December 7, 2014
For those of you who are not hardened collectors or intense early music fans, it’s pretty much a given that within the main preservation and collecting-spheres, primary reverence is given to “pre-war” recordings. Particularly American blues, country, and jazz. The common thought being, roughly, that before WWII, music in America was more regional, localized, more raw, and recorded without much technical embellishment. It very often contained a natural feel that began to vanish after the Great Depression due to a number of contributing factors, such as the advent of radio, coupled with the vast amount of recordings available, and the dire economic straits of the record industry at that time. Thus, musicians could easily hear each other and change or adapt at a much faster rate, homogenizing music as a whole. These are big generalizations of course, covered in a lot of literature, and with all kinds of exceptions, but on some major levels it seems undeniable.
Unfortunately, historians and collectors are sometimes guilty of applying the same generalizations about American music during this transitional or post-WWII era, to the music situation in the rest of the world. And although the Great Depression left the global record industry in an economic shambles, this did not mean that regional brilliance vanished on disc before 1939. In fact, from a global perspective, the post-WWII era was perhaps a rebirth of extremely localized music on record, due to cheap magnetic tape recorders, cheap pressing plant costs, and the advent of new transportation routes to areas that hadn’t yet had a chance to “sing.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to WWII, recording of Sub-Saharan music was sporadic, as I’ve outlined in various entries. Not only did it truly hit a stride much later compared with the rest of the world – in the late 1920s – but the recording of African music was stopped in its tracks a few short years after it began by the effects of the Depression. Once the industry recovered, the war began, and recording of African music halted again. When WWII was over, when the major European conglomerates, who almost exclusively controlled the world’s music industry, were picking up the pieces, independent competitor labels all over Africa began to appear, ushering in this new era.
The result of this was an extraordinary amount of regional recordings from ca. 1947 onward. THIS was the golden age of recording for Sub-Saharan Africa, not the music of the “pre-war” era. The recordings from this period were, in fact, more varied than the African music recorded prior to the war. Perhaps even more varied than the America of the 1920s-30s. The comparison is admittedly unfair, but I bring it up just as an example, because the music recorded in Africa broadly ranged from deeply traditional, ceremonial and functional music nowhere near Western concepts of what music was supposed to be, to all manner of adept songsters and troubadours on various local or European instruments, to crystalline, harmonious pop, influenced by everything from Cuban rumbas to Bill Haley – yet, distinctly African.
Within this post-WWII era came the guitar troubadours. Listened to today, one can’t help but compare their voices, picking styles, and melodies to American roots music guitar players from the late-20s and 30s – even musically there are often direct connections, as American country 78s were distributed in parts of Africa. Each guitarist had his/her own idiosyncrasies (and yes, there were women guitarists recorded), though they often fit into a particular regional style. I think it’s safe to say that the bulk of these players were from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, and Congo, though there were plenty of solo guitarists from Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and Malawi, as well.
While the Congolese guitarist Jean Bosco Mwenda is undoubtedly the most well-known guitarist from this era, probably the second most influential was George Sibanda from Zimbabwe. Even his biography reads like legend – in that there is almost nothing to go on except his recordings, spread over about a decade on the Gallotone label, and the fact that he drank himself to death by the late-50s after achieving great celebrity and stardom from southern Africa to Kenya.
Sibanda was “discovered” by Hugh Tracey even before Mwenda. His name spread outside of Africa after his death, as people like Jim Kweskin and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott took turns covering his tune “Guabi Guabi.” However, few had the chance to hear his recordings outside of Tracey’s reissues and the American cover versions, until Sharp Wood issued a terrific CD of a selection of his recordings.
That CD is not complete, however, and a number of brilliant Sibanda tunes remain on elusive 78s. This is one of them. While Sibanda almost always was a straight-up guitar picker, this is a slide guitar piece, and is evocative – perhaps even a wholehearted copy – of American country music. If someone told you it was recorded in 1930, would you believe it? Would it make a difference in how you listen, or your opinion of its “value”? Sibanda recorded this in the 1950s, the equivalent of the “pre-war” era musically, in Africa.
