It all began with 500 vinyl records from Ghana. Today, the University of Mainz holds a comprehensive collection of African music. Many recordings remain real rarities in Africa.
Whoever wants to hear how Africa can sound, should first take a look underground in Mainz. In the cellar of the Institute of Ethnology and African Studies lies an acoustic treasure chest: The African Music Archive. The collection is unique in Germany: Soul, reggae, highlife, hip-hop, jazz and above all pop music – on over 10,000 sound recordings from across Sub-Saharan Africa. Regional styles are also represented, for example Big Flava, a variant of hip-hop from East Africa.
Thousands of records
Spread over five rooms, vinyl records, music cassettes, CDs, video cassettes and DVDs are stored – diligently categorized by region and country. In 1991, ethnologist Wolfgang Bender brought the first records together, buying ever more recordings over the years. Others were donated by academics handing-over their souvenirs from Africa.
"The big impetus came when Bender acquired the collection from Radio France International," remembers Hauke Dorsch, archive manager for the past two years. When the French radio broadcaster stopped using vinyl records, Bender brought the discs to Mainz, thus expanding the collection immensely. Dorsch himself researched African sounds. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Griots, the West African professional singer, poet and instrumentalist.
Gramophone records of the 1940s
The oldest recordings in the archives are gramophone records from Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania. Some of them date back to the 1940s. Vinyl records from Cameroon, Guinea, Central and South Africa also form parts of the collection. Many Ethiopian artists can also be found on the music cassettes. Aster Aweke is one of the most well-known. Her fans called her "Africa's Aretha Franklin." In a recording from the 1980s her voice sounds distorted, loud noises are mixed between the beats. The sound quality of many of the pieces has deteriorated greatly over the years.
But it is not only the music of famous and unknown African artists that has been collected in Mainz. During their research expeditions in Africa, many ethnologists made recordings which can now also be found in the archive. An anthem sung in the Hausa language for example, recorded in Kano, Nigeria.
Studying African culture
Ethnology students are able to research and study the archive pool. Each semester, Hauke Dorsch delivers tertiary seminars on African music. But literature and film are also on the curriculum. Alongside the music archive, the Institute holds an ethnographic collection and a library with books and scriptures in former colonial languages as well as in African languages. "This constellation is very special and allows students a hands-on approach to their work," said Dorsch, smiling proudly.
The musical treasures of the archive are also open to the public. Students organize exhibitions, for example on record sleeves from the time of the African independence movement. They also present songs and sounds together in concerts.
Author: Ann-Kathrin Friedrichs / hw
Editor: Jessie Wingard