Sudan at 78 rpm


In July of 2020, I attempted a simplistic recording history of Somali music on 78; a history still clouded in a lot of mystery, with most known recordings not fully documented. Perhaps even more esoteric a topic is the recorded music of Sudan on 78. As with Somalia, the early music of Sudan certainly was set to disc and sold commercially, but compared to the music of Egypt and North Africa, or the music of the Levant, or even music from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, little of it has been documented in a methodical fashion, at least in English. I would also say that outside of some collector and historian circles, this history is altogether unfamiliar.

Prior to the 1950s, it appears there were no “sessions” in Khartoum. It was not a stop for peregrine engineers from the European multinational recording companies, although technically, by 1899, one could take trains from Cairo to Khartoum, crossing the Nile at Wadi Halfa just south of the Egyptian border. The first known recordings of music from the Sudan appear to have been made in Cairo in February of 1903 by Gramophone Company engineer Franz Hampe. It was the company’s first expedition to Cairo and was likely exploratory, to a degree. They hadn’t yet contracted or recorded such famed early Egyptian singers as Abdel Hayy Hilmi or Yusuf Al-Manyalawi. Hampe cut a grand total of four sides by the “Sudanese Vocal Quartet” during his trip. Two were seven-inch, single-sided 78s, and two were ten-inch. The larger discs were both titled “Love Song of Sudan.” The shorter tracks were titled “Prayer” and “Song.” That’s all that is known, for now.

It took that same massive company another twenty-eight years to once again record music from Sudan, when in March 1930, back in Cairo, Sudanese singer Fatma El Chameya cut six sides for GramCo/HMV. Well, technically only two of her records were released, as two of the sides were “damaged” and never issued, according to the files. However, by that time there was a young Sudanese businessman in Cairo working with other labels, and he was bringing Sudanese musicians to the city to record: an entrepreneur who went by the pseudonym Dmitri Al-Bazaar.


Dmitri Al-Bazaar was born Dimitrios Nikolaou Kativanides around the turn of the 20th century in the Dongola area of northern Sudan. Al-Bazaar’s father was a Greek-Austrian who lived and worked in Sudan, and whose mother was the sister of famed Austrian soldier and colonial administrator in the Sudan, Rudolf Carl von Slatin (1857-1932) aka “Sultan Pasha.” Al-Bazaar’s father married a local Dongola woman, and while growing up young Al-Bazaar lived an educated, multilingual, bi-cultural existence, with his father calling him “Dmitri” and his mother calling him “Mohammed.”

His first business was in the central “bazaar” of Khartoum in the early 1920s, where he acted as a local photographer and newspaper agent for Cairo papers and magazines, eventually establishing a popular shop and magazine “library.” At some point in the mid-1920s, his Cairo connections suggested he become a gramophone agent in Khartoum, and it appears that by 1925 he was the regional agent for the Baidaphon label which had a thriving Cairo department (although as a company it was largely run out of Beirut and Berlin).

Legend has it that Al-Bazaar tried to engage his Sudanese musician friends to record in Cairo around this time, but they were unenthusiastic, thinking that the act of playing music on discs could be perceived as fomenting resistance against colonial powers. It appears that Al-Bazaar eventually prevailed, although from here on out, precise details are vague. It’s been said, however, that the first Sudanese artist that Al-Bazaar arranged to record was Abdullah Al-Mahi, who recorded several discs in Cairo ca. 1928.

The music that Al-Mahi and the Sudanese musicians who also recorded during that era is now referred to as haqeeba music. The story of haqeeba is fascinating as it was not a term in use at the time. Haqeeba, meaning “briefcase,” is in reference to a Sudanese radio show from the 1940s hosted by Ahmed Mohamed Saleh, on Radio Omdurman. On this show, which was called “Haqeebat al-Fann,” Saleh would play old Sudanese 78 rpm records – discs from his briefcase, so to speak. Thus, the term haqeeba was born, used to refer to older, popular Sudanese music on commercial 78 rpm records.

It appears that, apart from the two discs made in 1930 for HMV by Fatima El Chameya (one side of which can be heard on the 2008 Honest Jon’s compilation “Sprigs of Time”), the majority of early Sudanese recordings were issued on the Odeon label. They appeared scattered throughout their Cairo series from the late 1920s to the late 1930s. By 1937, Odeon offered over 118 discs from Sudan, including discs by Abdel Karim Karouma (Romanized simply as “Karoma” on discs), Mohamed Ahmed Sarour (“Sarur” on discs), Etoum and Ibrahim Abdel Jalil, Mademoiselle Nagat, Osman Kili, and Bechir el Robatabi, among others.