Issue Number: GB 1973
Matrix Number: ABC SR.12342
November 1, 2014
The Persian Gulf: an amazing area for traditional and popular music, though little has been written in English about its early musicians and intertwining 78rpm-era commercial recording industry. At least to those of us in the West, unless fluent in Arabic and deeply vested in the subject, it’s been a hidden history, even to specialized researchers or collectors. Not only were the recordings highly localized, it would appear they weren’t distributed much outside of the Gulf, therefore near to inaccessible. Also, it seems that early 78rpm recordings in the region were made in fits and starts, not really gaining true traction until after WWII. But music from the Persian Gulf, often labeled generally as khaleeji music (Gulf music), is not typical classical Arabic music – it has influences from India, Coastal Kenya and Zanzibar, and the countries on the opposite side of the Gulf, such as Iran. Normally, you won’t hear the embellished, refined singing or virtuosic improvisations that you would hear in classical Arabic music, nor the highly orchestrated, mid-century sounds of the great Middle Eastern entertainers. This is rhythmic, driving music with a hard-picked oud and hypnotic beats – and today’s example is khaleeji music personified.
Moza Khamis was from Oman, specifically the Al Batinah region, near the border of the Emirates. Sometime in the 1950s, she immigrated to Bahrain with her family, and possibly began her recording career there, singing Omani music. At some point, she recorded music for a small label called Bahrainphone, and apparently recorded extensively for a Qatari label known as Khalediphone. She died around 2010.
This track, the title of which translates to “You Tantalized Me, Oh Dark-Skinned Man,” was likely recorded in the early 1950s. It was issued on the Bou-Zaid Phone label based in Kuwait, with its label depiction of a traditional Gulf fisherman’s boat. Listen closely to the beginning of the track, and you’ll hear the announcement “Stwanat Bahrainphone…” which seems to indicate that it was originally issued on the Bahrainphone label.
This sums up the small Persian Gulf industry perfectly: an Omani singer, recording Omani music for a Kuwaiti label, perhaps re-pressed from the master tape on another Bahraini label, then pressed in Pakistan at Gramophone Company’s plant in Karachi. Perhaps Bahrainphone had a relationship with Bou-Zaid Phone. This situation is pretty typical of a lot of Gulf 78s, if you’re lucky enough to come across them, and care to investigate beyond the labels themselves.
Why it was like this, I’m not exactly sure. Before WWII, it doesn’t seem that any of the European recording companies thought to press discs of Gulf music until the early 1930s – about 30 years after recording began in Burma, just as a comparison. The Baidaphone label, based in Lebanon, may have been the first, recording Kuwaiti and Bahraini artists around 1929. The Gramophone Company recorded several Bahraini artists as well (Mohammed Ibn Faris, Dahi Ibn Walid, and Mohamed Zuwayid, among others) around 1932 – extremely uncommon discs, but several were re-pressed on a now-difficult to find CD from 1994 on the Clube du Disque Arabe label, “La Musique de Bahrëin.” After that came Odeon, in ca. 1935, whom I believe also recorded in Yemen.
The rest is spotty, to say the least. There was Jafferphone in Yemen, an imprint pressed by the Lindstrom conglomerate in Germany, active in the early 30s or so. I’ve no idea how many Jafferphones were issued, or how long they existed, as copies are scarce. And the short-lived (but generally great) 1930s Syrian label, Sodwa, also issued approximately 10 discs of Gulf music.
While practically invisible to most collectors in the West, the postwar years present an extravaganza of Gulf music on a swath of local labels – often, as I mentioned, repressed on different labels from tape masters, pressed in various locations (Pakistan, Greece, India, and even Sweden), and with all sorts of beautiful designs. Bou-Zaid Phone issued a lot of discs, but there was also Gurjiphone and Salimphone in Bahrain, there was Aden Crown, Shark, and Tahaphone in Yemen, Chakmakchiphone in Iraq issued Gulf Music, there was Ebrahimphone, Arabphone (not to be confused with the US-based label of the same name), Fadliphone, Queen Record, Emperor Record, Esmail Phone, Jawharah…the list goes on. And of course, the Euro labels got into the act, with HMV issuing discs of all kinds of Gulf music in the 1950s, and Odeon, too, but distributed locally and just as scant. These labels issued music from all over the Gulf – Yemeni labels recorded Kuwaiti and Saudi artists, Kuwaiti labels recorded Bahraini and Omani artists, Bahraini labels recorded Emirian and Qatari singers, and so on. There was even a bootleg label with a poorly recreated “Odeon” design.
