By Bethsheba Achitsa with Ogova Ondego
Published January 29, 2011
The music is stored on vinyl records, audio and video cassettes, and on CDs and DVDs. From Kenya and Tanzania to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Senegal, the collection is being expanded with a view to making it accessible to lovers of African music. Dr Hauke Dorsch, the director of the Africa Music Archive (AMA) at the Institute of Ethnology and African Studies at the University of Mainz, speaks to ArtMatters.Info about this unique project.
What is the scope of The Africa Music Archive?
The African Music Archives (AMA), founded in 1991, contains a collection of modern African music which is unique in Germany. It includes shellacs and vinyl-records, audio- and video tapes, CDs and DVDs. At present, there are approximately 10, 000 records and tapes, some of them dating back to the 1940s. The main aim of the AMA is to continue the collection of recordings of popular African music from the entire continent. However, the collection includes some field recordings and also some non-African recordings. It aims at making these recordings available to an academic public. We use these recordings for teaching. In the future we plan to publish information on these recordings online.
An Africa music archive at a German university; why this specific location yet there is none in Africa itself?
Actually, there are comparable institutions in Africa, the best known may be the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in South Africa (see ru.ac.za/ilam). However, the focus of ILAM is more on field recordings rather than popular music. The founder of the AMA, Dr Wolfgang Bender, was offered space to store his collection of music and an academic position at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. Other Universities were not prepared to offer this. But of course am I aware of the post-colonial implications of your question, wondering why African cultural products should be stored in Europe, after they were taken from African countries. But anyhow this leads us again to one individuals’ enthusiasm, who started collecting African popular music, at a time when few academic individuals and institutions were prepared to appreciate these records. As he started collecting only after the colonial era, items were not stolen or bought at a ridiculously low price as we know it from older collections. Actually, large parts of the collections were bought in Europe, for example from Radio Stations that stopped using vinyl. Who are the people who frequent/make use of the archive? They are mainly scholars and students from various universities, mosty from German-speaking countries. However, some African and European visiting scholars use the archive, too. Furthermore the AMA reaches out to a wider public, offering talks and workshops, inviting school classes, etc.
How can an interested individual access the African Music Archive?
The AMA’s collection is accessible so far only by visiting it personally, as we don’t have the means to present our collections online yet. The opening hours are published on our web site, which offers more detailed information on the AMA (see ama.ifeas.uni-mainz.de/index_ENG.php).
What difference has the archive made since it came into existence in 1991?
As I joined the AMA only in 2010 I will mention some of the activities of my predecessors: It offers regular classes on African music, which is rarely done at anthropology or African studies departments in Germany. AMA has helped attract interest in and enhance knowledge of African Music ; this has been done through the co-operation with the music label “Popular African Music” in publishing CDs. A recoding project in Malawi presented a documentation of musical styles from the different regions of this country – published as a CD on the label Popular African Music. Through the digitisation of the Sierra Leone National Radio Archive, AMA secured this country’s musical treasure – which was quite useful, as the original archive was destroyed during the civil war. The AMA sent digital copies of the archive to Freetown afterwards. The AMA continues to represent different styles of music from the African continent to German audiences, aiming at overcoming existing ignorance and stereotypes.
What kind of African music genres do you store in the archive?
As the founder decided to focus on popular music, genres include Afrobeat, Bongo Flava, Calypso, Chimurenga, Congo Rumba, EthioJazz, Highlife, HipLife, Isicathamiya, Jive, Juju, Kuduro, Kwaito, Makossa, Mbalax, Ngoma, Rai, Reggae, Senerap, Soukous, Taarab, and many more.
So far what African countries are represented at the African Music Archive? Nearly all African countries are represented, but indeed to a varying degree – the Congolese, Cameroonian, Ethiopian, Guinean and South African collections are quite impressive, other countries are well represented, a few countries unfortunately by a handful of records only.
What challenges have you faced in archiving the African music?
The main challenges for any archive or museum include conservationist issues (especially with regard to tapes and shellacs, less so with regard to vinyl), documenting the history of acquisition, finding detailed information about lesser known artists, about some labels and about the circumstances of production. It is of course impossible to cover the wide variety of a continent’s musics, so we ask colleagues coming from Africa or those travelling to Africa to bring records. Therefore we are not able to collect systematically. Consequently our collection somewhat documents the trajectories of our local and visiting colleagues here at Mainz University. Today, the wide variety of styles and the increasing number of productions make impossible to keep track with ongoing musical developments especially on a continent so rich in music as Africa. Actually, the AMA’s scope is way too wide – but then again, it would be sad to resign to this variety, and focus on some countries or regions only.
