August 16, 2015
From the Great Steppe, we now travel to the middle of Sweden, to a small village about five miles outside the city of Örebro called Tysslinge. In the previous entry we focused on the morin khuur of Mongolia, and now we’ll pause for a little rumination on one of the most dignified and fascinating stringed instruments of Europe, the nyckelharpa.
Without a doubt, the nyckelharpa, sometimes described as the bowed hurdy-gurdy, is positively medieval. Its origins, though debated, seem to date back to at least the middle of the 14th century, and documentation of its use and existence under various names and slight iterations appear in church paintings, early books on music, and relief sculptures, for several hundred years, until the modern era. Primarily, however, evidence suggests that the nyckelharpa was an instrument that flourished mainly in small villages of the Swedish region of northern Uppland. The nyckelharpa is a “keyed fiddle,” and quite large. Played with a bow and held with a strap around the neck, the instrument today has 16 strings and 37 keys. The keys are pressed as a player bows, hence the hurdy-gurdy comparison. Except the nyckelharpa has 12 sympathetic strings and 1 drone string giving it a unique sound when its 3 melody strings are bowed. Now firmly part of the Swedish folk tradition, today it is the Swedish national instrument, even found on the printed kronor.
Swedish folk music was certainly recorded in the 78 rpm era, though it was not the main output of Sweden’s recording industry and can be devilishly difficult to find, even in Sweden. In terms of early recorded music from the country, including the output of Swedish-Americans, fiddle, nyckelharpa, and bagpipe tunes are nearly completely absent – most what you find are the enjoyable, light-hearted comic tunes with accordion. The songs we’ll present today are quite different, and truly shine a light on the early folk tradition in Scandinavia. I’ve always thought that, not unlike the hardanger fiddle tradition of Norway, Swedish folk music has almost a wistful, yet stately and regal quality – almost baroque – that is thoroughly beautiful. Traditional music can be both “folk” and refined.
It is Tysslinge where Erik August Sellin was from. Born in 1869, Sellin was actually a multi-instrumentalist, playing besides the nyckelharpa, the clarinet, accordion, and violin. He lived portions of his life in Stockholm, with travel to the U.S. and to Berlin as a touring musician, though apparently the tours were not as successful as he’d hoped. He did, however, record several nascent examples of nyckelharpa folk music for Odeon, and for the Gramophone Company, in 1912 and 1913, respectively. This piece (link below), recorded in Stockholm on August 12, 1913, is a medley of two tunes, “Tysslingevalsen” (Waltz from Tysslinge) and “Hopparvalsen” (Jumping Waltz). Bowed instruments can sound so distant on these early recordings, even in perfect condition. I am sure well-seasoned Excavated Shellac readers have the innate ability to hear magic through the fog.
The nyckelharpa has evolved and changed in its construction. Sellin’s instrument was found in an attic, and dated from the mid-1800s. It’s a type known as a silverbasharpa which he made changes to, increasing the number of keys from 20 to 29, increasing the keys’ notes, adding a layer of rosin that acted as insulation against the rattling of the keys, modifying the bow to increase elasticity, and also adding a piece of rubber to the “frog” part of the bow, so he could play pizzicato. Sellin died in 1937. His life is well documented in a privately published book from 1982, in Swedish, written by Roger Berlin.
Flash forward nearly 40 years. Apart from the scarce early examples, one of the most interesting series containing folkloric music on 78 from Sweden were the occasional discs issued by the Radiotjänst label, run by the Swedish national broadcast company. While most of their releases on 78 were classical, from about 1946 or so, Radiotjänst periodically recorded excellent folk music by the most renowned traditional musicians in the country. Only several dozen of these discs were issued and those don’t exactly grow on trees either, but they constitute a wide array of top performances. Probably the most well-known nyckelharpa musician of the 20th century, Eric Sahlström, was among those captured – on a mere 2 discs, in 1950.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Eric Sahlström not only revolutionized and popularized the nyckelharpa, but he helped reinvigorate interest in Swedish folk music in general. Born in 1912, Sahlström hailed from Uppland, an area north of Stockholm known for keeping the nyckelharpa tradition alive when it had fallen out of favor. He, too, redesigned the instrument, creating the chromatic version played most commonly today, with 3 rows of keys, augmenting an original design by August Bohlin. Sahlström taught classes, appeared on radio and television, and rekindled interest in the Swedish folk tradition. A soft-spoken, avuncular man, at least in his TV appearances (at the 5:50 mark), he bridged the gap between the older and modern era, while still keeping the roots in place. Today, there is an Eric Sahlström Institute, in Tobo, and his composed works are performed by many. Thanks to him, there is recognition of this rich tradition. He passed away in 1986. This track is one of his own compositions, also known as “Fiddler’s Joy” recorded ca. early 1950.