This is another reminder that before the advent of the 33 and 45 rpm record, 78s were virtually everywhere, providing people with their local music. They were the primary sound carrier of the 20th century for much of the world, and their global history is still being written.
Label: Bou-Zaid Phone
Issue Number: BP-134
Matrix Number: OJME-2359
A big thank you to Rheim Alkadhi and Alfred Madain, for lots of helpful information.
More info came from various disparate sources, including the now semi-defunct Zeryab website, Michael Kinnear’s writing, and discussions with collectors Benno Haupl and Dave Murray, who has a great Gurjiphone disc on his site.
October 1, 2014
There’s nothing quite like early Brazilian string band music – hot, exciting, well-played, and often extremely rare. Quite a number of groups featuring the Brazilian bandolim, cavaquinho, Brazilian acoustic guitar (the violão), banjo, and even fiddle, were recorded, but a perfect storm of factors have kept many of these discs a bit more hidden: a) very little distribution outside of Brazil, and b) a tropical climate, which can wreak havoc on 78 rpm records, drastically upping their attrition rate, making them sometimes extremely tough to dig up, even in Brazil. If you find an early Brazilian 78 – and companies began recording in the country in the first decade of the 20th century – it could be close to unplayable, or an example of the most popular style of music, large-band style samba. Or both! This is not to say that samba is in any way bad, mind you – its enduring qualities are deserved and well-documented. It just became the most popular of all styles.
“String band music” is probably too generic a term. There were several different types of Brazilian musics performed mainly on string instruments. Some of the most complex and virtuoso performances were saved for recordings of choro music, with its tight syncopation and dizzying, ragtime-like runs. Later, in the late 1920s, guitar duos from rural areas began appearing on record, performing early examples of música serteneja (literally, music from the back country). There were also string bands that had samba singers as members, such as the Bando de Tangarás, who boasted as members the greats Noel Rosa and João de Barro. Some string groups occasionally recorded Afro-Brazilian styles, such as “batuque” songs. It was a fascinating mix in the early days, especially when electric recording began in Brazil, which was around late 1927.
The Turunas de Mauricéa (also spelled as “Turunas de Mauricéia”) group was a wealth of talent, active only from 1927-1929. They were from the north.The Miranda brothers, Luperce, Romualdo, and João, were from Recife, as was the blind Manoel de Lima. Their vocalist, Augusto Calheiros, was from Maceió. Together, they became the first group to travel to Rio and record songs from the north, such as emboladas and cocos. The group’s name is a reference to Recife itself, as it was once known as Mauricéa under the Dutch rule of Maurice of Nassau. Their recordings, 18 discs in total, rare as they are today, were very influential. In fact, the flip side to this track, “Piniao,” was a hit during Carnival in 1928. This piece, with its hard picked strings and harsh, loud singing, was one of Odeon’s earliest electric recordings in Brazil – and those early electric recordings are very poor. It seems to have taken some months for the company, long active in Brazil, to improve their quality and learn how to record with new microphone technology.
This piece translates to “broken pandeiro” (the Brazilian tambourine-like drum), and was recorded in November of 1927. Luperce Miranda, the indisputable early master of the bandolim and co-author of several of the group’s songs, likely does not appear on this track and perhaps not on any of the Turunas’ recordings. He did, however, go on to have a lengthy career in music. His brother João, not as exacting and imaginative a player as Luperce yet still a terrific musician, went on as the leader of the Desafiadores do Norte, and as a songwriter for Parlophon and Brunswick. Romualdo cut one solo disc on the guitar and seems to have stopped recording after around 1930. Augusto Calheiros’ voice smoothed out as the years went on and recording technology got better, also singing his way into the 1950s.
