December 28, 2008
Chung-Vô-Diệm, the title of this recording which dates from Vietnam (then Indochina) around the 1930s, is the name of a woman in a legendary Vietnamese fable. Her story is something along the lines of “Beauty and the Beast.” Numerous variations must exist, but this is how it was related to me:
Chung-Vô-Diệm made a tragic error while living on Earth, so after she had died, she was dealt a punishment. She was sent back to Earth to live as a horrifically ugly person. She found her home in the mountains, living with a fairy goddess, isolated from the rest of society. While living in the mountains, she trained as a warrior under the goddess, and became blessed with incredible powers that soon became known throughout the country. It was said one arrow from her bow could destroy an entire army of foot soldiers.
Meanwhile, the Emporer had found out about Chung-Vô-Diệm. He summoned her to be his wife and help fight the invading armies. Although she was reluctant to leave because of her shocking appearance, she decided to accept, and wore a covering over her face. The arrival of this famous warrior was was highly anticipated, and she was carried on a throne to the Emperor. Soon, she was defeating throngs of soldiers with her bow.
Eventually, it was time for the Emperor and Chung-Vô-Diệm to consumate their marriage. When the Emperor came to her room that night and Chung-Vô-Diệm removed her covering, he ran screaming in fright. He was so repelled by her appearance that he jailed Chung-Vô-Diệm, keeping her in solitary confinement like an animal. Chung-Vô-Diệm longed for her home in the mountains with her caretaker the fairy goddess, and she escaped.
Time passed. The country was attacked again. This time, the Emperor needed Chung-Vô-Diệm desperately. However, he knew he could not treat her badly as he did before. He knew he had to apologize. He summoned her again and she returned to the city, but she refused to accept his apology. She said, “If you are truly sorry, you must show humility. Bow.” To her surprise, the Emperor bowed in front of her, and stayed bowed outside her bedroom door for days on end.
Finally, Chung-Vô-Diệm opened the door and let the Emperor in. To his surprise, her ugly appearance had disappeared, and she had turned into a beautiful woman. It turned out that the spell placed on Chung-Vô-Diệm could not have been broken unless someone truly loved her.
Unfortunately, there is little information on both the story of Chung-Vô-Diệm, or Vietnamese 78rpm records as a whole, in English. Most likely, this record is part of a multi-volume set, much like how Chinese opera was distributed across the region (though very often they are not found intact today). Clues to this are on the label. Both sides of the label are labeled “thứ I” or “part 1.” On the upper left is “Tân-Thình” which is one of the performers, along with Dien Khi. Underneath the title is written “Ca Tử-dại,” which is a reference to the classical song the singers are singing over (Tử-dại Oan). The singers are accompanied by a fiddle (probably the two-stringed Ðàn Nhi), a flute (the sáo or tiêu), a plucked lute of some kind, and woodblock percussion (probably the song loan).
I’m including both sides of this record for this week’s post, with many thanks to Linh Dang, Lien Nguyen, Kathie Han, and Phillip Phan, for help with translation and meaning.
Issue Number: 157.524
Matrix Number: Tub 265/Tub 266
December 22, 2008
In previous posts I’ve raved about how the American green Columbia label released some of the very finest Irish, Ukrainian, and Polish folk music from the late 1920s through the early 1930s. Their “F” series (records where the catalog numbers ended in the letter F) stood for “foreign.” Despite the name, the vast majority of recordings on the F series were recorded in North America and marketed to North American immigrant populations. And in terms of output, no market was catered to more than the Italian-American market. Columbia released 1,292 “Italian” records in the F series. Only Polish and Greek records came remotely close, with 799 and 696 releases, respectively.
