tounsia“‘Stwanat Pacific, al mutriba Louisa Tounsia.”

Those words begin our second, and long overdue, selection originating from Tunisia. Despite being one of the most renowned vocalists in Tunisia during the mid-20th century, very little in English has been written about the great Louisa Tounsia. She was part of the deep tradition of Jewish singers of the Maghreb, along with her fellow countrymen Raoul Journo and Cheikh El-Afrit, among others. Jewish immigration into North Africa began as early as the 6th century BCE, and there was a large migration of Sephardic Jews into the region in the 5th century, then later in the 15th and 16th centuries, following expulsions from the Iberian peninsula. Ashkenazi Jews also were present in the region, beginning in the precolonial and colonial periods.

Louisa’s first sessions appear to have been for the French Polyphon label in 1938. She then made a few sides for Columbia immediately afterwards, and then recorded at least 25 songs for HMV starting in the mid-1940s. Her final sessions on 78 – at least from my documentation – occurred around 1950, for the Pacific record label, an independent. This track, for which I’ve combined both sides of the “suite” as it’s labeled, stems from those sessions. She’s accompanied here by an oud player, kanun, and percussion, with the second side being more of a jam. The title, “Ya Bent El Nass,” translates to “Oh Daughter of the People.”

I’ve always liked North African music from the mid-20th century more than Egyptian mid-century music – just a personal preference really, but I think it has something to do with a perceived looseness in the music, on my part. Or, perhaps it’s a means to escape the ubiquitousness of Umm Kalthoum, Mohammed Abdel-Wahab, and Farid el-Atrash, the popular and inescapable triumverate of mid-20th century Egyptian music (but, really, they’re national treasures, and each recorded some fantastic material).

Since this was recorded ca. 1950, it was recorded originally on tape. There’s a subtle, funky tape problem on this track and I’m not sure how you would define it, but it’s not really noticeable enough to detract. These are the issues, once again, that crop up when dealing with independent 78rpm labels, who, though they often employed an abundance of musical talent, they did not have the same advantages as the major labels had in terms of equipment and pressing materials.

Louisa Tounsia – Ya Bent El Nass

Technical Notes
Label: Pacific
Issue Number: 7114
Matrix Number: Part 10819/10820, AI 1335/1336

For more Louisa Tounsia, check the North African volume of the Secret Museum series.

There are a few more days left where you can listen to an hour-long BBC Radio 4 documentary on arguably the most important man in the history of recorded sound, Fred Gaisberg. Titled “The First A and R Man,” it’s a nice listen, featuring interviews with people I truly admire and look up to in the world of historical preservation and recorded sound history, such as archivists at EMI, and Will Prentice at the British Library.

There is a segment in the show which talks about Gaisberg’s (and the recording industry’s) first trip to eastern and southern Asia. And, at 35:20 in the program, you can hear an excerpt from my personal recording of the Malay artist Qasim, singing “Lagu Nuri Terbang Malam,” which I originally posted on Excavated Shellac on May 5, 2007, and dates from those first sessions.

My original post can be read here. To listen to it today, you can visit Excavated Shellac’s Qasim page on the WFMU site, right here.

That said, it would have been nice to receive either a verbal or written shout-out from the producer of the program for providing a snippet of rare sound (surely EMI did not make a special, new transfer of this obscurity for them), or Paul Gambaccini, but that’s show-biz! To BBC Radio 4 I say: you’re welcome!

BBC Radio 4: The First A and R Man

centenoI last posted a flamenco piece in September of 2007, not long after I started the blog. It’s probably true that when most people think of music from Spain, they might imagine a flamenco guitarist, singer, or dancer, despite the fact that technically flamenco is really the music of one region of Spain – Andalusia. However, it is true that flamenco has come to represent much more than the music of one region of Spain. Historically, there’s been quite a bit of argument about what is “true” flamenco and imitation flamenco. I’m certainly not prepared or educated enough to enter that debate, not being either an expert or from the region myself. But, I thought it might be time to return to the topic, and post an example of what some would consider genuine cante flamenco by two masters – Manuel Centeno, the cantaor (singer), and Niño Ricardo, the tocaor (guitarist).

There are numerous song types in flamenco music, and those are known as the palos. The oldest and most intense songs are known as cante grande. These songs tend to best express the deepest, emotional sorrow or loneliness that is at the heart of real Andalusian flamenco. They are the Siguiriyas, usually a four-lined poem, and today’s piece, an example of the Soleá, also known as Soleares, which is usually only three or four lines as well. Scholars seem to disagree where the current form of Soleares developed, but Seville is often named as a possibility. The rhythm of the Soleares is always a 12-beat rhythm, with the emphasis on the 3,6, 8, 10, and 12 beats – but flamenco demands a fair amount of improvisation and interplay between the guitarist and singer, so the beat emphasis is really just a guideline. The guitarist usually plays in either the E phrygian or the A phrygian. The singer will inject his lyrics with dramatic melisma and the result, however familiar to fans of international music, can be undoubtedly powerful.

Manuel Centeno was considered to be one of the last great masters of cante grande, particularly by writer D.E. Pohren, whose 1960s books “The Art of Flamenco” and “The Lives and Legends of Flamenco” pull no punches in excoriating those he feels injured the classic art. Pohren gives Centeno’s date of birth as ca. 1900, but a 1966 text in Spanish gives his birthdate as 1885, in Seville (another website gives his birthplace in Murcia). He died in 1960, apparently impoverished. This piece was originally recorded for Columbia ca. August 1928, possibly in Barcelona, and released on their Regal imprint, though Centeno also recorded for HMV in 1929. On HMV’s sessions, Centeno was accompanied by the great Ramón Montoya (uncle of Carlos). On this session he is accompanied by another guitarist of reknown, and also, along with Montoya, one of the few guitarists who accompanied the great La Niña de los Peines throughout her career, the aforementioned Niño Ricardo. Ricardo (1904-1972), born Manuel Serrapi Sánchez in Seville, accompanied all manner of flamenco greats, and even went commercial for a brief period, much to the chagrin of some purists (there were songs like “Flamenco Twist” being performed in the 1950s, by performers who previously practiced more traditional flamenco forms). Regardless, he has always been considered an absolute master. I hope you enjoy the piece, whose translated title means “Go ahead and ask.”

Manuel Centeno – Soleares: Anda, ve y pregunta

Technical Notes
Label: Regal
Issue Number: RS 802
Matrix Number: K 864

There have been a number of reissues of early flamenco throughout the years, many of them with pretty dicey transfers. This track was at one point released on a Spanish CD, Volume 25 of Grandes Clásicos del Cante Flamenco. I’m not sure if that is in print any longer (it doesn’t appear to be), but the sound clips I’ve heard from the CD sound pretty crunchy, so I offer this instead.

Thanks to Dax Diaz and Bill Dean-Myatt.

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