Major labels were not the only outlet for Sudanese song at that time. Again, very little has been written in English about Armenian music entrepreneur Setrak Mechian, except that he was a notorious early gramophone agent, salesman, and recordist. He was born in 1877 and began his career as early as 1904, attempting to get into the business in the Levant. By 1908, he was Odeon’s agent in Beirut, and already had earned the ire of both major and independent labels for bootlegging all of their records, likely by crudely making copies of existing discs with a pair of hydraulic presses. That same year he started his own label – “Fabrik Mechian” – and moved his business and production to Cairo. Apparently he was a one-man-army, recording the artists, announcing the performers himself, and even pressing the records himself; a true renaissance man. While a nuisance to the moneyed international labels and with records pressed on poorly refined shellac, Mechian was dogged, and recorded many important Egyptian singers during the years his label was active. In the 1930s, Dmitri Al-Bazaar, our agent from Sudan, is documented as working for the Mechian company in Cairo and this is likely when a variety of Sudanese recordings also began appearing on the Mechian label.

(Sudanese discs on Mechian courtesy of Ahmad Al-Salhi.)

In the 1950s, several East African labels issued a smattering of Sudanese discs, including the Tom Tom label (one is featured on my “Alternate History” collection); however, some or perhaps all of these were examples of music from South Sudan. One label named Sudanphone was also active, although the scope of their releases is totally unknown. Their records were pressed in Greece and one issue is in the Benno Haupl collection at UC Santa Barbara.


It’s unclear to me if Dmitri Al-Bazaar was responsible for the entirety of Sudanese recordings that appeared on Odeon in the 1920s-1930s, but it seems likely. This piece, by Bechir el Robatabi accompanied by the tanbur, was perhaps issued ca. 1927-9.

Bechir El Robatabi – Nassim Habali

Label: Odeon
Issue Number: A 224000 (b)
Matrix Number: Ek 8

Thank you to Ahmad Al-Salhi, Mary Kapkidi, Gokhan Aya, Gabe Lavin, Hugo Strötbaum, and the Michael Kinnear archives.

Orchestra lui Harţegan şi Zmed – Învârtita din Detroit

This is the first Romanian track I’ve featured on the site. There were a considerable number of Romanian-Americans that recorded vernacular music for numerous U.S.-based labels during the 78 era. Of course, many exceptional Romanian-American musicians played and recorded what is now called klezmer music during their disc-recording careers, although most of those discs were marketed as “Jewish” or “Yiddish” rather than “Romanian” (or “Roumanian,” a spelling often used at that time). Certainly there was musical and marketing overlap between both company-created categories. In today’s case, we’ll focus on Romanian regional music recorded in the United States that falls outside the klezmer category (though, again, this is rather loosely stated).

If we look strictly at the numbers, it was the Columbia Phonograph Company in New York who first took strides in recording Romanian-Americans, cutting the most discs featuring “Romanian” music – far more than their competitors. They began on their massive, catch-all “E-series” of “foreign” discs, beginning in the early ‘teens. Over the next decade and a half, they issued well over 100 discs featuring Romanian-American artists, such as baritone A. Manescu, tenor L. Aurescu, and the Orchestra Romaneasca, whose output also was sometimes issued under the generic names “Jewish Orchestra” or “Yiddischer Orchester.” Then there was Petru Laicu’s orchestra from Banat (via Philadelphia), who recorded wonderful tracks for both Columbia and Victor. Columbia did this while also issuing Romanian discs from overseas performers, often pressed from the master discs made by their sister company in London, the Columbia Graphophone Company.

And what about the Victor label in the United States, Columbia’s primary competitor and America’s most massive record company? Well…they simply didn’t record nearly as much Romanian-American music. When they started a new Romanian series in 1929, it reached a skimpy 24 records before it was shuttled for almost ten years, and almost everything on that slender series was borrowed from overseas masters, thus not Romanian-American.

One group that briefly recorded in Chicago for both labels was a brass band-type ensemble from the mid-west led by Joan Haţegan. The fanfara music they specialized in was music from the Ardeal region, or Transylvania, especially asymmetic învârtita dances. In July of 1927, they recorded their first session, for Columbia, which consisted of two discs of lively instrumentals including two învârtitas named after local spots (Chicago and Indiana Harbor), as well as a tune from Banat, and one titled “Haţegana.” Three of four of these sides are reissued on the Blowers from the Balkans CD on Topic.

Two years later, in December of 1929, what was probably an iteration of the same band recorded five tunes for Victor in Chicago and these are lesser-known. The track featured here, “Învârtita din Detroit,” was originally titled “Învârtita lui Chita” (or “Ghita”) – possibly changed to again add some local flair. The ledgers state that these were “old songs.”

