. Thomas made only a few sound recordings in Agila, all on 4th June 1913, including this one of a female vocal group (British Library C51/3222).

Northcote Thomas’s recording ‘ident’ can be heard at the beginning of the track, ‘Agala, June the 4th, 1913’, followed by the womens’ song. It is likely this was recorded as part of the session captured on the photograph in front of a large group of local spectators (including lots of children), who were no doubt intrigued by the strange presence of the ‘Government Anthropologist’ in their town.

Although Thomas’s third anthropological survey, which took place in 1912-13, was intended to focus on Igbo-speaking communities in what was then Asaba District, west of the Niger River, he also spent three months travelling to towns in eastern Igbo areas, including Owerri, Aba, Ikot Ekpene, Afikpo, Obubra, Ikom, Agila and Nkalagu.