Giovanni Vicari (1905-1985) was an undisputed mandolin and banjo master, and recorded mazurkas, tangos, and folk melodies from Naples and Sicily, the earliest of which were for Columbia. According to possibly apocryphal legend, he rarely left New York’s Little Italy during his life, and still played for friends in local barber shops and the like. He had to have gotten out of the neighborhood a bit however, as he seems to be the same Giovanni Vicari who played mandolin on several Vivaldi pieces conducted by Leonard Bernstein for a 1958 session. Vicari apparently had many students as well, one of whom was filmmaker and 78 collector Terry Zwigoff (see comments). In the 1940s, Vicari had something of a parallel career, recording Latin music for the Harmonia label under the name “Juan Vicari y su Genial Orquesta”!
When I imagine New York City and its immigrant communities in the 1920s, I can really picture this recording being part of a traveling art form. The record company was located in New York, the artist was in New York, it was recorded in New York, and it was sold in Italian-American neighborhood shops in New York to Italian-Americans – with the New York metropolitan area still having the largest concentration of Italians in North America. The music went from neighborhood to neighborhood, from the shop to homes, and into the ears of families, friends and passers-by – all in a very short radius of one another. It reminds me of my favorite film about New York City and the traveling art form: Style Wars. The art of graffiti writers on subway trains went from borough to borough, day after day, communicating a certain message in a certain language to other graffiti writers. (That film had a major impact on me when I saw its premiere on PBS at age 11, and was partially responsible for me moving to NYC seven years later.) Perhaps the recording will only ever be a traveling artifact – the music itself is the art form.
This piece, “Doll’s Eyes,” was recorded in New York in June of 1928, when Vicari was just 23 years old. It’s got a beautiful sound to accompany the adroit banjo playing - nice and loud.
For more Vicari, check out Rounder’s CD Italian String Virtuosi.
Issue Number: 14407-F
Matrix Number: 109406 (2-A-1)
December 15, 2008
Pawlo Humeniuk was born ca. 1884 in Pidvolochys’k, in the Ukraine, immigrated to the United States around 1902, and began recording for Okeh records in late 1925. Legend has it that Humeniuk was in the store of Myron Surmach, a sheet music and record retailer, when an Okeh records representative came in to query Surmach on whether he knew of anyone who could play “village music,” whereupon Surmach immediately introduced Humeniuk. After several sides for Okeh, Humeniuk and his group of musicians (most of whom are anonymous, still) moved to Columbia Records for a stint that lasted about 10 years, until 1936. He made a few more records in 1940 and his career on records was over. Humeniuk died in 1965, leaving an amazing legacy of early Ukrainian folk music.
Today’s track is a combination of a kozachok (or kozak) and a trepak. The kozachok is derived from the word “Cossack” – and both dances are classically in 2/4 time. In other words, they can be raucous, uptempo numbers for social dancing! Besides Humeniuk’s outstanding fiddling, what makes this track particularly interesting is the addition of the cymbalom, a hammered dulcimer (played by one Ivan Lysechko, the only other known player besides Humeniuk on these sessions).
For more Humeniuk, check out Arhoolie’s King of the Ukrainian Fiddlers.
And a special thanks to Ian Nagoski, for his nice write-up on Excavated Shellac included in his article Pearl Diving, in the latest Arthur Magazine. Sadly, it looks like Arthur is hurting financially like so many others – which is not a good thing, as it has consistently been an entertaining and informative magazine. You can download a .pdf of the issue (and donate to the cause) on their website.
Issue Number: 27104-F
Matrix Number: 108160 (2-A-5)
December 8, 2008
Approximately 24 million people in Africa now speak the Hausa language, from Western Africa across the continent to Eritrea. However, it’s in northern Nigeria and the country of Niger where you’ll find the majority of speakers. It is an Afro-Asiatic language, which means it’s in the same general family as Berber languages and the Arabic of Egypt – languages spoken in the northern part of the continent. It can be written in an Arabic script, known as Ajami.