What we know of Haţegan’s band comes from musician and historian Paul Gifford, who interviewed John Boldi, a Romanian-American musician from East Chicago. Boldi claimed he played clarinet on Haţegan’s 1927 Columbia session, and he also identified a trumpet player (Ioan Stoica), a drummer (George Bocan), and a “bass horn” player named Steve Kalman on the same session. However, these 1929 recordings have different and varying instrumentation, with no trumpet or drums. It sounds to me like there are two to three clarinets, at least one sax, and a violin buried under the sound. Very likely Boldi and Kalman played on this session as well. Paul Gifford has identified the “Zmed” in the band’s name as the violinist in the group, Adrian Zmed.

Haţegan himself is a bit of a riddle. His career on disc began in the mid-1920s, playing backup for Ion Ionescu-Ardeal (1894-1935) on the small Ardyal label. It’s likely Haţegan played either clarinet or saxophone. There were several people named John/Ioan/Joan Haţegan/Harţegan/Hartigan in Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, around the same period. Laborers, all; some listed as “aliens” on official paperwork, but no definitive match to our musician. While Haţegan’s Columbia recordings stayed in print until the 40s, his Victors were never reissued.

Orchestra lui Harţegan şi Zmed – Învârtita din Detroit

Special thanks to: Paul Gifford, Sergiu Sora, and Alexander Afzali.

Label: Victor
Issue Number: V-19011
Matrix Number: BVE-57203

Quintin Duarte and Salvador Rodriguez – La Resbalosa

Joropo is the music, but in Venezuela it is more than that – it’s also the name of the couples dance, as well as, at least for a time, the event itself where the music is played. First and foremost it is now an expression of regional pride. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of joropo music is that it features the harp.

It’s likely that the European harp was introduced to Venezuela in the 18th century by Spanish missionaries, but over time it was modified and adapted to play local music. There are two types of Venezuelan harp: the arpa llanera (harp of the plains) and the arpa aragueña. The latter is played in the central states of Aragua and Miranda. The music featured on this track, by vocalist Quintin Duarte (1890-1955) and harpist Salvador Rodriguez (1920-1992), precisely features this kind of harp and is known as joropo tuyero, from the central states of the country. Joropo tuyero (sometimes called joropo central, though there is a difference) has a more stripped-down style with the vocalist playing maracas and accompanied only by the harp (as opposed to other types of joropo, which can be accompanied by a larger band). The piece featured here, “La Resbalosa,” is a rapid style, a golpe. Both Rodriguez and Duarte were highly regarded at the time. They recorded this piece, along with five additional songs, in 1952.

The Turpial label, named after the national bird which is akin to the Baltimore oriole, was one of Venezuela’s first independent record labels (perhaps the first). It was founded in 1948 and began 78 rpm production in 1951. It was owned and run by the Sefaty Benazar brothers, Rafael and Nemias (or Nehemías), who also launched a production and distribution company called Comercial Serfaty. My most recent release contains another example from Turpial featuring the seductive, languid Venezuelan waltz with cuatro in the style of the older waltzes by Lionel Belasco and the music from Trinidad as well as Curaçao. This disc, issued around the same time, proves that Turpial had a wide-ranging repertoire. They appear to have issued several hundred 78s and ceased production of 78s in 1959. Rafael Serfaty eventually became a politician after imprisonment by the subsequent Jimenez dictatorship.

Prior to the emergence of Turpial, recordings of Venezuelan music can be divided into two camps: 1) the pre-World War II 78s recorded in Caracas, and 2) the pre-World War II recordings featuring Venezuelan songs by Venezuelan performers and recorded in the United States. Both are rare, but especially the former, which are nearly absent from archives, collections, and compilations. Furthermore, many of the recordings made in the US by Venezuelan performers such as Lorenzo Herrera are quite different.

It appears the only label that gave Caracas attention in the first few decades of the 20th century was Victor, who had significant control in South and Central America as far as recording and distribution was concerned. Their first session in Caracas was in January-February of 1917, where Victor recorded the equivalent of 23 discs (although they waited at least three years to issue many of them). At the session were larger bands like the Estudiantina Venezolana and the Orquesta Carabeña, some guitar troubadours and duets, a military band…and one joropo group with maracas, harp, and cuatro. They were billed as “Cuerpo de Francisco López y Salvador Florez” and they recorded six sides.

There are some surviving notes about this group by the recording engineer: “Caracas. […] this AM: T. went to the country for harp player to acc. singers of yesterdays date – for this. Could not get Harp player, because player wanted a job himself to put in this particular style. Engagement made.” Three cheers to the harpist for insisting on bringing his own band to play his own music. One of these sides can be heard here.

