May 9, 2010
Every once in a while, I like to post a true scarcity – a record which not only has considerable cultural import, but which is also nearly impossible to locate. I feel I can mention my personal feelings at the start, and in this direct manner, as an outsider: today’s post is not my own record. It is a generous loan from a friend and musicologist, which I transferred and repaired. The original – possibly the only known copy – is considerably damaged, but with a new transfer we were able to make it shine once again.
Early recordings of the stunning classical Arabic and traditional music from Iraq are quite difficult to find. What’s more, the few early recordings of ethnic minority music from Iraq on any of the large, European labels, have nearly vanished without a trace. Further, the infinitesimal amount of early recordings of ethnic minority music from Iraq on local, independently-pressed labels, are truly gifts to behold. This record falls into that last category. It is one of the few, extant examples on 78rpm of the traditional music of Iraqi Turkmen.
At least a half-million Turkmen live in Iraq and they are the third largest ethnic community in that country (behind Arabs and Kurds), representing 5% of the population (printed statistics state the half-million figure, although various Turkmen groups in Iraq claim a population of anywhere between 1-5 million, thus increasing their percentage of the general populus). Iraqi Turkmen primarily live in a central stretch of land from the Turkish and Syrian borders in the north of the country, to the Iranian border in the center of the country. This region is known colloquially as Türkmeneli. Descendents of Muslim Oghuz Turks, Turkmen first entered Iraq from Central Asia. Though there seems to be disagreement as to when Turkmen settlements in Iraq began appearing, one date that is mentioned is 650 CE.
There is very little scholarly information in English on the traditional music of Iraqi Turkmen, as it is different from Turkmen music of other regions. This is hardly surprising, when a multi-volume book such as the Encyclopedia of World Cultures (1991-1996) does not even list Turkmen as a being a cultural population in the country of Iraq. Major texts ignore Iraqi Turkmen music, such as Grove or the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, or the Rough Guide (scoff if you must, but the Rough Guide to World Music provides at least a passing mention of some extremely obscure traditional musical styles). Kurdish music, equally as beautiful and also ridiculously rare on 78rpm, has, by comparison, been generously studied.
This piece is an example of a particular type of long-form song of Iraqi Turkmen, called qoyrat (also commonly spelled hoyrat, but pronounced khoyrat). The qoyrats are formed around a 4-line quatrain and defined by their style. This one is in the beshiri (beşiri) style. Qoyrats are also sung by Turkmen in Southern and Southeastern Anatolia – it’s a style similar to the bozlak, another epic folk song type from the region. In Turkish musical parlance qoyrat could be described as uzun hava – a free-rhythm song that could also be a lament, a poem, a play on words, or a wail. The term qoyrat in Turkish actually means “vulgar” or “boorish” – though this piece is anything but. Beginning with the strains of a typical sounding Middle Eastern ensemble, with qanun, violin, flute, and percussion, the vocals soon take over. It is a powerful love song and lament – sung in Turkish, albeit in a Turkish that might sound strange, or indecipherable, to a Turkish-speaking teenager of today. There are universally recognizable moments, however – for instance, when the singer, Ahmad, exclaims “aman aman” mid-way through the song…”aman” being understood from the Balkans to the Indian Ocean as an exclamation of grief and suffering. Abdul-Wahad Ahmad was known as “Abdülvahit Küzecioğlu” in Turkey. Born in 1924 in Kirkuk, Ahmad had a lengthy recording career, even recording for the BBC. He died in 2007.
