veena_dImagine a somewhat frail, virtually blind woman in her mid-60s showing up in Chennai to a Columbia records recording session in 1932 or so, to play solos in the Carnatic / South Indian tradition on the large veena string instrument. This was a musical world that was almost exclusively male. Yet, Veena Dhanammal (also called “Veena Dhanam”) was at that time, and still is today, considered one of the major Carnatic artists of the early 20th century. This recording session would have been a very special occasion.

Her year of birth is cited alternately as 1868, 1867, or 1866 – though a recently published biography of her goes with the year 1868, perhaps the most accurate. She was born in a now historic neighborhood of Chennai once known as “Black Town” by the British colonizers due to its population of so-called “natives,” but whose name was changed to George Town in 1911, after the crowning of King George V. As her various biographies state, she was born into a family of professional musicians and dancers in the “devadasi” tradition.

Dhanammal’s musical education began with her own grandmother, Kamakshi Ammal, who taught her vocal technique. Among others, she was also a student of 19th century blind veena player Baldas Naidu, as well as Dharmapuri Subbaraaya Aiyyar, considered a chief proponent and composer of javalis – a type of love song, sometimes with erotic overtones, featured in an instrumental form in today’s post.

Much of the information about Dhanammal is folkloric and anecdotal. According to her granddaughter, Tanjore Balasaraswati, herself a renowned dancer, there was little room for children in the Dhanammal household. By the time Balasaraswati was born in 1918, Veena Dhanammal’s reputation was massive, having been apparently the first woman musician to perform in a Chennai concert hall in 1895. Balasaraswati recalled that her grandmother, despite being a gentle person, disallowed any leisure time or the crying of infants in the house, and demanded she be treated as a revered musician even by family.

According to legend, Dhanammal and Abdul Karim Khan had a special relationship. The possibly apocryphal story goes that after hearing Dhanammal perform while he was on a concert trip to Chennai (then Madras), Abdul Karim Khan was so speechless after witnessing her performance and her close attention to pitch, that he immediately gave her all the money he had earned earlier that day. Another story exists where Dhanammal, a fan of Hindustani classical music, gave all HER money to Abdul Karim Khan. Regardless of what transaction occurred, it appears there was certainly a mutual appreciation between them.

This instrumental javali song (known as “Narimani”) in the kamas raga is indicative of Dhanammal’s style – very slow, nearly minimalist, and without any accompaniment whatsoever, no mridangam drum or harmonium. Just…quiet. She also played the instrument without a plectrum. While Dhanammal made her name in the 19th century, by the time she recorded for Columbia, quite late in her career, there were other female veena artists – Shanmuga Vadivu, for example (and the mother of M.S. Subbulakshmi). However, Dhanammal is the one who is most revered. I am not sure how many records she made – it may only have been this session for Columbia. Although worth mentioning are a series of 5 discs that were issued in 1908 by the Gramophone Company and that were credited as being performed by “Veena Dhanam’s Daughters.”

As a tangential aside, it’s interesting to note that just a few years prior to this recording, there was a strong anti-devadasi campaign being initiated, claiming that the devadasi tradition was akin to prostitution, with an “Anti-Nautch” bill being passed in the late 1920s. Dhanammal and others were members of the Madras Devadasi Association, who did not agree with the movement’s tenets. Dhanammal was, by all accounts, a true and even aristocratic professional, devoted to her craft. She died in 1938.

Veena Dhanammal – Javali (Kamas)

Label: Columbia
Issue Number: VE 57
Matrix Number: WEI-2578-1

The aforementioned biography on Veena Dhanammal is written by Lakshmi Subramanian and is titled “Veena Dhanammal: The Making of a Legend” on Routledge India. A biography on her granddaughter was written by Douglas M. Knight and is titled “Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life,” and is published by Wesleyan University Press.

hernandezTwo posts today. I couldn’t decide, and I like variety.

If you only consulted discographies or cursory sources on the web, you might think that this lively string band that recorded several dozen discs for Victor and Bluebird in 1928, 1929, and again in 1936, was Mexican. Even some of their records plainly say “Mexican” on them. Despite this, a look at their repertoire more closely, as well as sources in Spanish, reveal that they were in fact from Colombia.