What is your opinion about the present African Music?
Well, this depends very much on which style or even which artist one would think of. There are exciting recent developments, many in the field of electronic music, which include a style like Kuduro, which was very successfully hyped up internationally. But of course, every hype produces a number of mediocre and simply boring recordings – and this may explain why the excitement about SeneRap, Bongo Flava, HipLife or Kwaito waned after a while, though you may still find exciting tunes among all these styles. But quality notwithstanding, I think it was important that these genres were produced by and spoke to local (mostly urban) youth in Africa. It was important for African music to get away from the grip of World Music marketing that catered too much to Western tastes – although quite a number of artists produced impressive recordings in this context. But, wonderful artistry notwithstanding, World Music’s appeal to the “exotic”, the “different” risked to relegate African music to some “rootsy” curiosity. What struck me as a bit bizarre in contrast, was 2010’s success of white South African Afrikaner bands who were marketed as “white trash”, and successfully brought cheap – but indeed quite funny – Euro dance music (also known as “EuroTrash”) to Western audiences (the most famous of these bands are Die Antwoord). Actually, as a World Cup hype, this music was definitely more fun than “WakaWaka (This Time For Africa)” which was Shakira’s and Freshly Ground’s remake of the song “Zangalewa” by the Camerounian band The Golden Sounds. Some people complained that a Colombian singer represented Africa for the World Cup. However, 2010 was also the year of 50th anniversary of Independence and looking back at the independence era, I think it is striking how much the memory of that time is linked to Latin American, and especially Cuban music – and that only few scholars have worked on this aspect so far. So, maybe not by accident did some famous African musicians record renditions of Cuban music or at least songs with some Caribbean flavour. The more interesting titles were recorded by Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté. This album was recorded in 2005 and Touré may have been aware that he would die soon, thus I would understand this album as his legacy, and this song as the expression as a memory of the independence era. Touré first heard this song played by Keita Fodeba – so it is a reminder of the great era of Guinean pop music. But it is also a reminder of Keita after directing the Ballets, Africaines, and being appointed minister before he was imprisoned and died in Sekou Touré’s camp Boiro. So one may read some political criticism in the re-recording of this song. A less critical reference to Sékou Touré has been recorded recently by the Malian Griotte Bako Dagnon. Based on a Cuban Guajira, she celebrates Touré as “Guide de la Révolution”. A nostalgic and probably not sufficiently critical “Regard sur le Passé” may be appropriate for the older generation of musicians. It is good, however, that the younger generation faces the disappointments and unfulfilled promises that haunt many countries 50 years after the start of the Independence era. The version of the “Independence ChaCha”, simply called “Indépendance”, by Cameroonian rappers Ak Sans Grave is a good example. But I have to admit, not having travelled to the continent for some three years now, cut me a bit from the most recent developments (although thanks to the web and enthusiastic students I manage to keep track) – so I am looking forward to the next trip that will re-connect me.
Say something about yourself, your studies and work.
I was brought up in Hamburg, Germany and studied Cultural Anthropology, African Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Hamburg. As a student I tried to be a musician. Although this endeavour didn’t get me very far, I was lucky enough to meet Gambian kora players (and griots) at a musicians’ workshop. They invited me to visit them, which I did in 1989. We kept our contact and developed a friendship over the years. I wrote my M.A. thesis on the African Diaspora, published as “Afrikanische Diaspora und Black Atlantic – Einführung in geschichte und aktuelle Diskussion”, Münster 2000. In my PhD (still at Hamburg University) I focused on the role of West African musicians and griots for the Diaspora – working both on African migrants in Europe and on the African American Community in the USA. It was published as “Globale Griots – Performanz in der afrikanischen Diaspora, Münster 2006. Then, rather than working on the music aspect of my academic interests, I followed the migration trajectory: In 2004 I joined a research project at University of Bayreuth on Cuban-African relations. I focused on the experiences of African students in Cuba; research took place in Cuba, Mozambique and South Africa. From 2007 I was part of a research consortium based at the University of Southampton in Britain (sefone.soton.ac.uk). I worked on intercultural encounters and integration policies in small town Germany. Research took place in Bayreuth, which was fascinating for me, because before I knew the town only as a foreign resident, now as an anthropologist working on his own society. However, music did play an important role in all these projects, as I used it methodologically by organizing concerts, and discussing musical memories with interviewees. I joined the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz as the director of the African Music Archives on March 1, 2010.