It’s about time that we featured another lively piece from Martinique…or Martinique via Paris. Martinique has been a French possession since 1815 without interruption, although previous to that, it had been occupied by the French off and on since the 1600s. Today, it’s technically an overseas region of France, like Réunion and Guadeloupe. The population of Martinique is said to be descended mainly from West African slaves, as well as immigrants from a variety of cultures, including European, Carib, Chinese, and Tamil, among others. Creole is spoken, though the official language is of course French. This is all basic information, but it can be helpful when considering the complex origins of Martinique’s singular music, which, while undoubtedly influenced by the French, occupies a unique place in the history of jazz.
Orchestral biguine, the music featured on this track (as well as the name of a dance), dates from the 19th century, developed in the city of Saint Pierre. Musically, it is directly related to a very different sounding traditional drum music of Martinique also known as biguine, which is descended from West Africa. Perhaps the quintessential element in the orchestral type of biguine is the wonderfully weepy clarinet – it’s unmistakeable.
In France, beginning in the late 1920s, there began almost a Martiniquan music craze, centered around the music played at several clubs, particularly the Bal Colonial on Rue Blomet. The first discs made of this music, mainly those recorded by the giant of early Martiniquan biguine, Alexandre Stellio (1885-1939), ushered in what is considered the “golden age” of Martiniquan jazz. The standard repertoire of these bands, who often traded musicians and vocalists, included biguines, mazurkas, and waltzes, recorded from roughly 1929-1940. They are some of the most spirited examples of hot jazz from the Caribbean, or maybe jazz anywhere, for that matter, and were performed by the best Martiniquan and Guadaloupean musicians around. Martiniquan music represented cosmopolitan Paris.
Eugène Delouche (1909-1975) was one of the great clarinetists to appear on record just after Alexandre Stellio made his first recordings. Delouche studied music in school in Fort-de-France. The violin was his first instrument, but after he heard Alexandre Stellio, the story goes that he immediately switched to clarinet, and was one of Stellio’s very few rivals within a short time. It was Stellio himself who beckoned Delouche to replace him in the Martiniquan band for the Colonial Exposition in 1931. Within a year, Delouche was recording his own band for the French division of the Odeon label.
Delouche had a lengthy career. He continued to record extensively in the post-WWII era, particularly on his own Ritmo label with his Creole jazz band. He was also a trained cobbler, and continued to repair shoes until his death in Saint-Ouen, where he was also working as a taxi driver.
Many great examples of early Martiniquan jazz have been reissued. These reissues, with the exception of a terrific Arhoolie release (Au Bal Antillais), have mainly been in France, and many have now gone out of print. Fremeaux, thankfully, has kept their three 2-CD sets of the history of biguine in print, as well as the complete recordings of Alexandre Stellio, and those are findable.
This track, originally recorded around the middle of 1932, looks to have once been reissued years ago on a CD titled “Creole Orchestras In Paris” that seems to be long out of print. So, I thought I’d resurrect it here with a new transfer from my copy.
Catalog Number: 250.251
Matrix Number: KI 5474
May 25, 2013
Early Cajun recordings are really something else – and in the US collecting them is sort of akin to collecting the rarest American blues records, except, quite possibly, even more rarified. There are a finite amount of early Cajun 78s, and when an exceptional Cajun disc turns up it is almost always played to death, with not one shiny groove.
I’ll say upfront that I am not a Cajun collector. Though I love the music, my expertise is elsewhere. That said, I’ve managed to acquire a few rare Cajun gems that I treasure, by artists that I love. Most have already been lovingly transferred to CD (see the Resources page for in-print CDs of early Cajun music) – but I wanted to post this one, which has not made it to CD yet (though some mediocre mp3s float around) by one of the early Cajun greats: accordionist Joseph Falcon and his wife, the guitar player Cléoma Falcon (née Breaux).
Rather than restate what’s been written by many other Cajun music experts, musicians, and writers, I’ll keep it very brief. Joseph and Cléoma were the very first Cajun musicians to ever record a 78, the oft-cited (and fantastic) tune “Allons à Lafayette,” in April of 1928. They had more or less a steady career on 78s as a duo until Cléoma passed away in 1941. Joseph continued his career until his death in 1965.