Gonzalo, Héctor, and Francisco “Pacho” Hernández were virtuoso instrumentalists from Bogotá who played guitar, Colombian tiple, and bandola (similar to the mandolin). In the early 1920s, after touring locally, in Venezuela, and in the Caribbean, they toured the US, Canada, Europe, and even Africa. Their repertoire and recorded output was wide enough to include a host of local bambucos and pasillos, but also waltzes, corridos, paso dobles, and even classical numbers by Rimsky-Korsakov. This was likely a boon to their record company, because they could market their records (especially, perhaps, their instrumentals) locally to a variety of Spanish-speaking countries, as well as to Anglo audiences.

And the brothers Hernandez were good – they had reason to succeed. They appeared on Broadway, in films, in clubs, and in theaters, and their music managed to be both refined and folkloric, cultivating a wide audience. They occasionally even added a musical saw to their performances, which, rather than turning it into a novelty act, somehow managed to make the group more effective. Still, it’s important to remember the general attitude among westerners when it came to music from outside the canon, even music as well-made and palatable as the music by the Hernández brothers. As one patronizing journalist said of one of their performances, in what was in fact a glowing description: “They sing in an unaffected manner, and their rather homely faces are so expressive that they make even foreign hearers feel that they’re listening to the boys next door.”

Written by Colombian composer Ramón Mesa Uribe (b. 1890), this Colombian pasillo (similar to the Venezuelan waltz) was recorded in July of 1928 at Victor’s studios in Camden, New Jersey. After a slow, standard introduction, the composition blossoms.

The brothers eventually found their way back to Bogotá and continued playing as a group until the eldest, Héctor, passed away in 1948.

Hermanos Hernández – Eugenia

Label: Victor
Issue Number: 81538
Matrix Number: BVE-45805

papa noelIt’s 82° F, the sun is hot with that crisp, polarized light you see only in California and the Mediterranean. It’s breezy, the birds chirp, the jasmine is out, causing entire neighborhoods to reject their desert status and cradle everyone with a gentle scent instead of coating them with brake dust. Even though the city is always breathing under the burgeoning cloud of a devastating earthquake, and the traffic is enough to make the most patient monk let loose with godless obscenities, you won’t forget these kinds of early spring days. It’s the kind of day where it seems one’s only goal should be cocktails with good friends, and taking the shortest possible path of least resistance to get to that point.

Hopefully, this music will assist. I’ve posted other easy-going Congolese rumbas in the past, however, some of my favorite discs from this period are actually from a bit later, from the late 1950s-early 1960s, featuring the Congolese cha-cha-cha. It’s driving, sharp rhythm hits home the fact that some of the most carefree and joyous Latin music of the 20th century came out of the two cities on the river in the Congos. Many of these tunes were sung in Spanish by the Congolese – sometimes broken or improvised Spanish, but Spanish nonetheless!

The Congolese version of the cha-cha-cha was born out of the continued influence of Cuban and Caribbean music on the popular musicians of the Congo. And by the late 1950s, that influence was pervasive across Sub-Saharan Africa. The popularity of the hundreds of Congolese rumbas issued on labels like Ngoma, Opika, and Loningisa was so strong that their distribution and influence spread across to Kenya, into West Africa, and to the nightclubs of France, with much success.

The Congolese cha-cha-cha apparently began in the studios of the short-lived but influential Esengo label. In late 1956-early 1957, the Greek-owned Esengo had purloined many of the area’s most popular stars from other labels, essentially creating stellar supergroups with a stock of talent that would become the mainstays of music in the Congo for decades: Joseph “Grand Kalle” Kabasele, Nico Kasanda (aka “Dr Nico” or simply “Nico”), Nedule “Papa Noël” Montswet on guitar, Tino Baroza, Jean Serge Essous, and Nino Malapet on saxophones, and Moniania ma Muluma, also known as “Roitelet” on bass. This group, with additions and subtractions, in various shapes and forms, became the famous Orchestre Rock-A-Mambo, contributing to or issuing about 250 records on Esengo over approximately 4 years.

