Had it not been for Hugh Tracey, the world would have a much narrower conception of African music. Many of his recordings were made in the mid-20th Century, often shortly before entire musical languages were made extinct by hostile regime change or foreign cultural influences. Tracey spent decades traveling the continent, aiming his single microphone at Congolese pygmies, acoustic guitar virtuosi from Mozambique, Tanzanian choirs, Zambian guitar-picking copper miners, Colonial-era rumba bands steeped in rumba and much more. By the time of his death in 1977, Tracey had recorded hundreds of albums worth of material, all of which was housed at the International Library of African Music (ILAM), which he founded in 1954. And while some recordings trickled out over the years, the lion’s share of Tracey’s work remained unheard until Zambian-born percussionist Michael Baird began reissuing them on his SWP label. With the series up to 21 discs, Baird has turned more people on to Africa’s music than anyone save perhaps Tracey himself could ever do.
What made you decide to release the Tracey recordings? Was it simply a matter of personal love for those recordings or are there other reasons for bringing them back out?
I walked into ILAM in South Africa in 1996 and nothing was available on CD. All of that recorded music was doing no one any good, literally sitting on an academic shelf gathering dust, so in 1998 I released the first 4 albums.
I understand there are over 200 LPs of his stuff in South Africa. How did you decide what to release and what not to?
I listened through the original field tapes, also discovering tracks never published before, and made my choices for my album concepts. There are so many excellent performances. The problem of selection was therefore a luxurious one, but my point of departure was the best music—if a piece moves me, then I want to let you hear it.
What's the significance/importance of bringing back music that’s most likely extinct, such as the Royal Court Music of Uganda or Bulawayo Jazz?
Well, the court music died when the courts were destroyed in the early ’60s—the court of the Mwami in Rwanda on SWP 007 and the courts of the Kabaka, Omukama and Omugabe in Uganda on SWP 008. That music is great classical music, the result of centuries of musical genius—luckily for humanity, Tracey recorded it in 1952, so we can hear it! But the sad conclusion after doing this series is that within the space of 50 years, most of the recorded music has disappeared. It’s important that the kids in those countries can hear their musical roots: the legacy as played by their forebears belongs to them. And Bulawayo Jazz was a unique jazz style that developed in the industrialized city of Bulawayo, railway centre for southern Africa. I don’t know about the importance—what’s the importance of good music? What’s the importance of diversity? What’s the importance of history? What’s the point of being accurate and setting the record straight?
There are 21 titles in the series. Why stop now?
I’ve listened to the whole archive, and these are my selections. The difference between an album and a collection is that an album should be highlights only. I believe these 21 albums to be the best from Tracey’s collection of recordings. There is one more I’d like to do—HT’s Last Date, with stereo recordings from the early ’70s—but there are legal problems.
What’s amazing about Tracey's recordings is the quality of the recordings. Could you elaborate on what he did to achieve such clarity?
First of all, we’ve digitally remastered all the tracks. They never sounded so good! HT is known as an ethnomusicologist, as a collector of songs, for some people even a controversial figure, but he was a damned good recordist, too. He loved the music and used the hand-held microphone technique: he had his one microphone on a boom in his hand a