This track, the name of which is commonly spelled “Sosten,” “Sosthene” or “Sothene,” is a waltz in G-sharp played on a C-sharp accordion, and was recorded in New Orleans on December 22, 1934. This was the Falcon’s very first song recorded for their first session for Decca Records. It has since been covered by many contemporary Cajun artists such as Michel Doucet and Wayne Thibodeaux. Lyrics for this song are online, but they are not quite the same as Falcon’s version, although Falcon’s version does begin with the standard line: Oh, Madame Sosthene, mais donnez moi Alida; cette la j’ai aime depuis l’age de quatorze ans (Oh, Madame Sosthene, give Alida to me; the one I’ve loved since the age 14). The Falcons would record 40 songs for Decca over the next 3 years.
Novice that I am, Dave Murray pointed out to me (and I’m paraphrasing) that the notes on the bass side of the accordion, when played in 2nd position, create a harmonic clash on the resolve. So at the end of each phrase, you can hear a distinct clash between Cléoma’s guitar chord and Joseph’s accordion.
Catalog Number: 17000
Matrix Number: 39185-A
Thanks to Dave Murray!
While this beautifully frenzied piece might be a challenge for some, I think it could be one of the more historically interesting tracks I’ve posted in a while. This recording is among the very first ever made in Uganda, meant for Ugandans. It’s exceptionally rare, and it has an interesting history.
In 1930, there was a mad rush by the four major European record companies to explore the East African market, likely based somewhat on the sales success of the Gramophone Company’s first recordings of East African musicians (Zanzibari musicians, to be specific) made in Mumbai, beginning in 1927. By the time Spring of 1930 came around, the Gramophone Company had sent engineers back to East Africa to make additional recordings, Columbia was recording in April of 1930 on Zanzibar and in Dar Es Salaam in Tanganyika, and Pathé would soon ship Kenyan musicians from Mombasa to record taarab music in Marseilles. The successful German conglomerate Odeon was also recording in East Africa in the Spring of 1930, having sent engineers to Mombasa to record taarab music, but – unlike the other companies – also to Kampala, Uganda, to make that country’s first commercial recordings.
The country now known as Uganda was, in 1930, a British protectorate, and would remain one until its independence in 1962. It fell under British rule during the infamous period known as the “Scramble For Africa,” and in 1894 it officially became known as the British Protectorate of Uganda. During the run-up to British occupation, Protestant ministers began appearing in the country as missionaries, some of whom were hosted by the CMS, the Church Missionary Society, a Protestant organization founded in 1799 as The Society for Missions to Africa and the East. Naturally, the relationship between the church and the local population must have been (and likely still is) extraordinarily complex, and it would be a mistake for me to expound upon it here, as I can’t claim expertise in the slightest.
But, getting back to Kampala in 1930: on their trip, the German engineers from Odeon likely went to Mombasa in Kenya first, where they recorded 215 individual titles (the equivalent of 107+ 78s), after which they went to Kampala where they recorded a comparatively slight 60 titles. By June of the following year, Odeon had pressed 108 discs of music from Mombasa – virtually every master take from the sessions – and only 23 discs of music from Uganda. These records seem to be all we have from the Uganda of 1930, and the only commercially recorded Ugandan music captured for the next 8 years or so, when the British HMV company began recording in Uganda for the first time.
Who organized these varied recordings? Surprisingly: the church, specifically the Church Missionary Society. Renowned African ethnomusicologist Klaus Wachsmann wrote about these discs in 1958, for the Journal of the International Folk Music Council:
The western pattern of mechanical and commercial distribution of music was late in reaching Uganda – the Uganda Broadcasting Service, for instance, started only in 1954 – and thus the musical prestige held by the Church and her school system was – but for indigenous folk music – hardly challenged from any quarter.