Eric Sahlström nyckelharpa photo by Karsten Evers.
Image of young Erik Sellin from Roger Berlin’s Allmogespelmannen Erik Sellin (Vintrosa: författaren, 1982).
Label: Gramophone Company
Coupling Number: 587911
Matrix Number: 5115ab
Issue Number: RA 153
Matrix Number: RTJ 2988 A
With thanks to Tony Klein.
For more Sahlström on Radiotjänst there’s Volume 1 of the Secret Museum of Mankind, of course!
July 19, 2015
I hurriedly started to prep this little post this morning during a loud thunderstorm that set off car alarms and set a park on fire a few blocks away. Things have been a little apocalyptic in Los Angeles lately, what with the brutal drought, and wildfires jumping four-lane highways and burning up dozens of cars. Amid the weirdness, I’m in one of those periods where there isn’t enough time time in the day, vaguely overextended, working on various side projects, all music-related.
In the meantime, here’s something brief, extremely rare, and powerful – a folk song from Mongolia, sung by a singer credited only as Dolgar-Zab. I’ve no idea of the title – it shares a side with another folk song performed by “Cok-Dzolma.” I can say that it’s a wild vocal performance, with surprising falsetto and yodeling, accompanied by a musician on the morin khuur, the horsehead, two-stringed fiddle of Mongolia (one string is made of mare’s hair, the other of stallion’s). The instrument itself is recognized by UNESCO as one of the masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity. You can bet I believe that list of masterpieces should be expanded.
Supraphon is arguably the most important Czech record label, and first made its appearance in 1932. State-run, the contents of Supraphon and the related Czech label, Ultraphon (operated by Telefunken), were predominantly classical. However, while uncommon, they did issue some important recordings of folk music from politically friendly nations including North Korea, countries in Central Asia, and Mongolia. On the label of this disc, you’ll see a little insignia for what was the First World Festival of Youth and Students, held in Prague in 1947. While I have my doubts that the production of this disc has anything to do with that festival, I do believe it gives us a good idea of the date – 1947-1948 or so.
Mongolian music on 78 is brutally scarce. Several discs were issued by Japanese Columbia and Japanese Victor, as part of folk music box sets organized by ethnomusicologist Tanabe Hisao. Mongolian music was also issued later on the Chinese Zhonggou Chiangpan label, as well as the Russian Melodiya-associated labels, for those keeping track. There was also a local, Mongolian 78 label named B.N.M.A.U. (Bügd Nairamdakh Mongol Ard Uls). Its history has yet to be scrutinized in the west.
Issue Number: B 15002
Matrix Number: 45225
June 15, 2015
I’m honored to present a guest post from Pekka Gronow. Pekka is well-known in the world of ethnomusicology, audio preservation, and discography. He was the head of the archives at the Finnish Broadcasting Company, as well as the curator of the Finnish Institute of Recorded Sound, and is an adjunct professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Helsinki. He is the author of innumerable articles and books related to the recording industry and global music on record, not the least of which is An International History of the Recording Industry, co-authored with Ilpo Saunio (London: Cassell, 1999). Additionally an editor of the Herculean project to document the activities of the Lindström record labels (The Lindström Project, Volumes 1-4), Pekka has to be the only person appearing within Excavated Shellac to have spoken to European parliament on sound copyright issues. – JW
Since spring 2014, continuous fighting has been going on in the Donbass area of Ukraine. On one side are pro-Russian separatists, who are trying to establish the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk with the support of Putin. On the other side are the forces of the newly independent Republic of Ukraine. This article is not an attempt to take sides, but I want to present two records which illustrate the historical background of the conflict in musical terms.
Russia already had a flourishing record industry before WWI. After the 1917 revolution all industries were nationalised, and gradually the country closed its doors to the outer world. Record production continued at a low level in state factories. In 1935, Stalin decided that in spite of the country’s huge economic problems, Soviet citizens must have some luxury. In the five-year plan, high priority was given to the production of caviar, chocolates, a sparkling wine called “Soviet champagne,” and 78 rpm records. Engineers were ordered to modernise record factories, and recording studios were soon again operating at full capacity. By the 1950s, the country was producing a hundred million records a year.