These 1917 discs appeared to sell respectably, with existing statistics listing sales of 1,800-3,000 copies sold. However, Victor did not return to Caracas for eleven years. Perhaps to make up for this drawn-out lapse, in the interim bandleader Nat Shilkret recorded a number of Venezuelan arrangements in New York, for export to dealers in the country. When the company finally returned to Caracas in July of 1928, their modus operandi was more or less the same, though they managed to record only a few more discs than last time, a skimpy total of 28 1/2 discs’ worth of material. In this batch were, once again, orquestas and estudiantinas performing waltzes, paso dobles, and even an orchestrated joropo or two, or a tumba; there were more guitar trios and duos; there were some comic monologues and another military band. And, once again, there was one harp duo: Augusto Motta and Nerio Pacheco, who recorded a grand total of just four joropo sides spread across four discs (Victor was really fond of issuing “split sides” in South America – a different artist on each side).

In 1930, history repeated itself. Victor re-appeared in Caracas in March of 1930 and recorded the equivalent of 30 discs, and gamely captured another harp and maracas duo. But this time, artists José Tremaría and Pablo Hernández only recorded two songs. One was even a golpe aragueño, just like this piece. That was the end of recording in Caracas for Victor.

America-based Lorenzo Herrera and the “Grupo Venezolano” recorded a number of sides in New York in 1935, but it seems that it wasn’t until the Serfaty brothers and the Turpial label appeared almost twenty years later that more local Venezuelan music, and specifically the exciting joropo, would once again become pressed into shellac.

Quintin Duarte and Salvador Rodriguez – La Resbalosa

Label: Turpial
Issue Number: 049
Matrix Number: 113 SER

Many thanks to Víctor Márquez for information. Much additional info gleaned from the abiding and ever-expanding DAHR.

Qurban Ali – Raag Asavari

In the spring of 1925, engineer Douglas “Duggie” Larter began a lengthy recording expedition in Asia for the Gramophone Company. He started recording in June of that year in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan, and over the next two years would record all across South Asia in places like Calcutta, Delhi, Mysore, Colombo, and Karachi, and as far east as Singapore and Jakarta, recording the rough equivalent of 1,800 78s.

During those two years, he returned to Lahore multiple times for sessions. In June of 1926, while in that city, Larter did something historic: he helmed the first significant recording session of Afghan musicians and Afghan classical music. A total of 59 discs were recorded and released. A small group of musicians traveled from Kabul to Lahore for these sessions. Not all of their names are known, but the primary artist was Ustad Qasem Afghan (1878-1957), considered the father of Afghan classical music. Accompanying him was a rubab player named Qurban Ali, and additional performers who were listed on records and catalogs as the “Kabul String Band.”

Ustad Qasem Afghan appeared on 56 of those discs (except for one instrumental side by the String Band). Qurban Ali, on the other hand, appeared as a rubab soloist on just three discs (again, except for one instrumental side by the String Band), with tabla accompaniment. The track featured here is a performance in the raga Asavari, and while the recording is a bit thin (it is a late acoustic recording, made without the use of microphones), the performance is still resonating.

I’ve asked rubab player Mathieu Clavel to help explain the significance of this performance.


The style of “classical” rubab (also known as Kabuli; the urban rubab, as opposed to the folk rubab of the countryside) is said by scholars to have emerged as early as the late 19th century (see the works of Prof. John Baily). The progress of instrumental music accelerated when Amir Habibullah forbid the performance of dancing girls for the men of the court, as most of the musicians’ performances relied on accompanying dance performances. This legacy of Afghan art music actually began when Amir Sher Ali Khan, Habibullah’s grandfather, invited groups of nautch dancers (court dancers) and related musicians to settle in Kabul after being entertained while on a diplomatic invitation to India in the mid-19th century. Many of today’s professional Afghan classical musicians descend from them.

As the rubab player in the group of Ustad Qassim Afghan at the royal court, and one of the very first Afghan musicians to play on air when radio first launched in the country, Qurban Ali was known as one of the best rubab players of Kabul in the first decades of the 20th century. He also fathered several noteworthy artists, one of them being the late Ustad Ghulam Dastagir Shaida, one of the most wonderful Afghan classical singers of the century.

Raag Asavari is a melody rarely if ever heard on the rubab. It is related to raag Darbari, the “sultan of ragas,” and shares with it a solemn mood. Qurban Ali is showing nicely the character of the raag, setting the mood with a few notes of shakl (the Afghan version of the Indian alap) before getting into the composition. He does incorporate the major 7th, which is out of the raag’s rules; it is however not rare to see such minor digressions in Afghan compositions for the sake of beauty. 

The composition is played with the kharj (tonic) set in Rekap, the 3rd fret of the low string; a typical, historical yet beautiful feature of classical rubab, which gives room to explore the lower octave a little bit, down to the lower 6th, since the rubab does not have the extensive range of Indian classical instruments to perform the same modal material. Nowadays, classical music is quite often played with the tonic set in the 1st fret of the low string, which is sometimes called “chapa”  or “gauchely” as opposed to having the tonic set in the 3rd fret, “rasta” or “straightforwardly” – while folk is originally played with the tonic in one of the open strings.