The contents of the first set of gramophone records made in Uganda in 1931 throw light on this issue. The set is remarkable in that it includes tribal African music of an extraordinarily pure and characteristic kind, and that these recordings were distributed through a subsidiary organisation of the Church whose prestige added much to the happy reception which these recordings were given. This was probably the first occasion on which the Church showed sympathy with indigenous folk song.
Paul Vernon, in his article on Odeon Records, found evidence that these recordings sold quite well (except for the church choir recordings, which apparently didn’t sell at all!) and local distribution was through the Uganda Bookshop. About 500 copies each were pressed, and there were plans to release the remaining tracks over the following two years, though this is unclear, as in 1931, Odeon merged with most of the operating record industry in Europe to form EMI.
I have a few of these Odeons from Kampala, and they are all starkly different in style. They feature the Christian choir from the Namirembe Cathedral, unaccompanied canoe songs, and today’s example, traditional songs featuring the thumping, plucked strings of the endongo bowl lyre, and the jittery bowing of Ugandan one-stringed tube-fiddles known as ndingidi. In this case, they are also accompanied by what sounds like a flute in the background. Hugh Tracey, when he recorded the same group over 20 years later, marveled at the group’s regal adornment of their instruments. The ndingidi and the endongo lyres were decorated with colobus monkey hair, and the hollow wood bowls of the endongo were laced with water lizard skin (the lacing is usually made from cow or calf skin). This is, in effect, royal court music, as the endongo has had a long association with Ugandan kings. These Odeon discs were well recorded in sonorous spaces, and if you’ve not heard this style of music before, you are in for a unique experience.
I am indebted to British ethnomusicologist and an expert on Ugandan music, Peter Cooke, who has enlightened me with regard to these particular recordings, and supplied the bulk of relevant information here, along with the works of Werner Graebner. After listening to the disc and examining the label, Peter explained that John Kasirie was the leader of this group, which was known as Abadongo ba kabaka, or “the King’s endongo band,” a changing group of musicians known to have been active since before the mid-19th century.
Peter introduced me to his colleague Dr. Sam Kasule at the University of Leicester, who graciously took some time and summarized the lyrics. The piece itself, the title of which is more properly written as “Ssabasajja omwana wa Nabijano,” translates to “Your Majesty, Child of Nabijano,” with “Nabijano” being another name for the Queen mother. A praise song, the singers extol the virtues of both the king and his mother, using the short form of Nabijano, or “Naba.” They declare that the king is different, special, and great (wanjawulo). The singer invites his musicians to join him in these praises, and they praise the Queen mother’s Mbogo – buffalo – clan (Dr. Kasule explained that in Buganda, princes belong to their mother’s clans).
Catalog Number: A242052b
Matrix Number: BrO 352
With many thanks to Peter Cooke and Sam Kasule. Please check out Peter’s illuminating liner notes to the excellent Honest Jons release Something Is Wrong, as well as his CD on Topic, The King’s Musicians: Royalist Music From Buganda-Uganda.
Above: A group of musicians from Kyambogo National Teachers’ College, ca. 1967-1968. The endongo player is Bulasio Busuulwa, and the ndingidi player to his left is Christopher Kizza. (Photo by Peter Cooke.)
Below: Ugandan lyre ensemble, ca. 1949-1953. Photo taken by Klaus Wachsmann.
May 15, 2013
After a much needed 3-month break to regroup, I’m back with a number of posts either completed or in the works. So, stay tuned and keep checking in – the ES Facebook page is also back in action.
Starting off this flurry of activity is an intense, trance-like guitar and vocal piece from what was once Portuguese East Africa, now the present-day Republic of Mozambique. Under Portuguese rule until independence in 1975, Mozambique is known for several singular types of music, among the most well-known being the timbila music of the Chopi people, played with mbila xylophones, and the urban music known as marrabenta.