The caviar-producing sturgeons have long since been fished into extinction, and today caviar is mainly accessible to Russian oligarchs, but the huge production of 78 rpm records, today still unknown outside the country, may be one of the happiest remnants of the old Soviet Empire. Every year the state record company issued a thick catalogue of records which reminded the dealers’ numerical catalogues of major American record companies. The first part of each catalogue was devoted to masterpieces of classical music. They were followed by optimistic popular songs, dance music, folk songs (“old time music”) and finally a large section of minority-language records for the non-Russian population of the Soviet Union (these would have been called “foreign-language records” in American catalogues). The main difference was a section of political songs and speeches at the start of each Soviet record catalogue, inevitably headed by the voice of the party secretary.
Maria Nikolayevna Mordazova (1915-1997) was one of the greatest stars of Soviet “old time music”. She was born in the village of Nizhnaya Mazovka in the Tambov region of Russia, near the Ukrainian border. During the war she became nationally known for her broadcasts as the soloist of the Voronezh folk choir in a program called “The suffering Donbass,” which reported on the atrocities of German forces in the region.
Maria Mordazova became what was probably the closest Soviet equivalent of country music, as millions of state farm workers tuned in weekly to hear her singing familiar old-time songs on the air. (Instead of commercials for patent medicines, they had to listen to political speeches between the songs.) “Da zadumal malchik zhenitsya“ was recorded in 1954, nine years after the end of the war and just a year after Stalin’s death. The song tells the story of a young man looking for a bride. It is in the traditional call-and-response form of Russian choral songs, but on this recording the response part is performed by just one singer, who is identified as M. Zelenova.
Maria Mordazova remained as the soloist of the Voronezh folk choir until 1977. She also became a popular solo performer of chastuskas, humorous old-time songs. She made many recordings and was frequently heard on the radio. She received the prestigious “Hero of Soviet Labor” award in 1987, just before the downfall of the Soviet Union.
“The great patriotic war” of 1941-1945 has been one of the most dramatic events in Russian history. It had a unifying effect on a country which was just learning to live with communism. In present-day Russia, it is still remembered as one of the country’s greatest moments. But not everyone in the former Soviet Union remembered it that way. Ukraine, situated between Russia and Poland, had enjoyed a brief period of independence after World War One. During the 1930s, millions of Ukrainians had died of hunger because of the forced collectivisation of agriculture. In 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland among themselves. The easternmost part of Poland, with a predominantly Ukrainian-speaking population, was annexed to the Soviet Union at the same time as the Baltic countries.
When World War Two broke out, many Ukrainians saw it as a chance to liberate their country from the Soviet Union. They formed UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukraiinska Povstanska Armiya) which fought at various times both against Stalin and Hitler. The strongest support of the movement came from the regions which had only recently been occupied by the Soviets. The role of UPA is highly controversial. The Soviets saw them as traitors who joined the fascists. But for many Ukrainians they were freedom fighters, and when Ukraine gained her independence in 1991 they were recognized as freedom fighters and now have an honoured position.
Among the Ukrainians who joined the UPA during the war was the entire Ukrainian State Bandura Orchestra. The bandura is a Ukrainian folk instrument which combines elements of the lute and the zither. It is considered the national instrument of Ukraine. After the war, the members of the bandura orchestra escaped to the USA, where they recorded “Ya siohodnia vid was vidyizdzayu” (“I shall leave you tonight”), a traditional Ukrainian folk song associated with the UPA, for the Surma label in late 1940s or early 1950s.
The Surma label was the product of Myron Surmach, who ran a Ukrainian book and music store on New York’s 11th Street, next to the Ukrainian Catholic Church. I had the opportunity to interview old Mr. Surmach in his shop in 1977, when he was already in his eighties. He had been a major force in the production of Ukrainian-American records since the 1920s, when his store was an outlet for ethnic records issued by Columbia and Victor. One of his discoveries was the fiddler Pavlo Humeniuk, who made a long series of best-selling records for Columbia, including a musical sketch called “Ukrainian wedding”.
When the majors discontinued the production of foreign-language records after World War Two, many record shops in ethnic neighbourhoods were able to fill the demand by importing records from Europe. Ukrainian-Americans did not have this alternative. Little Ukrainian music was produced in the Soviet Union. In addition, most Ukrainian-Americans viewed Soviet products with suspicion. The door was open for small producers like Myron Surmach, who started producing records themselves and also distributed other Ukrainian records made in the USA and Canada. “Ya siohodnia vid vas viyidzaju” is a traditional Ukrainian folk song associated with the UPA. According to the label, the song was collected by bandurist W. Yurkewich from Sambir.
