In A Kenyan Village, A 65-Year-Old Recording Comes Home

In A Kenyan Village, A 65-Year-Old Recording Comes Home

9:40am Jun 28, 2015
Philip Cheruiyot (second from left) leans in to read the song titles on the CD booklet brought by Diane Thram. Cheruiyot's grandfather sang on Hugh Tracey's recording of "Chemirocha II."
Philip Cheruiyot (second from left) leans in to read the song titles on the CD booklet brought by Diane Thram. Cheruiyot's grandfather sang on Hugh Tracey's recording of "Chemirocha II."
Ryan Kailath
  • Philip Cheruiyot (second from left) leans in to read the song titles on the CD booklet brought by Diane Thram. Cheruiyot's grandfather sang on Hugh Tracey's recording of "Chemirocha II."

    Philip Cheruiyot (second from left) leans in to read the song titles on the CD booklet brought by Diane Thram. Cheruiyot's grandfather sang on Hugh Tracey's recording of "Chemirocha II."

    Ryan Kailath

  • The cover of the exhibition book For Future Generations, produced by the International Library of African Music.

    The cover of the exhibition book For Future Generations, produced by the International Library of African Music.

    Courtesy of the International Library of African Music

  • Elizabeth Betts (right) was a little girl the day Hugh Tracey recorded 30 songs in her village in 1950. Despite having never heard the recordings, Betts can remember and sing each song by heart.

    Elizabeth Betts (right) was a little girl the day Hugh Tracey recorded 30 songs in her village in 1950. Despite having never heard the recordings, Betts can remember and sing each song by heart.

    Ryan Kailath

  • Hugh Tracey's original field notes for "Chemirocha I." They read: "The main theme of this song is affection for the Kipsigis country. He also asks 'why the white man should have taken over the country' which incidentally, they themselves took from others

    Hugh Tracey's original field notes for "Chemirocha I." They read: "The main theme of this song is affection for the Kipsigis country. He also asks 'why the white man should have taken over the country' which incidentally, they themselves took from others

    Courtesy of and copyright International Library of African Music

From Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads to Odysseus outwitting the sirens, the history of music is filled with myth and legend. Music loves a good story, and a certain recording from a Kenyan village definitely has one — one that's 65 years old.

At the center of that story is a recording of a song called "Chemirocha," sung by a group of little girls from the Kipsigis tribe. Their voices are high-pitched, dancing around the same notes like a chant, and they sing over the strums of a stringed instrument called a kibugandet.

According to the legend, British missionaries came through the Kipsigis' village during World War II. They played gramophone records of American country music for the tribe, and the villagers loved one singer in particular. Hugh Tracey, a 20th century ethnomusicologist, said the girls of the village called this singer "a faun, half-man and half-antelope."

That faun was the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers — a name which, according to Tracey, the villagers pronounced "Chemirocha." Tracey, a British South African, made thousands of field recordings in Africa at the time, but the backstory of "Chemirocha" made it one of his most famous.

In 1954, Tracey founded the International Library of African Music (ILAM) at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Diane Thram took over ILAM in 2006, and she made it a project to catalog Tracey's collection.

"I remember having this realization one day that, now that we know what we have, it's time to give it back," Thram says of the collected music.

So, Thram teamed up with Tabu Osusa, who runs a Kenyan non-profit called Ketebul Music that archives tribal songs. Together, they set out to bring the recorded music to the people it first came from, finding the "Chemirocha" singers in Kenya's Great Rift Valley and giving them copies of Tracey's recordings.

"It's not fair for them, actually, that their music was recorded, and they have no idea that music exists!" Osusa says. "So, I think this is the right thing to do. Take the music back to the people. So from then on they know — this was ours."

Their mission set, the team drives from Nairobi to Bombet, about a 230-kilometer trip, with performers' names and locations from the late Tracey's notes in tow. After asking around for days, they catch the trail and find Elizabeth Betts.

Betts was a little girl when Tracey came to town. He recorded 30 songs that day, and 65 years later, she still knows all the songs by heart.

"Where did those songs go to?" Betts wonders aloud, speaking through an interpreter in the Kipsigis language. "I would be happy if they could go back to singing like these days."

This nostalgia is everywhere, but different people have conflicting opinions about what chemirocha actually means to people in the villages. Patricia Lasoi, the chief minister of the district of Bomet, pins the meaning on Jimmie Rogers. But what about the half-man, half-animal thing Tracey originally spoke of?

Josiah Arapsang, whose father organized the local singers for Hugh Tracey, has his own theory. He describes the colonial days, when missionaries preached about literally eating the body and blood of Christ — and how, during World War II, the Kipsigis were rounded up to give blood for wounded soldiers.

"They will just collect you, put you into a vehicle, rush you to the hospital. They remove blood just to assist the people who were in the military," Arapsang explains. "So they say 'Aha, these people — they are man-eaters.'"

Man-eaters — half-man, half-beast chemirochas. The irony is delicious: the Africans thought the Europeans were savages.

After two weeks in the field, the team finds one living musician who performed on "Chemirocha," a man named Cheriyot Arap Kuri who is now 88 years old. Thram is thrilled.