Like its neighbor South Africa, Mozambique is a large country with many musical styles, cultures, and influences. Very little has been written about traditional Mozambican records made prior to independence and the 45 rpm era – although, one major and unsurprising exception is the writing and recordings made by Hugh Tracey. Tracey’s recordings of Chopi timbila performances, for example, are renowned, and many of them have since been lovingly reissued on Sharp Wood CDs. He wrote a book about the music of the Chopi which sadly remains out of print, as with many of his other publications. Lesser known are the tracks Tracey recorded by the Tswa people, and the amazingly beautiful “sambas” and “rhumbas” by groups of musicians from Manjacaze.
Also lesser known are the host of guitarists and singers who played what was then known as “Portuguese Shangaan guitar” – the hard edged style that would eventually become known as marrabenta, usually played in the southern regions of the country. The Shangaan are a sub-group of the Tsonga people, though “Shangaan” is also considered a variant name for the Tsonga language. And the word “marrabenta” actually derives from the Portuguese word “rebentar,” which means “to break”…as in, these players are playing their guitars so hard and for so long, that they’ll break the strings!
For the Gallotone label, Tracey recorded many excellent guitarists and singers who played this proto-marrabenta music, mainly in the 50s, and some have found their way to CD. But other South African commercial labels also recorded “Shangaan guitar,” and those have been lost to time for the most part. I cannot determine exactly when this style first appeared on disc, but I am guessing by the late 1940s there were several Tsonga/Shangaan guitar discs in circulation.
This obscure track dates from the early 1960s, sung by the “Virgin of Mozambique,” a woman named Rosa D. Mataveia. It was issued on the USA label, which was a South African label in the Gallotone family. I could find nothing on her history or background, but if this is all she left us, then we can still be thankful.
Label: USA (South Africa)
Catalog Number: USA.187
Matrix Number: ABC.19648
For more early Mozambican guitar, definitely check out Forgotten Guitars from Mozambique on Sharp Wood (from original tapes). Opika Pende contains two cuts from 78s (Disc 4, Tracks 4 & 11), and so does The Secret Museum of Mankind (East Africa, Tracks 2 & 18), as well as the Musique Populaire Africaine CD on Buda Musique (Tracks 1-2). And check the Sharp Wood CDs for additional Chopi, Tswa, and other Mozambique field recordings by Tracey.
March 10, 2013
February 18, 2013
The volcanic archipelagos of Cape Verde, Madeira, and the Azores – all former Portuguese colonies or current Portuguese autonomous regions located in the Atlantic Ocean – have historically seemed remote in terms of their geography, but also unreachable when it comes to early recordings. Although there is some scientific disagreement, it appears that all three of these island chains were uninhabited before the Portuguese began stopping by and subsequently claiming and inhabiting them in the 1400s. While there is an indelible musical link between the music of the islands and the music of Portugal, as islands located between continents, their music has also been influenced from centuries of connectivity with sailors and people of other cultures (in terms of Cape Verde, for example, African slaves), thus giving their music a particular uniqueness.
Unfortunately, there is very little evidence in terms of early recordings featuring music from these islands. Cape Verde fared the best. In the early 1930s, the Columbia label in the United States issued about 12 discs featuring Cape Verdean music by Augustus Abreu and Johnny Perry’s bands, respectively. These recordings were made in New York City, and it’s highly probable that both groups were from coastal New England, where many Portuguese and Portuguese island immigrants settled. They also happen to be fantastic examples of regional music, with both bands featuring excellent fiddle players. Unfortunately, it does not appear that any Cape Verdean music was issued on 78 by any other record labels until Parlophone issued quite a few in the 1950s. While still unique, the later examples I’ve found are not nearly as exciting as the earlier US-recorded discs. (To hear some of the early recordings, I recommend tracking down the out of print LP/CD Portuguese String Music, on Heritage.)
Madeira, on the other hand, fared the worst. Paul Vernon has noted that in the 1950s, Decca issued some 33rpm EPs featuring Madeiran folk music, therefore it’s possible that 78s do exist, but he hadn’t documented any, nor have I. There were some commercial pop discs by Portuguese band leaders where songs were credited as being Madeiran, but in fact are simply pop songs.