(image courtesy of onordeste.com)
Label: Odeon (Brazil)
Issue Number: 10067
Matrix Number: 1337
For several more Brazilian string band tracks, dig up “Portuguese String Music” on Heritage for a few early examples, and the Brazilian collections on Fremeaux also contain a few excellent tracks, albeit in various levels of sound quality (including “not so hot”).
Entire books have been written on the rich history of fiddle playing and tunes from Cape Breton Island, and its tradition still continues with robust strength today. Type “Cape Breton fiddling” into YouTube and you’ll get everything from early recordings, to private performances at house parties, from professional contemporary players like Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac, to local youths performing, to festival performances, to this 1971 documentary, “The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler.” It may have been vanishing in 1971, but by outward appearances it seems it’s being vigorously kept alive, along with accompanying stepdancing. Today, Cape Breton is often considered the international stronghold of true, traditional Scottish fiddling.
Because of this, there’s little reason for didactic platitudes on this subject – except to state the very basics: the tradition stems from the Scottish Highlands. Highland immigrants began settling in Cape Breton in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly between 1817 and 1838 (relating to the mass emigration brought on by the dissolution of the “clan system” in Scotland, known as the Highland Clearances). With them, of course, came music for dancing – and Cape Breton’s traditional tunes have been well documented in various songbooks for the past century or more. As you’ll hear in this example, its style is forceful, often intense. One of the noticeable differences between Cape Breton fiddling and other traditional styles is the strong “up driven bow,” particularly on strathspeys, and what’s been described as a strong “whip” in each stroke, along with an extensive use of fast triplets. (Admittedly, I’m writing as a novice here – guided by ears.)
Folk music from Cape Breton was recorded erratically and only occasionally during the 78 rpm era, until Bernie MacIsaac bought a music store in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and re-named it the “Celtic Music Store” in 1935. At about the same time, he started an independent record label, also naming it “Celtic,” and got some of the very best fiddlers in the region to record for his local label, namely, Angus Chisholm (who had already recorded for the Decca label), Hugh A. MacDonald, Winston Fitzgerald, Angus Allan Gillis, Dan J. Campbell, and today’s featured fiddle player, William Hugh “Bill” Lamey. The Celtic label is legendary, despite their limited amount of releases, having done a marvelous job doing just what it should have done: serving a relatively small population with well-recorded, excellent performances of local folk music. They helped to preserve the tradition, which later was taken up to a degree by the Rodeo 78 rpm label.
Lamey was born on Cape Breton Island in 1914 and first had his own fiddle at the age of 18. While in Sydney, he continued learning from local players and eventually got his own radio show. He recorded at least six 78s beginning around the early 1940s, though his career continued for many years. This side features his long time piano accompanist, Margaret Jessie MacDonald. In 1953, he moved to Boston, and in 1966, perhaps one could say that he helped to usher in a renewed interest in Cape Breton fiddling when he became the first fiddler from the region to perform at the Gaelic Mòd in Inverness, Scotland, where he apparently devastated the crowd with his performance, earning standing ovations.
Unfortunately, very few of these classic performances have made it to the CD era. In the late 1970s, Richard Nevins of Shanachie/Yazoo issued two pivotal collections of Lamey’s and Angus Chisholm’s early sides, but they remain long out of print. Hopefully that will change. This piece features a strathspey and reel, and a wonderful end note by pianist MacDonald. Sometimes you don’t know when to stop…
Issue Number: 028
Matrix Number: CT 7320
Householders Shen Yunsheng, Tan Rongguang, Lin Zhongfu and group – Sanskrit Mantra of Scattering Flowers, Pts 1 & 2
July 29, 2014
Alright, well, it’s been a while. It’s no secret that I sometimes take extended breaks. That doesn’t mean the collecting stops. Over the past few months I’ve had all manner of guests make a pit stop at Excavated Shellac headquarters to share sounds, from super-collectors to researchers to designers to dear friends. Amanda Petrusich’s book was released, in which I play a really small part, but was surprisingly quoted (almost at my most sarcastic – hey, I was on a roll) in the Wall Street Journal and LA Times. And I’ve also done a lot of work on projects that should see the light of day in the next year if I can swing it. My point is, sometimes it’s good for me to just take a break, take stock of why the hell I’m doing this, collect without that obsessive “need” and without impending, unwieldy projects looming overhead (real or imagined), and just listen to music for a while.