The first cha-cha-cha in Congo came quickly – “Baila” written by Essous, and the 7th release on the Esengo label – and it was a major success. The Orchestre Rock-A-Mambo eventually disbanded, and in the meantime members had siphoned themselves across the river to Brazzaville to form the Orchestre Bantou Jazz, another crack outfit continuing the trend of electrified rumbas, merengues, and cha-cha-chas.

This track, “The Moon and the Sun” (certainly it should be “y el” as opposed to “yel” on the label – but I’ve kept the original spelling), was written and performed by guitarist Papa Noël accompanied by the Bantou group sometime in the early 1960s. Nothing is quite as enjoyable as their perfectly timed, overlapping electric guitars – Papa Noël wasn’t quite as adventurous as Nico as a guitarist, but he was refined and perfectly timed. Seeing this band in its prime must have been simply incredible.

This release of this tune was meant for the Kenyan market. ASL (Associated Sound Limited) was an independent label that distributed Congolese pop music in East Africa. Their South African pressings are particularly clean. ASL lasted well into the 70s, but at this point in their murky history, they were issuing (guitarist Nico would claim bootlegging) 78s of original material from the masters of other Congolese labels, such as CEFA and Surboum. Bootlegs or not, the sound quality, pressing quality, and musical quality of the material on this label is tremendous.

Papa Noël et l’Orchestre Bantou Jazz – La Luna Yel Sol

Label: ASL
Issue Number: ASL.603
Matrix Number: Fo 45/9739

Visual Iconography, Pt. 5

January 23, 2015


armstrong-ellisI guess we’ll end Excavated Shellac’s 2014 on a musically wistful note – but, not for any real reason other than traditionally the new year should bring a time of reflection, or new beginnings, right? This year should bring some surprises if you’re fans of this website, if all goes as planned. In terms of music-related activities, I spent most of 2014 working on some long and short-term music projects yet to be released, and helping some friends with their releases…but mainly I was just enjoying collecting and listening to music, shutting off all the noise, and spending time with friends.

If you’re a fan of the Secret Museum series, you might be familiar with the elegant Northumbrian smallpipes and Celtic harp tunes “Chevy Chase” and “The Cott,” performed by today’s featured duo of Armstrong and Ellis. It’s a special record and difficult to track down. This is the equally terrific flip side, issued on the obscure Manor label (not to be confused with other labels with the same name, active at the same time in the US and UK). This particular Manor label appears to have been around only for a very short time, issuing about a dozen records with fairly bad pressings, mostly of Northumbrian artists, before disappearing completely.

The Northumbrian smallpipes are one of several bagpipes of historic Northumberland, at the border of Scotland on the northeast coast of England. The smallpipes usually have one keyed chanter with a closed end and a cylindrical bore, and up to four drones. The pipes have a staccato sound due to traditional playing with “covered” fingering – meaning one starts playing with the holes covered on the pipes. These smallpipes, in the form they take today, were invented in the late 18th century.

Jack Armstrong began handcrafting his own smallpipes at a time in the early 20th century when there were very few people doing so. Born in 1904 in the town of Wideopen, Armstrong didn’t begin playing the pipes seriously until about 1928, and began competing. From a family of miners, Armstrong managed to successfully avoid that profession and continue playing music, adapting a style played by his father, also a piper. He formed a band named the Barnstormers that recorded for HMV, and became the official piper for the Duke of Northumberland in 1949, the same year this piece was recorded. He died in 1978 in Wideopen. His occasional accompanist on “Celtic harp,” Alice Ellis, was a composer herself, having composed the Armstrong standard “The Cott.” An occasional pianist with the Barnstormers, she passed away in 1995.