Now, to the Azores. Throughout the 20th century, due to varying economic problems, Azoreans immigrated to North America, primarily settling in coastal New England towns, but also places like Toronto and Alameda County, California. In 1919, there were approximately 100,000 Azoreans in the United States. One would think that such a sizable immigrant population would warrant some original folk music being recorded! For example, there were only a few thousand Albanian-Americans in the United States at that time, and discs of Albanian music were issued on both major and independent labels. But, that was not the case with music of the Azores – at least not until the 1940s.
The only known early commercial recordings of Azorean folk music were made in Oakland, California, on a vaguely mysterious, independent label named after its proprietor: Anthony Sears. Their pressings were lousy – grainy and noisy, and sometimes with pressing defects such as dents. However, they are wonderfully rootsy, unpolished performances, likely made under non-professional conditions, and possibly recorded by family members and friends. Virtually no information exists on the web about these recordings. Who was Anthony Sears, and what was his story?
Researching a man with a common name like “Anthony Sears” who was active in a large metropolis is not necessarily an easy task. But, we are given one major clue on the front of his record label: the business address, at 8423 E. 14th Street in Oakland. Unfortunately, the present day site of that address is now the Tassafaronga Recreation Center. In other words, it’s a baseball field. All traces of Sears’ place of business and the structures that held it are gone. Check that off of the list.
Searching digitized newspapers by ProQuest and Newspaper Archive does not give us much to go on, either. The San Francisco Chronicle has been digitized only until 1922, and gave me one clue – a man named Anthony Sears of Alameda, California, was arrested for not paying child support in 1897. Same person? I didn’t think so. This Anthony Sears was a grown man in 1897 with multiple children, and likely not making recordings ca. the mid-1940s. Was he a relative? I moved on to the Newspaper Archive and got a hit on the address – by the 1950s, 8423 E. 14th Street was a bar called Gilbert’s. Nothing further, and nothing on Sears. Hm.
In this day and age, it’s hard for some people to wrap their heads around the fact that most of the world’s information is still not online, and not digitized with optical character recognition software. Scholars and researchers know this – but many “digital natives” don’t. If you’re lucky, a newspaper might have a subject or name index. In the case of the San Francisco Chronicle, one does exist, but it only covers major topics. A tidbit about a man named Anthony Sears would never have been indexed by the Chronicle back then (though it might be kept in a clippings file). No, in order to properly research a person like Anthony Sears, you have to actually go to a city library with generous microfilm and microfiche holdings, sit down at a machine, and do real research. I mention this because sometimes people assume this stuff just appears out of thin air. Over the years, I have spent countless hours wrangling microfilm machines for various projects, straining to read out-of-focus articles in long-dead publications. While I didn’t find all that much on Sears or his life, and I wasn’t able to trek up to the Bay Area to pore over the microfilm of local Portuguese newspapers like the “Uniao Portuguesa” not available in Los Angeles (and where I would bet there might be some additional information), just by looking up early phone books, censuses, and my perennial favorite, the Polk City Directory, I was able to identify the Anthony Sears who was behind these recordings.
First off, there were several people named Anthony Sears active in Oakland at that time. There was the Anthony Sears mentioned above, aka “Antone J. Sears,” “Tony J. Sears,” and simply “Tony Sears.” A waiter, barber, and insurance solicitor, he disappears from public records at about 1918. I realized he was not our man. Then there was Anthony Sears the mechanic and utility man, also from Portugal, who lived with his wife Helen, and who first appears in public records at about 1940. He seemed like a possibility, but I couldn’t connect him with the address on the record. There was also Anthony Sears the porter, and Anthony E. Sears the “vulcanizer” – not them, either.
The Anthony Sears who created these recordings was Anthony A. Sears, born in Portugal or a Portuguese territory on February 13, 1887. I have no idea precisely where he was born, nor do I have any idea what his exact connection to the Bay Area was, but Sears first appears in Alameda County in the 1920 census and in 1921 city directories, with his business address located directly next door to his future 78rpm business, at 8425 E. 14th. It’s no surprise that Sears’ home at that time was in nearby San Leandro – that city was the center for Portuguese immigrants in California.
