October 27, 2008
Some of the loudest instruments known to man are double-reed folk instruments in the woodwind family. There’s the dulzaina in Spain, the nadaswaram in India, the bombarde in France, the suona in China, among others. They are classically difficult to play – without continuous practice, a player’s mouth can get tired in a very brief period of time, due to the immense amount of air pressure needed to make a single sound, much less sustain a note. Some even demand circular breathing. Double-reed instruments developed over centuries, beginning in the Middle Ages, as instruments to be used primarily outdoors.
The zurna is the Turkish, or more precisely the Anatolian, double-reed folk instrument, in the shawm group of double-reeds. Similar variations of the zurna exist throughout the Near East. The word itself derives from the Persian “Surnay” – “Sur” meaning “wedding” or “festival”, and “nay” meaning reed or flute. It has 5-7 wide finger holes and can be as small as 14 inches long. It’s an important instrument in Turkish folk music, and I have to say it was interesting to read how writers in the past have tried to grapple with describing its sound. “…A wide-mouthed clarinet, emitting strident, nasal sounds” was how Ottoman scholar Robert Mantran described it. “A kind of shrill pipe” was how H. C. Hony’s 1957 Turkish-English dictionary defined it. It may have been simply noise to those poor souls, but I find it a terrific combination of jarring and captivating.
Today’s post is an exceptional, scorching workout on the zurna with accompaniment on oud and percussion (not the usual davul drum); a sparkling recording made in 1930 by the German Polydor company, and also released on a next-to-unknown Turkish series on the American Brunswick label. Interestingly, this recording was bootlegged in the late 40s/early 50s on a small label called Kurdophone, which was part of a family of labels I’ve discussed in other entries (Dictaphone, Perfectaphone, etc.). That is not to say it is common, I’m afraid! As to whether or not it’s definitively Kurdish, I cannot say. My hunch is that it is not, though perhaps some experts can comment. I could find nothing concrete about the soloist, Emin Efendi, except that he was considered a great, along with another zurna master who recorded later for Columbia, Sabahattin Tanınmış. I believe “Hale” in the title refers to halay, the traditional dance. Please see more information on this track from the always helpful volkan, in the comments section.
I would also recommend the Bo’Weavil release of zurna melodies by Zadik Zecharia.
Issue Number: 45011
Matrix Number: 1106 BN (Polydor matrix)
October 24, 2008
A nice post over at Diagonal Thoughts (in which you’ll find some familiar names) introduced me to an excellent series of articles in the latest print edition of The Wire titled “Unofficial Channels.” It’s a series of short essays on non-traditional methods of sharing and spreading music. Among others, there are pieces on mix tapes, online mixes and compilations, hiphop battle tapes, bootlegs, and “sharity” blogs.
The latter of course interests me greatly. Author Simon Reynolds’ piece mainly focuses on “whole-album blogs” and is basically positive, but he brings up some philosophical criticism of the practice of sharity blogging in general, and its “exhibitionistic quality”:
“The impetus used to be: I have something that no one else has. But with the advent of sharity blogging that’s shifted to: I’ve just got hold of something no one else’s got, so I’m immediately going to make it available to EVERYBODY. While definitely a giant evolutionary step in terms of emotional health, on the level of subcultural capital and the gamesmanship of hip, it’s kinda self-subverting. Or perhaps not, since there is still an element of ego involved, a kind of competative generosity contest between the blogs.”
“Perhaps the real danger represented by the sharing scene is actually to music fans. The whole-album blogs – like the web in general, with its vast array of net radio stations, DJ mixes, official giveaways, etc – drastically exacerbates the condition known as collector-itis, whose symptoms were recently identified by Johan Kugelberg as “constipation, indigestion, flatulence.” Writing in Old Rare New, an anthology of elegiac paeans to the record shop, he described how the music fan succombs to “Falstaffian gluttony…””
I am, in fact, in partial agreement with Reynolds’ & Kugelberg’s criticism regarding “Falstaffian gluttony” – and this is coming from someone who is steeped in the memory institution. There is simply no way to process all available online musical data that one might be interested in. For this website, it has been my premise from the beginning to only post one 78rpm record at a time, in an order that is more or less unexplained yet somehow logical to me, and with corresponding text that hopefully pertains to the experience of listening to those three-to-six minutes. This, with the hope that someone out there – somebody – will respond to that music and go “AH!” as I did, and maybe see that as respite from the “download everything” philosophy. I think – I hope – the experiment continues to be successful.