The tune “Rothbury Hills” is a “slow air” written by Armstrong, something that he specialized in – a style that was different from his contemporaries and emphasized the quiet nature of the pipes. Rothbury is a small town on the River Coquet, inland and northeast of Newcastle upon Tyne, and the hills in question are likely the nearby Simonside Hills. The Hills have a legend attached to them – that their evil, moss-hat-wearing dwarves called duegar can lead people astray if one is not careful.

Jack Armstrong and Alice Ellis – Rothbury Hills

Label: Manor
Issue Number: M-506
Matrix Number: MRC 10-1

Thanks to Bill Dean-Myatt and GordyB. Some photos of Armstrong (and more music) can be found on the British Library site, here.

sibandaFor those of you who are not hardened collectors or intense early music fans, it’s pretty much a given that within the main preservation and collecting-spheres, primary reverence is given to “pre-war” recordings. Particularly American blues, country, and jazz. The common thought being, roughly, that before WWII, music in America was more regional, localized, more raw, and recorded without much technical embellishment. It very often contained a natural feel that began to vanish after the Great Depression due to a number of contributing factors, such as the advent of radio, coupled with the vast amount of recordings available, and the dire economic straits of the record industry at that time. Thus, musicians could easily hear each other and change or adapt at a much faster rate, homogenizing music as a whole. These are big generalizations of course, covered in a lot of literature, and with all kinds of exceptions, but on some major levels it seems undeniable.

Unfortunately, historians and collectors are sometimes guilty of applying the same generalizations about American music during this transitional or post-WWII era, to the music situation in the rest of the world. And although the Great Depression left the global record industry in an economic shambles, this did not mean that regional brilliance vanished on disc before 1939. In fact, from a global perspective, the post-WWII era was perhaps a rebirth of extremely localized music on record, due to cheap magnetic tape recorders, cheap pressing plant costs, and the advent of new transportation routes to areas that hadn’t yet had a chance to “sing.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to WWII, recording of Sub-Saharan music was sporadic, as I’ve outlined in various entries. Not only did it truly hit a stride much later compared with the rest of the world – in the late 1920s – but the recording of African music was stopped in its tracks a few short years after it began by the effects of the Depression. Once the industry recovered, the war began, and recording of Sub-Saharan African music halted again. When WWII was over, when the major European conglomerates, who almost exclusively controlled the world’s music industry, were picking up the pieces, independent competitor labels all over Sub-Saharan Africa began to appear, ushering in this new era.

The result of this was an extraordinary amount of regional recordings from ca. 1947 onward. THIS was the golden age of recording for Sub-Saharan Africa, not the music of the “pre-war” era. The recordings from this period were, in fact, more varied than the African music recorded prior to the war. Perhaps even more varied than the America of the 1920s-30s. The comparison is admittedly unfair, but I bring it up just as an example, because the music recorded in Africa broadly ranged from deeply traditional, ceremonial and functional music nowhere near Western concepts of what music was supposed to be, to all manner of adept songsters and troubadours on various local or European instruments, to crystalline, harmonious pop, influenced by everything from Cuban rumbas to Bill Haley – yet, distinctly African.

Within this post-WWII era came the guitar troubadours. Listened to today, one can’t help but compare their voices, picking styles, and melodies to American roots music guitar players from the late-20s and 30s – even musically there are often direct connections, as American country 78s were distributed in parts of Africa. Each guitarist had his/her own idiosyncrasies (and yes, there were women guitarists recorded), though they often fit into a particular regional style. I think it’s safe to say that the bulk of these players were from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, and Congo, though there were plenty of solo guitarists from Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and Malawi, as well.

While the Congolese guitarist Jean Bosco Mwenda is undoubtedly the most well-known guitarist from this era, probably the second most influential was George Sibanda from Zimbabwe. Even his biography reads like legend – in that there is almost nothing to go on except his recordings, spread over about a decade on the Gallotone label, and the fact that he drank himself to death by the late-50s after achieving great celebrity and stardom from southern Africa to Kenya.

Sibanda was “discovered” by Hugh Tracey even before Mwenda. His name spread outside of Africa after his death, as people like Jim Kweskin and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott took turns covering his tune “Guabi Guabi.” However, few had the chance to hear his recordings outside of Tracey’s reissues and the American cover versions, until Sharp Wood issued a terrific CD of a selection of his recordings.