The rhythmic cycle is the 16 beats tintal, and to my opinion the composition sounds rather “Hindustani,” as in more complex, with different right hand patterns or bols within the composition, similar to sarod material heard from recordings of this time (the sarod having evolved from the rubab). And what a sweet and impressive composition, which two parts he is playing with subtle variations: the asthai, main and opening theme, and the antara, a second melody that goes higher in range. He plays the latter starting at 0:30, comes back to the asthai at 0:50, and again to the antara at 1:30 before moving to a bridge till 1:45 and then a second composition (another Hindustani gat rather than a typical Afghan Abhog and Sanchari section) in faster tempo (drut tintal) for the second half of the recording. From 2:10 until the end he’s basically just playing one phrase, full of rhythmic variations. At this point from the tabla we can only distinguish some loud strikes, but we get the feeling that they work nicely with each other. 

Interestingly, while the compositions within this track have a stronger, more complex Hindustani feeling to them, they are mostly presented with rhythmic variations, a distinctive feature of the Afghan style, and without paltas (melodic variations). He really is playing it so elegantly, the flight of a bird. In the drut part from 1:50, he is playing some typical “parandkari” or stroke pattern variations of a high pitch drone string within the composition. Nowadays, this string is raised above the others on the bridge of the rubab to be singled out easily, which wasn’t yet the case at the time of Qurban Ali.

The rubab has one well known legend who replaced Qurban Ali at the radio orchestra upon his untimely passing, the unmatched Ustad Mohammad Omar who is credited with many innovations of the instrument, and its advancement into classical music. Yet, in this recording one may recognize the most distinctive features of Ustad Mohammad Omar’s school shining already, with high-class compositions subtly elaborated, the fine ornaments and flowing rhythmical variations…

One of the aspects I find the most admirable is the mastery of dynamics, clearly discernible through the noise (powerful accentuated strokes or qamchin (horsewhip!), followed by soft passages) which was also a distinctive feature of Ustad Mohammad Omar’s aesthetics. The rubab is known as the “lion of instruments,” and Qurban Ali superbly knew how to make it roar.

There are very few vintage rubab recordings out there, and this present treasure opens a sonorous new window in time on the history of rubab, amazingly demonstrating how developed it was already a hundred years ago, by the time of Qurban Ali. As someone passionate about the instrument, words can’t describe the emotions elicited upon listening to it. 

Qurban Ali. Photo from Dr. Enayatullah Shahrani’s Music in Afghanistan.

Between this recording session in June 1926 through the late 1950s, when Radio Kabul began issuing 78s via the Soviet recording industry (see this earlier post), recording of Afghan music was only sporadic, and often simply nonexistent.

In April of 1928, Mirza Nazar Khan, an amateur musician and diplomat based in Paris, made a handful of recordings in London after having been flown there on behalf of the Secretary to the Amir of Afghanistan (then Amanullah Khan, who was traveling throughout Europe at the time). These were unaccompanied recordings. They were first pressed in the UK and then repressed in 1930 in India for distribution in the region.

In July of 1928, Ustad Miran Bakhsh recorded five discs worth of Afghan selections with his ensemble, in Lucknow. One year later, he recorded another five discs in Lahore, although those later discs were not issued until 1932 for some reason.

Julien Thiennot, on his excellent website, has noted the presence of several additional Afghan performances on 78. Firstly, a disc by Akram Khan, who recorded at least once for the Afghan market in the same series as Bakhsh’s. Secondly, an additional disc from ca. 1933 by Qasem Afghan (as “Ustad Qasim Khan”) containing a topical piece about the assassination of the King of Afghanistan, Mohammad Nadir Shah. In late 1946, HMV apparently issued three 78s from, I believe, the soundtrack to Afghanistan’s first fim, “Ishq wa Dosti” (“Love and Friendship”) which was produced by an Indian film company based in Lahore known as Huma Films. Further, there was also Ustad Muhammad Hussein Khan “Sarahang” of Kabul, who recorded at least one disc for Indian HMV in the 1950s (in Hindi).

From the early 1930s until after World War II – the years when major labels had drastically reduced their recording expeditions in many parts of the world due to the Depression and the War – there appear to have been two independent labels issuing Afghan music on a semi-regular basis. In part this is likely due to the fact that they were located in Peshawar, in what is now Pakistan. These were the Banga-Phone label, run by the Frontier Trading Company, and the Gulshan label, run by Bajaj & Company. At the time, Peshawar was the capital of the “North-West Frontier Province,” once a province of British India. The region (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) bordering Afghanistan is ethnically Pashtun, which is also the majority ethnic group of Afghanistan (“Afghan” used to be a synonym for Pashtun or Pathan) and its culture and history are inseparable with that of the country. Both Banga-Phone and Gulshan issued discs that were classified as Persian, Afghani, and Multani, as well as Kashmiri and Gurmukhi. These discs are not common. After World War II, the Indian branch of the Gramophone Company acquired the catalogs of these two labels, and reissued a group of their better-known selections in 1949. They are all extremely rare today.