It turns out he, too, was a barber, and remained one for most of his life as far as I can tell, save for a brief period where he was partnered with a man named G. K. Porterfield, and their “Porterfield and Sears” real estate, insurance, and loan business that lasted a brief 2-3 years. Anthony’s wife was named Anna (sometimes “Annie”), and after living in San Leandro, they settled in a small house on 86th Avenue, in Oakland. Anthony soon dropped the real estate work and went back to working as a barber, now moving his shop one door down to 8427 E. 14th St.
The 1930 census revealed 43-year old Anthony and his wife Anna, age 38, living with their 14 year old son, Albert. Census data can be a trove of helpful information. For example, I found that young Albert was born in Massachusetts, as was Sears’ wife. Anthony also states his date of immigration into the United States as 1908. The closest passenger list record (I checked Boston and Ellis Island records) that matches Sears would be a man named “Antonio Soares” (very likely Sears’ original last name) who arrived in the United States in 1907, at the age of 20, from São Miguel, in the Azores, and who was joining family in New Bedford. Whether this is the same person I can’t prove, as there were literally a few dozen men named “Antonio Soares” who immigrated to the United States from the Azores, but it’s the best match yet. Even without that evidence, it probably means that the Sears family moved out west from Massachusetts, on or before 1920. Also of note, their 86th Avenue neighbors in Oakland were also named Soares…
Fifteen years later, in 1939, Anthony was by then a barber at the record label address, 8423 E. 14th St., and still living at the home on 86th Avenue. Their son Albert, now married to Dorothy (possibly young Dorothy Soares, their neighbor?), was working as a mechanic, and lived with Anthony and Anna for a couple of years before moving out. One thing I could now confirm because of the address: these Azorean recordings were almost certainly made after 1939.
Anthony and Anna had moved to a home on Edes Avenue by 1943. By 1949, there was no trace of Anthony in public records. It turns out he died in 1951. His only child Albert appears to have died at the young age of 40, in 1956. Anna Sears continued to live in the Edes Avenue house until at least 1954, but by 1957, she was gone, too. There is no record of an Anna or Annie Sears, with her particular date of birth, in California death records (though there is an intriguing close match). At any rate, we can almost certainly say that the barber Anthony Sears made these recordings at his place of business, sometime between 1939 and 1949. What connection did Sears have with that street and that block of addresses? Who were the other musicians? I have no idea.
Despite not knowing much about Sears himself, it’s true that “Anthony Sears” was an interesting homespun label. Sears didn’t just issue Azorean discs (of which there were at least 16 discs issued). He mainly issued Portuguese music – at least 35 discs – especially fado performed by presumably local musicians, also backed by the “Sears Orchestra,” which sometimes consisted of just a fiddle and mandolin. Some of these are apparently syrupy, but some of the fado tracks have a real down home quality to them, too. The label itself says that they are “modinhas” – folk songs.
This track, thankfully, is the opposite of syrupy. After a short verbal introduction, Sears and Co. launch into a terrific, fiddle-based dance tune with some of the greatest unhinged vocals I’ve heard in a while. The piece itself is a “chamarrita,” a type of folk dance, and is performed here in the style from the Azorean island of Faial, with its black sand beaches and the large Cabeço Gordo volcano in its center.
