Critical Approaches to Colonial Sounds from Africa in Austria

Clemens Gütl
(Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences)

Since its foundation in April 1899, the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna has been a port of call for Austrian researchers, especially from the fields of cultural studies and the humanities. In 1999, UNESCO included its Historical Collections as “documents of universal significance” in the World Register of its Memory of the World Programme. The Historical Collections consist of sound documents stored on mechanical sound carriers from 1899 to 1950 such as wax discs or gramophone records. On the occasion of its 100th anniversary, the Phonogrammarchiv began to release all of its early sound recordings on CD, accompanied by a booklet usually containing scientific commentaries, biographical data, and information on the contexts in which the researchers originally made the sound recordings, as well as text transcriptions or music notations, for example. Until now, the Phonogrammarchiv has published eighteen different series, which are all part of the publication of the full edition called Sound Documents from the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences: The Complete Historical Collections 1899–1950. The publication “Recordings in Egypt (Junker 1911) and the Archive (Stigler 1912–1913): Kenzi-Dongolawi, Nobiin and Arabic – Dholuo and Luganda” is one such series and is explored below as I consider methodological approaches to historical sound recordings from Africa in Austria.

Colonial Sounds from Africa in Austria?

Alongside sound recordings, archives have taken in critical commentaries by speakers from colonized regions. However, it is only recently that the audible documents produced, collected, and archived by researchers all over the world since the last third of the nineteenth century have been included in discussions concerning colonial historiography and coloniality in general, and ethical issues, collection methods, and knowledge production in particular.

The capital of Austria has always been the center of Africa-related research in this country, and as such, it is hardly surprising that the Phonogrammarchiv in Vienna also preserves a key collection of language and music recordings from Africa. This particular collecting his­tory began during the acoustic era with field recordings made in the former British and German colonies and protectorates of Natal, Bechuanaland and German South West Africa, as well as in Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and Nigeria (Gütl et al.; Schüller, Rudolf Pöch’s and The Collection).

Sound recordings made directly on site in Africa have occasionally been supplemented by sound recordings with the voices of African people made in the recording studio of the Phonogrammarchiv in Austria. For this reason, studio recordings with people from present-day Uganda and Kenya, Morocco, Guinea, Angola, and South Africa are also part of the Historical Collections of the Phonogrammarchiv in Vienna. How these individuals came into contact with Austrian researchers or the Phonogrammarchiv is still unclear for most of these collections. At the moment we only know that Robert Stigler, a doctor and physiologist, was involved in sound recordings with two men who were both taken to Austria from the former British protectorate of Uganda following an Austrian research expedition in the winter of 1911–1912, in which Stigler had participated as an expedition doctor. It is not clear from the historical sources whether these two men were invited, convinced, or even forced to come to Europe.

My thoughts concerning most of these early sound collections in African languages are that their analysis must not disregard the dynamics and effects of the colonial framework at play in their creation and afterwards. If we take only one of the sound recordings from 1912 as a short example, one aspect strikes me as particularly remarkable and worth mentioning: the text spoken by a 28-year-old man named Mori Duise on recording number Ph 1287 contains a warning of the colonial intrusion by Europeans into his country. According to the interpretation of Daniel Orwenjo Ochieng at the University of Nairobi, Mori Duise cloaked the warning in the metaphor of a disease entering the country from the sea (Lake Victoria?) (Ochieng 41–42).

Sound Documents and Source Criticism

Sound recordings are by no means more authentic than other types of sources. Nor can a sound recording per se be a scientific source. It can only be of scientific value if certain conditions are met and accompanying information (metadata) is available. Sound recordings, like other historical sources, have factors that distort and potentially influence the reading of the material, for example the subjectivity of the producers, their intention when recording, etc. In the worst case, sound recordings could even have been knowingly distorted. If all of this is not taken into account in an evaluation of the material, misinterpretations may occur. For an accurate understanding of what is heard, it is advisable to consult and compare to other historical sources related to the sound recording. Thus, with the help of so-called source criticism, mistakes, errors or misunderstandings (e.g. in communication) can be uncovered. The research, compilation, and source-critical evaluation of supplementary information to the sound recordings (written documents, photos, films, interviews, etc.) are important steps in the analysis and are an integral part of the methodology.

