Monday, 25 March 2013

Out of Africa: archival projects in Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana

Jez Collins, the activist archivist responsible for the Birmingham Music Archive, has alerted me to some really exciting archival projects currently underway in various parts of Africa. I share some of these here:

‘Reviving the Radio Tanzania Archives’  is a heritage project that seeks to preserve, digitize and restore the archives of Radio Tanzania Dar-es-Salaam (now known as the Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation). The project is run by the Tanzania Heritage Project, a non-profit organisation that was founded by ‘Tanzanian and American students, artists and activists who are passionate about preserving the rich cultural history of the country and making it available to a wider audience’. The project relies on donations in order to undertake digitization of the radio archives and it seeks corporate donors to cover operational expenses as well as private in-kind donations of services and equipment. An appeal on provided critical early support. The THP website provides an insight into the conditions that led to the founding of the radio project, noting that the archive of ‘over 100,000 hours of government-sponsored dance music, moralistic radio dramas, education songs about malaria, and ethnographic recordings from over 100 of Tanzania’s tribes’ was stored in what amounted to a ‘hall closet’ with the condition of the analogue recordings ‘beginning to deteriorate’. You can watch a short video about the Radio Tanzania archive project here.
A range of online archives and heritage websites also exist to document aspects of African popular music, including the South African Audio Archive and 3rd Ear Music 
The SAAA is a non-profit reference resource developed by flatinternational as a ‘visual archive of rare and sometimes unusual South African audio documents as artifacts’. Users can search for artefacts by artist, label, company and genre.
3rd Ear Music’s ‘Hidden Years Music Archive Project’ has struggled to find enough financial support over the years. At the end of 2012 it was facing fresh concerns, needing a new home for its physical collection. Looking through the details on its website, I am reminded again how important the issue of sustainability is for these DIY projects. Take the following extract (for full story see here):
[We] need to find a safe storage space (preferably inland), for [7 tons and 45 odd years of recorded and collected ‘stuff’ that make up the] HY Music Archive Collection. If not should/could we forget it & let SAMRO [where the collection is currently housed] call the Sheriff & throw the ‘stuff’ into a Municipal Metro dumpster? Can we afford to label it, stick it ‘n lick it … put it away for another time, another generation? … just how important is this Hidden Years Music Archive Collection in the wider scheme of the NSA? In reality, is it worth the R250k plus (rental, storage & cartage) that we need to pay SAMRO & other storage, to avoid the dumpster and the Sheriff? … Don’t get me wrong! I’m not giving up on the HYMAProject, 3rd Ear Music, or my Hidden Years Story. I love to share ‘n care about the ‘stuff’ we collected – it’s what I do almost every day (digitize, splab, save, catalogue those Hidden Years). … Where are the Arts, Archive & Heritage Departments in all this? FYI we’ve had 18 years of yakking away … with various Tax-Funded Departments; and amongst other promissory things, discussions about the proposed National Music Archive, Library, Museum – MALM and STILL nothing happens. … Would [HYMAProject collection] best be left to the next new World? It seems that if we cannot tap into the tax-payer’s lolly-pot, we’ll have to leave these collections for archeologists to dig and anthropologists to unravel …
Hopefully the physical collection didn’t wind up in a dumpster after the deadline to move from SAMRO House in Johannesburg passed on 22nd November 2012!
Digitized items from the HYMAProject collection can be accessed via the South African Music Archive Project website which ‘aims to promote multidisciplinary research in the field of popular music and culture’ and, recognising that ‘Independent music archives currently lack the infrastructure to preserve their historical collections’, it has created ‘an online resource on South African music and associated cultural heritage’.
Another place of interest is Ketebul Music in Kenya which ‘exists to carry out research and promote the diverse fusion of traditional sounds of Kenya and East Africa through the documentation and archiving of the work of musicians.’ Of particular interest is its ‘Retracing Kenyan Music’ project which seeks to ‘demonstrate the extent to which Kenyan culture is the constantly shifting sum of many layers borrowed over time from local ethnic traditions and diverse global influences that include American country, Christian hymns and Congolese rhumba amongst many others.’
Over in Ghana, the Bokoor African Popular Music Archives Foundation (BAPMAF) seeks to ‘preserve, promote and disseminate Ghanaian/African popular and traditional performance and act as facilitator, consultant and resource centre for various African arts projects in Ghana and the international community’. BAPMAF was founded in 1990 as an NGO, with the majority of its initial archival holdings originating in the founder, Professor John Collins’s, personal collection. The archive is extensive, with ‘approximately 1,600 hours of recorded music, 700 publications, and 1,170 slides/photos/negatives’. Financial donations to the archive, which suffered damage to 10% of artefacts in the 2011 floods, are welcomed and will help it continue to operate.
These places just scratch the surface of DIY music heritage practice currently being undertaken in Africa. Just from a review of the websites it is clear that African DIY heritage practitioners face similar issues to those in other corners of the world around funding and storage and, subsequently, sustainability, and that they share a similar interest in saving material from being lost or ruined.
A huge thank you to Jez for bringing these archives to my attention.