The Traceys- An intergenerational story of African music In Africa

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There are striking parallels between Hugh and Andrew’s work and that of the Lomax family in the US. John Lomax was an ethnomusicologist who did numerous field recordings of blues, cowboy, folk and chain-gang music. John and his son Alan began recording in 1934, and, crossing the continent, amassed over 10 000 recordings of vocal and instrumental music on aluminium and acetate discs for the Library of Congress. They helped to bring musicians such as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger into the public eye. Alan’s son and grandson are both prominent in the music industry.

Unlike the Lomaxes, the Traceys never had government funding in their quest to preserve the music of the continent. Nevertheless, they managed to raise money from other sources, and the legacy of the extraordinary Tracey family is that it has managed to create a present and future for traditional African music, an oral tradition that may otherwise have been lost forever.

This story examines the unique and magical connection of the Tracey family – Hugh, Andrew and Andrew’s son, Geoffrey – to traditional African music, culture and belief systems.

In August 2017, the Krugersdorp farm that once belonged to Hugh, and where Geoffrey grew up, was transferred to a new owner. Before the sale, I was privileged to attend a workshop on African rhythms run by Geoffrey, inside an old stone farmhouse on the smallholding known as Saronde. On a tour of the farm, Geoffrey showed me the abandoned rusty trailer that his grandfather had towed up into Africa on his many field trips to record ethnic music, and my curiosity about the Tracey tale was piqued.

The sale of this historic piece of land, on which three generations of the Tracey family lived, played music and died, is the end of an era. But thanks to thousands of their recordings, photos and field notes, much of Africa’s original music will live on.

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Hugh Tracey 

Hugh Tracey (1903-1977) came over from England almost 100 years ago, in 1921, to farm tobacco in Southern Rhodesia, and immediately became fascinated by the local culture. He learnt the Karanga dialect of the Shona language by working with farmworkers in the fields and developed a deep love for their music. But he also became aware of the resistance of the colonial community to suggestions that Africans had any culture or music worth acknowledging.

“At that time the public showed little interest in African music and did not understand why I constantly stressed the social and artistic value of the music for future generations of Africans,” Hugh said in 1973, in the introduction to the catalogue of his field recordings, his Sound of Africa, 210 LP series.

Hugh’s concern was that as Western culture flooded into Africa, the unwritten and unrecorded compositions of genuine African musicians would be thrust aside and forgotten. There were also few scholarly attempts to understand its complexities.

He decided, on the advice of fellow musicians, to ignore for the time being any attempt to score the music and rather record as much of it as funds would allow, so that future musicians and students could benefit from the gathered data. Analysis of the music could then be based on the evidence collected on discs instead of hearsay or romantic imagination.

From 1929 until the 1970s, Hugh made dozens of expeditions into remote regions of Africa, where he sought out, studied and recorded ethnic musicians. He dedicated his life to creating a library of African music. With the help of Eric Gallo, Hugh founded and became in 1954, in Roodepoort, the director of ILAM – an organisation solely dedicated to the preservation and study of African music.

He was particularly interested in the mbira, an instrument found nowhere else in the world. He created an adaptation of the mbira known as the kalimba, with a diatonic scale that a Western ear could recognise. The first commercial kalimbas and marimbas were manufactured in the 1950s. Today, kalimbas, marimbas and various other African instruments continue to be handcrafted by Hugh’s African Musical Instruments (AMI).

Both AMI and ILAM moved to Grahamstown in 1978. ILAM is attached to the music department at Rhodes University, which coordinates its ethnomusicology programme and offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in ethnomusicology, which include training in the performance of African music.

ILAM has been publishing African Music: Journal of the International Library of African Music since 1954. As part of the Rhodes University’s support for open access to research output and primary research, the journal is accessible freely online, with a two-year embargo on the latest issues. ILAM’s vast library of music and photographs was also digitised recently.

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Andrew Tracey 

Prof Andrew Tracey, born in 1936, is an ethnomusicologist, composer, singer, bandleader and promoter who continued the work of his father Hugh in a variety of ways. Andrew was exposed to African music from an early age as he observed his father’s research on Chopi xylophone music at the family home in Durban. He also attended the traditional dance performances his father arranged on Sunday afternoons for the dock workers and listened to his father’s radio broadcasts, which featured traditional stories and African music.

As Hugh Tracey became more devoted to his work, his marriage fell apart and his wife Ursula moved to England with their sons Paul and Andrew. At Oxford University, Andrew studied anthropology, philology and, informally, folk music. 

He returned to Africa to join Paul and his father at ‘The Farm’, the property in Krugersdorp where Hugh Tracey started AMI. While Paul Tracey oversaw the production of kalimbas at AMI, Andrew began working with his father, seeking to understand and document the music of southern Africa.

