Prism assists with Tanzania Heritage Project

Prism assists with Tanzania Heritage Project

Published: MEA

TANZANIA: The Tanzania Heritage Project (THP) is preserving the country’s musical heritage with the help of Prism Sound. THP is using the manufacturer’s Lyra audio interface to digitise Tanzania’s tape-based music archive.

Rebecca Corey, co-founder and executive director THP hatched the idea for the digitisation project in 2010, with her Tanzanian friend and THP co-founder Benson Rukantabula, while Ms Corey was at home recovering from a motorcycle accident.

‘Just before leaving Tanzania, Benson had given me a few CDs of old Tanzanian music,’ recalled Ms Corey. ‘The quality of the recordings weren’t great - they sounded as though they had been recorded from the radio on to a cassette and then transferred to CD - but the music was wonderful. That’s when I learned about Radio Tanzania, and the fact that pretty much all of the music recorded, from independence in the early 1960s through the mid-1980s, was all stored on reel-to-reel tapes that had never been professionally digitised.’

Finally able to return to Tanzania in early 2012, Ms Corey visited the archives. ‘That year, we managed to purchase a Tandberg reel-to-reel machine and a Studer was donated by the British Library,’ Ms Corey explained. But due to lack of funds, the digitisation project effectively stalled for most of 2013 and 2014. ‘In the end, we weren't able to negotiate a satisfactory agreement with the government radio station about future access to the digitised material. So we've shifted our focus to digitising the reel-to-reel archives of other radio stations and private collections.’

As well as the Studer A67 and Tandberg TD 20A, Ms Corey has been using Prism Sound’s Lyra audio interface, and Ableton Live software. ‘We bought the Lyra after speaking to several professional archivists and they all recommended the unit as being the best for A/D conversion on the market. We found it to be affordable for our limited budget and a great centrepiece to our DAW.’

The THP studio setup is kept relatively simple. ‘The key is achieving the highest quality conversion possible from the analogue signal from the reel-to-reel machine, to the digital version on the computer,’ said Ms Corey. ‘We’re confident that the Lyra is capturing and converting the signal and making the most faithful copy possible.

‘No one on our team is a professional audio engineer or archivist,’ she continued. ‘We took on this project because we were music lovers who believed that this music needed to be preserved before it was too late, and because no-one else had stepped in to do it. So the fact that the Lyra is easy to use and produces incredible quality sound has made us very satisfied with its performance so far.’
So far, around four hours of material from 12 tapes have been digitised. Many of the tapes are in poor condition and need to be assessed and cleaned before they can be played and digitised. ‘We assess the condition of each reel to determine whether it is in good enough condition to digitise. We don’t want to attempt digitisation on a reel and end up damaging it further,’ explained Ms Corey. ‘Once a reel is ready, it sometimes needs to be re-wound so that the “pack” of the tape is even and won’t rub against the reel flange. We minimise the number of times the reel is wound and played as much as possible, to avoid any potential damage to the tape.’

Due to the slow nature of the work, the process is estimated to take at least another eight to ten months of full-time work, using one DAW to preserve and digitise the remaining reels. ‘We are continuously searching for additional reels to digitise though, so it’s really an ongoing process,’ added Ms Corey.

When the digitisation project is eventually complete, THP plans to make the music as widely accessible as possible to Tanzanians, particularly music students, through music schools and arts programmes. ‘We also hope to release the material internationally, through a record label,’ added Ms Corey. ‘Any proceeds from these potential releases would then go to musicians who have never received royalties from their work, and to the musicians’ health insurance scheme, jointly administered by the National Social Security Fund and the Tanzania Musicians' Network.’

THP’s studio is located in the same compound as the Music Mayday music school, which also organises listening and discussion sessions, seminars and workshops with elder musicians, and studio recording projects. ‘In this way, the digitisation is just a piece of a larger cultural revitalisation effort that THP is undertaking,’ concluded Ms Corey.

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