Well, it was fun while it lasted!
I’d realized it’s been about five years since I’d posted music from China. This disc, recorded ca. mid- to late 1928, is an unusual example as it does not feature a type of Chinese opera or popular music, probably the most overwhelmingly common types of music recorded in China at the time. Instead, it’s a recording that features chanting from a Buddhist sutra – specifically from the Vimalakirti Sutra.
I make no claims to scholarship in Buddhism. It seems to be well-documented, however, that the Vimalakirti Sutra has a lengthy history of reverence and popularity in China, having first been translated into Chinese from Sanskrit in 188 CE. In a 2014 paper on the Vimalakirti by Professor Jonathan A. Silk, he quotes Sinologist Erik Zürcher in his book The Buddhist Conquest of China as stating that “this scripture may be regarded…as a real compendium of Mahayana doctrine,” and “one of the most venerated and influential works of the Buddhist canon in the Far East.”
In the sutra, a goddess visits the room of the layperson Vimalakirti and proceeds to scatter flowers over both enlightened bodhisattvas and disciples, all gathered in the room. The flowers immediately fall off the bodhisattvas, yet they stick to the disciples. The goddess explains (quoting one easily obtainable English translation): “It is only because the latent influences [of your afflictions] are not yet exhausted that the flowers stick to your bodies. For those in whom the latent influences are exhausted, the flowers do not stick.” This seems to be the precise reference in the title to this piece, the “mantra” sung by three “householders” (laypersons, or “retired scholars” per Prof. Silk).
The Victor Talking Machine Company was one of the most prominent companies recording in parts of China in the early part of the 20th century, although all major labels were quite active. Their first one-sided recordings of Chinese music, on their Monarch label, were made ca. 1902, likely in San Francisco, and are quite rare and in demand. They eventually began recording onsite in China in 1905. In the meantime, they continued their trading arrangement with their “sister” company in Great Britain, the Gramophone Company, who had recorded in China before Victor, in 1903, by repressing some of those earliest recordings on their own Victor label. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Victor was recording Chinese music in all manner of dialects and styles including Amoy, Mandarin, Fuzhou, Shantou, Teochew, and especially Cantonese. Victor recorded thousands of Chinese discs before World War II. I’ve broadly and extensively documented Victor’s activity in a paper that will soon be published online, which I will eventually provide a link to.
I’ve included both sides of this record. For help with all our “latent influences.” Enjoy.
Issue Numbers: 42742 A1/B2
Matrix Numbers: n/a
Thank you to Sun and the research of Du Jun Min.
May 19, 2014
Komiljon Otaniyozov (1917, Shovot – 1975, Tashkent) was from the northwest of Uzbekistan, in Khorezm, known for its ruins of ancient fortresses and monuments. A tar player and singer, Otaniyozov is regarded as one of the finest Khorezmian “bastakors” – almost the equivalent of a singer-songwriter, although technically they are responsible for the all-important melody, which is most often coupled with classic poetry. He had a lengthy career as a musician, speaker, and actor, and was associated with various local conservatories and ensembles. You can watch a few videos of him performing on YouTube, as well. I could find little more on Otaniyozov (also spelled Ataniyozov) that wasn’t in Uzbek, alas, and nothing on his accompanist on the doira frame drum, I. Abdullaev.
The history of the recording industry in Russia and the Soviet Union is complex, but a few details are worth repeating. Before the Russian Revolution, there was quite a lot of international recording activity in Russia and its territories, including Uzbekistan. By 1912, there were approximately 20,000 individual recordings issued, in 40 different languages. Most of these pre-Revolution recordings are quite rare (or virtually nonexistent in some cases), particularly those recorded in the territories. Between 1919 and 1933, there were some labels that re-pressed some of this older material, some newer material was recorded on various labels (Muzpred and Mustrust, for example), and the Gramophone Company’s equipment was moved to Aprelevka, outside of Moscow.
