Beating Heart

 

New Project Captures Pulse of Africa’s Beating Heart

New interpretations bring new audience to African field recordings

Around the time that John and Alan Lomax were recording and preserving folk music in the Americas, Englishman Hugh Tracey was recording and archiving much of that music’s very roots in Africa.

Between the 1920s and the 1970s, Tracey recorded around 250 tribal groups. In 1954, he founded the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in Grahamstown, South Africa.

Sixty years later, another Englishman, musician Chris Pedley, discovered Tracey’s work after seeing a photograph in his future wife’s home. At the time, he didn’t know what to think, but he now knows it captured an Mbuti pygmy tribe in the Congo crowded around a speaker.

“I was intrigued; I thought ‘What is going on here?’” recalls Pedley. “My wife Lisa said, ‘Oh, my great uncle was an explorer in Africa who recorded music’.”

Fascinated, Pedley was soon off to Africa with the idea of making a documentary on Tracey’s work: “I went out to the archives to meet Hugh Tracey’s son [Andrew], who told me everything about his adventures and the different musics Hugh had been captivated by.”

“Why not engage youth culture and electronic music culture with something unique and organic?”

 
In this 1952 photo that inspired Beating Heart’s creation, Mbuti Pygmies listen to a recording of their own music made by ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey. Photo courtesy of Chris Pedley.

In this 1952 photo that inspired Beating Heart’s creation, Mbuti Pygmies listen to a recording of their own music made by ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey. Photo courtesy of Chris Pedley.

 

On that trip, while at Malawi’s Lake of Stars Festival, Pedley met Olly Wood, co-founder of Black Butter Records. Several passionate conversations later, the pair formed the idea of bringing Tracey’s recordings into the electronic era via remixing, and the Beating Heart project was born.

So far, two albums — South Africa and Malawi — have been released. A third, Tanzania, is due later this year. All use European and African producers who fuse digital sounds and electronic tweaks with the mesmerizing primordial beats and melodies, turning the African roots of modern music into music for the future.
“Sampling is a big part of dance music, so why not engage youth culture and electronic music culture with something unique and organic, and draw people’s attention to the roots of what they’re hearing?” Pedley asks rhetorically.

Along the way, Beating Heart is signing African artists, some of whom had never heard Tracey’s recordings and were introduced to their own cultural roots for the first time: “Drew Moyo, a Malawian producer, who had not heard the source material, said he felt connected to his ancestors. Malawi is very poor and doesn’t have an abundance of resources that tell them about their past. ILAM is a link from now to pre-westernization in rural Africa,” explains Pedley.

To help spread the word about these vibrant remixes, Pedley and Wood performed the songs at festivals last year. Pedley mans bass and synths; Wood DJs and adds effects. During one English gig, an acquaintance of Wood’s, Lulu James, hopped onstage, ad-libbing over the tracks. She is now part of the live crew and is signed to Beating Heart.

 
In this 1952 photo that inspired Beating Heart’s creation, Mbuti Pygmies listen to a recording of their own music made by ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey. Photo courtesy of Chris Pedley.

In this 1952 photo that inspired Beating Heart’s creation, Mbuti Pygmies listen to a recording of their own music made by ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey. Photo courtesy of Chris Pedley.

 

James is Maasai born but raised in the northeast of England. Last fall, her album was recorded in Tanzania using samples recorded in her family village in the 1940s and ’50s. “We will be performing her new songs at SXSW along with other tunes from our back catalog,” says Pedley.

As much as all of this is a fine giveback to African culture and artists, it wasn’t enough. “We’re laid wide open to various questions of cultural appropriation. Ethnomusicologists would ask what are we doing?” Pedley says. So, proceeds are donated to various development causes in the regions where the music was originally recorded.

“We felt like the right thing to do was to use some of the profits to go back to charities where the original music was recorded,” Pedley says. “So we found a community we believed in, supported them, and we’ve seen magic happen. It affects change for everyone.”

For Pedley, however, the point is having his great uncle-in-law’s work heard, and without Tracey’s recordings many rural African musical traditions may have been lost. At first, Tracey didn’t realize what he was doing, but then he received advice from some Western music heavyweights: “In the late 1920s Hugh Tracey had a meeting with Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams and played them some of his recordings,” says Pedley. “They said, ‘Go back to Africa and record everything you hear. Find a way to do it, because this music is going to be lost’.” Thanks to Beating Heart, these sounds are getting even more exposure.

Beating Heart will perform on Friday, March 16 at 4pm on the International Day Stage in Ballroom G at the Austin Convention Center. See the SXSW GO app or schedule.sxsw.com for more details.

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