Century-old voices reveal echoes of Senegal’s lost past

Dakar   -   The crackly, disembodied voice of a Senegalese tirailleur, recorded at a German prisoner-of-war camp in World War I, echoed around the hushed conference room. The exceptional recording of a West African infantry soldier more than 100 years ago comes from a sound archive of Senegalese voices in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.

Part of the archive is now being made available to African listeners for the very first time, in an exhibition at the Museum of Black Civilisation in the Senegalese capital Dakar. “Echoes of the past” offers the public a chance to discover a hitherto obscured part of their cultural heritage.

There is mounting pressure on Western museums to return African artefacts plundered during the colonial era by powers such as Belgium, Britain, France and Germany. Most demands concern objects. The difference here is that these compelling sound documents are what is termed intangible heritage. “Do you recognise the language?”, researcher Massamba Gueye, who curated the exhibition, asked the audience attending his workshop. “If I’m not mistaken, it’s Wolof. I heard ‘It’s shameful’ and ‘There’s no peace’,” said 23-year-old listener Khady Ba.

Wolof is the most widely spoken of Senegal’s 39 languages. “Yes. It’s a POW singing a woman’s lament in Wolof,” Gueye confirmed. The audience listened to the recordings, many of them sung, with a mixture of gravity and pride. They strained to identify words, melodies, forgotten places and recollections buried deep in a collective memory that is eroding as the years pass. “Wolof has changed a lot in urban areas. Some words refer to worlds that no longer exist,” Gueye explained.

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