Label: Anthony Sears
Catalog Number: APS 615
Matrix Number: same
Without overdoing it or descending into a lame speech, I just wanted to say a couple of things about the elephant in my room, the Grammy Awards, which took place last weekend here in Los Angeles. What the hell – it’s my website, I might as well put a word down on virtual paper. First, and perhaps most obvious, I was naturally happy that we were nominated. It’s the highest honor in the American music industry, for crying out loud – at some point, it doesn’t do anyone any good to be cynical. Second, I am really lucky that Opika Pende was even produced in this day and age much less considered for the award, especially with the relentless onslaught of reissues coming out each year, vying for consumers’ attention. I mean, it could have easily been bypassed in favor of the latest distended Pink Floyd archive release. (The Best Historical Album category allows any release that contains material older than a mere five years.) But it wasn’t bypassed. It was recognized. Like several of the other nominees, we had no corporate or philanthropic monolith’s money behind us. And frankly, like others who work hard at labors of love, I think we all deserved every bit of that nomination, and then some. It took 10 years to accumulate the recordings, 4 years to develop the project, a year to write the book and contact dozens of linguists, musicologists, native speakers, and scholars, 3 months of rapid, 7-day-a-week design work, and 3 months of detailed restoration and mastering. Good people put lots of exceptional work into this thing. All the while I was working my full time job, getting a Master’s at night and on weekends, and periodically traveling back and forth across the country for extended visits on Family and Medical Leave to help take care of my mother who was dying of cancer, watching as she, ravaged by chemotherapy, hung delicate and colorful homemade signs that said “Opika Pende” all over her home in a heartbreaking attempt to stave off the inevitable. And that’s not even the half of it, but at the risk of getting too self-involved, I’ll cap it off with that. Life’s hard, we all know it, and projects like this one take untold hours. No matter we didn’t win – it was a long shot. The project was finished, released, and thankfully, deservedly, recognized. If you purchased and enjoyed the set, I really am happy about that. If you haven’t, there’s something special waiting for you. And if there’s any justice, there are many others who have devoted their lives to releasing some of the most influential early recordings on earth who have never been nominated and should be. (Richard Nevins of Yazoo Records, anyone? Talk about a lifetime achievement award.) So…onward!
January 21, 2013
Here’s a selection of three early and rare traditional music discs from Peru, all recorded and released by the Victor company of the United States, and sold in Peru. These have been on my turntable for months now, as I find them incredibly beautiful pieces of music, each in their own way. I’ll get to the music in a moment, but first, a little context and history, which, while kind of arcane, will maybe help paint the picture of what was happening in the industry at the time.
The Victor Talking Machine Company was extremely active in South America. In fact, they probably had the largest share of the South American 78rpm market through World War II once they and their sister company, the Gramophone Company in England, made a non-competitive agreement between each other in the early part of the 20th century. That agreement dictated that Victor could record in North and South America, Japan, the Philippines, parts of China, and even a little Southeast Asia. The Gramophone Company, alias HMV, could have….everywhere else! The idea of record companies dividing up the world is a little troubling to say the least, but it was such a new technology and a new market, it’s hardly surprising. And, that’s not to say that Victor was the only outfit recording south of the equator. The German companies, such as Odeon, were active in Argentina and Brazil, in particular. However, Victor was among the first companies to record regional music of Peru.
Victor first recorded Peruvian musicians and ensembles in September of 1913. For most of that month, they recorded orchestras, guitar duos, “estudiantinas,” comedians, and military bands. In total 65 discs worth of material was issued of the 128 recordings made, with many different song types represented, and all of them appear to have been recorded in Lima.
In 1917, Victor once again recorded a significant amount of Peruvian music, but this time, they began recording regionally, starting their sessions in the south of the country, in the city of Arequipa. One of the first groups they recorded in 1917 was a trio, flute players accompanied by a guitar player, credited only as “Trio Arequipeño de Quenas.” The flute known as the quena is probably the most well-known Andean instrument. Usually made from cane or wood, it goes by many different local names in indigenous Peruvian cultures. The most common form of quena has 7 holes (1 in the back), and is about 30-40 cm long. This piece, “Planta del Desierto” (Desert Plant) was recorded on August 8, 1917, and is an example of the yaraví song style. Yaraví is generally common in the mountainous areas of southern Peru, and is usually played slowly, with a wistful mood.
The trio featured here recorded a total of 10 pieces, with 7 of them actually released. Some ancillary information exists for this record. According to notes kept by Victor, this disc sold 3,410 copies, quite a high amount for a regional record of this sort. It’s also interesting that within the Victor ledgers, there’s a reference to a salesman in Peru named Riega (apparently in charge of the sessions) stating that he did not like the discs recorded by the Trio Arequipeño de Quenas, and that he could not sell them! Sales figures need to be taken with a grain of salt, however – they are often misleading or flat-out wrong as some discographers have pointed out, and merely exist as a guide. However, this is a good indication that this was a steady seller for Victor (though I’ve never seen another copy). Also of note - the Victor ledger states that the guitarist broke a string and ruined the previous take. The Trio were at the session for over 12 hours that day, nearly 96 years ago.
