Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

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Peter Cooke – Sound repatriation in Uganda “And…er…of course, I…we didn’t just leave it at that.” And a saga from the pre-digital archiving age

Klaus Wachsmann

Klaus Wachsmann

Klaus Wachsmann’s remark (quoted above) was made when a mother singer burst into tears after singing for him on one of his first recording safaris in rural Uganda in 1950. It was discussed in the two-part exchange (Ethnomusicology 59/3, Fall 2015, 475–82) following the appearance of “The audible future: Reimagining the role of sound archives and sound repatriation in Uganda” by Sylvia Nannyonga-Tamusuza and Andrew Weintraub (Ethnomusicology 56/2, Spring/Summer 2012, 206–33).

It is unfortunate that the remark was omitted from a summary transcript of the interview with Wachsmann that Lucy Duran recorded in 1983 for the British Library Sound Archive, for Wachsmann’s treatment of the woman could well have seemed off-hand. Like Wachsmann then, I now feel that two further issues need exploring—which I hope may complete our exchanges on this topic.

Privileged information

In their response (p.481) Nannyonga-Tamusuza and Weintraub suggested that I had access to privileged information, though precisely what information they referred to is unclear. Certainly, much information that ethnomusicologists dig out from libraries and archives or record from informants can be described as privileged in one sense or another. The writers possibly had in mind information derived from the interview mentioned above. Since Uganda and its music is one of my continuing research interests, I had contacted the British Library Sound Archive over a decade ago and asked for an audio copy of the Duran–Wachsmann interview; it was readily supplied and I made my own transcript. Apparently the only reason why the interview is not posted online at the British Library, like other interviews with ethnomusicologists, is because of a technical problem with the second cassette used. Click below to listen to the relevant section taken from the first cassette, where he recounts his early experiences recording in the field.

If, however, as seems possible, the two respondents suggest that the information I provided about the singer herself was privileged, the interview itself contains no more   information on her. However, what data there is about her has for some years been freely available online via the Internet (since 2009 in the case of Uganda). To discover it today is simple enough. One visits the Sounds BL site ( and enters the two words “Wachsmann lullaby” into the search box and one is presented with 18 results, all identifying lullaby performances recorded by Wachsmann and labeled as such. It is then a simple matter to locate the earliest along with the data that I referred to in my part of the exchange, namely the precise date, the place, and the singer’s ethnicity, as well as Wachsmann’s own index number (50.003); the page is here.

Klaus Wachsmann’s collection: Safeguarding, copying, and repatriation

There remains one other issue that I touched on in my part of the exchange: the time it took between Wachsmann’s collection leaving Uganda and the repatriation of good quality copies of the recordings and indexes. I mentioned that this was an area needing further research and I was recently privileged (again!) to visit the British Library and examine Klaus Wachsmann’s folder of early correspondence concerning his recordings. It reads as quite a saga on the difficulties that could face pioneer collectors during the analog era of sound recording, especially those who lacked suitable institutional support. For ethnomusicologists young enough to know only the digital era, the tale provides useful insights into archiving problems faced—I suspect—by more than one of their predecessors. I give just a summary below, but I have attempted to present all available salient details of the narrative. Wachsmann’s careful preservation of much relevant correspondence relating to the collection allows us to learn the sequence of events that eventually led to the repatriation of his collection six years later (not forty or more, as implied in EM 56/2, p. 206). The gist of this correspondence is given below, though it does not provide a complete picture of the whole sequence of operations carried out on the disc and tape collection; anyone wishing to examine the correspondence in more detail will need to visit the British Library.

The saga

Before Wachsmann’s return to the UK in 1957 to rejoin his wife and children who had left Uganda earlier, Patrick Saul, the Director of the British Institute for Recorded Sound (BIRS), wrote to Wachsmann about the recordings he had made. Wachsmann’s intent was to locate safe storage for his original media and also to find funds and equipment so that he could make sets of good quality copies to ensure their permanent preservation and to return a set to the Uganda Museum, so he was happy to allow the BIRS to store them safely and he hoped then to realize his intent with the help of the institute, for he had no suitable equipment of his own.

This proved a formidable task. The BIRS was a small charity renting part of a terraced house at 38 Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London. It had few spare resources (equipment or staff) to cope with the work needed to be done on Wachsmann’s large collection. The disc recordings needed copying to tape and editing with the addition of recorded announcements to identify each item. Wachsmann was also concerned about the decaying condition of many of the recordings, which had been made on acetate tapes in 1954 and might need repair before copying.