In 1933, the state-run, catch-all record company in the Soviet Union referred to as “Gramplasttrest” (Gramophone Record Trust) started operations. They began to produce a non-stop array of music beginning that year, ranging from a dizzying amount of classical music and nationalist/communist anthems and operas, to true regional music from Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Tajikistan, among other territories. I’ve written about this a little in the past: this state-run company had many associated labels, with the majority of them named after the location of their record production plants, such as Aprelevka, Riga, Leningrad, Noginsk, and Tashkent, among others. They were not the only recording company active during the Soviet era – some indies appeared in the 1950s – though they were by far the largest. This example would be approximately, judging by their numbering system, Gramplasttest’s 18,444th release in less than 30 years.
However, it appears that it took some time for a substantial amount of music of the Soviet territories to appear again. Some Uzbek material appeared in the 1930s on the Noginsk factory label, but it seems that the appearance of the Tashkent factory label (Tashkentski Zavod) in 1941 really opened things up. For the next 20 years on 78, the Tashkent label and the Soviet industry in general issued a host of traditional music from all the Russian territories, including Mongolia and Afghanistan. They, too, turn up rarely if ever.
Label: Tashkentski Zavod
Issue Number: 36888
Matrix Number: 36888/1-1
Thanks to Reto. Information tallied from P. Gronow, the excellent russian-records.com, and other sources. And you can’t go wrong with the Topic CD Before the Revolution: A 1909 Recording Expedition in the Caucasus & Central Asia by the Gramophone Company.
In Tanzania in the late 1950s-early 1960s, there was a wonderful group called the “Cuban Marimba Band” – wonderful, in part, because they weren’t Cuban and there was no marimba on their records, whatsoever! Already, they’d have had my attention. But they were, in fact, one of the best popular groups in the region with a varied sound, led by an important musician, appearing on one of the most interesting East African labels. That’s saying a lot for an area that was bursting with musical styles and independent 78 rpm labels – at least 50 of them – immediately after World War II. I was first introduced to the group by erudite collector and friend Mike Kieffer, and from John Storm Roberts’ important LP Africa Dances – the groundbreaking collection of 1960s African pop.
Salim Abdulla was apparently from Morogoro, in the southern highlands of Tanzania. His first group was called “La Paloma,” and I can find no proof that they recorded anything on disc (though they certainly could have). However, at least one source claims that he also formed the Morogoro Jazz Band, who had a lengthy career after Abdulla had presumably left the group, recording for various independent labels on 78s. At the time in East Africa, there were many dance bands, some which played different types of syncretic, orchestrated African jazz, and others which played taarab music with strong influences from the Middle East, as well as music influenced by Indian and Bollywood orchestras. Morogoro Jazz was just one of many – there was the Coast Social Orchestra, the Dar Es Salaam Jazz Band, the Atomic Jazz Band, and countless others.
The Cuban Marimba Band fits right into this lineage, although they were clearly one of the best at muziki wa dansi – straight up dance music. They recorded for the Mzuri label, which began around 1955 in Mombasa, Kenya. The Mzuri label…well, you know, for years collecting African 78s, I’d never seen a Mzuri 78. I’d never even known they’d existed, except on 45s. But, yes, exist they did – and they are testament to two things: 1) they prove that they were a successful company, issuing over 500 78s alone, before and during the gradual shift over to 45 rpm, and b) they had some of the very best talent, and issued some of the most interesting East African music during that time. One person’s opinion, but I believe their output is extremely special. They are also tough as nails to find.