Hugh and Andrew helped Robert Sibson found the Kwanongoma College of African Music (now United College of Music), in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1960. Part of Andrew’s job in building Kwanongoma was to scout around in the townships for players of traditional instruments who could teach at the new college. He found Jege Tapera, who played the mbira nyunga nyunga, which is also known as the karimba. Tapera taught Andrew his music and instrument, and without any formal training in ethnomusicology, Andrew wrote several papers for the African Music journal.

In 1961, Andrew co-wrote, with Jeremy Taylor and his brother Paul Tracey, the songs for Wait a Minim! performed between 1962 and 1968 in South Africa, Rhodesia, the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, including 461 shows on Broadway. Andrew helped to educate the world about unique African instruments and was on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson many times. 

When his father died in 1977 Andrew became the ILAM director and the editor of African Music, roles he fulfilled until 2005. His field research focused on the playing technique of members of the mbira and xylophone families. A highlight of Andrew’s research was the identification of the lower course of tines on the karimba as the logical ancestor of essentially all mbiras (all modern mbiras are based on its eight notes).

In 1969 he started the Andrew Tracey Steelband, which performed around Grahamstown and South Africa and at festivals such as the National Arts Festival until 2007. During the 28 years Andrew headed ILAM, he lectured on African music at universities, schools and societies, and on TV and radio around the world.

Andrew is renowned for his tireless enthusiasm for teaching and performing African music. He is a trustee of the Arts & Culture Trust and received an honorary doctorate in 1995 from the University of Natal, and the Premier’s Arts and Culture Lifetime Achievement Award from the Eastern Cape government in 2002.

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Geoffrey Tracey 

Geoffrey, born in 1972, is Hugh’s grandson and Andrew’s son. I spoke to him about taking the Tracey legacy forward. 

DEREK DAVEY: What was it like growing up in the Tracey family and tradition? 

GEOFFREY TRACEY: It was amazing. Music filled the home and musicians came around frequently. The Andrew Tracey Steelband was a big part of that; it was a platform to arrange and secure gigs with, all around the country. For many years it was a very popular thing for the public and for the people who passed through the band. It was like a mini school of international folk music. A number of the old members are music researchers now. 

Every Sunday there was a rehearsal and this brought together up to a dozen musicians, including family, for most of the afternoon, with a great, featured tea spread indoors or on the lawn. I was blessed from a young age to be introduced as if I were family to numerous elite African musicians. Most significantly, I recall Venancio Mbande, a ‘lion’ of Mozambique, from what I think is one of the most interesting, spectacular and rich musical cultures in southern Africa – that of the Chopi around Inhambane. Venancio was like a second father when he was around. 

My grandfather and my father have both had long relationships with the Chopi people over many years, whom they visited on numerous field trips. As my grandfather and father were loved, so I was taken in and loved, as family. That’s when I really learnt how to shake hands the African way! 

I also recall Ephat Mujuru, the master mbira player and storyteller, and various other master mbira players, also known as gwenyambiras. I recall Adama Drame, the master djembe player from Burkina, and others. I was taken to the mine dances in Rustenburg, to Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Mozambique in my childhood. Later I was fortunate to be able to travel on a European tour with 30 Chopi orchestra players and dancers.

Due to my upbringing, African culture was friendly, rich, curious and mysterious to me. I was privileged and protected and only later learnt of race hate, prejudice and the legacies of warring. What I can really thank my father for is playing music with me and surrounding me with musical culture from before I can remember. When I was young, dad used to play mbira in a simple way so I could hear the beat, and then play it in a more complex way, so it was harder to hear where the beat was. He was training me to listen for the underlying dance beat, through which all the other parts are connected. He was training me to have presence and confidence when playing your part, in this case just clapping the beat, because in African music sometimes it’s the way you play off the beat that’s important, and you can’t play off it if the feeling of where it is in the first place is not strong and confident. 

Dad’s musical interests are wide and he opened an appreciation of so many different musical cultures from around the world in me. He is a kind and fun teacher. I only started playing African instruments later in life really, at about 16, although I was occasionally caught hammering away on a xylophone or drum at a very young age in between the adults’ rehearsals. 

What instruments do you play? 

I have played quite a few instruments over the years, some more seriously than others. I took some piano lessons, and have also played Latin conga drums, the drum kit, trombone, violin, the uhadi single-string bow and my favourite, the mbira dza vadzimu or mbira huru, although I hasten to acknowledge my small repertoire and minimal field experience. I have, for example, never been to a proper bira, the ceremony where mbira music is played all night for the ancestors, with spirit possession, and so on, but I have watched films, been part of and seen mbira performances in non-ceremonial contexts. On mbira, I learnt my ‘five big tunes’ growing up and I have found pleasure in developing by not learning more and more repertoire, but by learning the repertoire that I already know more and more deeply – new ways to play, to feel the rhythm, to sing and to accent. I think of these five favourite tunes as my family tunes, because it was usually one of them that was being played by us, or one of our students. Of course we cannot claim them as ours, they are very old from the Shona people, but we love them and love to play them. 

