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.

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.