There is more at work, however, than Reynolds’ assumption that music bloggers use their medium to simply brag about their rare finds and then immediately make them available to the entire world. I’m sure it’s true in many cases (like Mutant Sounds, which is the subject of that paragraph), but I am absolutely resolute in the fact that I use this medium as an exorcism for my own peculiar obsessions. There is no good goddamn reason to be a music collector – they’re a dime a dozen these days. Because being a music collector means that you’ve transcended simply being a lover of music, and moved on to a person who accumulates and obsesses. I am under no allusions that providing music here is some kind of noble act. No way, Ray. But in order to continue to justify this obsession, I must actually do something with it that rewards me somehow – and obviously that is sharing something personal with a listener/viewer.
There are different ways to deal with this obsession. Some collectors I know are musicians and learn from the music on their records, studying it. This has to be extremely rewarding. Other collectors I know produce CDs from their collections with fine transfers and beautiful artwork. Again – another personal triumph in a way, with lots of hard work. Others move online. Right now, I am trying this method – for some reason I believe in it, and the idea that less is sometimes more. It doesn’t come close to being in the same room as the record spins around, but it will have to do until I get a very large house and can invite you all over.
A new post in a couple of days, on schedule, and in musical servitude…
October 20, 2008
First item of business: a huge thanks to painter, sound artist, and friend of the site Steve Roden for his write-up on Excavated Shellac in The Wire this week (found here). A generous gesture, and I appreciate it.
And now, some music to greet your week with, and to play loudly.
Georgian polyphonic singing is an art that apparently pre-dates Christianity, though it’s used in Orthodox religious practice as well, having been brought to the church most likely through the influence of folkloric tradition. It’s a positively ancient type of music that, since 2001, has been protected from extinction by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage.”
There are disagreements about the precise origins of polyphonic singing in Georgia, although many traditional Georgian choral songs actually date back to a “cult of the grapevine.” There are work songs, songs for festivals, and “table songs” – songs for singing around the table, so to speak: with food and wine. There are several types of polyphonic singing as well: complex polyphony from the Svaneti region in northwestern Georgia, three-part polyphony from western Georgia, and two-part polyphony over a bass drone, which is from Kakheti. They frequently take unconventional harmonic turns.
Today’s piece, the Chakrulo, is a table song, and is from the Kakheti region, featuring two soloists (N. Togonidze and I. Mchediishvili) and the aforementioned bass, choral drone. The recording was organized by Georgian composer Shalva Mshvelidze, who since 1930 had been traveling around Georgia recording folk music. This was most likely recorded in Kakheti ca. 1957, and supervised by Mshvelidze (rather than “led by” him, as the label states – that’s my guess, though I could be wrong).
It is also worth bringing up the influence of the Soviet state on such recordings of folk music: it was everpresent. Perhaps with Georgian music, a little less (a sizeable portion of Georgian choral music is made of vowel syllables as opposed to words – less content to worry about!), but certainly all aspects of religion were removed from most folk ensemble recordings. Then again, CCCP released recordings of choir music from the small town of Martvili (then known as Gegechkori), known for its ancient monastery, at around the same time. One thing is for certain, earlier Georgian choral music first recorded by the Gramophone company in the early part of the 20th century features voices that are incredibly raw – though the types of songs and styles are the same. By the same token, a 1988 recording of the Chakrulo by the Rustavi Folk Choir is exceptionally polished. I believe this piece, whatever influence the Soviet monolith had on it, is moving, and exceptional. The concept of “authenticity” is always tricky – when in doubt, lead with your ears.
For early Georgian choral music, we are lucky to have the CD Drinking Horns and Gramophones, released on the Traditional Crossroads label.
Label: Aprelevski Zavod (SSSR)
Issue Number: 28165 (a)
Matrix Number: 28165/3-1
October 12, 2008
That is the English translation of today’s track from the great Lili Labassi (spelled L’Abassi on the label, and also known as ‘Lili El Abbassi’), a well-known Jewish chaabi singer and violinist from Algeria. This piece was released in the early 50s on the French Pacific label in their “Collection Musique Orientale” series, and was likely distributed in both North Africa and Algerian enclaves throughout 1950s Europe (Marseilles, for instance).
Labassi began his 78rpm-era recording career in 1929 with HMV. He later recorded with Polyphon in the 1930s, Columbia, and finally Pacific. Chaabi, what Labassi is known for, is a loose term essentially meaning “popular” or “of the people.” There is chaabi from Algeria, such as we have here, but there is also chaabi from Morocco as well. Algerian chaabi developed in Algiers and is indelibly linked to the masterful Hadj Mohamed El Anka, considered the father of the genre. His chaabi was an older style, employing rootsy folk melodies and poetry. But by the mid-1950s and the start of the Algerian War (1954-1962), a modern chaabi style had become popularized.
Labassi was a contemporary of El Anka, but I think this piece seems to fall right in between the rootsy and the modern. Playing violin and singing, Labassi is accompanied by oud, piano, kanun, and percussion. Both sides are included on this track, and you’ll hear why I decided to include both – not just because it’s a lengthy piece and it would be necessary to include both sides anyway, but because the second side (beginning at about 2:47) is the more improvisatory side, with Labassi showing off his considerable vocal skills. This was very common in recordings in North Africa and the Middle East, when it came to extended, 2-sided songs – time would nearly always be made for improvisation, or a brief ‘taxim.’
