July 29, 2008
July 27, 2008
Who couldn’t admire a man like Moe Asch (1905-1986), the farsighted individual who began Folkways Records in 1948? Here was someone who not only understood the value of both current and historical recordings of international folk music at a time when few others did, but against all odds released completely original takes on field recordings (Tony Schwartz, Sounds of the Junk Yard), blues (Elizabeth Cotten, Reverend Gary Davis), spoken word (Huey P. Newton, Al Capp), and contemporary electronic music (Tod Dockstader, Halim El-Dabh), just to name a few genres where Folkways tread under Asch’s hand. If you think the amazing Secret Museum of Mankind series started it all, Asch and Henry Cowell were onboard in the 1950s with their multivolume Music of the World’s Peoples, as well as with two collections of early international recordings collected by Erich von Hornbostel, and a familiar little something called The Anthology of American Folk Music. As many doubtlessly know by now, Folkways is now Smithsonian Folkways, and virtually every one of their releases is available through download, on a store-bought CD, or on a custom CD.
However, before Asch started Folkways, he manned other labels. First, there was “Asch” and later, “The Disc Company” (whose slogan was “The Folkways of the World on Records”). Disc Company, before going bankrupt ca. 1947 (a whole separate story), released, among other things, a series of five far-reaching box sets of international music on 78rpm, recorded “on location.” Three of them (Cult Music of Cuba, Folk Music of Ethiopia, and Folk Music of Haiti) were recorded by ethnomusicologist and general editor of Disc’s “ethnic series,” Harold Courlander. The fourth box set, American Indian Songs and Dances, was recorded by a gentleman named Charles Hoffman.
A little mystery surrounds the fifth and final set in the series, the fascinating Folk Music of the Central East USSR – which included today’s musical offering. Courlander was most likely not involved and it was Moe Asch instead who chose the recordings. Where the recordings came from, however, seems to be an unknown. The best guess that has been posited is that they came from Herbert Harris, the man behind another small New York label, Stinson. Harris, a CP member who owned a Soviet-themed movie-house on 46th Street, became the owner of a swath of Soviet 78rpm recordings given to him when the Soviets pulled their exhibit from the 1939 World’s Fair, after the Hitler-Stalin pact. Asch, in the early 40s, had a business relationship with Harris and both Asch Records and Stinson released recordings from Harris’ Soviet collection. Could this group of Central Asian recordings also have stemmed from Harris?
Who knows? One interesting tidbit is that, after the bankruptcy of The Disc Company, several of those Disc box sets were eventually reissued by Asch on Folkways, on 10″ and 12″ LPs. Courlander’s Cult Music of Cuba, Folk Music of Ethiopia, and Folk Music of Haiti are three examples. What became of Folk Music of the Central East USSR? A few tracks made it to the 1951 Folkways release Music of the Russian Middle East, but the rest vanished, and can only be heard on the original Disc 78rpm records.
Today’s piece is one of the vanished, featuring a fierce, plaintive vocal by Yusofov (a more accurate spelling of his name). Thanks to intrepid Excavated Shellac reader ‘volkan’ who provided very helpful information, we know that this piece of music is NOT, as it states on the label, from Georgia at all! It is in fact Azeri music, sung in the Azeri language, and performed in the Ashik style (a type of folk poetry), with accompaniment on the tar. And, unless I’m going deaf, there is no accompaniment of the balaban on this track – thanks also to volkan, we can confirm that the balaban is not a cello as stated, it’s a double-reed wind instrument.
So, the question is, was this a pressing error? Was the “Song of Stalin” actually not included on the original box set? I double-checked all of Folkways’ historic Central Asian material currently available and this song does not appear on any release. Even Henry Cowell, who wrote the notes to the original box set, could say little about the music as he knew it:
Very often well-known old melodies have new words added, as in the case of the Georgian “Song of Stalin” in this album, which is a traditional type of tune.
A “traditional type of tune” eh? Not much to go on, Henry. Perhaps others in the fray can help? In the meantime, Woody Guthrie put it best in a letter to Moe Asch:
I can’t understand one single word of this Central Eastern lingo, but by hearing these songs I know more about our humanly race than I could learn by reading a thousand Congressional Reports.
(Much info gleaned from Peter Goldsmith’s Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.)