I have devoted time to the Ugandan harp, learning the tunes that are also played on the amadinda pentatonic xylophone, which I love to play and share with groups, because of all the parts that lock in together, along with the pentatonic set of horns. Kudu is probably the best acoustic horn, but some other antelope horns are also used. A great and complex musical tradition is the multiple panpipe music of the Anyungwe people of Mozambique. The pipes are called nyanga. Each person has two, three or four notes to blow, and a singing yodelling part, in an interlocking rhythm and a dance step, all of which are done in perfect movement unison. It is a wonderful, joyful, musical, moving meditation!

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Do you speak any African languages? 

I speak a bit of Zulu and Xhosa, as well as some French, Portuguese and Afrikaans. These are African languages arguably. I’m good at sounding like I can speak a language — it’s the musician in me!

Do you feel you are taking the Tracey legacy forward?

I know that there is no way that I can fill the huge shoes of my father and grandfather. They both had and have special skills. I have mine, which developed out of what I grew up with, that they had already established. I think my sangoma work is a deepening of the spiritual relationship with the peoples that my father and grandfather have worked with in music. I have always loved the magical stories and characters, and to me the nature of the wizards and healers was something that felt attractive and even familiar to me. So when I was told in a reading – my first ever bones reading – that I had a calling, it wasn’t difficult to imagine doing.

One does not choose to become sangoma – it’s a calling. Frequently a calling will show up as sickness on physical and spiritual levels. I had to die to my old expectations and self-identity, and see how much more there was in life that I had not yet seen, that which was good and could give meaning to my life. I got sick in my spirit and my body got chronic pain fibromyalgia. I thought life had ended for me when I realised that I could not be a performer any longer as a result of this.

Did your fibromyalgia heal when you became a sangoma? 

Becoming a sangoma has transformed my relationship with my fibromyalgia, and it shifted and changed as I changed. I now see the pain as a kind of ancestors’ tool to carve me into the person I need to be, to be able to hold what I have been given. Pain is my guide, in a sense; I am grateful to it for helping me listen to what I carry, and bring it forward for healing. 

Tell me a bit about your twasa (sangoma training)? 

I feel an affinity with KwaZulu, so to train there felt comfortable. Also, a lot of my grandfather’s work was in Natal, some of which was with the Zulu royal family. So there was an alignment there that felt right. We were encouraged to not be dismayed by the challenges of our training by being told stories of how strict the training used to be in the old days and how they used to suffer. It involved waking at 4am, cold-water washing in the dark, taking medicines, steaming, dancing, shouting, singing and greetings. Many menial chores filled the day: harvesting and preparing muti, serving clients, cleaning the home, praying, and so on. My stays while in training were between 10 days and three months. I have continued to visit a couple of times every year for the last 14 years. My gogo is from a deep river of ancestors with traditional spiritual skills. She’s like another mother to me.

Tell me how you got to be called Gogo Hugh? 

I am called among other names Gogo Hugh because the protocol of my training used to be that we take and are known by the name of our paternal grandfather.

It was humbling to, from that moment of my naming, to be called and interacted with using the name Hugh. This created a profound shifting of personal sense of identity, helping connect the child Geoffrey to the spirit energy of Hugh. Hugh is a great source of blessing and a stabilising, supportive energy in my life.

Hugh was a character, charismatic and filled with vigour and animation, and a natural storyteller. I only knew him until I was five years old, when he passed from multiple strokes. But he, and the sound of his voice, had already taken root in my being. His voice represented love, humour, fascination and gentle authority. It rings into my lived memory of him when I listen for example to his recordings telling stories from Zimbabwe, which he collected into a book titled after one of them, The Lion on the Path. Grandpa Hugh is and was always in my heart. 

I believe my role concerns the spiritual implications of the relationship the Traceys have with Africa. I have been a teacher for many years, and in that time I have refined principles and practices that I learnt growing up in the family, which were influenced by myriad of styles and cultures. I will write them down in a book as a teaching resource in due course. I would also like to open or work in a heritage training centre. Heritage is a broad umbrella that can include music and traditional healing along with other important indigenous knowledge systems. 

A sangoma is a public servant, in service to spirit. My grandfather’s purpose was also to serve and preserve what he saw as the rich, transient and misunderstood culture of Africa. His codification and textbook project was essentially to create teaching materials for schools and universities from African examples. Various authors have now started to create teaching materials from the archival material and make it accessible. Hugh was a unique humanitarian for his time, bringing insight into the beauty and complexity of the oral cultures of Africa to the Western world. He travelled and did lecture tours internationally, and donated full catalogues of his collections to all the major American universities.

He also developed the kalimba, a diatonic Western-tuned instrument, with a layout similar in principle to traditional African instruments, which encourages rhythmic pattern playing. So I see the kalimba as a cultural bridge. I, too, am a bridge between cultures.

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