Label: Leningradski Sovnarhoz
Issue number: 24671
Matrix: 24671 (Note: Soviet 78s usually did not have catalogue numbers, only the matrix number was printed on the label)
Issue number: SU 116
Matrix: SU 116 A
I picked out and transferred this disc for a couple of reasons. First, my good friends at Radio Discostan recently uploaded a podcast we did together, where I brought out some of my favorite performances by women singers on 78s – we called some of them “glass-shattering” for their remarkable vocal acrobatics. This record could easily have been added to that mix.
Recorded ca. 1936 in Singapore, it features the Malay singer known only as Miss Nancy, accompanied by a group that frequently backed singers of the day, David Lincoln’s Orchestra. Though, “orchestra” by present-day standards might be a misnomer. It features only violin, guitar, a ukelele or smaller guitar holding down the rhythm, and most importantly, a Hawaiian guitar, and is in effect more like a krontjong band. I’m afraid I was unable to find much about Nancy, as it was typical of Indonesia and Malaysian female entertainers to be referred to on record only by their first names, prefaced by either “Miss” or “Che” (though there is record of her making a number of discs).
Here she performs a stambul song, or a song originating from Komedi Stambul, a rich type of theatre popular in the region from the late 19th century, with roots in Turkey (“stambul” being derived from “Istanbul”). Its title is something like “Adoring Heart” or even “Bless Your Heart.” Musically it is quite typical of the popular entertainment of the day, and Nancy appropriately takes her strident blare to welcome sonic heights.
The second reason for picking this disc is a little different. This record came from the collection of Benno Häupl, who passed away in late April. Benno was a legend among collectors for his seemingly relentless peregrination, his tenacious collecting habits, his considerable knowledge of cultures and willingness to relate all manner of worldly escapades, as well as for his collection itself – surely the most diverse and perhaps the most significant private collection of global music on 78 rpm outside of the United States.
Collectors talking about other collectors – to outsiders that must seem like inside baseball at best, and gossip at worst. But it got me ruminating about these relationships, and I started digging through old e-mails. I corresponded with Benno for only about 8 to 10 years, and therefore am in no position to write a remembrance with any real depth, as I solely knew him as a collector and even in that pigeonholed realm there are others who had known him for 30, 40, maybe even 50 years. We were not quite close enough to be “friends.” However, I have to say that his taste had certainly been a strong influence on mine, even if we hadn’t eventually connected. For one, he was well-known as a sometime contributor to numerous CDs including the Secret Museum of Mankind series, as well as various releases on Heritage/Interstate, and was a chief source for Paul Vernon’s Ethnic Music on Records reference book, the only book of its kind.
We intersected almost immediately after I began to focus my interests. In the ensuing years, I’d heard Benno’s mythic stories of traveling to Lahore, Pakistan to purchase the remains of a Hindustani 78 store from the 30s, with the entire stock sitting in boxes in a basement, new and untouched, and how it took him years to pick up one copy of each record, regularly sending the owner of the shop insulin and medicine to ensure that it might still remain there until his next trip to the city. I’d heard about Benno’s trips to hunt for 78s in Port Dickson, Malaysia, Mali, Cappadocia, and Cambodia. He told me a bit about his trips to Yemen and Oman, the latter a place that he highly recommended I rent a car and drive through, even giving me route advice, and I heard the story of how he bought what was left of an entire 78 label’s stock in Kuwait. If it existed on 78 and was painfully rare and regional, likely Benno had not just one example, but perhaps 50, perhaps 100, perhaps, like his Indian records, thousands.
Benno would occasionally sell large portions of his collection with an eye toward eventual dissemination, and several times he explained his plan and reasoning to me in detail. He told me he didn’t much care for African music, for example – he “only” had 500-600 of them – so he sold them off, one by one, rarity by rarity. This was entirely disingenuous, in a funny sort of way. Of course I knew he loved certain African music, such as the early music of Morocco, Ethiopia, and Madagascar, among others. Those discs weren’t going anywhere! What he clearly had admiration for stayed close to him. But even what he divested was frequently top shelf, and even one-of-a-kind. Over several years, he continued to sell his Caribbean collection, and a significant portion of his Indonesian and Malaysian discs.
