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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: April 2018



THE publication of Musical Instruments of the Indigenous People of South Africa represents an impulse to re-animate the Scottish-born Percival Robson Kirby's important early text in southern African music studies. The changes to the revised third edition include reworking the musical examples, designing the layout so that the discussion and photographs of instruments are near each other, and changing the title; Kirby's original phrase ‘native races’ has been replaced by ‘indigenous people’. This revised third edition affords an opportunity to reconsider a classic, stimulating early study of the material culture of indigenous southern African musics nearly 80 years after Kirby's book first appeared on bookshelves in 1934, and 45 years since it was last published.

Starting as early as 1923, Kirby turned his erudition and powers of observation to studying the music cultures of indigenous South Africans through a series of field trips during university vacations. He developed a project to collect, document and describe examples of each kind of musical instrument in southern Africa south of the Limpopo. He employed photography, ably assisted by Dr W. Paff, and made wax cylinder sound recordings of many performances as part of his method, and also learnt to perform the music. This practice later became standard in ethnomusicology, but was uncommon at the time. The tremendous energy he expended in this work resulted in a series of articles and the first edition of book. He displayed many of the instruments he collected in his ‘museum’ in the music department at the University of the Witwatersrand, using them in his teaching. On retiring from Wits, Kirby loaned his collection to the Africana Museum, Johannesburg. It remained there from 1953 to 1981, when the University of Cape Town acquired it. Today it is housed in the university's South African College of Music, with the accompanying materials deposited in the University of Cape Town Libraries’ Manuscripts and Archives Department.

The best way to read this book is in conjunction with viewing the instruments he discusses in this collection, which can be done by arrangement with the South African College of Music.