National Geographic : 1951 Aug
Hunting Musical Game in West Africa BY ARTHUR S. ALBERTS With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author SINCE the war, men have made many changes in equatorial Africa, Nature very few.* From the outside looking in, the face of the low-lying Guinea coast line still seems the same to the approaching traveler. I had flown in and out of West Africa a number of times. Now, coming in by sea with my wife, I could point out the familiar distant column of cumulus clouds marking the still invisible land surface below, then a thin line of brownish gray, and, closer, matchstick palm trees wavering in the heat haze. It was a typical introduction to Africa, changing and changeless. A single visit to Africa is seldom enough. In the Gold Coast, early in the war, I had obtained several recordings of tribal music for the Library of Congress; when I left for Algiers in 1943, I decided to return after the war for full recordings of West African music. I wanted to show that so-called Darkest Africa has more to offer than the tom-toms and jungle chants usually associated with it by the West ern World. By bringing the first tape-recording equip ment to the Guinea Coast and using a jeep as our roving source of power, my wife and I planned to record West African tribal music on the spot, in its own setting. We would travel generally north from the coast to the Niger Valley, and return to the sea at Mon rovia, capital of Liberia (map, page 266). When we arrived off Takoradi, modern port of the Gold Coast, the steel deck of our cargo ship was like a roasting pan under the Febru ary sun. As we eased in toward the break water, a scattered fleet of Fanti fishing canoes, outward bound, swept past our stern. Beyond the port, hilltop palms rippled lazily in the offshore breeze. On deck was our jeep, ready to go, packed tight with sound-recording equipment and all the paraphernalia for our music hunt across West Africa. Jeep Nearly Meets Its End At dockside Gold Coast stevedores took over, and winches began their noisy work. The jeep climbed high over the deck, dangling in its cradle like a bug on a thread. Pausing in mid-air, it awaited the signal to swing over and down to the wharf below. Stevedores stopped to stare. Africans will goggle at anything American, and this was no ordinary jeep. Converted for African travel to the ultimate in square-cut utility, it bulged with steel boxes, an outboard gas tank, and a self-contained electrical system (page 272). We surveyed it with pride from the captain's bridge. Slowly the jeep swung over the wharf, then faster-too fast. Without warning, its left front wheel jumped the cradle. It lurched sharply forward. Rocking on three wheels, it inched toward disaster below. Here was the beginning, and the end, of our expedition. I shut my eyes. When I looked again, the jeep was gently coming to rest on the wharf. My eyes met my wife's. This was a fitting introduction to West Africa, where almost everything that starts out badly has a way of righting itself in the end. Takoradi a Busy Port Since 1942 the port and city of Takoradi had changed but little. The great antisub marine boom was gone, and the harbor was packed with ships of many nations. In the town, handsome, carefree people in colorful printed cottons crowded the walks and streets. The hard red earth would be bone dry until the next rains; deep open culverts waited to carry off the floodwaters that would then wash the city. Neat white- and black-painted mud houses made a model West African community. In the outskirts the fields were dotted with towering mounds, built by the "bug-a-bugs." Beyond lay the airless jungle, with its cocoa and bush farms, and along the coast, ancient castles and noisy villages. A blind man can "see" Africa through its variety of sound. The ever-crowing rooster; the shrill calls of children and the swift pad ding of bare feet on hard earth; the laughter of women and the deep voices of men in ex cited palaver; the heavy feathering of village vultures; drumbeats and singing in the dis tance-these are some of the notes in the age old song of tropical Africa.t Most Africans have a keen sense of right and wrong. Their way of handling evildoers was shown to us our first night ashore, after a visit with friends at near-by Sekondi. As we returned to Takoradi at midnight, our lights suddenly picked out a group of Africans * See "Britain Tackles the East African Bush," by W. Robert Moore, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1950. t See "Timbuktu and Beyond," by Laura C. Boul ton, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, May, 1941.