Every single sound document that exists today in the Phonogrammarchiv was produced under certain conditions. The contexts of their creation are rarely obvious; they must always be reconstructed. Related questions such as the personal relationship or power relations between the respective researcher and the recorded person, biographical details of the protagonists, or the historical frame of reference to which texts on sound recordings refer, can only be answered after extensive research into the context of the audio material. The quality of the source interpretation of acoustically-stored contents is inextricably linked to the quality of the reconstruction of the contexts in which the recordings were created and used. Furthermore, sounds can only be “transported” for reproduction via sound carriers (such as wax discs or vinyl records) and their corresponding playback devices (such as a phonograph or turntable), and cannot be understood in isolation from the interpretation of the respective user (Gütl, “Afrikanische Geschichte hören?” 82–100).

The Colonial Context of the Stigler Collection

In the above-mentioned example from the Stigler Collection, the important question of the exact circumstances that brought Mori Duise from the British Protectorate of Uganda to Austria arises. How did the African man come into contact with both the Phonogrammarchiv in Vienna and the researchers named in the metadata that accompanies the sound recordings?

The Austrian members of the expedition to Uganda, which was led by the Viennese architect Rudolf Kmunke between October 1911 and April 1912, did not manage to make any of the sound recordings planned for Uganda, since the phonograph broke down on the spot and had to be sent back to Austria. Recordings indirectly related to this expedition have however been preserved at the Phonogrammarchiv: Kmunke and Stigler returned to Vienna “in the company of” two African men, namely the Dholuo-speaker Mori Duise mentioned previously and the Luganda-speaker Simon Kasajja who when in Vienna, at Stigler’s request, spoke and sang into the horn of the phonograph creating audio recordings. The documentation held in the Phonogrammarchiv tells us but little about these men, and almost nothing about the overall historical context of the recordings made with them in Vienna. Even the motive for “immortalizing” their voices on sound carriers and the decision criteria for the content of the sounds, which were originally inscribed in wax, can only be deduced from historical documents found outside the Phonogrammarchiv.

For a full understanding of the sound recordings, it is important to mention the colonial conditions of the expedition. The four Austrian participants had hired 250 local porters, expedition guides, translators, cooks, “tent boys,” and African soldiers (Askaris) for the trip. With their help, they manically gathered geographical data, everyday objects, and human remains such as skulls, as well as living animals for European museums, archives, and the Vienna Zoo Schönbrunn. The circumstances of their acquisition should be viewed critically as violent and racist in the context of colonialism. Some objects taken, such as shields that held traces of battle, can be interpreted as silent testimonies to experiences of violence. Some of the porters had been forcibly recruited with the support of British colonial representatives and put in chains (Gütl, “Mori Duise” 133–155). In his travel book Quer durch Uganda [Across Uganda], Kmunke made no secret of the fact that he had his African “collaborators” disciplined with the painful hippo whip kiboko, and had acquired some “souvenirs” in Africa against the resistance of their original owners and in exchange for objects of little value (Kmunke 87; 103; 167). The removal and transfer of artifacts and knowledge from travelled and explored regions was, after all, on the agenda of most expeditions. However, this particular research and hunting trip also features several characteristics that distinguish it from similar, previous undertakings. Above all, it is Robert Stigler, whose research provided the expedition with the “scientific” veneer necessary to be taken seriously by contemporaneous scholars. His special interest developing in those days focused on so-called racial physiology.

The Stigler Collection (Phonogrammarchiv, Vienna: Phonogramme Ph 1208–1210, 1287, 1788 and 1794) clearly originated in the overall context of Stigler’s human physiological race experiments. These included extensive studies of blood, circulation, respiration, nutrition, body temperature, muscles, sensory organs, skin functions, pain sensitivity, and sleep behaviour. In addition, he made observations on sexual life, psychological tests and observations, and examinations of breast milk, and sound production. In 1911, he began performing these experiments in colonial Uganda on porters and local African soldiers, as well as on African prisoners of a British military expedition, people from the areas where he travelled, and on his fellow Austrian travellers. Later he continued his experiments in Egypt and Austria.

The sound recordings in the Phonogrammarchiv in Vienna form an integral part of the physiologist’s investigations, yet Stigler never again referred to these sound documents in his publications. While the Phonogrammarchiv holds these audio recordings, on the other side, it lacks references to and resources on his other extensive human experiments.