Issue Number: CO 7036
Matrix Number: AI-0372-2/AI-0373-2
Thanks to Karim Boughida for the title translation [updated and changed 10/14, as Karim listened to the song and realized that the title’s meaning was different]! For more Lili Labassi, try the Secret Museum’s North Africa volume. In 1998-1999, two volumes of a CD set of Labassi’s work titled “Le Genie Du Chaabi” was released, but it seems all but impossible to find now. I have no idea about sound quality, either…
October 5, 2008
‘Nasib’ in Malay means ‘fate.’ The Nasib song is an aching, slow lament; a deeply melancholic popular song type which is built around the singer’s misfortune in life. On the surface, this description would make the Nasib similar to the fado, rebetika, or blues, but that would be a mischaraterization. The origins of the Nasib derive, in fact, from Indonesian/Malaysian stambul theater music. Stambul theater (also referred to as bangsawan) developed in the late 19th century and was an urban affair, where theatrical groups would perform musical dramas, many with stories which had origins in India or the Middle East. Stambul songs were most popular from 1920-1935.
The Nasib is sung by a singer who is in fact playing – or at the very least channeling – a character or situation from these classical stories, rather than singing her own blues. Interestingly, much of the stambul music that I’ve heard from that era is quite cultured – operatic, even. However, the Nasibs, although derived from stambul, are a different thing altogether. The operatic aspect has gone out the window, and what we have here is swooning sadness – the Nasib adopted to a bar band setting!
Today’s Nasib features Miss Inah singing “Sesalken Oentoeng” (a Dutch transliteration of the Malay “Sesalkan Untung”), which more or less means “I Regret My Luck.” She is accompanied by her smooth yet lurching Malay Entertainers on harmonium (another Indian connection), saxophone, bass, and percussion.
And what about this tantalizingly obscure and beautifully designed label “Extra” – of which this appears to be the sixth release? From the wonderful choice of typefaces, the baby blue color, the looming image of a mountain (Mount Kerinci, the highest peak in Sumatra, most likely), and the overlapping letters H, M, and V, in a skeleton font – the whole label reeks of mystery!
It turns out that the Extra label was based in Palembang, Indonesia, in the south of Sumatra, and was in operation during the early 1940s, before the Japanese occupation. Right off the bat, this clues us in to the fact that the record, despite the band’s name being the Malay Entertainers, is most likely from Indonesia as opposed to Malaysia (the ethnic Malay group is found in both countries). How many records did Extra make? Collectors have traced only nine releases. There may be more, though I’m betting the number is low. It’s also unclear the relationship between Extra and HMV. The matrix numbers on this record (the numbers separate from the catalog numbers on the record, indicating masters and often takes) are clearly HMV matrix numbers. But, we do not know if these songs were also released by HMV, or if Extra was the sole entity releasing these tracks.
Extra records were pressed in India. Which brings us to another issue: why in the hell does this record, which is in absolutely mint condition, sound so rough?
There are a couple of reasons, familiar to collectors but perhaps not to anyone else. One, the record could have been pressed using a worn stamper. The early recording process yielded negative masters. From a negative master, a positive, metal-coated “mother” was created (these sound pristine). The metal mother was used to make a stamper – a negative version of the mother – and then your store-bought records were made from the stampers. When one stamper wore out, another stamper was made from the metal mother. Sometimes, however, companies let their stampers become wrecked before they replaced them. The result was, as you could imagine, a really crappy sounding record.
Another reason could be that there’s too much garbage in the shellac mix. Again, the bane of collectors, but bears ranting about even if you’re not ensconced in that kind of minutiae. So, those metal mothers I was talking about sounding pristine in the previous paragraph? Well, something else happens between the recording process and the resulting 78rpm record. Since 78rpm records were made to be played on acoustic, wind-up gramophone players, record companies were quite aware that the sharp steel needles used to play 78s wore down the records very quickly. So, they made better needles, right? Er, no. Instead, they added junk into their shellac mix – carborundum, cement, sand – which was supposed to wear down the gramophone needle as it moved through the grooves! This is the main reason why surface noise exists on clean 78s. When I look at this Extra record, I can actually SEE the junk in the shellac on the record’s surface. But, sometimes you gotta take what you can get!
Label: Extra Record
Issue Number: SE-6
Matrix Number: 0MG-6969-1
I am indebted to Philip Yampolsky for much of the information in this post. Mr. Yampolsky is a renowned expert in the music of the region, and the person behind the staggering 20-volume Music of Indonesia series for Smithsonian Folkways.