Preservation of the audio recording collection in the Sherif Harar City Museum, Ethiopia (EAP602)

Aims and objectives

This project aims to preserve for posterity the collection of audio recordings held by Abdulahi Ali Sherif in Harar, Ethiopia. The collection of more than 60 reel tapes and more than 300 cassette tapes was amassed over the last 30 years and includes documentation of the musical and ritual traditions of Harar in all their diversity of form, context and language. Most of the material was recorded during the notorious rule of the Socialist Derg regime that imposed restrictions of cultural expression. The collection represents the only known regional collection of audio recordings from that historical period. The recordings include unique documents of local religious practices and of the female sacred and secular traditional repertoires, in addition to a vast repertoire of songs of the traditional young male associations that do not exist anymore and whose sonic memory is on the verge of being lost to the community.

The collection therefore represents an irreplaceable resource both for the use of the local community (and its diaspora) and for scholarly research. Furthermore, these musical legacies represent documentation of important aspects of the changing culture of this pre- industrial urban community over the dramatic historical changes of the last few decades. Harar, 2006 UNESCO World Heritage Site, is considered a treasured enclave of a thriving Islamic culture that has been cultivated for centuries by the Harari people. Amidst political and social turmoil of the twentieth century, this community struggled to not only survive, but also avoid unmitigated displacement and continue to prosper in their traditional homeland.

Although rich in content, this collection of musical heritage is not without complications. Many of the reel tapes are damaged and corrupted. Moreover, there is a constantly decreasing quality in the original recordings (often due to improper storage), and many tapes are broken or twisted. This audio collection is currently kept in the Sherif Harar City Museum, developed from the collection of its first curator, Mr. Abdulahi Ali Sherif who has painstakingly acquired objects related to the culture of the region. The Harari National Regional State contacted UNESCO to transform the former Sherif Private Museum, which was located in Mr. Sherif’s family home, into the Sherif Harar City Museum. In recognition of his lifetime dedication to the safeguarding of Harar’s cultural heritage, the Harari National Regional State provided the Ras Tefari House as the new venue for the collection since 2007. The UNESCO/Norwegian Funds-in-Trust project contributed to the renovation of the Ras Tefari House, cataloguing of the collection, purchase of equipment, exhibition design and training of museum staff. The regional government also received financial and technical assistance from the embassies of France, Sudan and the USA. However, the focus of this international recognition and support to date has been the collection of manuscripts and artefacts in the museum, not the preservation of the tape collection.

The project will start by bringing to Ethiopia all the equipment needed for the audio digitisation. This will include a professional cassette tape player and a refurbished reel to reel tape player, professional-grade laptop-based sound capturing workstation, and enterprise-class storage. During the first trip to Harar, the Principal Investigator will train Abdulahi Ali Sherif and at least one of his assistants on usage and maintenance of the equipment, explaining and demonstrating the workflow to carry out digitisation of the tapes, backup procedures, collection and organisation of metadata. The training sessions will be also attended by Prof Ahmed Zekaria, advisor at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies Museum in Addis Ababa, who will supervise the digitisation work while the PI is in the UK. It is estimated that more than 500 hours will have to be captured. Considering the technical and sometimes unpredictable difficulties of this work, the PI will return to Harar after about six months, to make sure that the work is proceeding according to the agreed high standard. A third trip will be made towards the end of the project, to finalise the work and collect the copy of the digital collection for the British Library.

All the tapes and their cases will be cleaned and stored in acid-free boxes. The digital sound collection will be freely available for public access at the Sherif Harar City Museum in a dedicated multimedia consultation room.

This collection will significantly encourage and help research in the field of ethnomusicology on all aspects of Harari musical traditions. In addition, the religious ritual documentation will provide reference for research in religious and historical studies. Finally, all parts of the collection will enrich any research on the local languages spoken in the city of Harar and its surroundings.