It could be that other discs exist on smaller labels or within the larger repertoires by major labels, we just don’t know yet. It was common, for example, for early Afghan performers to have their discs listed as “Persian” on the record labels themselves, but they actually appear as “Afghan” in catalogs, therefore there are likely discrepancies here and there, and additional Afghan recordings were probably produced during this time.

In the meantime, Qurban Ali from June of 1926.

Qurban Ali – Raag Asavari

Many thanks to Mathieu Clavel and the Michael Kinnear Collection.

Discographic notes
Label: Gramophone Company
Issue Number: P 7558
Coupling Number: 9-17901
Matrix Number: BL 2077

The “Ali Orchestra” – probably a young Qurban Ali, center (undated).

Nikolay Dontzoff – Kozlik

Comic songs were the bread-and-butter repertoire for so many early entertainers, whether they were well-known popular American songsters like Billy Murray, or obscure, often forgotten immigrant performers in the United States. Thousands were recorded, without question. A few have caught my ear over the years, such as those by Finnish fiddle player Erik Kivi. Recently I was delighted by the rustic voice of Russian-Ukrainian accordionist Nikolay Dontzoff.

Nikolay, or “Nicholas” as he was often credited, was born in 1881 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. He immigrated to the United States in 1922, getting onboard in Constantinople on the ocean liner Braga, which ran a route from Beirut to New York. With him was his wife, Lucy Dontzoff, who was twenty years his junior. They lived mostly in what is now West Harlem in Manhattan, and both worked the vaudeville circuit.

So far as we know, Dontzoff’s career on record was brief, and separated by extensive lags. He first stepped into a recording studio in New York in late 1922, almost as soon as he was settled, accompanying baritone Mikel Wavitch on a session for Victor. Those recordings, however, were never issued. Five years later, in October 1927, he was back – this time for Columbia, where he would record two records under his own name, including this one featured today.

Dontzoff accompanied his wife Lucy on four discs in 1929, and one disc accompanying Lucy and then-famed Russian “gypsy” singer Vera Smirnova. Then things go dark. He and Lucy were divorced by 1935. Nikolay moved downtown to the Eastern European neighborhood in the East Village. He was still performing both as a solo act, and with Russian music and dance troupes, often touring the country. He performed in the Russian revue Chauve Souris on Broadway, which ran for twelve performances in 1943.

At some point, probably in the late 1940s, Dontzoff issued a 78 on his own imprint, “Nicholas Dontzoff” – but there seems to have only been one issue. It was likely an offshoot of the Argee label, which was a small, Russian-language label based out of a music shop on Lexington Avenue and owned by a Latvian immigrant named Jack Raymond. That record, and the two discs he made in 1927, appear to be Dontzoff’s only moments on record as a solo performer. By 1953, he was working at the Tompkins Square Tavern on 7th Street. He died that year.

“Serenkiy Kozlik,” or “The Little Grey Goat,” is a well-known Russian children’s song about a goat that is loved so much by a grandma that she naturally ends up cooking the dear goat in her homemade soup. The earliest recording of the song I could locate was one made in Saint Petersburg in 1908 by the Gramophone Company, and performed by G.L. Lebedev’s accordion troupe. In September 1910, another version was recorded in Vilnius, Lithuania, also for the Gramophone Company, and performed by a group listed as “Detskiy Khor Vilenskago Pervago Nachalnago Uchilisha.” Another was recorded one year later by Maria Emskaya for the Syrena label of Poland. I suspect there are many other versions, both earlier and later.

This version, however, is not standard – Dontzoff’s version of this song is a parody of the original. Here, he makes it an ironic song for adults.

Nikolay Dontzoff – Kozlik

(translated and transliterated by Diana Tarnavska)

Once upon a time there was an old lonely babushka
And she was very bored, alone
That’s right, that’s right, she was alone

Babushka went along the bazaar
She looked but there were no products
That’s right, that’s right, the product was hunger

But it was her lucky day
‘Cause she met a shaggy cute goat
That’s right, that’s right, a shaggy cute goat

She noticed the goat
And brought it right home
That’s right, that’s right, she brought it home

The goat was dirty, besides, and unshaven
And apparently had not washed at least for ten years
That’s right, that’s right, at least for ten years

Babushka took the goat to the bath
Babushka washed it with soda
That’s right, that’s right, she washed it with soda

Goat was for sure all native Russian
But he was flirting in Franco-Russian
That’s right, that’s right, in Franco-Russian

Babushka didn’t like the beard at all
She shaved off the beard at the hairdresser
That’s right, that’s right, she shaved the beard