But, good lord, he was ferociously competitive, forcing the few who might deign interest in the same recordings on the market to reconsider if they came to light. With an eagle-eye, he left few stones unturned. If he prevailed on a particularly brutal auction where we were primary competitors, he would immediately send me a note apologizing, stating that, well, sorry, but his collection “had priorities.” Quite often I would manage to triumph, and again, I would receive a congratulatory e-mail from Benno, commending me for my erudite taste, but always letting me know that it didn’t really matter quite as much to him, as he luckily had some 43 examples of said rare musical style already safe in his collection. It’s disheartening to have an elder statesman of sorts treat you like an interloper, no matter if it was sugar-coated or not. But then again, that’s precisely what I was: the competition. It’s all in the game. My comparatively sedate collecting habits evolved precisely from and with the benefits of the internet age. For Benno, someone who had been traveling the world to hunt for records for decades, the rest of us neophytes, “erudite” or not, must have seemed like cheap carpetbaggers.
Whether or not he truly felt that way, it never showed beyond playful jabs, and he readily admitted to me that he mainly collected via the internet. He remained a congenial bastion of arcane knowledge, always happy to divulge information and source material, especially if I was working on a project. That’s not to say that I didn’t sometimes find him contradictory, intermittently fanciful, and occasionally patrician to the point of total frustration. He had so many amazing, unfinished projects. He kept collecting like a runaway train – two weeks before he passed, he had bought a rare bagpipe 78 from me. But, in this world of 78 collectors, it would be peculiar if one weren’t an eccentric or complicated in some noticeable ways – and this was the only side of him I ever got to know.
Today, I own a LOT of records that once were Benno’s, and nearly each one came with an ornamented story. I’m just one of many music fans out there with “Benno stories.” Very little has of yet been written about him. Some people call the great Joe Bussard “the king of record collectors.” It’s a fun if hyperbolic moniker – Mr Bussard is surely one of a kind, and what he’s preserved has rightly become legend. But if you want to talk about global scope, miles traveled, countries visited, regions recorded, and rarities rescued…if I’m forced to take that mantle seriously, you know where I’ll place my bet. So, no, I didn’t know Benno well. I don’t have a clue what moved him. But maybe he got me to think about the reasons for collecting 78s to begin with, and what was exciting about them, as well as the dark side. To the consternation of many collectors, Benno’s wish was that his collection go to an institution. I hope all the “Benno stories” go with it.
The last time we had a substantive exchange was back in January. He was just as energetic as ever, and left me with this:
I plan to go to the probably most remote area of the Sahara: the Ennedi Plateau and the Tibesti Mountains in the North of the Chad – for a month in February and March. I always wanted to see the pond at the Archei Canyon – “discovered” by Westerners only some 15 years ago – where there are 6 or 7 Nile crocodiles in the middle of the desert, surviving since the climate change after the Ice Age!!! A mystical place where camel caravans stop by to “have a drink”. From the last town it takes 5 days “through the void” by Landcruiser to get there.
Enough gossip for now.
All my best
Issue Number: P. 16160
Matrix Number: 0C 3372
Special thanks to Alfred Ticoalu, and Will Hancock, for the photo of Miss Nancy.
May 6, 2015
I am making a point to post more recordings by phenomenal women artists in the near future, but for the moment I’ll quickly turn toward this obscurity, one of the more rural performances (and performers) I’ve ever heard when it comes to early Finnish music.
Erik Kivi’s given name was Erkki Lähteenmäki, though he was also known as Erkki Kiviranta. He was born in 1881 in what was once an area called Alastaro, and is now part of the town of Loimaa, in western Finland. According to sources, he moved to the United States in 1907, right in the middle of what is sometimes called the “Great Migration” of Finns, a period of time where tens of thousands were escaping an oppressive “Russification” process in the country.
After arriving, Kivi apparently made a living as a joiner – a wonderful, semi-obsolete term for a skilled carpenter that specializes in joining permanent woodwork, particularly inside a house, such as stairs, benches, windows, and shelving, for example. Those same sources state that he was possibly itinerant, at one point living in Oregon. If so, it might have been in the town of Astoria, which had a high concentration of Finnish-Americans at the time. Also, one of his recordings directly references Fitchburg, Massachusetts, another community with many Finnish immigrants – perhaps he spent some time there as well.
In other words, there’s little about Kivi that I could find out, except for his musical output. Kivi only recorded in the summer and fall of 1926. In a total of three sessions, he recorded a total of 19 tracks, virtually all of them pretty tough to find on disc. This is from his first session, on August 9, 1926 in New York, and has two subtitles. On the record, “Porin Poika” is listed as “The Boy from Pori,” but in the ledger it’s listed as the “Hobo Fishing Song.” Regardless, Kivi gives us his trademark salty vocal and rural sound.
Also, a Victor engineer thought it important to note that when Kivi was trying out songs for Victor in July of ’26, a month earlier, he was using a “toothpick violin.” Whether he brought it back to the studio for his sessions perhaps we’ll never know, but if he was a skilled carpenter, he certainly could have made a violin out of toothpicks!
