West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song showcases music and literature from the great African empires of the Middle Ages to the cultural dynamism of West Africa today. It aims to demonstrate how West Africans have harnessed the power of words to build societies, sustain religious belief, drive political movements, fight injustice and express creative ideas. Recordings show living traditions, including epic narratives right through to West African rap. The tracks here loosely follow the exhibition’s storyline to highlight historic and unique unpublished recordings in the Library’s collections.
West Africa at the British Library is a free covermount CD exclusively available with the December 2015 (#113) edition of Songlines.
01 ‘Atumpan ‘Talking’ Drums’
Kofi Jatto (Ghana, 1921)
Robert Sutherland Rattray Collection
The drum phrases were recorded on wax cylinder by Rattray in Ghana in 1921. The Asante king’s atumpan player sends messages across the kingdom, plays welcome statements and eulogies, and recites praises and ayan (drum poetry) at ceremonies and festivals.
02 ‘Sunjata Faso’ (excerpt)
Amadu Bansang Jobarteh & Jeneba Konte (The Gambia, 1977)
Lucy Durán Collection
This epic praises Sunjata who freed the Mande people from oppressive powers and founded the Mali empire in the 13th century. Performances by griots keep his memory alive. In this recording, the text also commemorates various important nobles and kora patrons.
03 ‘Ìyèrè Ifá’
Awótúndé Awórìndé (Nigeria, 1965)
Robert Armstrong Collection
Sung text has always formed an integral part of religious observance in West Africa. Armstrong aimed to document the principal texts of the Yoruba Ifá religious practice by recording, transcribing and translating them.
04 ‘Jesu Olugbala Ni Mo
F’ori Fun ẹ’
Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti (Nigeria, 1922)
The hymn ‘I Give Myself to Jesus the Saviour’ in Yoruba. Christian missionaries often suppressed indigenous musical practices in favour of hymns. By the early 20th century, African Christians were translating hymns into their own languages and composing their own. JJ Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s grandfather, was one of the first to do so.
05 ‘Dagaba Music for Mass at Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Church, Cape Coast’
Trevor Wiggins Collection
In West Africa today many masses are celebrated entirely with indigenous musical practices.
Daniel Jatta (The Gambia, 2015)
Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta Collection
A song for the akonting, an instrument of the Jola people from The Gambia with striking similarities to the banjo [see #112]. This one was handmade for the exhibition by Daniel Jatta in May, at the Akonting Centre, Mandinary Village, The Gambia.
07 ‘Cost of Living Nar Freetown’
Calender and his Maringar Band (Sierra Leone, c1950)
Decca WA 2630
A West African calypso. Calypso began in Trinidad and Tobago in the early 20th century though with origins pre-dating that from West Africa. Many calypsos act as commentary on events and social conditions.
08 ‘Saharawi Revolution’
Tarba Bueibu (refugee camp in Algeria, 2013)
Violeta Ruano Portraits of Saharawi Music
This was composed before exile (from Western Sahara) between 1973 and 1975 by Polisario Front founder El Uali Mustapha Sayed and others. It is an adaptation of traditional music with revolutionary lyrics and new instrumentation, here a plastic bucket.
09 ‘Vai Song’
Male vocal duet (Liberia, 1915)
Northcott Whitridge Thomas Collection
A script for the Vai language was invented in Liberia in the early 19th century by Mọmọlu Duwalu Bukẹlẹ. It’s a full syllabic script – each character representing one syllable. This is a recording of the language made at roughly the same time.
10 ‘Agbadza Drumming’
Philip Gbeho, drum leader (Ghana, c1950)
Arthur Morris Jones Collection
Jones was influential in analysing West African drumming. He made recordings on lacquer discs in the 40s and 50s in Ghana that dissected each instrumental part, from the hand-clapping to the gankogui (bell).
Dzigbordi Group (Ghana, 2003)
James Burns Collection (also on Topic Records)
Community dance drumming from the Ewe repertoire. This track is associated with the oracle of Afa, a system of divination with 256 signs, each with its own corpus of songs.
12 ‘Wak’ar Nasha’di’
Danmaraya Mai Kuntigi (Nigeria, 1980)
Anthony King Collection
A Hausa entertainment song. Dr King was a Hausa linguist with a special interest in sung poetry. As one of the first directors of the Library’s sound collections, his archive includes unique recordings from throughout West Africa.
13 ‘Jola-Fogny Women’s Songs’
Jola women (Senegal, 1982)
Giles Swayne Collection
British composer, Giles Swayne, made a field trip to Senegal to record Jola music, an expedition that has greatly influenced his life and work. These songs directly inspired his ‘Magnificat, Op 33’.
14 ‘Rock Gong, Pikworo’
Seyara Chanerie, Anabuyum Aduwa, Apuri Yiridiri (Ghana, 2007)
Anna Craven Collection
Male singers accompany themselves on rock gongs (lithophones), some of the earliest examples of instrumental music making in Africa.
15 ‘Bubu Music from Tasso Island’
(Sierra Leone, 1991)
Dennis Furnell Collection
The recording features about 12 musicians on instruments including exhaust pipes, box drums and plywood boards. It was made shortly before the start of the civil war that destroyed the livelihoods of the island’s inhabitants. However, islander, Ahmed Janka Nabay, continues to carry the bubu banner.
Click here to listen to more tracks.
+DATES The exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song runs until February 16 2016