Issue Number: 1507
Matrix Number: 319-6596
July 21, 2008
This week, I am very happy to present another guest post, this time from psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and musician Tony Klein of Uppsala, Sweden. Tony has also produced a fantastic collection of vintage, hard-edged Greek music titled Mortika, available in the US through CD Roots. He’s been a supporter of Excavated Shellac since its inception, and I always appreciate his opinions and musician’s input. When he sent me this piece, words failed me. It was a joy to work on, and it is an absolutely breathtaking piece of music. – JW
Here is one side of a rare disc featuring Signe Flatin Neset (11th December 1912 – 20th July 1975), who in her time was considered to be one of Norway’s best Hardanger fiddlers. Born in Sejord in the part of Western Norway known as Telemark, she was the daughter of fiddler Kjetil Flatin, and married to fiddler Leiv Neset. She was already travelling round the country playing concerts with her father by the age of 14, and first played on the radio in 1934. At the mature age of 47 she was the first woman to take first prize in the national folk music contest ‘landskappsleiken’, and that record remained unbroken for thirty years after her death. She apparently recorded over a hundred tunes, both for Arne Bjørndal’s collection in Bergen, and for Norwegian national radio, NRK, but strangely, there appears to be only one single tune played by her currently available on CD, “Floketjonn” on the CD Folkemusikk Frå Telemark.
The Hardanger fiddle, known in Norwegian as the ‘hardingfele’, is a folk violin mainly associated with Western Norway. There is some controversy over its age, and the earliest known example is dated by some as 1651 (there is an excellent picture of this fiddle in both the later editions of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians). It has four playing strings like the normal violin, has a flat fingerboard and a rather flattened bridge to facilitate drone playing, and is usually heavily decorated. The main feature which distinguishes it from the conventional violin is the group of four or five sympathetic strings running under the fingerboard and bridge, which is a feature it has in common with the baroque viola d’amore. Further, compared to the normal violin it is usually narrower, with deeper ribs and a more arched belly and back. The form of the instrument was gradually modified to resemble the violin, much due to the work of Eric Johsen Helland (1816-1868). Nowadays it is mostly played at the chin with a chinrest; originally it was mainly held at the chest.
There are apparently over 20 known tunings. The most usual is a-d’-a’-e” (melody strings) and d’-e’-f#’-a’ (sympathetic strings). Folksongs, ‘slåtter’ (a generic term for folk dance tunes) and bridal marches are its staple repertory.
Particularly in Signe Flatin’s area of origin there is a special kind of tune based on the repetition of two-bar phrases. Our tune seems to be of this kind. Its title, Skuldalsbruri, means ‘The Bride from Skuldal’. This is the title of a ballad which may date from the 18th century and has a familiar, gruesome story: betrothed against her will to a young man of dubious repute, the bride stands up in the boat and declaims a verse in which she lists her fiancé’s misdoings, whereupon she throws herself overboard and is gone forever. The famed fiddler Myllarguten is said to have created the tune based on the verses.
This disc was one of five 78s of Hardanger fiddle which I stumbled over at the weekly open-air flea market on Vaksala Torg in Uppsala, Sweden, about 15 years ago. Had I been looking for them I supposed they’d never have shown up! I’m happy to be finally able to share some of this fascinating music on Jonathan’s excellent website.
Thanks to Google Books and to two angels, Jessica and Sofia at the Västerbotten Museum in Northern Sweden, who gave me access in no time at all to the relevant page in the International Catalogue of Recorded Folk Music, published in 1954, Jon and I were able to date this recording to 1947, when Signe Flatin was 35 years old.
Issue Number: GN 981
Matrix Number: CN 1606
Confirmed that this recording was made in August of 1950, in Oslo. Thanks to Bill Dean-Myatt for the information. – JW
July 13, 2008
I’m really happy to announce that we have two phenomenal guest posts over the next two weeks – get ready! Today’s post is from musician David Murray, who not only has a fascinating collection of Chinese opera 78s which he offers to the public over at Haji Maji, but he’s also an expert in Greek rebetika. His post today is very special – an extremely rare Parlophon issue of a more well-known Greek tune, with his copy in the best known condition. Enjoy! – JW
I threw on a CD of old rebetika 78s while cooking dinner one night. I’d listened to the CD a couple of times over the years, but never really paid much attention. Somewhere around the fourth song, I suddenly stopped in my tracks. I couldn’t believe how amazing this bouzouki player sounded. Why hadn’t I noticed it before? I listened a few more times. And the next day and the next day, until I eventually resolved to figure out what this was all about (the CD was printed only in Greek). The bouzouki player turned out to be Spyros Peristeris.
Peristeris was born in Smyrna in 1900 and was musically trained in Istanbul, playing mandolin, guitar, piano, bouzouki, and other stringed instruments. By the early 1920s, he was living in Greece and working as a musical director for the Odeon/Parlophon labels, supervising recording sessions and often playing various supporting instruments for singers like Andonis Dalgas, Rita Abadzi, Roza Eskenazi, and others.