Kivi at some point returned to Finland and became a violin maker by trade. He died in 1954 in the town of Tammela.
Thanks to generous listener Samuli Koponen, we have a direct translation of the lyrics! For more information, please see his comment below.
[….] A shoemaker without proper vest and all.
I’m Kalle Murto and I was born in Kiviniemi.
There was a friendly looking chap walking down the street,
his wife was big from the inside. Me, Kalle, I was young and single and unlike the old guy, I still had all my toes intact.
I’m from the city of Pori, that you can read yourself from my passport. I’ve travelled to all corners of Finland, now’s my chance to move on and take my travelling sack with me.
I went to the harbour in Reposaari, to see if I’ve collected any fish in my net cast there. I didn’t have to wait for long to catch some fish from the sea.
I’ve been fishing here and there, I’ve seen both rivers and lakes. There have been times when I caught nothing at all.
I went to a bar in Reposaari and met Santeri Karvakoski there. I asked him where was Hilma Hammar, he took me straight to her room.
I was walking up the hill in Kotoniemi and I had a coin in my hand. I gave that money to my grandpa, that took the sail out of my ship.
Issue Number: 78882-A
Matrix Number: BVE-36110-1
There are a few more excellent Kivi tunes online. Collector Michael Robertson has one on YouTube, and there’s one on the “Patchwork Europe” collection on the Wergo label.
April 5, 2015
Imagine a somewhat frail, virtually blind woman in her mid-60s showing up in Chennai to a Columbia records recording session in 1932 or so, to play solos in the Carnatic / South Indian tradition on the large veena string instrument. This was a musical world that was almost exclusively male. Yet, Veena Dhanammal (also called “Veena Dhanam”) was at that time, and still is today, considered one of the major Carnatic artists of the early 20th century. This recording session would have been a very special occasion.
Her year of birth is cited alternately as 1868, 1867, or 1866 – though a recently published biography of her goes with the year 1868, perhaps the most accurate. She was born in a now historic neighborhood of Chennai once known as “Black Town” by the British colonizers due to its population of so-called “natives,” but whose name was changed to George Town in 1911, after the crowning of King George V. As her various biographies state, she was born into a family of professional musicians and dancers in the “devadasi” tradition.
Dhanammal’s musical education began with her own grandmother, Kamakshi Ammal, who taught her vocal technique. Among others, she was also a student of 19th century blind veena player Baldas Naidu, as well as Dharmapuri Subbaraaya Aiyyar, considered a chief proponent and composer of javalis – a type of love song, sometimes with erotic overtones, featured in an instrumental form in today’s post.
Much of the information about Dhanammal is folkloric and anecdotal. According to her granddaughter, Tanjore Balasaraswati, herself a renowned dancer, there was little room for children in the Dhanammal household. By the time Balasaraswati was born in 1918, Veena Dhanammal’s reputation was massive, having been apparently the first woman musician to perform in a Chennai concert hall in 1895. Balasaraswati recalled that her grandmother, despite being a gentle person, disallowed any leisure time or the crying of infants in the house, and demanded she be treated as a revered musician even by family.
According to legend, Dhanammal and Abdul Karim Khan had a special relationship. The possibly apocryphal story goes that after hearing Dhanammal perform while he was on a concert trip to Chennai (then Madras), Abdul Karim Khan was so speechless after witnessing her performance and her close attention to pitch, that he immediately gave her all the money he had earned earlier that day. Another story exists where Dhanammal, a fan of Hindustani classical music, gave all HER money to Abdul Karim Khan. Regardless of what transaction occurred, it appears there was certainly a mutual appreciation between them.
This instrumental javali song (known as “Narimani”) in the kamas raga is indicative of Dhanammal’s style – very slow, nearly minimalist, and without any accompaniment whatsoever, no mridangam drum or harmonium. Just…quiet. She also played the instrument without a plectrum. While Dhanammal made her name in the 19th century, by the time she recorded for Columbia, quite late in her career, there were other female veena artists – Shanmuga Vadivu, for example (and the mother of M.S. Subbulakshmi). However, Dhanammal is the one who is most revered. I am not sure how many records she made – it may only have been this session for Columbia. Although worth mentioning are a series of 5 discs that were issued in 1908 by the Gramophone Company and that were credited as being performed by “Veena Dhanam’s Daughters.”
