An unexpected home for African music: The German city of Mainz
By Andrea Loebbecke Mar 1, 2012, 3:06 GMT
Mainz, Germany - Thousands of vinyl records, CDs, cassettes and video tapes are stored in the basement of the Institute for Ethnology and Africa Studies in the University of Mainz in south-western Germany. They document the development of modern African music from Highlife to Soul to Reggae.
The LP covers alone are testament to the wide variety of music to be found on the African continent. The collection has about 10,000 items, the oldest of which is a gramophone LP from the 1940s.
Wolfgang Bender founded the institute in 1991. He says there were many hurdles to overcome before the body came into being. Initially the collection was quite small but it quickly grew. The ethnology professor bought records from Ghana via newspaper announcements. 'It worked very well and I got 500 LPs together.' His next big coup came when Radio France International sought a buyer for its vinyl LP collection and Bender was ready to bring them to Mainz.
The collection now includes almost every style of music played in Africa. Many of the 800 gramophone LPs are recordings of Highlife - a style of music that originated in Ghana and provided the score to the country's independence movement, the collection's curator Hauke Dorsch says.
But there are other styles too with Reggae from the Congo, kora music from Mali, Afro-Cuban Chachacha as well as jazz. The collection's focus, however, is pop music. 'You can find heavy metal music in Africa but there's not a lot to hear,' says Dorsch. He says research is being conducted on Madagascar's heavy metal scene and there are several bands in Botswana too.
A popular form of music in Africa is Hip Hop such as that found in Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana. In the beginning African artists copied their western counterparts, singing lyrics in English or French. 'But from the end of the 1980s a unique Hip Hop style emerged in conjunction with local languages and instruments,' says Dorsch. When crossed with Highlife in Ghana the musical style of Hiplife was born.
Africans who moved abroad brought Highlife with them and developed new styles. Ghanaians in Hamburg gave birth to the Burger Highlife style, a pop-electro version of the music to be found in Africa. 'The style became more popular with the Diaspora than with people at home,' says Dorsch.
But why is an archive for popular African music in Germany so important? 'The music would disappear otherwise,' says Dorsch. Money and resources to provide a home for music recordings is in short supply in Africa.
One of Dorsch's German colleagues is attempting to digitalise a collection in Cameroon and save it for posterity. That's not an easy task as most African music was sold on cassettes, and magnetic tapes do not last forever. Therefore, Dorsch is also planning to digitalise his archive one day.
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