After recording in Arequipa, Victor continued their 1917 Peru sessions in Lima, recording from late August through mid-September 1917. These sessions yielded over 221 individual recordings. However, about 68 of them were never issued for one reason or another, so all told, only about 77 Peruvian 78s came out of the 1917 sessions. Within those discs were two versions (the first recorded?) of the famed “El Condor Pasa.”
From 1919-1928, Victor did not record in Peru at all – however, that didn’t stop them from marketing music to Peru. Besides all manner of discs being sold in music stores in Peru, Victor was recording a host of solo musicians and bands in New York, and marketing the music specifically to Peruvian stores and consumers. For example, in 1920 and 1921, American bandleader Nat Shilkret recorded some Andean melodies with harpist Francis J. Lapitino under the name “Victor Orchestra.” A few years later, Shilkret recorded dozens and dozens of tracks pressed for the Peruvian market, including Quechua songs, under the name “Orquesta Internacional,” which may have been an attempt to keep the Peruvian market alive.
However, in March and April 1928, additional on-site Peruvian sessions began in earnest once again, and some amazing discs were recorded. Again, Victor chose Lima and Arequipa as the locations for the sessions. The sessions were organized by Victor’s agents in Peru, F. W. Castellano and Brother, and they yielded nearly 40 discs, which were pressed in the United States, shipped back to Peru, and in Peruvian record stores by August of that same year. Starting in Lima, the Castellanos apparently took advantage of several music contests leading up to the annual Day of San Juan festival, which brought a number of then-renowned local artists and ensembles into Lima for work.
One of these groups consisted of Alejandro Sáez along with the brothers Augusto and Elías Ascuez (apparently bricklayers by day, though they were considered popular and respected musicians of the time period, even playing for Peruvian presidents) - they alone recorded the equivalent of 10 discs in 1928 (for some reason, unlike other discs, Peruvian 78s were often artistically split, with a different group featured on each side). This group recorded examples of música criolla, literally “creole music,” which was a kind of coastal, syncretic urban music that developed in Lima due to the gradual movement into the city by various ethnic groups. This piece, recorded in Lima in March 28, 1928, features guitar, piano, and the cajón, aka the “big box,” a wooden box that’s played with the hands and thought to be of Afro-Peruvian origin. The tune is a marinera, a type of música criolla song.
Finally, Victor spent two days in late April 1928 recording artists in Arequipa, including the Estudiantina Duncker, a band originally from Puno, the city on the banks of Lake Titicaca. Estudiantinas in Peru were groups of musicians of mixed heritage, mestizo in nature, which played indigenous music in more formal settings, emphasizing traditional instruments coupled with modern ones (violins, for example). The piece I’ve uploaded is Quechua (or “Kehswa” as it is transliterated on the label). The title in Quechua is “Ripusajjña” and its alternate title in Spanish is “Ya Me Voy” (“I Am Going”). The Estudiantina Duncker recorded 8 sides on April 24, 1928, including four Quechua songs, one Huayno, and one Aymará. It is repetitive, lulling, and terrific music (and in the best condition of the three – Peruvian discs are difficult to find in exceptional condition).
Victor continued recording in Peru, and in the following years they got around to issuing music from Ayacucho, Cusco, Acomayo, and all manner of regional music. After World War II, independent labels in Peru began appearing, such as Sono Radio, Virrey, and Smith Records. By then, of course, a generation had passed, and the music, while still vibrant and alive, had changed.
Catalog Numbers: 69902-B, 81807-A, 81931-A
Matrix Numbers: G-2228, XVE-42637, XVE-42675
Much information gleaned from the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings and Luis Gomez’s doctoral dissertation on música criolla for Stony Brook University, 2010.