Safekeeping for the Future


A CIRENCESTER audio archival engineering company has just finished working on a set of African recordings that are more than a century old.

Paul Turney, of Sirensound Digital, was commissioned to digitize the wax cylinders for future safekeeping of the audio. Wax cylinders were patented by Thomas Edison and were one of the earliest form of sound recording, being used for 40 years until more modern technology was developed. These particular cylinders date back to the early twentieth century.
Paul Turney used an Edison Fireside player with custom modifications and a stylus made to the Edison specification. He used the Millennia Media LPE-2 Legacy Phonographic Environment modified by Bex Audio in Reading, UK, to equalize the signal from the vertical groove media. This was then digitized to a BWAV format using Sony converters running at 96 kHz 24 bits on the Pyramix platform needing no further restoration.

The cylinders were one of the best ways for anthropologists to record
in the field and it was Sir Harry Johnston who made the trip to Africa to record thevarious speeches and tribal songs.Sir Harry’s nanny acquired the wax cylinders when he died and they stayed in her family until she died. They were then put up for auction.

A collector bought the cylinders and they had been sitting in his London flat for about 20 years until they were bought by Canadian company Voyager Press. It was Voyager Press, who contacted Mr Turney to have the collection of wax cylinders put into a modern format.

Research revealed that some of Sir Harry's cylinders were recorded in Uganda at around 1900 and are therefore the earliest, if not the very first recordings ever made in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. According to the late Professor Klaus Wachsumann, a world authority on Ugandan music, no further recordings were made in the country until 20 years after Sir Harry collated his. Therefore the cylinders are an extremely valuable piece of history.

The cylinders cover a variety of different types of music including a Masai war song and speeches by Kasagama the king of Toro, and Tawadiadive, the king of Njiji. While Sir Harry was in Liberia in 1904 he made several more recordings which were also sent to Mr Turney to convert.

The most notable recording is an interview with the first Liberian president Arthur Barclay who emigrated from the West Indies in the 1860s. His clear West Indies accent can be heard as he answers Sir Harry's questions about the existence of cannibalism in Liberia.

The Liberian cylinders are also notable for the first-ever recording of the Kru people. The coastal tribe played an important role in the creation of African popular music in West Africa and the Congo basin. The tribe can be heard singing and still today there are almost no other recordings of Kru music available. Paul Turney said that despite the meticulous work that is involved in digitizing the cylinders it was an exciting experience. "When I collected them in an old steel trunk, that still had H H Johnston, Uganda, in white painted letters on the lid, I did of course wonder what exactly I was letting myself in for," he said. "Some comments I got from others in this field were 'glad I'm not doing it!’ These recordings are not only very old and quite significant, but they represent an accurate time capsule of the era.

"It's a fragile medium is wax so you have to be careful taking into account temperature effects of handling and mounting the cylinder onto the mandrel. You need to be very gentle with them otherwise they could easily crack and "You have to appreciate that these were field recordings produced in harsh conditions where some of the output was so good it was a credit to the recordist. ”President Barclay, in conversation with the interviewer came across very
clear with the tones nicely intact."
Paul Turney said that while his involvement was purely professional it did make all the hard work of getting a world-class facility set up for this kind of work absolutely worthwhile and very rewarding. The cylinders open up new lines of investigation for anthropologists, musicologists and social historians interested in African research.

Tags: archive | iss045 | audio archive | Sirensound Digital | BWAV | Pyramix platform | N/A
Contributing Author N/A

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