The Union Trade Company and Its Recordings: An Unintentional Documentation of West African Popular Music, 1931-1957

By Arlt, Veit | History In Africa, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Union Trade Company and Its Recordings: An Unintentional Documentation of West African Popular Music, 1931-1957


Arlt, Veit, History In Africa


I

This paper introduces a unique collection of roughly 700 historical recordings of African popular music generated by a Swiss trading company, which today is located at the archives of mission 21 (formerly Basel Missioin) in Basel. The music was recorded and distributed by the Union Trade Company of Basel (UTC) during the 1930s and 1950s in the Gold Coast and Nigeria. The collection represents a rich resource for the study of African history and cultures and caters for the growing interest shown by social historians of Africa in everyday life and accordingly in leisure activities and consumption.1

As music and dance undoubtedly play an important role in African social and religious life, they have received much attention and there is a longstanding tradition of ethnomusicological research that has led to a great number of sound collections. The historian interested in the "modern" and "postmodern" or in popular culture, however, tends in many cases to be frustrated by the material contained in these archives. The ethnographic collectors often showed a blind eye to the modernizing forces within the African musical cultures they researched and concentrated on documenting what they perceived as the "original" or "traditional."2 Furthermore the collection and documentation of the popular music of the day was rarely on the agenda of national research institutions and archives in postcolonial Africa.3 In the case of Ghana at least three initiatives have resulted in important collections of music that go beyond a narrow ethnographic documentation. The first, by Prof. Kwabena Nketia at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Ghana, features a mixture of field recordings and a few commercial records.4 The others focus specifically on the commercial and popular.

These are the Gramophone Records Museum in Cape Coast, discussed below by its founder Kwame Sarpong and the Bokoor African Popular Music Archives Foundation (BAPMAF) of John Collins in Accra. The collection of commercial UTC recordings located in Basel is an important addition to the three Ghanaian collections as it offers a unique cross-section through the music of Ghana and Nigeria, while at the same time it reflects the history of the UTC itself. The recordings are part of the Ghanaian and Nigerian national cultural heritage and should be preserved and be made accessible to researchers and music lovers. Even more important to us is the goal of rendering them accessible to the inhabitants of their countries of origin.5 Since similar collections exist elsewhere, why should the recordings of the now defunct Union Trade Company be of special interest-what is the special quality of the collection? I will briefly discuss the history of the UTC itself in order better to understand its special character and sudden downfall. This will provide the necessary background to UTC's recording activities and help to comprehend the nature of the music recorded and the contents of the collection.

II

When the Union Trade Company of Basel ceased to operate in 1999, hardly anybody in Switzerland took notice of it beyond employees and stockholders. In Ghana, on the other hand, where the company's origins are to be traced and where it had played an important role in the economic and social history, many would not believe the news. UTC and its mother society the Basel (Mission) Trading Company had employed and trained generations of Ghanaians and had shaped their tastes as consumers. The UTC department store on High Street, Accra had been the first such store in the whole of west Africa and has become a landmark in the urban landscape of Accra, much like the smaller UTC stores have done in all parts of the country. UTC and "Basel Trading" were two well-known brand names in Ghana for some 150 years. They were among the major players doing business on the Gold Coast and later in independent Ghana. Their names stood for quality and straightforward trading and were closely connected to the work of the Basel Mission in Ghana, which in some respect offered the blueprint for the present system of education in Ghana.

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