Dancing to the Reality of MAARA – The success story

In the early 1950s, research fellows like J. H. Kwabena Nketia started capturing important ceremonies/events on sound and photographic media. This collection, according to an oral history by Nketia (2013), formed the basis of the establishment of the Institute of African Studies (IAS). As part of IAS developmental plan in 1974 the Media Centre was set up to compliment the already existing Sound and Photographic Archives to capture cultural events on sound, photographic and moving image media. This expanded the collection.

Far along in 2008, IAS inherited the audiovisual heritage collections from the renowned International Centre for African for Music and Dance (ICAMD). The ICAMD audiovisual archive was founded in 1992 by Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia. The aim was to serve the needs of scholars, researchers, and artists by collecting and producing audiovisual documentation on Ghana’s unique dance and music traditions as well as other attractive cultures around the world. The audiovisual carriers containing this rich collection spanned from quarter inch open reels, digital audio cassettes, micro cassettes, U-matics, Beta tapes, VHS, S-VHS, 78 rpm shellacs, LPs, Video8, Hi-8, audio cassettes, Mini-DVs, CDs, to DVDs. In terms of notable content, story-telling, songs, dances, and other oral and performance traditions formed part of the heritage materials that had been documented.

The greater part of the collections were essentially locked away on obsolete media formats, affected by mold and the inherent vice of sticky shed syndrome, whereby the tape becomes gummy and sheds the magnetic particles – the very particles that hold the content. The condition of the tapes is very common for archives in tropical areas and presents very real obstacles for preservation.

As the Archivist appointed to manage this important collection with such rich history and research value, but with inadequate staff, my task was a tough one. The archive had limited intellectual control over the contents of its collections and most importantly there was lack of awareness about the collection by potential users.  (more…)

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Database Modification

george_kara george_kara

After the arrival of Mona, Chris and Kara, the launch of MAARA was about to start on Monday. An in depth lecture, which lasted for about an hour by Mona paved us the way for a step by step plan. As Mona stressed on ACCESSIBILITY, it prompted me to think of how our accessible is our database system for the archive? Yes, it is accessible but researchers don’t really find it comfortable going through the layouts of the various data fields because of its few errors and unattractiveness it looks. We receive complaints and question because people think there are problems with it. I explained to Kara about how it should be to the user – friendly and easily accessible. We also later found out that there would need to be new fields added for the digitization technicians so that they could track their work.

This called for modification of our FileMaker Pro database which is using a template by Independent Media Arts Preservation (IMAP) and updated by Kelly Haydon, a former NYU MIAP student, during her summer internship at IAS in 2012. Even though I was the one who called for modification of the database which experts in the field had already designed, I was quite scared I might destroy it because am not of the same level of experience as Kelly and the people who designed the template itself.


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Professor Nketia: “The memories I lived are in these boxes”


On Wednesday July 30 we were honored to have a visit from Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia, ethnomusicologist.  He was so amazed at the level to which the archive has reached and what is now happening to the materials he collected in the 1950s. The first materials to be digitized are from the AWG (Africa-West Africa-Ghana) series that were collected by him. 

Professor Nketia talked about his first interviews with indigenous performers, 62 years ago. He made a remark about the fact that he is 93 years old and even when he dies he has something to take with him – knowing that his materials will be put to use.

He said “Now it will be used how it was intended to be used. Not just hidden away in boxes.”


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First tape transferred! Listening station set up!

Congratulations Nat Kpogo, Chris Lacinak, and Seth Paris for your first successful transfer! The tape transferred was AWG-E-25, Ewe Songs and Rites, Totoeme, Gbelehawo, Puberty Rites, 1960.

AWG-E-25_outside  AWG-E-25_inside

And a big thanks to Ekow Arthur-Entsiwah, Principal IT Assistant, for setting up our listening station! We are all grateful for his generosity – he brought the monitor from his own work station and swapped it out for an older one. 

Ekow Arthur-Entsiwah

Two milestones in one day. We’ll tell you about the zigzag road it took the transfer team to get to this point in later posts and we will give you some longer listening. But right now we are just all thrilled!


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Degradation and obsolescence comes in the smallest forms

When installing an audio lab with older equipment, ensuring that everything works can be more complex than it might first appear. This week, we are setting up capabilities to digitize 1/4″ open reel audio (as well as cassette) at the Institute of African Studies Archive. We were fortunate to start with two open reel decks: one that they had in house for some time, and one which had been donated by University of Ghana Professor Esi Sutherland-Addy for her current research project, “Shall I tell You or Shall I Not Tell You A Survey of Ghanaian Tales and Storytelling Tradition.”



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Plug panic! Or, why you should sweat the small stuff

Hello out there! I’m Rebecca and I’m a part of the team designing the audio digitization lab at the University of Ghana. We’ve been working on this phase of the project for almost seven months; it is VERY exciting that it’s finally all coming together! From room design (and room redesign) to equipment selection to wiring diagrams, I’ve found it to be an enlightening experience.

