African Music in the World and Traditional Music Section at the British Library Sound Archive

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It is widely accepted that the development of recording technology played an important role in the development of ethnomusicology as a discipline. For the first time, from the late nineteenh century, music could be recorded for use in scientific comparison and analysis. Jaap Kunst once wrote: "ethnomusicology could never have grown into an independent science if the gramophone had not been invented."1 But the significance of recorded performance-the most objective way of capturing oral tradition-for the understanding of all aspects of culture must not be underestimated, particularly, but not exclusively, for nonliterate societies. "Oral tradition should be central to students of culture, of ideology, of society, of psychology, of art, and . . . of history."2 And sound archives should be perceived as essential to research, "equivalent to libraries in other disciplines insofar as their importance in research is concerned."3

Almost immediately after the advent of recording technology in the late 1870s, sound archives began to emerge: the first in Europe was the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Science in 1899.4 Britain came late to the field: the British Institute of Recorded Sound was established with private funds only in 1947; it received its first grant-in-aid in the 1960s and in 1983 it became part of the British Library, known as the National Sound Archive.5

The Archive holds thousands of historic wax cylinders and prewar 78rpm discs, and about a million vinyl singles and LPs, as well as CDs and approximately 185,000 tapes, and a growing collection of specialist videos and laser discs. The collections come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound. They include published and unique unpublished recordings from the late nineteenth century to date, as well as broadcasts, including public access to BBC material. Although there is no legal deposit for recorded sound in the United Kingdom, as there is to cover printed material, the Sound Archive receives approximately 75% to 80% of all records published in this country, through agreements with individual record companies and the industry's trade body, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).6 There are 6 curatorial areas: world and traditional music, classical music, pop, wildlife sounds, drama and literature, and oral history. The Archive also includes substantial collections of recordings of jazz, industrial and mechanical sounds, spoken actuality, and language and dialect.


The World and Traditional Music Section is the Archive's special collection of recordings of music variously described as traditional, ethnic, folk, or more recently, "world music." This includes commercial urban music from the non-western world, such as highlife, salsa, and Indian film music. The collection encompasses musical traditions worldwide, from the infancy of recording technology to the present day. For example, it includes some 3,200 ethnographic field recordings made on wax cylinder dating from as early as 1898 (made in the Torres Straits).7 On the other end of the scale, the collection receives recordings made recently in the field, frequently on digital audio tape, and now, increasingly on digital video.

The World and Traditional Music Section currently consists of roughly 120,000 items.8 The collection attempts to be comprehensive and up-to-date in its commercial recordings, and holds copies of the major United States and European LP series on labels such as Folkways, Rounder, Ocora, Lyrichord, Topic, Chant du Monde, etc., as well as lesser-known labels, including many produced purely for local markets. The 335 private collections represent the work of many well-known recordists and scholars such as Klaus Wachsmann (Uganda, Sound Archive reference C4), A.L. Lloyd (Eastern Europe and England, C200), Arnold A. Bake (India, C52), Brian Moser and Donald Taylor (Colombia, C207), Jean Jenkins (various countries, C699), among others. …