El-BannaIt’s been too long since a new Excavated Shellac post, and I can only blame that on the usual excuse: I’ve got way too much to do. However, happily, a variety of 78s keep rolling in, and now that I have a little more time to devote I’m back at it, with several new posts in the works. Collecting old records is both a blessing and a wonderful, celestial curse. So here we are again, bending our ear toward the past…

The music of Egypt before the 1930s is often cited as a Middle Eastern music “golden age,” with some of the greatest singers in the history of recording at top form, both in the classical sphere as well as the world of light classical and taqtuqa songs. I’ve written about women superstars such as Munira al-Mahdiyya before, but in the 1920s, some of the greatest male singers were also active, such as Sayyid Darwish with his renowned adwâr, and today’s focus, Abdel Latif El-Banna. These names may not mean much to western audiences unless they are reasonably familiar with traditional Middle Eastern music, but they were incredibly popular forces in music and stage, bridging a gap between classical forms and modern ones.

El-Banna, born in 1884, was one of the most popular singers of the sentimental, light song form, filled with melismatic ahaat. Sometimes called “Bulbul Egypt” (the nightingale of Egypt), what’s interesting is that El-Banna is frequently described as having a high, feminine voice, and deliberately singing in the style of women Egyptian singers. His popularity seemed to last only about a decade. He began recording for the Baidaphon company – the independent label based in Lebanon – sometime in the early to mid-1920s it seems, and continued until the early 30s, before disappearing from records (as one source put it). His legacy was at least 60 issued records, possibly many more. He died in 1969 or 1970 (two sources had conflicting dates).

This piece, the title of which loosely translates to “My Heart, Since the Day I Saw You,” was probably recorded in the mid-1920s – certainly in the pre-microphone acoustic era. It’s both sides of a clean copy and a superb recording. Despite the fact that singers of this time had to bellow into a massive horn, at the end of which sat a diaphragm that vibrated, which in turn moved a needle that etched itself into a rotating wax disc, and despite the fact that these wax-etched masters were mass-pressed onto rough discs covered in a bug excretion….the results are still tremendous.

Abdel Latif El-Banna – Alfouad Min Yom Chafek, Pts 1 & 2

Notes
Label: Baidaphon
Catalog / Matrix numbers: B 083402/3

Thanks to Rheim Alkadhi for translation help!

chawaMy best friend is about to travel to Cairo, surely to experience wondrous sights and sounds. I thought I’d send her off with a piece featuring three of the greatest Egyptian virtuoso musicians ever to record during the 78rpm era. Both sides are featured here, as the piece is in two parts.

Syrian violinist Sami al-Shawwa (1887-1960) established a music school in Cairo by 1906, and began his career on record that same decade, both as a soloist, and as an accompanist for many well-known Egyptian singers (Zaki Mourad, Sayed El-Safti, Um Kulthum – you name them, he played with them). His appearance on a recording was clearly considered a stamp of quality very early on, as he was often credited on records side by side with the singer. On this track he is joined by kanun player Ali Rashidi, of which I know very little (though I know he recorded solo kanun performances around the same time). On oud, however, is the legendary Muhammad al-Qasabji, known forever as Um Kulthum’s oud player (and sometime composer for her, as well as for Asmahan). The three masters perform a bachraf, a song type associated with Turkey, here in the hejaz (or hedjaz) maqam, or scale. Listen to how Sami can’t resist having the last word in the piece, fiddling away after the others have stopped, using up the last 10 seconds available to them.

I am not sure about a date on this recording, but I would guess about 1926 or so, as it’s rather early in Columbia’s “X” series. Enjoy….and bon voyage!

Sami al-Shawwa, Ali Rashidi, Muhammad al-Qasabi – Bachraf Hedjaz Hamayon, Pt.1

Sami al-Shawwa, Ali Rashidi, Muhammad al-Qasabi – Bachraf Hedjaz Hamayon, Pt. 2

Technical Notes
Label: Columbia
Issue Number: 18-X
Matrix Number: E72 (1-A-1)

el-saftiToday’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.

Sheikh Sayed El-Safti – Ala fi Sabil Allah

Technical Notes
Label: Parlophone
Issue Number: Bx 5708-I
Matrix Number: 1344

* Also commonly spelled Sayyid al-Safti, Said el Safti and Sayed Safti.

baida.jpgFor me, classical Arabic music from the first two decades of the 20th century is poetic and beautiful, besides being probably as close a chance we’re going to get to hearing what music may have sounded like in the Middle East in the 19th century. Powerful voices and performances abound, although this is coming from an untrained ear, mind you! I just go by what moves me. There’s a lot out there.

Diehard collectors are all too familar with this, but listening might sometimes be a challenge for some when it comes to early international recordings, the main reason being that the music (up until 1925 for most labels) was recorded before the invention of electric microphone recording. Considerable surface noise was par for the course, no matter how perfect the record. Voices sound like they were recorded far away, through a tin can you might say – the result of singing into a recording horn. A few plays on a period phonograph player with a bad needle could cause instant distortion on an otherwise perfect playing surface. It made the fragile discs all the more ephemeral. Yet the musical (and historical) value of these early recordings far exceeds technology’s shortcomings.

Munira al-Mahdiyya (1884-1965) is among the earliest female recording artists of Egypt. She was a celebrity during her day and appeared in films, much like Umm Kulthum who, shortly after she began recording, eclipsed nearly all artists in Egypt in terms of popularity. I believe this recording was made ca. 1914. On violin and kanun are two accompanists, one of whom (I assume) joins Munira in singing the last third of the song. The title of the piece translates literally to “adversities tore me apart.” I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to take a little more liberty and say that it could also be “hard times tore me apart,” which sounds a lot like countless blues songs.

The Baidaphon label was an early independent label out of Beirut, Lebanon. Started before 1912 by several members of the Bayda family (including singer Farjallah Bayda, also a Baidaphon talent), the label recorded throughout the Middle East and North Africa, sending their masters to Germany to be manufactured. I’ve been lucky to find Baidaphons from Morocco to Central Asia. The label pictured here is their 1920s design. However, I believe the song is from an early session of al-Mahdiyya’s, so in effect this very well may be a 1920s re-release. Baidaphon, like Odeon and a few other companies, seemed to like the 10.5″ record, of which this is an example.

Munira al-Mahdiyya – Aldahre Kataâ Awsali

Thanks to Karim for help with translation!

Technical Notes
Label: Baidaphon
Issue Number: 23045
Matrix Number: 2345

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