The Chakmakchi Company had offices and a showroom on the prestigious and bustling Rashid Street in Baghdad, along with a satellite office in Mosul. If we are to take the name literally, “chakmakchi” in standard Turkish means “maker of lighters” or “flint stone maker.” However, this is simply the surname of the proprietors, one of whom we know was named Arif Chakmakchi. At any rate, this small company got into the 78rpm business in the early 50s and only released at most about 200-300 recordings on their Chakmakchi Phon label. What distinguished them was that they catered to the local – local artists sold in local stores. What further distinguished them was their repertoire – not only did they record Iraqi classical maqam (by artists such as Nazim El-Ghazali and Mohammed El-Qabbandji), but they recorded music of the minorities. Chakmakchi Phon recorded some of the finest Kurdish singers in all their rawness – from the well-known, such as Mohammed Arif Jezrawi and his son Hassan Jezrawi, to the lesser-known, such as Mahmud Kourouri, Khalil Aqrawi or Rasul Gardi. These records would, in some instances, due to the political situation, have to be smuggled in order to be sold in some regions. Since the Persian Gulf region did not have a 78rpm pressing plant at the time, Chakmakchi outsourced their early pressings to Sweden of all places (see the label photo), and their later pressings to Greece. It is strange that neither India nor Pakistan were considered, as both had thriving pressing plants – although both were run by the Gramophone Company, based in the UK. No matter what the case, Chakmakchi Phon did not last long in the 78rpm record business. They soon ceased producing 78s and moved into pressing 45 and 33rpm records. Their musical legacy is only just beginning to come to light.
Label: Chakmakchi Phon
Issue Number: CHAC 127
Matrix Number: SAMI 53
Many thanks to our generous donor! And to Volkan, for providing further information.
I resist using this blog as a platform for too much self-promotion, but it’s been a busy month or two, so I figured I’d get it over with at once. First, my first LP with Dust-to-Digital, Excavated Shellac: Strings, is now available from all manner of outlets. Aquarius Records gave it a nice write-up. Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker added it to his Best of 2010 list. Thanks to Liz Berg and others for playing it on the radio. We hope to do more, and have other projects in the works, too. Also, I am indebted to writer and designer Meara O’Reilly who gave Excavated Shellac a nice write-up on BoingBoing. Thanks to Susanna Bolle, I had the chance to play records on her radio show Rare Frequency a few weeks ago. The show is now a podcast and you can listen here.
It’s also officially our 3-year anniversary here at Excavated Shellac. I thought it was high time to finally register the domain, so you’re now on excavatedshellac.com. Why did I resist doing this for so long? For one, I wanted to remain under the radar. There seems little point to that now, so here we are. I’ll keep the rhapsodic ruminations to a minimum, but thanks to everyone who keeps coming back here to read text and listen to music. I obviously don’t have as much time to spend on the site as I used to, when I was posting weekly, but it’s still a pleasure for me.
I want to emphasize again that this site is participatory. More and more people are using it as an information resource. Though it has a long way to go in that regard, I do think this is positive – but the site can only be as rich as the people who contribute. Unlike CDs or LPs, we always have the chance, with a website, to correct errors, contribute better translations, and in general, make the information more and more robust. The site, text, and music all have the potential to last longer than any hard copy because of this very fact. Some might be unaware that I edit the text on the site all the time if new information comes to light or someone sends a contribution. Sometimes, comments sections on posts from long ago suddenly spring to life (witness the family reunion that took place in the comments section of the Urbano Zafra post). The phrase “permanent beta” comes to mind – existing in a continuing state of upgrade. This, in a sense, is a more realistic view towards an information resource, if we want to take it to the next level. I can only do so much, and besides, there are records to find!
August 3, 2008
In the late 1920s, musicians from across Iraq were being recorded by a variety of companies: Baidaphon of Beirut, Polyphon of Germany, and HMV of England being the Big Three. As usual in those nascent markets, all were competing against each other for shelf space in the shops that sold gramophone records.
I chose an early piece from Iraq this week because of the appearance of a terrific Honest Jons release culled from original copies at the EMI Hayes Archive titled Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted – Baghdad, 1925-1929. Two lovely songs by Badria Anwar are included on Give Me Love, but today’s post is another of her long lost recordings, from ca. 1928-1929 or so. “Rah Wilfy” translates roughly to “My Lover Is Gone.” She is accompanied by oud, kanun, violin, and percussion. (Thanks to the Pictures Clerk for translation!)
While I generally refrain from deep ruminations on this website, I thought I’d just write about Give Me Love as well as some thoughts on current reissues of historic recordings. Nobody asked me, of course, but these issues actually mean a lot to me. (In hindsight, I see I may have gotten long-winded, but what the hell…)
First, I think Give Me Love is an important collection. There has not been, until now, any serious survey of Iraqi historical recordings released – certainly not one with such a wide variety of styles. Musically, it is superb in my opinion – the taksims are amazing, the songs beautiful, from Kurdish melodies to Iraqi Jewish songs. I’ve little to say in that arena, as I was simply very impressed with the selection. Because of Honest Jons’ access to the Hayes Archive they were able to use untouched file copies of these exceptionally rare recordings, or perhaps even the metal masters, for their transfers. (For those who are wondering, 78rpm masters have shockingly less surface noise than the final product, the mass-produced gramophone record copy of the master, which often contained loads of garbage, or filler, along with the shellac – Paramount Records used sand and cement in their mix, for instance, making virtually all of their records sound like crap.)