Babushka called the goat “Dusya”
They were living together, the goat and
That’s right, that’s right, goat and

As soon as the morning brightens up
Our goat hits the bottle with loaf of bread
That’s right, that’s right, with loaf of bread

Our goat was horrifically comic
He registered her house in his name
That’s right, that’s right, registered in his name

He took almost everything from her
He left his babushka with horns and legs
That’s right, that’s right, just horns and legs

Dear babushkas, don’t lose yourself
Falling in love with some young goats
That’s right, that’s right, with some young goats

They will disappear at the first occasion
And you will sit lordly in a galosh
That’s right, that’s right, sit in a galosh

Original Russian

Как-то старушка одна проживала
И в одиночестве очень скучала
Вот так ведь так очень скучала

Отправилась бабушка вдоль по базару
Глянет там нет никакого товару
Вот так ведь так голод товару

Значит счастливый денек ей задался
Встретил лохматый козлик попался
Вот так ведь так козлик попался

Бабушка козлика вмиг залучила
И на квартиру к себе притащила
Вот так ведь так к себе притащила

Козлик был грязный к тому же не бритый
И уж лет десять как видно не мытый
Вот так ведь так видно не мытый

Бабушка козлика в баню сводила
Бабушка козлика содой помыла
Вот так ведь так содой помыла

Козлик конечно был наш и всерусский
Но щеголял он по русско-французски
Вот так ведь так просто французской

Бабушка бороду страх не взлюбила
У парикмахера бороду сбрила
Вот так ведь так бороду сбрила

Бабушка козлика звала всё “Дуся”
Зажили в мире козел и бабуся
Вот так ведь так козел и бабуся

Утро едва только зорко взоймётся
Козлик наш в копыт уж с булкой напьётся
Вот так ведь так булкой напьётся

Козлик наш был проужаснейший комик
Взял перевёл на себя бабкин домик
Вот так ведь так бабкин уж домик

Взял у бабуси почти все до крошки
Оставил он бабушке рожки да ножки
Вот так ведь так рожки да ножки

Милые бабушки не увлекайтесь
И в молодых козелков не влюбляйтесь
Вот так ведь так вы не влюбляйтесь

Козлик исчезнет по первой пороше 
Вы же усядитесь важно в калоше
Вот так ведь так важно в калоше

Label: Columbia
Issue Number: 20119-F
Matrix Number: 108381 (A-1)


Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of the World’s Music

I am proud to announce that my latest compilation has been released by Dust-to-Digital:

Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of the World’s Music

Six years in the making, this is an online release: 100 tracks, a 186 page illustrated book with an introductory essay, extensive notes on each track, and many translations, from Maltese to Sranantongo.

It is entirely global and an extension of, and companion to, all the work I’ve done with the Excavated Shellac site since 2007. It’s all “new” material, compiled from my collection.

It begins with a song about police brutality. It ends with dreamy innuendo.

It is a labor of love. Like all labors of love, it is eccentric. It is written for those who have been coming to Excavated Shellac for a fix, and those who haven’t yet found that crystalline musical spark, but wish to find one.

It was produced by April Ledbetter, Lance Ledbetter, and me, who wrote the notes and compiled it from my collection. Michael and Joy Graves of Osiris Studios did the restoration and remastering. Barbara Bersche was the designer. Good friends Jed Lackritz, Nathan Salsburg, and Arshia Haq helped with some brutal proofreading. Many people were especially supportive and they are thanked.

As ever,

Danilo Katalanić with Jove Jareta – Poskočica

In the earliest days of the gramophone industry, the small handful of major players producing and distributing records were greatly concerned with maintaining their market share, keeping their technical practices secret, and expanding their recordable horizons. In Europe, the rapid establishment of the Favorite label in 1904 must have seemed like a shot across the bow. Based in Hanover, where the Gramophone Company had their pressing plant and a thriving office, Favorite began by pilfering an engineer, Otto Birkhahn, from that company, giving him more than double his normal salary. This was no joke; there were only a small number of people on the planet familiar with this newfangled technology in 1904. Within a short period, Favorite had also acquired a disgruntled engineer from the Beka label, Willy Bielefeld, who had previously offered his comparatively inexpensive services to the Gramophone Company but was summarily rebuffed. Not only that, but Favorite also managed to abscond with Carl Dietsch, a leading employee of the German branch of the Gramophone Company. By 1905, this budding label was issuing new double-sided records and the race was on.

Favorite would thrive for the next nine years. Naturally, they were competitive in their repertoire of European popular and classical musics – they had to be, to survive. But – and here is the catch for Excavated Shellac readers – as early as 1905, they were also recording in Cairo. They recorded in Turkey that same year and returned multiple times. They recorded a session in Bangkok, at least one session in China, multiple sessions in Brazil, Argentina, and even recorded in two locations in Ecuador (with records released under a sub-label, Precioso), probably the first commercial label to do so. They had 40 record presses at their factory in 1908 and had expanded their plant again in 1911. The following year, they were offering 25,000 titles.

