Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Field Recording with CARE in Justicia, SA

A few days ago, I traveled north from Johannesburg with Tshepang Ramoba (drummer from BLK JKS) to make field recordings of traditional Shangaan music in the Limpopo region of South Africa.

Our trip was coordinated through CARE International as a part of an going project (CARE Music), which uses field recordings (and samples) of regional music to help fight global poverty.

We drove north from Johannesburg for nearly six hours, through the mountains of Limpopo -- Biggie on the radio, rondavel huts by the roadside and green as far as the eye could see.

Our destination was simple: a community garden supported by CARE in the outskirts of a small village.  Mama Grace (pictured above, far right) was in charge, she explained to us how her vegetables were delivered along with medicine and water to people with AIDS.

Under the shade of a tree in their garden, the women shared many songs with us for the CARE Music project -- traditional songs, songs about their collective, songs for the rain, sad songs, religious songs, welcoming songs.   Between songs, the women turned their fingers in the dirt, pulled weeds and seemingly plucked new melodies from the field.

After having lunch with Mama Grace -- hot pepper sandwiches + cold coke -- we traveled farther into the village.  Beside a few rondavel huts, Tshepang noticed a set of small drums laid out on the dusty ground.   I asked Mama Grace who they belonged to.   Moments later, a traditional healer emerged from her hut.   Someone cut the radio that was blaring house music and the healer started to play.

She was exuberant, talking to me in Shangaan like I understood every word.   Others emerged to play other drums.  We danced with the kids and played more drums.  Some were made from ceramic pots, some from tin oil drums.  The goat skin heads were tight and tuned.  We stayed for a bit, then took the long road back to Johannesburg.

Photos from Justicia by Wills and Tshepang 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Last night was my first night in Johannesburg and I headed straight from the airport to see BLK JKS.

"We've come to you all the way from South Africa," Mpume joked with the crowd between songs.

The JKS are back in Soweto after touring for six months in support of their Secretly Canadian release, After Robots.

Here at ground zero, the boys sound different from when I heard them last at Santo's in New York.  The songs are mutating.   Each tune has its own goals, logic, paranoia.

After only a day in Johannesburg, I don't see exactly how BLK JKS are a by-product or a reflection of "life in South Africa".   But maybe that is what's being celebrated here -- the surprises, the disconnect, the self-determination of the art itself.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Malicious Desertion

Hugh Tracey's audio field recordings from Africa constitute what's been called "the musical memory of half a continent."  Starting with acetate recordings in the late 1920s, Tracey made it his life's work to document the disappearing music of Africa.  I'm here in Grahamstown, South Africa to research that legacy and to learn about Tracey's life for a radio show I'm producing for Afropop Worldwide.

"It seemed clear that unless someone devoted more time and energy to appraising the social value of authentic African music, it would go (away) by default," Tracey wrote in his The Sound of Africa Series.  "The challenge remained as to. . . what techniques should be employed to ensure that the unwritten composition of genuine African musicians would not be ignored or thrust aside by the artificially stimulated demands of commerce and radio, and the intrusion of non-African popular music on films and records."

Tracey was old-school, he was a purist, and a bossy one at that.  He plowed "tradition" into acetate,  aluminum, and eventually on to tape.   Over the next few weeks, I'll write more about Tracey and his work.

This is a place to start listening.  With the breath:
"Saliwe Ngamadoda (Malicious Desertion)" a Xhosa song from Tracey's LP series, The Sound of Africa.

Photo taken today outside Grahamstown.