That CD is not complete, however, and a number of brilliant Sibanda tunes remain on elusive 78s. This is one of them. While Sibanda almost always was a straight-up guitar picker, this is a slide guitar piece, and is evocative – perhaps even a wholehearted copy – of American country music. If someone told you it was recorded in 1930, would you believe it? Would it make a difference in how you listen, or your opinion of its “value”? Sibanda recorded this in the 1950s, the equivalent of the “pre-war” era musically, in Africa.

George Sibanda – Izwe Lenja Bulo

Label: Gallotone
Issue Number: GB 1973
Matrix Number: ABC SR.12342

moza_khamisThe Persian Gulf: an amazing area for traditional and popular music, though little has been written in English about its early musicians and intertwining 78rpm-era commercial recording industry. At least to those of us in the West, unless fluent in Arabic and deeply vested in the subject, it’s been a hidden history, even to specialized researchers or collectors. Not only were the recordings highly localized, it would appear they weren’t distributed much outside of the Gulf, therefore near to inaccessible. Also, it seems that early 78rpm recordings in the region were made in fits and starts, not really gaining true traction until after WWII. But music from the Persian Gulf, often labeled generally as khaleeji music (Gulf music), is not typical classical Arabic music – it has influences from India, Coastal Kenya and Zanzibar, and the countries on the opposite side of the Gulf, such as Iran. Normally, you won’t hear the embellished, refined singing or virtuosic improvisations that you would hear in classical Arabic music, nor the highly orchestrated, mid-century sounds of the great Middle Eastern entertainers. This is rhythmic, driving music with a hard-picked oud and hypnotic beats – and today’s example is khaleeji music personified.

Moza Khamis was from Oman, specifically the Al Batinah region, near the border of the Emirates. Sometime in the 1950s, she immigrated to Bahrain with her family, and possibly began her recording career there, singing Omani music. At some point, she recorded music for a small label called Bahrainphone, and apparently recorded extensively for a Qatari label known as Khalediphone. She died around 2010.

This track, the title of which translates to “You Tantalized Me, Oh Dark-Skinned Man,” was likely recorded in the early 1950s. It was issued on the Bou-Zaid Phone label based in Kuwait, with its label depiction of a traditional Gulf fisherman’s boat. Listen closely to the beginning of the track, and you’ll hear the announcement “Stwanat Bahrainphone…” which seems to indicate that it was originally issued on the Bahrainphone label.

This sums up the small Persian Gulf industry perfectly: an Omani singer, recording Omani music for a Kuwaiti label, perhaps re-pressed from the master tape on another Bahraini label, then pressed in Pakistan at Gramophone Company’s plant in Karachi. Perhaps Bahrainphone had a relationship with Bou-Zaid Phone. This situation is pretty typical of a lot of Gulf 78s, if you’re lucky enough to come across them, and care to investigate beyond the labels themselves.

Why it was like this, I’m not exactly sure. Before WWII, it doesn’t seem that any of the European recording companies thought to press discs of Gulf music until the late 1920s, and only a small amount at that – about 30 years after recording began in Burma, just as a comparison. The Baidaphone label, based in Lebanon, may have been the first, recording Kuwaiti and Bahraini artists around 1929. The Gramophone Company recorded several Bahraini artists as well (Mohammed Ibn Faris, Dahi Ibn Walid, and Mohamed Zuwayid, among others) around 1932 – extremely uncommon discs, but several were re-pressed on a now-difficult to find CD from 1994 on the Clube du Disque Arabe label, “La Musique de Bahrëin.” After that came Odeon, in ca. 1935, whom I believe also recorded in Yemen.

The rest is spotty, to say the least. There was Jafferphone in Yemen, an imprint pressed by the Lindstrom conglomerate in Germany, active in the early 30s or so. I’ve no idea how many Jafferphones were issued, or how long they existed, as copies are scarce. And the short-lived (but generally great) 1930s Syrian label, Sodwa, also issued approximately 10 discs of Gulf music.