As one of the team members involved with the prep, I can assure you that a lot of work is involved in setting up an audio preservation lab with equipment from all over the world. One of the more tedious and stressful aspects was the issue of plugs. Let me explain.


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New York University & University of Ghana – Legon Launch MAARA

As independence unfolded across Africa beginning in the late 1950s, visionary African researchers used audiovisual tools to record the rich cultural forms that had been so devalued under colonial rule. Pioneering scholars from Ghana made audio and video recordings of oral and visual expressions, encouraged their dissemination and study, and personally safeguarded them; these collections formed the foundation of the extensive audiovisual holdings of the Institute of African Studies (IAS) at the University of Ghana – Legon.

From left: Judith Opoku-Boateng, Mona Jimenez, Dr. Kwame Amoah Labi, Kara Van Malssen, Chris Lacinak. Photo by Hyriana Amakye.

These recordings and the many that followed hold new information of tremendous value not only for creators, researchers and audiences of culture and art, but also for those engaged in contemporary scholarship in numerous fields in the humanities and social sciences. For many years at IAS thousands of audiotapes containing these rich cultural resources have been trapped on obsolete media and unable to be heard and used.

On Monday, July 28th, IAS and New York University’s Audiovisual Preservation Exchange (APEX) officially launched the project Making African Academic Resources Accessible or MAARA. Ghanaian and American teams have joined forces to create a digital archive of these unique materials through a new audio preservation lab equipped to transfer 1/4″ audio reels, cassettes, and digital audiotapes. Very soon researchers will be able to access selected recordings through computer listening stations at the IAS Archive.

Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo, the Director of IAS states:

“What better way to democratize knowledge on the peoples and cultures of Africa than through an organic, state-of-the-art audiovisual archive? We are truly delighted that our work with our partners from NYU has born such rich fruit!”

The comprehensive IAS audio collection contains recordings of festivals, funerals and other events; oral traditions; poetry and other forms of spoken word; music; and oral histories of prominent Ghanaian creators of arts and culture, past and present. The oldest IAS Archive materials, dating to the 1950s, were acquired from the acclaimed International Centre for African Music and Dance and were created through the vision and extensive research of musicologist and Professor Emertus J. H. Kwabena Nketia. IAS also holds audio documentation of story-telling and artistic interpretation by the late Ghanaian dramatist, Professor Efua Sutherland.

On the NYU side, APEX Ghana is led by Professor Mona Jimenez, Associate Director in the Moving Image Preservation Program, part of the Department of Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts:

“This project will have immediate benefit for educators, students, scholars and programmers at our respective universities here in Accra. For MIAP, the partnership has enriched our curriculum, strengthens MIAP’s knowledge of international archiving practices, and allows us to collaboratively solve preservation problems that stand in the way of access.”

NYU has a global site in Ghana – NYU Accra – and the two universities have a longstanding educational partnership, facilitating students and faculty connections through classes, research and special programs.

Dr. Kwame Amoah Labi, Deputy Director of IAS has shepherded the project on the Ghanaian side:

“This is the best thing that has happened to our audiovisual archives. We are applying the latest technologies to make the collections accessible. We expect other archivists and researchers will come and check out what we are doing.”

The team got right to work on their first day together; one group began unpacking boxes and configuring equipment while another worked on expanding the Archive’s database to include new information that will be generated through the digitization process. The US team includes Founder/President Chris Lacinak and Senior Consultant/NYU Professor Kara Van Malssen, both from Audiovisual Preservation Solutions, and audio preservation specialist Seth Paris. Archivist Judith Opoku-Boateng, who oversees the IAS Archives, has brought together the IAS archive staff including George Gyasi Gyesaw (Database Administrator), Fidelia Ametewe (Video Editor), Selina Laryea (Photographer), and Nathaniel Kpogo (Research Assistant – Audio).

From left: Chris Lacinak, George Gyesaw, Dr. Kwame Amoah Labi, Mona Jimenez, Judith Opoku-Boateng, Kara Van Malssen, Nathaniel Kpogo, Fidelia Ametewe, Selina Laryea. Photo by Hyriana Amakye.

“For me, it is a dream come true”, says Judith. “The project will be a model for other archives in the region.”

Keep checking back to our blog as we report on how our work together develops. We expect to post many practical tips and much documentation produced through the collaboration.

MAARA has received support from NYU Provost’s Diversity Initiative and the Global Research Initiative; the Institute of African Studies, UG – Legon; the NYU Tisch Dean’s Technology Grant; the NYU Department of Cinema Studies, and Audiovisual Preservation Solutions. Other APEX projects have been organized with colleagues in Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay.

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