As far as research shows, the first commercial Hausa recordings were made in the Britain in the late 1920s when the Zonophone company, by then an arm of HMV, began releasing the very first recordings for African consumption (as opposed to ethnographic recordings made for study, or for the amusement of Europeans) – most if not all of Zonophone’s releases were actually recorded in England by native Africans, with the records being shipped back to West Africa for sale. There was also at least one Hausa song, recorded in Britain by native Hausa speakers, released on the small Duophone label as well. Odeon may have recorded Hausa material as well, on location, in the late 1920s. In the 1930s, 5 more Hausa recordings were made by Parlophone (by then also an HMV company) on their PO series – raw, rural music featuring the Hausa people’s fiddles, the goje or the kukkuma, with titles written in both Roman characters and Ajami script on the labels. HMV continued releasing Hausa recordings on their JZ series from 1937 onwards.
This record was made ca. 1952, and recorded in Nsawam, Ghana. By then, HMV had been joined by a cavalcade of competitors in the West African 78rpm market: mainly French labels such as Philips, Fiesta, Le Chant du Monde, Voice of Africa, Africa Vox, but also Decca, and near-lost independent labels such as Bassophone, Palmo-Tone, Nugatone…it’s quite amazing. There was a tremendous amount of recording going on, particularly in Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. But labels also went beyond the popular Creole groups of Sierra Leone and the high-life bands of Ghana and Nigeria, presumably to satisfy emerging markets, or simply smaller ones. HMV’s green-labeled TM series added recordings from Togo, as well as those in less commonly spoken West African languages like Adangbe and Awuna.
Which brings us to this Hausa recording, made for HMV and on the TM series. The guitars show an influence of West African pop, but the voices sound real and unpolished. The singers are accompanied by two (?) guitars, drum, and percussion (perhaps a bottle). Alas, I could find no information on Salifu Titah.
Issue Number: TM.1084
Matrix Number: OAB-3699-1
Thanks to Bill Dean-Myatt!
December 1, 2008
Two announcements today, along with the weekly post.
First, I’ve added a Resources page to the site. This contains a list of in-print CDs that feature international music culled from commercial 78rpm records. Despite the fact I’ve been working on this list for several months, this is definitely a work in progress. My goal is to have it as up-to-date as possible, and obviously I will need the help of contributors! Please don’t panic if you don’t see your favorite CD listed. Directions to contribute are found on that page. However, I can say for starters that the key phrase here is in-print. In this world, reissues sometimes disappear quickly – just as they might reappear out of the blue. Other sources cover out-of-print releases on LP, CD, and cassette. For now, I’m just trying to cover in-print material.
The second announcement is that Excavated Shellac is now on Facebook. If you’re into that, please look me up.
December 1, 2008
Today’s post brings me back to my favorite music from Egypt – that is, classical works from the era before electricity. Yes, they sound far, far away, but the magic contained therein is worth the effort.
The renowned singer Sheikh Sayed El-Safti* (1875-1939) apparently began recording as early as 1907, possibly for the German independent Favourite label at first. Around ca. 1913 he recorded at least 2 dozen records for the Odeon company. He also recorded for Pathé ca. 1926, Polyphon, Columbia, and the Lebanese independent label Baidaphon in the late 1920s. His last recordings appear to have been ca. 1931.
El-Safti specialized in several song types: the mawwal, a non-metric vocal improvisation on 4-7 lines of colloquial text, the dawr, a song type from the 19th century noted for the choral responses that occur in response to the soloist’s improvisation in its second part (the ghusn), and the muwashah, a strophic song type in classical Arabic which originated in Al-Andalus. (These are simplistic definitions for what is a deep and detailed school of music, but I offer them to illustrate El-Safti’s virtuosity.)
This piece, however, is a qasida - a classical Arabic poem. It’s English translation is “In the Path of God.” El-Safti is accompanied here by a small ensemble of violin, kanun, and ney. As to when it was recorded, it’s difficult to say. It was released on the German Parlophon label, which may (or may not) indicate that it was originally released on another German label (Baidaphon, Beka – perhaps even Odeon or Favourite). Therefore it truly could have been recorded anytime between ca. 1907 and ca. 1925 – a fascinating time in terms of recorded music in the Middle East.
Issue Number: Bx 5708-I
Matrix Number: 1344
* Also commonly spelled Sayyid al-Safti, Said el Safti and Sayed Safti.