While practically invisible to most collectors in the West, the postwar years present an extravaganza of Gulf music on a swath of local labels – often, as I mentioned, repressed on different labels from tape masters, pressed in various locations (Pakistan, Greece, India, and even Sweden), and with all sorts of beautiful designs. Bou-Zaid Phone issued a lot of discs, but there was also Gurjiphone and Salimphone in Bahrain, there was Aden Crown, Shark, and Tahaphone in Yemen, Chakmakchiphone in Iraq issued Gulf Music, there was Ebrahimphone, Arabphone (not to be confused with the US-based label of the same name), Fadliphone, Queen Record, Emperor Record, Esmail Phone, Jawharah…the list goes on. And of course, the Euro labels got into the act, with HMV issuing discs of all kinds of Gulf music in the 1950s, and Odeon, too, but distributed locally and just as scant. These labels issued music from all over the Gulf – Yemeni labels recorded Kuwaiti and Saudi artists, Kuwaiti labels recorded Bahraini and Omani artists, Bahraini labels recorded Emirian and Qatari singers, and so on. There was even a bootleg label with a poorly recreated “Odeon” design.

This is another reminder that before the advent of the 33 and 45 rpm record, 78s were virtually everywhere, providing people with their local music. They were the primary sound carrier of the 20th century for much of the world, and their global history is still being written.

Moza Khamis – ‘Athabtni Ya Asmar

Label: Bou-Zaid Phone
Issue Number: BP-134
Matrix Number: OJME-2359

A big thank you to Rheim Alkadhi and Alfred Madain, for lots of helpful information.

More info came from various disparate sources, including the now semi-defunct Zeryab website, Michael Kinnear’s writing, and discussions with collectors Benno Haupl and Dave Murray, who has a great Gurjiphone disc on his site.

turunasThere’s nothing quite like early Brazilian string band music – hot, exciting, well-played, and often extremely rare. Quite a number of groups featuring the Brazilian bandolim, cavaquinho, Brazilian acoustic guitar (the violão), banjo, and even fiddle, were recorded, but a perfect storm of factors have kept many of these discs a bit more hidden: a) very little distribution outside of Brazil, and b) a tropical climate, which can wreak havoc on 78 rpm records, drastically upping their attrition rate, making them sometimes extremely tough to dig up, even in Brazil. If you find an early Brazilian 78 – and companies began recording in the country in the first decade of the 20th century – it could be close to unplayable, or an example of the most popular style of music, large-band style samba. Or both! This is not to say that samba is in any way bad, mind you – its enduring qualities are deserved and well-documented. It just became the most popular of all styles.

“String band music” is probably too generic a term. There were several different types of Brazilian musics performed mainly on string instruments. Some of the most complex and virtuoso performances were saved for recordings of choro music, with its tight syncopation and dizzying, ragtime-like runs. Later, in the late 1920s, guitar duos from rural areas began appearing on record, performing early examples of música serteneja (literally, music from the back country). There were also string bands that had samba singers as members, such as the Bando de Tangarás, who boasted as members the greats Noel Rosa and João de Barro. Some string groups occasionally recorded Afro-Brazilian styles, such as “batuque” songs. It was a fascinating mix in the early days, especially when electric recording began in Brazil, which was around late 1927.

The Turunas de Mauricéa (also spelled as “Turunas de Mauricéia”) group was a wealth of talent, active only from 1927-1929. They were from the north.The Miranda brothers, Luperce, Romualdo, and João, were from Recife, as was the blind Manoel de Lima. Their vocalist, Augusto Calheiros, was from Maceió. Together, they became the first group to travel to Rio and record songs from the north, such as emboladas and cocos. The group’s name is a reference to Recife itself, as it was once known as Mauricéa under the Dutch rule of Maurice of Nassau. Their recordings, 18 discs in total, rare as they are today, were very influential. In fact, the flip side to this track, “Piniao,” was a hit during Carnival in 1928. This piece, with its hard picked strings and harsh, loud singing, was one of Odeon’s earliest electric recordings in Brazil – and those early electric recordings are very poor. It seems to have taken some months for the company, long active in Brazil, to improve their quality and learn how to record with new microphone technology.