An analysis of Stigler’s research, lectures, and publications leads to the conclusion that his biography is comparable to that of other Austrian scholars in that their work was also clearly influenced by topics and methods rooted in colonial contexts. In the case of Stigler, he also later applied the methods he experimented with during colonialism, on prisoners in a prisoner-of-war camp during the National Socialist era. Up to 1970 he published the hypotheses and research results that he had collected in the first half of the twentieth century. They remained almost unchanged until shortly before his death in 1975 (Gütl, “Mori Duise” 133–155).

Final Remarks

Based on the example cited above, and informed by other examples present in the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, the following can be derived from considerations on a source-critical evaluation of sound recordings. On the one hand an acoustic recording has its special value for historical research where other types of sources, such as written sources, are limited in their informational value. On the other hand, their usefulness for the historical sciences is limited if other accompanying information (e.g. details of the language, the place of recording, the time of recording, etc.) is missing. Conversely, it is also true to say that with each additional piece of information on the recording in question, the potential possibilities of adequately checking and interpreting the subjectively perceived sound increase. In general, the source value of a sound recording can only be assessed in the context of a source-critical determination of its relationship to other types of sources. Additionally, it is a focus on the importance of context that can reveal materials created under duress and violence.

The historical sound recordings in African languages held at the Phonogrammarchiv are mostly products of interactions between several people. With the thoughts formulated in this essay, the question arises as to how European-­African relations were shaped in connection with the sound recordings and what statements the acoustic recordings in the Phonogrammarchiv today allow about the African side of this complex history of interrelationships. Although the use of sound recordings for historical research represents a great methodological challenge, it also represents an opportunity to look at (or rather listen to) old sounds from today’s perspective and to make them not only audible, but to make their messages actually (re-)understandable.

Many years of practical experience with sound recordings in the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, have shown that the consistent use of a methodological apparatus from the field of historical science has proved successful for evaluating and editing historical sound documents. These methods allow us, among other things, to reconstruct the biographies of the persons involved and to answer questions regarding their intentions, the organization and practical realization of research under­takings, the contexts of the creation and use of sound documents, as well as questions regarding aspects of their technical history.

As for sound recordings, these strongly force us to approach the subject with a focus on content and context while being critical of the sources. The need to approach the content and contexts of sound recordings from a variety of sources of different types and provenance calls for international, interdisciplinary, and intercultural scientific cooperation between the Phonogrammarchiv and proven experts. Since the beginning of its full edition called Sound Documents from the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences: The Complete Historical Collections 1899–1950 these collaborations have proven increasingly important and successful.

Institutional Approach


Gütl, Clemens. “Afrikanische Geschichte hören? Gedanken zur Quellenkritik des Tons.” International Forum on Audio-Visual Research (Jahrbuch des Phonogrammarchivs 5), edited by Helmut Kowar, Vienna, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2014, pp. 82–100.

__ . “Mori Duise oder Fragmente einer afrikanischen Trägergeschichte.” Der Träger. Zu einer „tragenden“ Figur der Kolonialgeschichte. Edited by Sonja Malzner and Anne D. Peiter, Bielefeld, 2018, pp. 133–155.

Gütl, Clemens, et al., eds. Recordings in Egypt (Junker 1911) and the Archive (Stigler 1912–1913). Kenzi-Dongolawi, Nobiin and Arabic – Dholuo and Luganda (Sound Documents from the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences: The Complete Historical Collections 1899–1950, Series 13). Vienna, VÖAW, 2014.

Kmunke, Rudolf. Quer durch Uganda: Eine Forschungsreise in Zentralafrika 1911/1912. Berlin, Reimer, 1913.

Ochieng, Daniel Orwenjo. “Transcriptions, translations and comments: Dholuo.” Recordings in Egypt (Junker 1911) and the Archive (Stigler 1912–1913). Kenzi-Dongolawi, Nobiin and Arabic – Dholuo and Luganda (Sound Documents from the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences: The Complete Historical Collections 1899–1950, Series 13), edited by Clemens Gütl, et al., Vienna, VÖAW, 2014, ­­ pp. 39–45.

Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Vienna: Phonogramme and Protocols (“Protokolle”) accompanying the sound recordings Ph 1208–1210, Ph 1287, Ph 1788, Ph 1794.

Schüller, Dietrich, ed. Rudolf Pöch’s Kalahari Recordings (1908). Sound Documents from the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Series 3, Vienna, VÖAW, 2003.

__ . The Collection of Father Franz Mayr: Zulu Recordings 1908. Sound Documents from the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Series 10, Vienna: VÖAW, 2006.

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