September 1, 2009
Finally, I’m coming up for air and presenting a long-overdue, two-sided post. Unfortunately, being a Los Angeles resident at the moment, this means the air I’m coming up from is thick and sooty, with flakes of ash swirling around, wherever you’d care to look. People like to say, “Well, they should be used to it – it happens every year!” But, this is now the 10th largest in California’s history with no sign of letting up, and it looms…man, does it loom. The sky has been punched.
But let’s move on to loftier subjects. Today, we present both sides of a recording made ca. July 1916, by two Arab-Americans: the singer William Kamel, and the enduring Syrian-American violinist, Naim Karakand. There is an oud player as well, which may or may not be Kamel. They perform an aching love song, transliterated here as “Ayn Allaty.” When translated into English, it looks like sort of a strange phrase: “Where is she, the one who…?” This is the fragment of a question Mr. Kamel asks repeatedly. He and Karakand engage in interplay between singer and violinist that is made more delicate by the age and acoustics of the recording. Both musicians give each other plenty of room to perform, but there is no need for flagrant theatrics on either side. For a recording that was made 93 years ago, it still has subtlety.
Kamel recorded 12 sides that day in 1916, these two included. As far as I can tell, he did not record for any other company, though it’s possible he recorded for one of the several Arab-American independent labels of the time (Maloof and Macksoud, for example). Naim Karakand, on the other hand, recorded for multiple labels, both as an accompanist and as a virtuoso soloist, from about March of 1915 through the 1940s (under a multitude of name spellings). His talent makes one wonder about his history – in Anne K. Rasmussen’s excellent CD The Music of the Arab Americans on Rounder (where there are several pieces which feature Karakand), she supposes that Karakand arrived in the US sometime “during the second decade” of the 20th century. In fact, Karakand was born in 1891, and arrived in New York City in October of 1909, and is listed as “Nourim Karakan” in Ellis Island records. He passed away in 1973. Now, who was his teacher? Perhaps someone who knew the giant of violin, Aleppan Sami El Chawa? This is simply a fantasy for the time being…
The Columbia E-series began around 1908 and ended around 1923, and featured hundreds if not thousands of recordings made by US immigrants. Armenian, Norwegian, Icelandic, Polish – you name it. There are two things about this series that are worth mentioning from a collector’s standpoint: first, the majority of releases displayed one of the most irksome color schemes in record label history, with its gold on green, making artists and song titles almost impossible to read. Second, their pressings were often godawful, filled with noise even with a clean recording…making those distant, pre-electricity recordings extra difficult for the novice. This one is actually quite clean, believe it or not - thankfully, although the disparity in volume between Kamel’s voice and Karakand’s violin is wide, you can still sink into it. And I hope you do!
Issue Number: E3430
Matrix Number: 44179/44180
Thanks to Ian Nagoski for dates and info! Besides the aforementioned Music of the Arab Americans CD, definitely check out the blistering Karakand solo on Black Mirror, if you haven’t already.
March 9, 2008
Journalist Eddie Dean, in “Desperate Man Blues,” says some wise words about rural American musicians recording in the 1920s:
“They had three minutes of immortality…You hear, like, not a wasted note.”
He speaks the truth. Most early recordings were done in one single take, or perhaps two. In the U.S., for the most part only the best selling artists, generally pop or jazz artists, were allowed multiple takes. Lesser-known or rural musicians and singers had to be prepared to bring their best to the session.
Perhaps this is a more salient factor to ponder in terms of global musicians in cities or rural villages, most of whom were never in a million years given more than one chance to record their songs. And Dean was speaking of the U.S. niche country and blues markets of the 1920s. What about the super-niche markets of, say, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, or Tunisia during the first decade of the 20th century? One would imagine that those musicians had even less room for error, if that’s at all possible.
Then again, ten to twenty years before U.S. companies were recording their own country’s rural or regional musics, their sister companies in Europe had been traveling much of the world in search of these niche markets and recording thousands of records. Sure, most likely the European engineers had no idea what they were recording and disliked the music, but they were captured, nontheless.
Today’s post is an example of the thriving market in the Middle East. Over 100 years old, it is a genuine artifact. Even in beautiful shape, the surface noise that is normal from recordings of this vintage is unavoidable. A tangent: if you are interested at all in old recordings of any stripe, you must learn to love surface noise. It has, in a way, become part of the music itself. I’m speaking of the inherent sound of needle on shellac groove, not necessarily damage to the record itself. (If you’re not already familiar, there’s a whole arcane language that has evolved around 78rpm damage: tics, pops, lams, hairlines, stressed grooves, edge chips…sigh.) Remastered CDs that remove all semblance of surface noise inevitably end up removing much of the music itself, and a crucial part of the listening experience.
Mohamed Effendi El-Achek was from Damascus, and recorded this and numerous other songs ca. January of 1908, in Beirut, which was a center of Middle Eastern recording. He sings over a subtle accompaniment of kanun and violin – the musicians shouting encouragement throughout! (Both sides are included here.) The title translates to “Be Happy, My Heart,” and it is a love song. A total of seven minutes of true immortality.
Label: Gramophone Concert Record
Issue Number: G.C. 5-12433
Matrix Number: 8106o/8107o