In what follows, for S read Patrick Saul, for W read Klaus Wachsmann and for B read W. W. Bishop (Wachsmann’s successor as Director of the Uganda Museum).

May 21 1957. S (London) to W (still at the Uganda Museum, Kampala): He would be grateful if W could make available copies of the material to the BIRS.

Oct. 12 1957. S to W: He wishes to mention to his executive board W’s suggestion that tapes be deposited. If it goes ahead they will need to give warning to the present occupant of the spare basement room that it will not be available.

Meanwhile Wachsmann left Uganda to join his wife and family in London. He needed to find employment and his health, which had suffered during nearly two decades living and working in Uganda, was not good. One must remember too that he first came to England as a refugee from the Nazi regime and had no previous permanent base in the UK.

Nov 15 1957. W to S: Sorry for not turning up yet. “We are moving house, present house is being demolished.”

Nov 23 1957. W to S: “I am afraid I will be hospitalised from 25 Nov. on—for some weeks.”

June 14 1958. W to S: “The Uganda government agrees that the complete set of the original recordings can be given to the National Institute of Recorded Sound provided that copies are supplied to the Uganda Museum. They will arrange for the tapes and discs already in Uganda to be shipped to the United Kingdom….”

Oct 28 1958. Delivery note from British Crown Agents for the Colonies to S at the BIRS: “Please receive 137 magnetic tapes, 1 tuning fork.”

Jan 1959. W to Crown Agents: applying for £200 for cost of tapes for copying discs to tape at the BIRS.

Feb 3 1959. S to W: reporting the gift of a further £100 by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust for purchase of blank tapes.

July 7 1959. Colonial Office to W: about request for funds for tapes.

July 20 1959. W to S: Saying he would be unable to “put my back” into helping with cataloging of the institute’s [own] folk music collection. “There is first of all the problem of transferring Uganda stuff on tapes if and when the new tapes come to us and of course provided that the acetate tapes haven’t given up the ghost recently.”

July 30 1959. News of a grant of £200 for purchase of tapes for copying.

Aug 5 1959. Peckham (at the Colonial Office) to W: The government of Uganda has asked when copies of your recordings will be available and we are informing them that one set of the copies of the new tapes will be sent to them as soon as they are available.

Aug 31 1959. Crown agents: “Will be glad to order the new tapes as soon as it is clear what is wanted.”

While in Uganda Wachsmann had apparently acquired a Ferrograph tape recorder to copy and edit some of his recordings and he may have brought it with him to be able to continue his work.

Sept 7 1959. The Ferrograph machine is mentioned. If the Uganda government requires it urgently he would try to make arrangements to obtain a replacement more quickly.

Sept 10 1959. Peckham (Colonial Office) to S: I am telling Uganda that the Ferrograph will not be available until December.

Oct 29 1959. S to Freeland (Crown Agents for the Colonies): Specifying: “It is important that the tapes are “extra thick polyester-fibre tape (quarter inch) on 7-inch spools type 102” (Minnesota) it is badly needed in order to get on with the copying operation.”

Nov. 24 1959. Tapes were ordered.

Jan 24 1960. W to S: “I am down with flu. The tape problems have been with me ever since; this is an understatement of course… Please do go ahead with copying the new tapes as they are… apologies for the delays.”

Jan 30 1960. S to Peckham at the Crown Office: “I wonder if the Ug. Govt. would consider selling us the Ferrograph tape-recorder that we have here and—if they require to have one—ordering a new machine from the manufacturers…for technical reasons there is some advantage in playing tapes on the identical recorder on which they were recorded, if the highest quality results are sought.”

July 10 1961. Despatch order from Crown agents for LEP Transport to collect Ferrograph recorder for export to Ministry of Education, Kampala.

W now was unable to continue work on the collection.

Dec 19 1961. W to S: Could he borrow a tape recorder and microphone for editing and providing announcements between items? Could either technician help him set up the connections?

April 24 1962. S to W: “We would now be in a position to lend you the Ferrograph and a Cadenza microphone. Alternatively we could possibly get [technicians] Gentle and Snow to help you if you wish to come here to finish the announcements…”

Jan 1 1963. S to B (curator at the Uganda Museum): “We have not yet begun to make copies…simply because of pressure of work.”

Apr 9 1963. W to S: Worried because he has had “absolutely no news”.

