South Africa Recordings is a big, generous release, a double-disc set with a 16-page booklet boasting some gorgeous nature photography. It’s a treasure trove for field recording enthusiasts, especially those who prefer their field recordings to be untreated and unadorned. Apart from light layering, this is exactly what it sounds like to visit one of South Africa’s many national parks and nature reserves. The album provides a window into a South Africa that has too often been overshadowed by political and societal clashes; these are the creatures whose lives are affected by national policies, but who care not at all for politicians.
The sound field is thick right from the beginning, with three “night soundscapes with bubbling kassinas.” That’s a frog, by the way, and don’t feel bad, I had to look it up myself. The kassinas, cicadas, crickets, local birds and other unidentifiable citizens of the South African plains provide such a richness of tone that one wonders if any nightclub, no matter how posh, could compete. While listening, one can either attempt to separate the sounds or allow them to cascade over the ears. Phillips recommends listening on headphones, but an immersive stereo system is just as effective, transforming the home into a sonic forest.
Frogs and toads dominate the first disc, calling to mind Yannick Dauby’s Songs of the Frogs of Taiwan. A single representative makes a distinctive tone, but together a chorus is formed. In some locales, the chorus disorients potential predators, who have no idea where their individual prey might be located. But of course ~ as in the aforementioned nightclub ~ mating is on the minds of these slippery citizens, and as the night progresses, they cultivate their calls, hoping for someone to take home. Maybe we’re not so different after all. The center of the first disc includes the type of event that every field recordist dreads and loves at once ~ a thunderstorm near a river. With the right equipment, the event can be captured without risk, which Phillips is able to do here. For minutes at a time, the wildlife is quiet, searching for shelter, although an occasional bird wanders into view, too curious to hide for long.
Visitors to African nations are familiar with the concept of the “big five,” and Phillips is fortunate enough to capture three of them (sonically speaking, of course!). The second disc includes a roaring lion, “laughing hippo”, and “thirsty water buffalo”, but the other two (leopard, elephant) are hardly missed, as there’s plenty of other animal action to be heard. Jackals and hyenas form part of the sonic field of the second disc, and Phillips goes macro on a few smaller creatures. For example, who knew that geckos could “bark”, making a sound like air being let out of a balloon? But the sonic gold here is the sound of hundreds of doves at a waterhole, evading a hungry jackal who just wants breakfast. (It’s easy to think of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, the jackal slack-eared and downtrodden at the end.) From bugs to bats, birds to buffalos, Phillips provides a mosaic of interconnected life, an ecosystem whose every piece is essential for the survival of all. We can be thankful for the parks and preserves, and for Phillips for highlighting their beauty; the next step is to take action to protect such environments, and to reverse the course of encroachment and extinction that threatens to eradicate humanity along with its innocent victims. (Richard Allen)