AMI Blog


Andrew Tracey, former owner of African Musical Instruments, Director of the International Library of African Music (ILAM), and our friend, died this month on 12 January, aged 87. This is the first ‘post’ from AMI about this sad news. As someone who knew him for 40 plus years, I have pondered for a few days what to share with the AMI family in this blogpost. As this blog is about music education and what we can do about transforming it, I want to write about the enormous part Andrew played in introducing African music into education in South Africa and beyond.

Andrew was irrepressibly musically curious. Music made him tick. He loved nothing better than to make a new musical discovery, and each time he encountered a new genre, or musician, or style that inspired him, he would immerse himself in it, perhaps figuring it out on his guitar, or producing a new arrangement for his legendary steel band, or analysing the musical structure for a research publication.

Whilst he was musically omnivorous, Andrew was certainly biased. Music had to interest him. Music that was rooted in African aesthetics was at the top of the list, the more connected to the traditional practice the better. He was bored by music that strayed too far from this. Andrew was staggeringly adept at hearing what was going on in music, and also at playing a wide range of instruments. Both came from a lifetime of listening to everything, and, doing it. These competencies were foundational to the enormous impact he has had on education in South Africa and beyond. Of course, Andrew was director of ILAM, the archive of African music established by his father, Hugh. ILAM’s collections, and Andrew’s adept understanding of them, have provided resource material for all kinds of different purposes – educational, cultural, or artistic. But beyond the archive, we need to pay tribute to the grass roots effects of his lifetime of music making.

Marimba education

I have written a few blogs about the origin story of Southern African Marimbas and Kwanongoma College that goes back to 1960. Andrew was part of the team that designed these new instruments drawing on older African traditions. The marimba movement is the result. 60 years on, it has taken off in South Africa, where schools, churches, youth groups, and professional companies have discovered the power and potential of marimbas – this amazing hybrid instrument that celebrates African music making through community, groove, and participation. Marimbas have travelled beyond Africa, they are a common sight on the West coast of North America through the work of the late Dumisane Maraire, and also in Australian and New Zealand schools. Every year, AMI sends marimbas to countries all over the world, more evidence of the power of marimbas in classrooms and communities. What a legacy.

 Steelband in South Africa

Andrew first heard steelband in London when he was performing in the hit show ‘Wait a minim’. With the musical inquisitiveness he maintained his entire life, once he had heard it, he had to play. When he returned to South Africa after the show’s international success, he brought a set of pans with him and the legendary Andrew Tracey Steelband was born. For years, Andrew’s band was unique, and it performed all over South Africa at all sorts of events. In the 1990s, the steelband movement that started in South African schools was entirely due to Andrew’s band. Steve Lawrie was a member of the band, and he started experimenting with making pans. And the rest, is history. We can confidently attribute the school steelband movement in South Africa to Andrew. Less known, however is how many of Andrew’s band members (over several decades) were deeply inspired by him and went on to careers built on the deep, wide and downright quirky music education we received from him. When it came to teaching his band member-students, he was untiringly generous with his knowledge and time. Not one for figuring out why someone may not be ‘getting it’, he just forged on, going over and over and over the material until that someone did ‘get it’, his enthusiasm supplying the necessary energy to finally get there. There are so many of us who ‘do what we do’ because of Andrew and what we learned from him. Here are a just a few names – Pedro Espi, Anthony Caplan, Elijah Madiba, Dizu Plaatjies, Christian Carver (AMI designer and instrument maker), and me.  As he often had to demonstrate traditional African styles in his work at ILAM, Andrew would call in the steelband members to play. Ugandan amadinda was my personal ‘gateway drug’: my mind was completely blown, and the challenge of trying to get my head and hands around this amazing tradition had me hooked.


As a researcher, Andrew was fascinated by musical structure. (He was less interested in the broader concerns of musicology and sociology). His contribution to knowledge of several musical styles cannot be underestimated. When he studied a musical tradition, he also learned to perform it, and to make the instruments. Understanding how instruments work brings a deeper level of insight into the music itself. He taught countless students to play mbira, kudu horns, nyanga pan pipes, kundi harp, amadinda – these were his teaching tools to introduce African musical ideas to students who had little experience with these diverse traditions. I have seen his transcriptions being used in more than a few South African university courses. Some of them appear in my book ‘Understanding African Music’. In the context of pre-1994, apartheid South Africa, taking African music, or African knowledge seriously was a revolutionary thing to do. It was an important step in the task to ‘unsilence’ African knowledges. And through his careful descriptions of some traditions, Andrew provided material for new courses that celebrated African knowledge. It gave teachers the confidence to build African music courses. This was crucial in the task to bring oral knowledge into the formal space of school or university. Another big contribution to tertiary course material was the research presented at the Symposia for Ethnomusicology, another of Andrew’s projects. These vibey gatherings brought so many experts, researchers and musicians together – Andrew never let anyone forget that the reason they were all there was the music. And music needs to be played, not just talked about.

Some personal memories reflect the kind of person Andrew was:

Andrew and his wife Heather were, unsurprisingly, keen concert goers.  In our small town of Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), they would always arrive in time to get a front row seat, preferably right in the middle. Andrew liked to be as close as possible to the music and the musicians.

I was learning the bass pans in the steelband. Whenever there was a tricky passage, we would cycle it – just play the same 4 bars over and over. I was having a practice session with Andrew on his own, and we were cycling a few bars that I could not get right. Each time we got to a certain beat, he would yell, ‘LATE!’ – not scolding, not irritated, just matter of a fact-ly. After a while of hearing ‘Late!….. late!….. late!….. I stopped and, a bit exasperated, asked ‘Which beat is late?’. The reply was ‘Can’t you hear?’

Andrew’s father Hugh, founder of ILAM, published a book of African folktales, most of which rely on songs to move the action forward. Andrew told these stories brilliantly; he would teach his listeners the responses of the songs and draw them into a few minutes of magic. He told the stories to enormous audiences, or to a single child with the level of energy.

Andrew spoke several languages, (Shona, Zulu, Xhosa, French, German, Portuguese, ….) and loved nothing more than figuring out a new one. He and Heather visited Christian and I while we were based in Uganda in the 1990s. Andrew had a little notebook in his shirt pocket, and every time he met someone, he launched into conversation, getting them to teach him how to say something in Lukonzo, the local language.  He wrote the phrases down in his notebook, then practiced them on everyone he met. In the week or so that he was with us, he was saying more and more, charming everyone he encountered.

These memories show his fascination with music, and his love of musical connection with others. And those two attributes are the starting points for good music education. Those of us who knew him have many stories to tell of his mad energy, his maddening obliviousness to what he considered to be unimportant details. But while some of us have been deeply inspired by personal encounters, countless others have benefitted from, and will, in the future, be the richer for, his dedication to African music. And in the task to transform music education, he has done so much of the groundwork.

Rest in peace, Andrew. We celebrate you and thank you for sharing so much, so generously.   

Pic credit: Retha-Louise Hofmeyr