Anyway – Mzuri was started in the mid-50s by Indian businessman M.J. Shah, who had been active recording East African music since 1939. Shah was convinced that the other East African labels had no real recording skill, and didn’t know how to properly capture a group sound. According to historian Werner Graebner, Shah recorded just with one microphone and a Ferrograph tape recorder. He would record bands in his warehouse in Mombasa, as well as travel to record groups in Dar es Salaam. Although I basically agree, Mzuri was far ahead of the pack in terms of quality, it shouldn’t be compared to western standards – there are plenty of Mzuri discs with tape flutter, edits, mistakes, and all kinds of weirdness. It was still the wild west in terms of recording, and records were made in all manner of conditions. Some Mzuris were pressed in Nairobi, some Germany, some Uganda…whomever offered the best deal, probably.
Salim Abdulla continued recording both with his Cuban Marimba Band and as a solo artist, until his death in 1965 from a car accident. John Storm Roberts credits Abdulla and his band as groundbreaking, creatively mixing local taarab “harsh, sad” vocal styles with the Cuban influence that had swept Africa from the Congo, eastward. This track, “Sina Wangu,” translates to something akin to “I have nothing” and was recorded in the early 1960s. It has not been compiled either by Roberts, or on the long out of print Dizim CD Salum Abdallah and Cuban Marimba: Ngoma Iko Hoku. The well of African music is always far deeper than us in the West imagine.
Issue Number: AM 520
Matrix Number: AB 1040
Thanks to MK. Much info from works by Werner Graebner.
April 15, 2014
After Alan Lomax returned from his famed 1954-1955 recording sojourn through Italy, he saved some of the highest praise for a particular type of singing from the coastal region of Liguria and the port city of Genoa: trallalero. Anyone who has heard Lomax’s recordings will understand why, as they are a standout in his entire vast catalog. In the notes to the essential, expanded edition of Lomax’s trallalero recordings on CD, Italian Treasury: The Trallaleri of Genoa on Rounder (sadly out of print), Lomax is quoted as saying: I was literally blown away. […] I have discovered that this Ligurian style is probably one phase of music that is literally as old as human time. Yet, it was certainly recorded, decades earlier, on gramophone records.
Without running down the already excellent notes by Edward Neill, Goffredo Plastino, and Lomax, I’ll humbly attempt a brief description of the music for the uninitiated. Trallalero is a type of polyphonic vocal music that dates back centuries, though according to Mauro Balma in his notes to the two-volume Trallalero Genovese CD set of contemporary trallalero recordings, there has been little scholarly work on its history (at least, it seems, in English). Some claim it is related to the barzelletta, a type of music related to the frottola, a predecessor of the madrigal. By the early 20th century, the music was sung by various “squadre” or “teams” named after their respective neighborhoods, the members of which were often unionized longshoremen. Lomax’s CD, for example, contains recordings made at a “longshoremen’s inn.”
Traditionally, trallalero is sung by nine men, with five vocal parts, though there can be anywhere from 7-15 members in some groups, and more recent trallalero groups employ women. In the nine-man version, five of the voices are bass, or the bassi, which give a drone-like quality to the chorus. A tenor leads the group, followed by the most startling aspect of the trallalero sound, the sharp, high falsetto, sometimes known as “la donna” (the woman), according to Lomax. After the falsetto, there is the “chitarra” singer, who imitates the sound of a guitar, often singing into the backs of his fingers, for lack of a better description. Finally, there is a baritone. The name of the music is based on the syllables “tra-la-la,” which is often used in trallalero songs during vocal improvisations. The nine men stand in a circle. This is certainly for the purpose of eye contact, but again according to Balma, may have its origins with drinking songs sung around tables. It adds a visual element that cannot be captured by recordings alone. In fact, early recordings cannot possibly capture the magic of live trallalero singing, unfortunately. Massive bass drones sung by longshoremen, a piercing falsetto, men singing into their hands, standing in a circle, all singing counterpoint-heavy music with each other…it practically sounds fictional.
According to Balma and Edward Neill, the first trallalero recordings were made as late as 1928. That year, the Gramophone Company (and perhaps Pathé) recorded discs by the Squadra di Bel Canto Genova Quarto. In 1930, GramCo also recorded 6 discs by the Squadra di Canto Popolare Isola del Cantone. Meanwhile, Italian’s Odeon branch recorded the Squadra di Canto Popolare Genova Molassana. Some of these groups recorded for other labels, such as Excelsius. Apparently there were around 100 trallalero recordings made during the 78 rpm era. They are almost all incredibly difficult to find – I’ve seen about 6 in my life. Complicating things a little, not all of these tracks by these “squadre” were traditional trallalero tunes. Some of the groups recorded comic songs and tangos, and some songs had modern lyrics, even nationalist ones. Some tracks contained modern stanzas arranged in the old, folkloric style (even Lomax’s recordings contained a version of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”).