As a tangential aside, it’s interesting to note that just a few years prior to this recording, there was a strong anti-devadasi campaign being initiated, claiming that the devadasi tradition was akin to prostitution, with an “Anti-Nautch” bill being passed in the late 1920s. Dhanammal and others were members of the Madras Devadasi Association, who did not agree with the movement’s tenets. Dhanammal was, by all accounts, a true and even aristocratic professional, devoted to her craft. She died in 1938.
Issue Number: VE 57
Matrix Number: WEI-2578-1
The aforementioned biography on Veena Dhanammal is written by Lakshmi Subramanian and is titled “Veena Dhanammal: The Making of a Legend” on Routledge India. A biography on her granddaughter was written by Douglas M. Knight and is titled “Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life,” and is published by Wesleyan University Press.
April 5, 2015
If you only consulted discographies or cursory sources on the web, you might think that this lively string band that recorded several dozen discs for Victor and Bluebird in 1928, 1929, and again in 1936, was Mexican. Even some of their records plainly say “Mexican” on them. Despite this, a look at their repertoire more closely, as well as sources in Spanish, reveal that they were in fact from Colombia.
Gonzalo, Héctor, and Francisco “Pacho” Hernández were virtuoso instrumentalists from Bogotá who played guitar, Colombian tiple, and bandola (similar to the mandolin). In the early 1920s, after touring locally, in Venezuela, and in the Caribbean, they toured the US, Canada, Europe, and even Africa. Their repertoire and recorded output was wide enough to include a host of local bambucos and pasillos, but also waltzes, corridos, paso dobles, and even classical numbers by Rimsky-Korsakov. This was likely a boon to their record company, because they could market their records (especially, perhaps, their instrumentals) locally to a variety of Spanish-speaking countries, as well as to Anglo audiences.
And the brothers Hernandez were good – they had reason to succeed. They appeared on Broadway, in films, in clubs, and in theaters, and their music managed to be both refined and folkloric, cultivating a wide audience. They occasionally even added a musical saw to their performances, which, rather than turning it into a novelty act, somehow managed to make the group more effective. Still, it’s important to remember the general attitude among westerners when it came to music from outside the canon, even music as well-made and palatable as the music by the Hernández brothers. As one patronizing journalist said of one of their performances, in what was in fact a glowing description: “They sing in an unaffected manner, and their rather homely faces are so expressive that they make even foreign hearers feel that they’re listening to the boys next door.”
Written by Colombian composer Ramón Mesa Uribe (b. 1890), this Colombian pasillo (similar to the Venezuelan waltz) was recorded in July of 1928 at Victor’s studios in Camden, New Jersey. After a slow, standard introduction, the composition blossoms.
The brothers eventually found their way back to Bogotá and continued playing as a group until the eldest, Héctor, passed away in 1948.
Issue Number: 81538
Matrix Number: BVE-45805
March 8, 2015
It’s 82° F, the sun is hot with that crisp, polarized light you see only in California and the Mediterranean. It’s breezy, the birds chirp, the jasmine is out, causing entire neighborhoods to reject their desert status and cradle everyone with a gentle scent instead of coating them with brake dust. Even though the city is always breathing under the burgeoning cloud of a devastating earthquake, and the traffic is enough to make the most patient monk let loose with godless obscenities, you won’t forget these kinds of early spring days. It’s the kind of day where it seems one’s only goal should be cocktails with good friends, and taking the shortest possible path of least resistance to get to that point.
Hopefully, this music will assist. I’ve posted other easy-going Congolese rumbas in the past, however, some of my favorite discs from this period are actually from a bit later, from the late 1950s-early 1960s, featuring the Congolese cha-cha-cha. It’s driving, sharp rhythm hits home the fact that some of the most carefree and joyous Latin music of the 20th century came out of the two cities on the river in the Congos. Many of these tunes were sung in Spanish by the Congolese – sometimes broken or improvised Spanish, but Spanish nonetheless!
The Congolese version of the cha-cha-cha was born out of the continued influence of Cuban and Caribbean music on the popular musicians of the Congo. And by the late 1950s, that influence was pervasive across Sub-Saharan Africa. The popularity of the hundreds of Congolese rumbas issued on labels like Ngoma, Opika, and Loningisa was so strong that their distribution and influence spread across to Kenya, into West Africa, and to the nightclubs of France, with much success.
The Congolese cha-cha-cha apparently began in the studios of the short-lived but influential Esengo label. In late 1956-early 1957, the Greek-owned Esengo had purloined many of the area’s most popular stars from other labels, essentially creating stellar supergroups with a stock of talent that would become the mainstays of music in the Congo for decades: Joseph “Grand Kalle” Kabasele, Nico Kasanda (aka “Dr Nico” or simply “Nico”), Nedule “Papa Noël” Montswet on guitar, Tino Baroza, Jean Serge Essous, and Nino Malapet on saxophones, and Moniania ma Muluma, also known as “Roitelet” on bass. This group, with additions and subtractions, in various shapes and forms, became the famous Orchestre Rock-A-Mambo, contributing to or issuing about 250 records on Esengo over approximately 4 years.