Bouzoukis and rebetika were becoming increasingly popular, and in 1932-1933, Peristeris played on and directed the first recordings of this new genre with the great Markos Vamvakaris. Markos was a self-taught bouzouki player (“My only school was the hashish den.”) who had been playing for only a few years. His playing and singing were rough, and he had a strong rhythmic style that captured the essence of the rebetis character: smoking hashish, fighting, etc. Markos went on to record hundreds of songs and was very popular throughout the 30s and 40s.
Peristeris stayed in the background, scouting talent, directing recording sessions, writing and arranging. He, too, played on hundreds of records, sometimes playing under the pseudonym “Georgiades,” sometimes anonymously (including playing the bouzouki on some of Vamvakaris’ own records!). His material covered many styles of rebetika, folk, cabaret, popular, and more, but most of his sought-after recordings come from a run of 50 or so rebetika songs he recorded from about 1934-1940. On these, Peristeris played bouzouki or guitar (in a bouzouki style) with a trio or quartet.
His technical grace really stands out with these small, well-recorded groups. The playing is syncopated, fast, highly ornamented and full of twists and turns. A very different sound than Vamvakaris’ strident, pulsing rhythm.
The singing on these records were by some of the best Greek vocalists ever recorded: Kostas Roukounas, Zacharias Kazimatis, or Jiorgos Kavouras. All three singers sang in an old school style that was replaced by a simpler rebetika sound.
The majority of these records also feature guitarist Kostas Skarvelis and many are his own compositions. Not only was he one of the great songwriters of the rebetika era, he also, along with Kostas Karipis and a few others, played on the vast majority of rebetika recordings.
Occasionally a baglama was included and some feature a great, but uncredited, accordion player. Regardless of the exact makeup of the group, these recordings stand out as one of the major strands of influence in rebetika, and popular Greek music in general.
Here’s one of my favorites from these sessions. A Skarvelis zeibekiko sung by Kavouras and played in the key of G minor.
Pono, De Me Lypasai (I’m in Pain, Don’t You Feel Pity For Me?)
(1937, Kostas Skarvelis gtr., Jiorgos Kavouras vcl., Spyros Peristeris bzk.)
My eyes cry for you day after day,
My heart aches and breaks into pieces
I’m sighing but you don’t pay attention, you’re heartless, you don’t feel pity,
You’re having fun with somebody else
and you forget what you had promised
You faded me away, you hurt me,
May you not escape from suffering, too –
May you experience the same pain in your heart and be ruined.
(Thanks to Nikos Politis and Kostas Ladopoulos for the translation.)
Issue Number: B.21921
Matrix Number: Go 2761
July 6, 2008
I have to admit that to some degree, I do too, partly because Alpine yodeling has been ubiquitous and commercialized in the media for the past fifty years (or more), even without The Sound of Music hammering away at our collective memory. In the elitist world of record collecting, it is completely uncool. It is relentlessly harmonic and romantic. Will I defend it? Sure, why not.
Yodeling itself is positively stone age. There are a number of theories regarding its origin, one being that it has something to do with the echo between hills, peaks, and valleys in the Alps, another being that it originated in various cultures with the domestication and subsequent herding of animals. A call and response of rural agrarian peoples. Although echo is an important factor, the latter theory has the most hold in scholarly writing it would seem, though there are still all manner of theories regarding this throat music most commonly associated with Alpine Europe.
Nevertheless, the determining factor of yodeling is of course the “epiglottal stop” used as the singer moves from the “low chest voice to the high head voice or falsetto – or vice versa,” as Bart Plantenga described it in his world history of yodeling – the, um, only book-length history of yodeling on the market. Plantenga does yeoman’s work in dispelling the myths about the music (though the fact his book is titled Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo doesn’t exactly help the music’s cornball stature), and rightly brings up the fact that nods to, or embraces of, yodeling, are everywhere in musical history – from Beethoven, to Jimmie Rodgers, to Pharaoh Sanders’ work with Leon Thomas on Impulse and Strata-East.
One area which is particularly proud of its yodeling history is Tyrol in Austria, which is where this piece stems from, recorded ca. 1930s, and pressed in Vienna. It is a naturjodel, a yodel without words, meaningless in content, devoid of the romantic lyrics that are often associated with Alpine yodels, with a simple guitar and zither accompaniment. While I could find no information on the Baldauf brothers, it’s a musical statement that anyone can digest and respond to. It may even sound…pretty.
Issue Number: BA 261
Matrix Number: 70-2108