This situation muddies the waters and likely makes ethnomusicologists shake their heads. At any rate, this track, while it is not in perfect condition, I hope retains the original trallalero sound. It was recorded ca. December 1930 in Milan by the Squadra Nuova Sturla, who apparently formed in 1926. This recording was made under the auspices, it seems, of a man named Costanzo Carbone (1884-1955). Carbone was a journalist, playwright, and a lover of Genoan tradition. Several books about him exist, including one co-written by the aforementioned ethnomusicologist and trallalero expert Mauro Balma.
If you’ve made it this far and have NOT heard the first track from Lomax’s trallalero collection, let me introduce you to a work of brilliance here. And for a terrific, fly-on-the-wall performance by a contemporary trallalero group that I like, click here. The only other early trallalero performance on an available CD that I know of is – of course – on the Secret Museum series, Volume 3, Track 4.
Issue Number: CQ 460
Matrix Number: WB 2840
Thanks to Mike Kieffer and Bill Dean-Myatt.
March 3, 2014
On the Opika Pende set, I included what I think is an excellent example of praise singing from Western Kenya featuring the nyatiti. This important instrument of the Luo people is an 8-stringed lyre that’s plucked like a lute, using quick repetitive phrases. The resonator is sometimes held against the player’s chest, sometimes not, but generally the player has small metallic rings attached to his foot, which are tapped against the body of the nyatiti. The short melodic phases (known as puch) and hard tapping make for a pulsing, driving musical experience, accompanied by loud and intense praise poetry. It’s a music for all significant occasions in Luo culture, and traditionally the musicians were itinerant. To hear a sample of the Opika Pende song on iTunes, click here. For a dynamic video of a present-day Luo praise poet, click here.
Today’s track is a musical development – an attempt to bring the nyatiti into the electric age via electric guitars (a lead, and a bass). It must have seemed a natural switch, to attempt to transform and update Luo praise singing with a non-traditional instrument. This certainly has happened all across Africa (and elsewhere), with often really interesting results. Sure, in some cases if a modern or more western instrument took hold, it transformed the older musical type into something that would often soon cease to exist. Varying opinions exist on that, but I am not a purist. Yet, in any case, I’m not sure if this switch to electric guitar ever really took hold – this is the only example I’ve come across. Even if it’s more common than I know, it’s something different to my ears and hopefully yours. While many link the sound of “benga” music back to the nyatiti, this is more of a precise interpretation of nyatiti praise music, just on electric instruments. It’s pretty killer.
The Mambo label was one of the first labels run by the important music entrepreneur and producer Arvindkumar P. Chandaran, who based his company and music store in town of Kericho, west of the Great Rift Valley. Chandaran’s name dots many East African 45 rpm labels (Hundhwe, Saba Saba, Stranger, Pwani, and Wachezaji, just to name a few), and as a producer he apparently was a driving force in popularizing benga, both with his slew of labels and his well-known Chandaran music store. While the 45 era in East Africa was staggering in terms of volume (as evidenced by the excellent Kentanza Vinyl site), the 78-era in East Africa was also incredible – dozens of small, privately owned labels were competing and releasing discs in varying amounts (often small amounts I bet). Most all are very difficult to find on 78 (though 45s were also issued by many of these labels): Mzuri, Rafiki, Robina, Tom Tom, Tejura, Festival, Twist, Equator Sound, Africa, Kenyans, African Voice, AGS, Nyota, CMS, Jogoo, Jambo…it goes on. I would say this 78 was recorded and pressed sometime during the early to mid-1960s.
Mambo Sweet Voice!
Issue Number: MV 58
Matrix Number: APC 118 2H 1 670