ILAM, Repatriation and Jimmie Rodgers/Chemirocha

While we were in Nairobi recording the old guard of Benga/African twist, we had our latest in a series of conversations with the Director of ILAM (International Library of African Music), Diane Thram.  ILAM was founded in 1954 by the late Hugh Tracey, the legendary ethno-musicologist, who conducted ground breaking village recordings from the 1920’s to 1950’s.   We are working with ILAM to begin to repatriate these recordings back to the villages from which they were taken.  We hope to start with two pilot villages in July, where we can a) identify relatives of the original musicians, b) ensure that we can leave the recordings in a sustainable way, with villagers having access to the recordings and c) record new village music that builds off the earlier recordings.  The Ketebul team is working closely with ILAM to identify the July pilots.

Tabu also asked us to take a moment to tell you the story of Jimmie Rodgers/Jimmy Rogers/Chemirocha.   Tabu told this story to Jimmy in 2011 and it remains his favourite Hugh Tracey story.    Here’s the story as told in Muzik:

“And then the big bomber: the song I consider Tracey’s single most outstanding recording, “Chemirocha,” a paean to Jimmy Rogers (yes, the country singer) by some Kenyan girls. The song is haunting but made more so by Tracey’s introduction on the LP record (not included on the CD): “The mysterious singer and dancer Chemirocha has been turned into a local god Pan — a faun — half man, half antelope. He is urged by the girls to do the leaping dance, familiar to all Kipsigis, so energetically that he will jump clear out of his clothes… Who could resist such an offer?” Tracey concludes. The charm of the spoken introductions is they make each record like a radio show with real educational value.

So, thank goodness for the internet, because here’s the song:


It was recorded by the Kipsigi people of Kenya, the largest sub-groups of the Kalenjin,  and was inspired by a Jimmie Rodgers record left behind in their village by missionaries.    We recorded the Kalenjin in 2012.   Jimmie Rodgers, was, of course, a famous American country music singer in the 20’s and 30’s.

This teaches us several things:

  1. All music is inspired by all music:  everyday in Singing Wells, we have to remind ourselves that as we record traditional music, we are listening to music that reflects dozens of influences on village life, from rites of passage that trace back 100’s of years, to record albums accidentally left behind by passers through.  That doesn’t ‘dilute’ the music, it makes it abundantly more rich and interesting.
  2. We live in a world of musical circles.  There is no doubt that Jimmie Rodgers music was inspired by and build upon the influences of Black-American music, and it is only fitting that his work filtered back to Kenya.   We find this circular tale in all music we are recording – most notably the massive influence of gospel on East African music, which, in turn was created in large part by Black-American music, directly inspired by early African village music.    We listen to the likembe music in Uganda and here the steel drums of Calypso music.  We listen to Benga blues and here the music of Cuba, demanding that we look further into the circles travelled between musicians between the Congo and Cuba, and we listen to Samba drumming and particularly the tambourin only to be reminded of the Watmon Cultural Group’s use of the Calabash.  Our heads appropriately spin and we’re happy about that.
  3. The tribal music of East Africa is forever evolving.   It is wonderful that Jimmie Rogers inspired a new song and it is amazing that the Otacho Young Stars were inspired to sing a song about a factory manager.   At Singing Wells, we do not celebrate static village music – that would be to deny the very essence of music, which is to evolve organically as the musicians are inspired by new things.  We simply want to celebrate the evolution of music that innovates while building on traditional roots.

We will update you on progress to design the July Pilots with ILAM; and we will leave you with a Jimmie Rogers song inspired by black-american music, inspired by African village music, inspired by… oh just listen:


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