That does not happen often. Very few companies exist which still have accessible masters or clean file copies of their original 78s, much less are willing to work with a small label for a release. EMI and Hayes are the major exception. And, the transfers are alive: I’ve listened to Give Me Love a few times now and although I (and my ears) waver a bit on this thought – and I may change my mind still again – I have come to believe that we are finally getting to a point where, taking into account a number of factors, the majority of surface noise can be removed from a 78rpm recording to the actual BENEFIT of the recording itself. There are far too many CDs of historic international folk music (not to mention historic anything) which have been hampered by overzealous noise reduction in their transfers. Of course, on the flip side, some of these recordings are so rare (I’ve seen around 4 Iraqi records in the past 5 years, say), you have to take what you can get sometimes. In other words, I’d probably buy this if it was dubbed from an old Certron cassette tape. (And as if it even needs to be said, I clearly am in no way a professional engineer – I just do the best I can with what I present on Excavated Shellac. Better the stuff is out there than not, is my opinion. Just wanted to get that out of the way.)
On Give Me Love, it sounds like the musicians are next to you. Well, next to you in mono. As I mentioned, achieving this sonic quality depends on a host of important factors: condition of the original record, turntable, tonearm, a wide variety of specialized diamond cut needles of various sizes, analog noise reduction equipment, digital noise reduction equipment, equalization equipment and methods, and the most important factor, a finely tuned ear. It is expensive, time consuming, and surely a monetary loss in the short term. But, I think Honest Jons got it right. And that’s good for both music fans, and scholars of this music.
Another thing Honest Jons got right is the design. Because I still prefer the tactile sensation of an LP (a DJ at heart), I purchased their double-LP issue of Give Me Love. Graphically it is beautifully done – and the design is current. While this may seem secondary to many, I believe the presentation of historical music is absolutely vital to its survival. These releases cannot and should not appeal only to the converted, the record collectors, the ethnomusicologists. They have to break through to new audiences, new listeners, people willing to take a chance. Releases like this, if they are to continue, absolutely must at the very least attempt to appeal to younger generations by methods of marketing, distribution, sale, and especially presentation. If not, the consequence is that the releases, the listeners, and by proxy the music, will become even more elitist, more rarified, more segregated – precisely what shouldn’t happen. This doesn’t mean dumbing down these releases, it just means an overhaul. The design of Give Me Love is, well, pretty damn attractive. It makes one feel that this is an important record, filled with mysterious lost music that is different than what one has experienced.
With all that said, I’m not above some critique. While comparatively minor, I had a few related problems with Give Me Love - in particular, problems with the notes which accompany the LP.
Despite its savvy design, Give Me Love presents itself, rightly I think, as a historical document, and includes a short essay on the backstory behind these recording sessions, with information on some of the artists and quotes from correspondence between HMV employees in Iraq and the home office. Why is it then that there is no detailed recording information (dates, specifically) for any of the tracks? This information could be extremely helpful to those wishing to study further, it would be very brief in terms of space to annotate, and would almost certainly be accessible in the Hayes Archive, as HMV kept scrupulously detailed recording ledgers. Since Honest Jons had full access and permission from EMI, why not list the original record catalog numbers, too? I realize that including this information may go against the whole “reaching out to new audiences” idea I just mentioned (in other words, it might be useless to most consumers), but I think not including it and still attempting to be a historical document is disingenuous. This is new territory they’re working with, and why not go for broke – those adventurous enough to purchase the record may appreciate that detail somehow. Plus, it firmly places these works in a specific place, at a specific time.
The rest of my complaints are niggling and petty and I fear I’ve gone on too far as it is. If you’ve read this far, I appreciate your interest…the most important part of this post is of course way up above: the music.
Coupling Number: AX 568
Face Number: 7-213737
Matrix Number: BX4397