This piece translates to “broken pandeiro” (the Brazilian tambourine-like drum), and was recorded in November of 1927. Luperce Miranda, the indisputable early master of the bandolim and co-author of several of the group’s songs, likely does not appear on this track and perhaps not on any of the Turunas’ recordings. He did, however, go on to have a lengthy career in music. His brother João, not as exacting and imaginative a player as Luperce yet still a terrific musician, went on as the leader of the Desafiadores do Norte, and as a songwriter for Parlophon and Brunswick. Romualdo cut one solo disc on the guitar and seems to have stopped recording after around 1930. Augusto Calheiros’ voice smoothed out as the years went on and recording technology got better, also singing his way into the 1950s.


(image courtesy of

Turunas de Mauricéa – Pandeiro Furado

Label: Odeon (Brazil)
Issue Number: 10067
Matrix Number: 1337

For several more Brazilian string band tracks, dig up “Portuguese String Music” on Heritage for a few early examples, and the Brazilian collections on Fremeaux also contain a few excellent tracks, albeit in various levels of sound quality (including “not so hot”).

lameyEntire books have been written on the rich history of fiddle playing and tunes from Cape Breton Island, and its tradition still continues with robust strength today. Type “Cape Breton fiddling” into YouTube and you’ll get everything from early recordings, to private performances at house parties, from professional contemporary players like Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac, to local youths performing, to festival performances, to this 1971 documentary, “The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler.” It may have been vanishing in 1971, but by outward appearances it seems it’s being vigorously kept alive, along with accompanying stepdancing. Today, Cape Breton is often considered the international stronghold of true, traditional Scottish fiddling.

Because of this, there’s little reason for didactic platitudes on this subject – except to state the very basics: the tradition stems from the Scottish Highlands. Highland immigrants began settling in Cape Breton in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly between 1817 and 1838 (relating to the mass emigration brought on by the dissolution of the “clan system” in Scotland, known as the Highland Clearances). With them, of course, came music for dancing – and Cape Breton’s traditional tunes have been well documented in various songbooks for the past century or more. As you’ll hear in this example, its style is forceful, often intense. One of the noticeable differences between Cape Breton fiddling and other traditional styles is the strong “up driven bow,” particularly on strathspeys, and what’s been described as a strong “whip” in each stroke, along with an extensive use of fast triplets. (Admittedly, I’m writing as a novice here – guided by ears.)

Folk music from Cape Breton was recorded erratically and only occasionally during the 78 rpm era, until Bernie MacIsaac bought a music store in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and re-named it the “Celtic Music Store” in 1935. At about the same time, he started an independent record label, also naming it “Celtic,” and got some of the very best fiddlers in the region to record for his local label, namely, Angus Chisholm (who had already recorded for the Decca label), Hugh A. MacDonald, Winston Fitzgerald, Angus Allan Gillis, Dan J. Campbell, and today’s featured fiddle player, William Hugh “Bill” Lamey. The Celtic label is legendary, despite their limited amount of releases, having done a marvelous job doing just what it should have done: serving a relatively small population with well-recorded, excellent performances of local folk music. They helped to preserve the tradition, which later was taken up to a degree by the Rodeo 78 rpm label.

Lamey was born on Cape Breton Island in 1914 and first had his own fiddle at the age of 18. While in Sydney, he continued learning from local players and eventually got his own radio show. He recorded at least six 78s beginning around the early 1940s, though his career continued for many years. This side features his long time piano accompanist, Margaret Jessie MacDonald. In 1953, he moved to Boston, and in 1966, perhaps one could say that he helped to usher in a renewed interest in Cape Breton fiddling when he became the first fiddler from the region to perform at the Gaelic Mòd in Inverness, Scotland, where he apparently devastated the crowd with his performance, earning standing ovations.

