PHOTOGRAPHING AT ILAM (extract)
By Siemon Allen
In July 2015, I visited for the first time the International Library of African Music, or ILAM, in Grahamstown, South Africa. I had approached Diane Thram, ILAM’s director, in 2013 about a proposal to photograph their 78 rpm record collection.
Amongst the commercial 78s, one of the most interesting finds was a Homophon Company disc—up until then—a label I was not familiar with, let alone even aware that they recorded any South African related material. When I found this disc, I knew immediately that there was something significant about it. I asked Elijah Madiba if I could listen to the tracks. Alas, ILAM had not yet digitised them. So I embarked on some research around the meta-data associated with the disc
The double sided disc includes two tracks, one by Dr. W. B. Rubusana titled Kaffir Clicks and the second, O come Maidens come by Palmer Mgwetyana. About this word “kaffir” and its appearance here. It is a highly offensive, derogoratory term used to refer to black South Africans, notably during the apartheid era. The origin is Arabic meaning literally “non-believers”. (Interestingly, today one can sometimes hear the term in ISIS videos used when referring to “infidels”). Whether its appearance in this record title is intended as a deliberate racial slur or not, it’s seemingly 'benign' casual use (not unusual for 19th century publications) still gives a jolt to the contemporary researcher.
While both titles appear in English, the attributions on each side are not. "Sitewetu gnu" and "invunywe gnu" are spelt phonetically in Xhosa as if the recording engineer wrote down word for word how the performers chose to present themselves in their own language. Perhaps their intentions were that these records would eventually be marketed back in the country of origin—Homophon discs were certainly advertised in South African media of the day. (I am in the process of finding the correct translations for these but I suspect "sitewetu gnu" translates roughly as "spoken by" while "invunywe gnu" could be "sung by").
“Kaffir Clicks” could refer to the Xhosa language likely spoken by Rubusana and so it is my guess that this side of the disc represents spoken word examples of Rubusana's style of speaking rather than songs. A 'curiosity' perhaps for what I assume was a British audience. Something, I suspect, not that dissimilar from how Western audiences responded to Miriam Makeba’s “Click Song” 50 years later.
Homophon was a German record label—the discs were pressed in Berlin—though the company had offices in London prior to World War One. On each side there are four distinct numbers: the overall catalog or coupling number (991), a matrix for each track (60174 and 60206), and then two additional alpha-numeric numbers in the lead-out of the shellac. Thanks to some esoteric notes available at normanfield.com I was able to determine that these numbers refer to dates. Though Homophon has a rather Byzantine dating system, this is still better than most 78 rpm discs that have none at all. Rubusana’s recording has G28P, which translates to July 28, 1911, while Mgwetyana has G31P or July 31, 1911. While it is not clear whether these represent the actual recording dates, I suspect that they almost certainly do. The fourth number, 1913A, also refers to a date, 1st September, 1913, but it is unclear whether this represents a pressing or issue date.
Both Rubusana and Mgwetyana were part of a South African delegation that attended the historic first Universal Races Congress held over four days at the University of London from July 26-29, 1911. The meeting, with 2100 attendees, had been organised by the Ethical Culture Society to discuss the state of race relations across the world and included participants such as W.E.B. du Bois. I am almost certain that these recordings were made while these two men attended this historic meeting in London and that the numbers on the shellac refer to the specific recording dates.
Dr. Walter Benson Rubusana was a notable South African leader and sometime political rival of John Tengo Jabavu. Interestingly Rubusana become the first black African ever elected to serve as a member of the Cape Provincial Council. He was elected president of the South African Native Convention in 1909 before becoming one of the vice-presidents of the organisation that became the African National Congress after attending their inaugural conference in Bloemfontein in 1912.
The Homophon recording is one of, if not the first of any South African political leader, black or white. While it is likely that the record was issued in 1913, it is significant that the recordings predate Zonophone’s historic 4000 series of South African material launched in 1912. Within the history of black Southern African recordings these two tracks are only preempted by the mostly religious tunes cut in 1907 by the Swazi Chiefs and issued on the Gramophone Concert Record (GCR) label.
I found it odd that Hugh Tracey, as one of the earliest collectors of African music did not have any Zonophone and GCR discs in his collection. However, this Homophon disc qualifies as the oldest recording in the ILAM collection. In my view it is a recording of great historical significance and warrants further research.
Many thanks to the Diane Thram and the International Library of African Music (ILAM) for allowing me to photograph their collection.