The first cha-cha-cha in Congo came quickly – “Baila” written by Essous, and the 7th release on the Esengo label – and it was a major success. The Orchestre Rock-A-Mambo eventually disbanded, and in the meantime members had siphoned themselves across the river to Brazzaville to form the Orchestre Bantou Jazz, another crack outfit continuing the trend of electrified rumbas, merengues, and cha-cha-chas.
This track, “The Moon and the Sun” (certainly it should be “y el” as opposed to “yel” on the label – but I’ve kept the original spelling), was written and performed by guitarist Papa Noël accompanied by the Bantou group sometime in the early 1960s. Nothing is quite as enjoyable as their perfectly timed, overlapping electric guitars – Papa Noël wasn’t quite as adventurous as Nico as a guitarist, but he was refined and perfectly timed. Seeing this band in its prime must have been simply incredible.
This release of this tune was meant for the Kenyan market. ASL (Associated Sound Limited) was an independent label that distributed Congolese pop music in East Africa. Their South African pressings are particularly clean. ASL lasted well into the 70s, but at this point in their murky history, they were issuing (guitarist Nico would claim bootlegging) 78s of original material from the masters of other Congolese labels, such as CEFA and Surboum. Bootlegs or not, the sound quality, pressing quality, and musical quality of the material on this label is tremendous.
Papa Noël et l’Orchestre Bantou Jazz – La Luna Yel Sol
Issue Number: ASL.603
Matrix Number: Fo 45/9739
December 27, 2014
I guess we’ll end Excavated Shellac’s 2014 on a musically wistful note – but, not for any real reason other than traditionally the new year should bring a time of reflection, or new beginnings, right? This year should bring some surprises if you’re fans of this website, if all goes as planned. In terms of music-related activities, I spent most of 2014 working on some long and short-term music projects yet to be released, and helping some friends with their releases…but mainly I was just enjoying collecting and listening to music, shutting off all the noise, and spending time with friends.
If you’re a fan of the Secret Museum series, you might be familiar with the elegant Northumbrian smallpipes and Celtic harp tunes “Chevy Chase” and “The Cott,” performed by today’s featured duo of Armstrong and Ellis. It’s a special record and difficult to track down. This is the equally terrific flip side, issued on the obscure Manor label (not to be confused with other labels with the same name, active at the same time in the US and UK). This particular Manor label appears to have been around only for a very short time, issuing about a dozen records with fairly bad pressings, mostly of Northumbrian artists, before disappearing completely.
The Northumbrian smallpipes are one of several bagpipes of historic Northumberland, at the border of Scotland on the northeast coast of England. The smallpipes usually have one keyed chanter with a closed end and a cylindrical bore, and up to four drones. The pipes have a staccato sound due to traditional playing with “covered” fingering – meaning one starts playing with the holes covered on the pipes. These smallpipes, in the form they take today, were invented in the late 18th century.
Jack Armstrong began handcrafting his own smallpipes at a time in the early 20th century when there were very few people doing so. Born in 1904 in the town of Wideopen, Armstrong didn’t begin playing the pipes seriously until about 1928, and began competing. From a family of miners, Armstrong managed to successfully avoid that profession and continue playing music, adapting a style played by his father, also a piper. He formed a band named the Barnstormers that recorded for HMV, and became the official piper for the Duke of Northumberland in 1949, the same year this piece was recorded. He died in 1978 in Wideopen. His occasional accompanist on “Celtic harp,” Alice Ellis, was a composer herself, having composed the Armstrong standard “The Cott.” An occasional pianist with the Barnstormers, she passed away in 1995.
The tune “Rothbury Hills” is a “slow air” written by Armstrong, something that he specialized in – a style that was different from his contemporaries and emphasized the quiet nature of the pipes. Rothbury is a small town on the River Coquet, inland and northeast of Newcastle upon Tyne, and the hills in question are likely the nearby Simonside Hills. The Hills have a legend attached to them – that their evil, moss-hat-wearing dwarves called duegar can lead people astray if one is not careful.
Issue Number: M-506
Matrix Number: MRC 10-1
Thanks to Bill Dean-Myatt and GordyB. Some photos of Armstrong (and more music) can be found on the British Library site, here.