Jul 18 1963. W to S: He would be taking up an appointment at UCLA in September adding, “This will give me the opportunity for which I longed for many years of concentrating on the recorded material from Uganda and of doing the work which still remains to be done with the tapes”. He further suggested the BIRS lend the tapes to UCLA for this purpose, with UCLA paying all costs. In return, “The university would ask for permission to keep a copy of the finally edited material for my own academic studies. A copy of this ‘final’ set of [edited] tapes would also be sent to you so that you can provide the copy for the Uganda Museum”…“It is a matter of very great importance to me to be able to finish this job as I want it to be done, and do not see a better solution of my problems anywhere.”

Sept 25 1963. W to B: Apologies for delay in replying to letter of Aug 17—his move to UCLA was responsible. Confirms that the BIRS, in whose safekeeping the material is kept, has undertaken to provide an unedited safety copy of approximately 1600 items) to W by the end of December. W will do the editing at UCLA, expense borne by UCLA. A copy of final tape and of the catalog will be made available to Uganda Museum. Meanwhile pending completion of editing S will try to get a copy done for the Uganda Museum.

Oct. 24 1963. B (Uganda Museum) to S: He hopes Institute can get copying done by end of year but failing that he will call when on leave in UK early next year.

Nov 1 1963. W to S: Mentions that B will be coming to collect the Uganda tapes early next year. “I have confirmation from the University [UCLA] that the cost of editing the Uganda tapes will be covered by them. So you see I am all set.”

Nov 2 1963. W to S: A reminder of necessity for despatching tapes to UCLA.

Dec 12 1963. W (at UCLA) to S: Has S been in contact with Bishop regarding a set of copies? “I have authority to ask you to pack, ship and insure the material.”

Dec 21 1963. S to W: “I am sorry that the engineer has not yet been able to complete the copying…He has been exceptionally busy installing new equipment and recording in theatres. We do not seem to have had the Decalian back which we lent you. Can you tell me what has happened to it, as we occasionally need a transportable disc-player.”

Jan 1 1964. S to Bishop (Uganda): “We have not yet begun to make copies of Dr W’s tapes though the discs have been copied on to tape. I do not think that the tapes in their existing state should be copied; Dr W has not yet completed editing the tapes and if they are copied and sent to you before this is done they would, in my view, not be nearly so useful as the edited copies which Dr Wachsmann tells me he can fairly easily supply once the originals are in his possession in California.”

April 9 1964. W to S: He is worried because he has had absolutely no news.

Apr 30 1964. S to W: Sorry, unable to copy tapes and discs yet.

Aug 15 1964. S to Mantle Hood (UCLA): about the imminent despatch of the tapes to UCLA. “For safety’s sake we have made a complete copy of the collection…in case of an accident to the original tapes in transit to California.” He mentions also that he had further made a complete unedited copy since the present Director of the UM states that the collection is the property of that Museum and that he will be visiting us to recover a copy to take back to Africa. He ends, “I am sorry the copying of the tapes has taken far longer than we had hoped.”

He also wrote to B the same day saying he had been expecting B to call for the tapes.

Sep 15 1964: LEP Air Services to collect packages of tapes for flight to Uganda.

Certificate of shipment dated 9/161964—68 recorded tapes==23 kilos.

Sep 18 1964. W to S: “I am often thinking of the Institute and sometimes have nightmares when I imagine the difficulties you have had to battle with.”

Oct. 1 1964. B to S: “I am happy to say that the five boxes containing copies of the recordings of Dr Wachsmann’s tapes of Uganda music have now arrived safely in Uganda.” Thanks etc.

Nov 2 1964. W to S: “The Institute at UCLA tells him it wrote to you on 27 Oct asking for details of number and size of reels so that it can send him the proper number of metal boxes” and he adds “I can well imagine how overworked you are…”

Nov 11 1965 W (from UCLA) to S: “I have been looking forward to this moment for many years….The Uganda tapes are now completely edited, and at long last I can begin to think of doing the work with the material that I always longed to do.

The major debt is owed to you. However it took me six months, with the unavoidable interruptions of someone going on holiday or something like this, to finish the job. It was absolutely necessary, and without my field notes and my analysis of many rather complicated corners, nobody else could have seen the task through. I am learning a lot about documentation that I can pass on to my students. But of course today things are different and recording with a Nagra round one’s neck is rather like handling a Kodak box camera, in comparison to what it was years ago.

The next step is the making of sets of copies of this edited master tape. As soon as that is done, we will return the original tapes to you together with one of the edited sets. I am working on the catalogue and this material, too, will be made available to you.”

Peter Cooke