"It's like a dream come true, to find someone who's still alive, who played this music on that day," Thram says to him, proudly presenting him with a CD. "This is you on this recording! This is for you."

The man turns it over in his hands and regards it carefully, and then he asks how to play it. Thram wonders if anybody had a CD player, and she asks around. Nobody has one.

Instead, the villagers wonder, could Thram somehow just send the songs to their mobile phones?

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

The history of music is filled with myth and legend. From Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads to Odysseus outwitting the sirens, music loves a good story. Here's one from a small village in Kenya, where reporter Ryan Kailath looked for the origin of a 65-year-old recording and discovered American country legend Jimmie Rogers at its heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIPSIGIS TRIBE SONG, "CHEMIROCHA")

RYAN KAILATH, BYLINE: This is a song called "Chemirocha," sung by a group of little girls from the Kipsigis tribe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEMIROCHA")

UNIDENTIFIED GIRLS: (Singing in foreign language).

KAILATH: According to legend, British missionaries came through their village during World War II. They played gramophone records of American country music for the Kipsigis, who loved one singer in particular.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUGH TRACEY: What a magnificent chepkong player, they thought. Why, no one's ever played the kibugandet like this man Chemirocha, as they called him.

KAILATH: This is Hugh Tracey, introducing "Chemirocha" and the instruments being played on a 1952 LP he recorded of Kenyan music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRACEY: The girl said, oh no, this is no ordinary creature. This is a faun - half man and half antelope. So they sing this song of welcome to Chemirocha, inviting him to come and dance with them.

KAILATH: That faun was the father of country music, Jimmie Rogers, which, according to Tracey, the villagers pronounced Chemirocha. Tracey was a British South African who made thousands of field recordings in Africa. But, the back story to "Chemirocha" made it one of his most famous.

DIANE THRAM: My name is Diane Thram. I'm director of the International Library of African Music, which is located at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

KAILATH: Hugh Tracey founded ILAM, as it's known, in 1954 to house his recordings. Thram took over in 2006 and set about cataloguing the collection.

THRAM: I remember having this, sort of, realization one day that now we know what we have, it's time to give it back.

KAILATH: So she teamed up with Tabu Osusa, who runs Ketebul Music, a Kenyan non-profit that archives tribal songs.

TABU OSUSA: It's not fair for them, actually, that their music was recorded and they have no idea that that music exists.

KAILATH: Osusa and Thram set out to find the "Chemirocha" singers in Kenya's Great Rift Valley and give them copies of Tracey's recordings.

OSUSA: So, right now we're driving from Nairobi heading to Bomet. It's probably, like, 230 kilometers or so from Nairobi.

KAILATH: Steve Kivutia is a sound engineer for Ketebul Music and organized the trip. From the late Hugh Tracey's detailed notes, the team had performers' names and locations. And after asking around for days, they caught the trail.

ELIZABETH BETTS: (Singing in foreign language).

KAILATH: Elizabeth Betts was a little girl when Hugh Tracey came to town. He recorded 30 songs that day and 65 years later, she knew all the songs by heart.

BETTS: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She says she's been wondering all this while, where did those songs go to. She would be happy if they could go back to singing, like those days.

KAILATH: This kind of nostalgia was everywhere, but I kept asking one question.

So what does the "Chemirocha" song actually mean? What is - can you describe?

CHIEF MINISTER PATRICIA LASOI: (Through interpreter) It came from the one you mentioned in the morning, the Jimmie Rogers.

It came from Jimmie Rogers.

KAILATH: That's Patricia Lasoi, the chief minister of the district of Bomet. She pins the meaning of Chemirocha on the father of country music. But what about the half-man, half-animal thing that Tracey spoke of? Josiah Arapsang, whose father organized the local singers for Hugh Tracey, has his own theory. He describes the colonial days, when missionaries preached about literally eating the body and blood of Christ, and how during World War II, the Kipsigis were rounded up to give blood for wounded soldiers.

JOSIAH ARAPSANG: They will just collect you, put you into a vehicle, rush you to the hospital; they remove blood just to assist the people who were in the military. So they say, these people - they are man-eaters.

KAILATH: Man-eaters - half-man, half-beast chemirochas. The irony is delicious. The Africans thought the Europeans were savages. After two weeks in the field, the team found one living musician who performed on chemirocha. Cheriyot Arap Kuri is now 88-years-old. Archivist Diane Thram was thrilled.

THRAM: It's like a dream come true to find someone who's still alive, who played this music on that day. This is you.

KAILATH: Thram proudly presented the musician with a CD. He turned it over in his hands and looked at it and asked how to play it.

CHERIVOT ARAP KURI: (Foreign language spoken).

THRAM: Who has a CD player? Do you have a CD player? Doesn't anybody here have a CD player?

KAILATH: Nobody had a CD player. Instead, the villagers wondered, could Thram somehow just send the songs to their mobile phones? For NPR News, I'm Ryan Kailath.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEMIROCHA")

UNIDENTIFIED GIRLS: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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