Unfortunately, very few of these classic performances have made it to the CD era. In the late 1970s, Richard Nevins of Shanachie/Yazoo issued two pivotal collections of Lamey’s and Angus Chisholm’s early sides, but they remain long out of print. Hopefully that will change. This piece features a strathspey and reel, and a wonderful end note by pianist MacDonald. Sometimes you don’t know when to stop…

W.H. (Bill) Lamey – Highland Watch’s Farewell to Ireland; Glenlivet

Label: Celtic
Issue Number: 028
Matrix Number: CT 7320

For more, check out this site on Lamey, with information on his releases, as well as Michael Robertson’s Celtic record uploads on YouTube.

43742-A1Alright, well, it’s been a while. It’s no secret that I sometimes take extended breaks. That doesn’t mean the collecting stops. Over the past few months I’ve had all manner of guests make a pit stop at Excavated Shellac headquarters to share sounds, from super-collectors to researchers to designers to dear friends. Amanda Petrusich’s book was released, in which I play a really small part, but was surprisingly quoted (almost at my most sarcastic – hey, I was on a roll) in the Wall Street Journal and LA Times. And I’ve also done a lot of work on projects that should see the light of day in the next year if I can swing it. My point is, sometimes it’s good for me to just take a break, take stock of why the hell I’m doing this, collect without that obsessive “need” and without impending, unwieldy projects looming overhead (real or imagined), and just listen to music for a while.

Well, it was fun while it lasted!

I’d realized it’s been about five years since I’d posted music from China. This disc, recorded ca. mid- to late 1928, is an unusual example as it does not feature a type of Chinese opera or popular music, probably the most overwhelmingly common types of music recorded in China at the time. Instead, it’s a recording that features chanting from a Buddhist sutra – specifically from the Vimalakirti Sutra.

I make no claims to scholarship in Buddhism. It seems to be well-documented, however, that the Vimalakirti Sutra has a lengthy history of reverence and popularity in China, having first been translated into Chinese from Sanskrit in 188 CE. In a 2014 paper on the Vimalakirti by Professor Jonathan A. Silk, he quotes Sinologist Erik Zürcher in his book The Buddhist Conquest of China as stating that “this scripture may be regarded…as a real compendium of Mahayana doctrine,” and “one of the most venerated and influential works of the Buddhist canon in the Far East.”

In the sutra, a goddess visits the room of the layperson Vimalakirti and proceeds to scatter flowers over both enlightened bodhisattvas and disciples, all gathered in the room. The flowers immediately fall off the bodhisattvas, yet they stick to the disciples. The goddess explains (quoting one easily obtainable English translation): “It is only because the latent influences [of your afflictions] are not yet exhausted that the flowers stick to your bodies. For those in whom the latent influences are exhausted, the flowers do not stick.” This seems to be the precise reference in the title to this piece, the “mantra” sung by three “householders” (laypersons, or “retired scholars” per Prof. Silk).

The Victor Talking Machine Company was one of the most prominent companies recording in parts of China in the early part of the 20th century, although all major labels were quite active. Their first one-sided recordings of Chinese music, on their Monarch label, were made ca. 1902, likely in San Francisco, and are quite rare and in demand. They eventually began recording onsite in China in 1905. In the meantime, they continued their trading arrangement with their “sister” company in Great Britain, the Gramophone Company, who had recorded in China before Victor, in 1903, by repressing some of those earliest recordings on their own Victor label. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Victor was recording Chinese music in all manner of dialects and styles including Amoy, Mandarin, Fuzhou, Shantou, Teochew, and especially Cantonese. Victor recorded thousands of Chinese discs before World War II. I’ve broadly and extensively documented Victor’s activity in a paper that will soon be published online, which I will eventually provide a link to.

I’ve included both sides of this record. For help with all our “latent influences.” Enjoy.

Householders Shen Yunsheng, Tan Rongguang, Lin Zhongfu and group – Sanskrit Mantra of Scattering Flowers, Pts 1 & 2

Label: Victor
Issue Numbers: 42742 A1/B2
Matrix Numbers: n/a

Thank you to Sun and the research of Du Jun Min.




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