February 25, 2011
It’s about that time to examine another unidentified disc from Africa. If the photo looks a little different, it’s because this disc is a “metal mother” – a one-sided 12″ disc with a positive image that was used to create what is known as a “stamper,” or the negative impression that created one side of a 78rpm disc that you would see in a gramophone store. It’s one step away from the master recording.
Like the previous entries, because of the matrix number stamped into the disc, I was able to determine the original label for whom this disc was pressed. And, this one is special – the J2172 number indicates clears as day that it’s an original recording for the independent Ngoma label, based in Kinshasa from the late 1940s to the early 60s, in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (Belgian Congo when this disc was pressed).
While I’ve written about Ngoma and their musicians in previous entries, to me the history of recording in that part of the world remains a fascinating story. There was little to no recording made in what is now the two Congos, until after World War II – a full four decades after recording had begun in other parts of the continent (Egypt being the first recording market in Africa). For a lot of 78rpm and early music historians, that might seem strange – collectors and scholars are often looking for the “earliest example of” this, or “pre-war” that. But there was no “pre-war” anything in this region, save for perhaps some ethnographic recording. The fact remains that the recording industry, while very active on the continent, didn’t really get to much of Sub-Saharan Africa until after WWII. The hundreds of West African recordings made in the late 1920s for Zonophone remain the first serious foray into recording Sub-Saharan music. But, those were all done in London. From ca. 1930 on, things got more serious – the Germans and French began recording in earnest in West and East Africa, and South African recording began with the Gallo labels (Singer at first, then Gallotone). Yet, Gallo aside, the recording by the multinationals was quite spotty until after WWII, and by then, independent labels were cropping up in many major African cities.
Situated on the Congo River, and with navigable access to many parts of the Congo River Basin, Kinshasa was a natural spot for the humble beginnings of independent Congolese music recording and production. Where the multinationals were absent, independent labels filled the void. Olympia from Belgium was the first, beginning ca. 1946. They hold the title for the first releases of Congolese, Latin-influenced popular music, and the first to issue records by Camille Feruzi and the great Wendo. The Ngoma label was next to appear – begun by two Greek brothers originally from Alexandria, Egypt, named Alexandros and Nicolas Jeronimidis. In a very short amount of time, a musical revolution took place. Ngoma’s releases of music by Feruzi, Leon Bukasa, and Henri Bowane (also Ngoma’s A&R man, so to speak), were huge sellers - and what was continuing to develop and formulate was the Latin-influenced rumba lingala. The story of rumba in Congo, it’s practitioners, it’s influences, and it’s effect on music throughout Africa has been studied by many others more learned than I. It simply flew off the shelves. In Kinshasa alone, by the late 50s, when the political situation during the rise to independence became difficult to say the least, the music scene was flourishing. There were so many 78 labels! Olympia, Ngoma, Loningisa, Opika (formerly Kina), Elengi, Lomeka and Kongo Bina (apparently affiliated with Olympia), Esengo, CEFA, African Jazz, Surboum…they were so popular that the European companies began to license the music on those independents!
But, what about the music that these labels recorded that was not rumba, not guitar music, and not pop? Hugh Tracey would make many recordings of local music in Congo in 1950, 1952, and beyond. But Ngoma, and to a lesser degree (it seems to me) Opika, appear to be the only Kinshasa-based labels that went beyond popular music to record music from other neighboring regions and cultures. The four main languages that Congolese popular music was performed in were Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili, and Luba dialects. Ngoma actually seemed to travel to record regional music in the Kele language, the Ngbandi language, and the Ngombe language among others. They also recorded local Cameroonian music in Bamiléké languages. They distributed their recordings in stores outside of Kinshasa, including Kisangani, Katanga province, Bukavu, and in Douala, Cameroon.
So, what is this track, exactly? Well, I don’t know. It’s a drum and vocal piece, and probably regional, that’s for sure. While I know there are Ngoma catalogs that exist, I doubt they list matrix numbers, so we probably couldn’t trace our J2172 number unless there’s someone out there who actually has the disc. Ngoma’s catalog numbers start at number 1. Judging by other Ngoma records that I have, I am guessing that it was released somewhere between 1020 and 1100 in their catalog….in the early 1950s, I’d say.
Matrix Number: J2172
Additionally: Dave Murray (of Haji Maji) has a fantastic new LP out on Parlortone, featuring his 78s of luk-thung music from Thailand. You can buy it here. Peter Doolan of Monrakplengthai wrote the liner notes, Michael Graves of Osiris Studios did the mastering and audio work, and I helped out a little bit, too. Be sure and check it out.
And in the scholarly department, the Centre for African Studies in Basel has digitized a considerable collection of Nigerian recordings originally issued on the Parlophone label in the early 1950s. There’s some wonderful music here and the original series is fairly obscure – you can listen and read transcripts here. Thanks to Zim for the heads-up.
February 9, 2011
And here we go with another mysterious African test pressing. The last test pressing, although not yet officially identified, brought about some thoughtful conversation in the comments section, especially from well-known author and scholar Professor John Collins, who graciously found time to stop by. This time, we’re moving to another part of the continent.
One listen to this wonderfully easygoing track with its marabi feel, its percussion, piano, and concertina accompaniment, and it is clear that we’re in Southern Africa. However, as with the last test pressing, we’re left with very little to identify the record. Yet, I believe we can get very close to this one – it may all come down to that terribly arcane study of the matrix number.
Think of the matrix number as the “unique identifier” for each side of a record, stamped in the dead wax of the 78. As I described in the last post, each matrix number generally refers back to a one-sided master recording - or at least, a stamper. As you can see from the photo, the matrix number of this record also happens to be written in pen on the blank label: ABC10319. There’s one major African record company that used the “ABC” prefix on an abundance of their recordings and that was Gallotone (and its subsidiary label, Trek), the most well-known African independent label, which was based in Johannesburg and founded by Eric Gallo.
What’s also interesting is that the “ABC” number series was frequently used by famed African ethnomusicologist and recordist Hugh Tracey - a name that pops up frequently on Excavated Shellac - when recording artists for Gallotone/Trek. Thankfully, both Tracey’s International Library of African Music (ILAM), as well as the South African Music Archive Project are both online, and one can search matrix numbers – even those matrices that were not issued on commercial recordings (as far as I can tell). Unfortunately, this matrix is NOT found in either place. What is tantalizing, however, is that in the ILAM you can find matrix numbers that are very close in range to this one, and they appear to indeed be Hugh Tracey masters, possibly unissued. For instance, ABC10316 is a recording by legendary Zimbabwean guitarist George Sibanda. ABC10323 is by Mozambican guitarist Feliciano Gomes. And ABC10320 – just one number above this record – is an untitled piece simply credited to “Zulu Men.”
Could this record be from the same session? Was it ever issued? Of course, it’s important to remember that these questions should have no bearing on our enjoyment of the music. In fact, perhaps they even bog us down. Perhaps they say more about our need for mystery than anything else, or our need to compartmentalize various musical styles. Or, our need to equate a recording with a price tag on the open market, enabling future collectors to fetishize it. Part of what I enjoy about these anonymous (for now) recordings, is that they have the potential to challenge our assumptions about their origins, language, style, and worth. It’s a flat disc with a scribbled number on it – and yet it can be so much more.
African Test Pressing, Number 2
Matrix Number: ABC10319