But, the German record industry found itself in tumult during the run-up to World War I. By late 1913, what was left of Favorite moved to Berlin, and the company soon liquidated. The Carl Lindström AG concern, a gramophone producer who had only recently gotten into the disc business with their Parlophon label, effectively usurped Favorite, as it had with the Lyrophon, Beka, Odeon, and Dacapo labels. Lindström would continue marketing the Favorite label after the War, reissuing their material, until about 1926. They also loaned some Favorite masters to Columbia Records in the United States, notably their Turkish and Greek material.

This particular track was recorded 109 years ago, in mid-1911, during a session in Belgrade by Favorite recording engineer Wilhelm Winkel. The artist, Danilo Daniel Katalan, was born in 1880 and specialized in humorous folk songs such as the bećarac and the svatovac, as well as uptempo dance tunes such as this, “Poskočica”: literally a “jumping song” for dancing, stemming from the word poskočiti, which means to jump up and down. Katalan recorded under the name “Danilo Katalanić,” as well as “D. Katalanović,” and also the pseudonym “Mirko Katić” when he recorded for the Gramophone Company in 1910. He’s accompanied by the Romani orchestra led by Jova Jare (literally “Jove the goat”; likely a nickname).

Sadly, Katalan, a Sephardic Jew, was murdered at the Topovske Šupe concentration camp in 1941, located outside of Belgrade on a former military base. The camp was in existence for only a few months and run partly by the collaborationist government of Milan Nedić. It was the site of the murders of approximately 4,300 people during that short time. A terrible tragedy to consider set against the sheer joy of this early track.

Danilo Katalanić with Jove Jareta – Poskočica

(Favorite 1-107031; matrix 5076-t)


Lotz, Rainer E. with Michael Gunrem and Stephan Puille. Das Bilderlexikon der Deutschen Schellack-Schallplatten. 5 vols. Holste: Bear Family, 2019.

Lotz, Rainer E. “On the History of Lindström AG.” In The Lindström Project, Contributions to the history of the record industry / Beiträge zur Geschichte der Schallplattenindustrie, Vol.1, edited by Pekka Gronow and Christiane Hofer, 11-20. Vienna: Gesellschaft für Historische Tonträger, 2009.

Strötbaum, Hugo. “Favorite Revisited: An Update.” Recording Pioneers. (accessed 25 September 2020).

Strötbaum, Hugo. “Favorite: the story of an independent German record company (1904-1914).” In The Lindström Project. Contributions to the history of the record industry / Beiträge zur Geschichte der Schallplattenindustrie, Vol. 2, edited by Pekka Gronow and Christiane Hofer, 121-136. Vienna: Gesellschaft für Historische Tonträger, 2010.

Big thanks to Nikola Zekić and Will Hancock.

The Chakmakchi Story

I’m happy to introduce a guest post today, with loads of photos, by Moneer Cherie. Moneer is an Assyrian from Iraq, born in Baghdad. He collects Assyrian, Kurdish and Iraqi Arabic records. He is a moderator at, an Assyrian music website and radio/streaming station. He also was one of the contributors for a 2015 Assyrian discography published in Germany titled Modern Assyrian Music. As he states, “My aim has been to collect original Assyrian records and preserve them for a future archive.”

Images courtesy of the Chakmakchi family relatives. Several also appear in this book:
Malāk, Qaḥṭān Ḥabīb al-. Nās min baladinā. Baghdād : Iṣdārāt al-Malāk al-Adabīyah, [2001]-.

The patriarch of Chakmakchiphon, Haj Fathi Chakmakchi (center), with his two sons.

Haj Fathi (pronounced Fat-he) Yahya Qasim Chakmakchi was born in Mosul (1888-1969). He was neither a musician nor a singer, but specialized in repairing guns that were mainly Turkish made, and used by the Ottoman army during their occupation of Iraq. The Chakmakchi family is Kurdish in origin, from Amêdîyê (ئامێدی). The name means “maker or repairer of flintlock guns” or “gunsmith.”

Haj Fathi Chakmakchi did not realize that his hobby of collecting the limited number of Iraqi shellac discs available at that time would one day lead him to become one of the most important sources of the heritage of Iraqi music and song.

Chakmakchi founded his company in 1918̇, and at its start it was located at Ghazi Street in Mosul. Initially, the business was limited to the import of electrical appliances, especially gramophones (and later TVs). His eldest son Muhammad Aref assisted him until 1940, when Mohammed Aref moved to Baghdad to open a branch of the Chakmakchi business in Ghurairi Square. In 1942, the family moved from Mosul to Baghdad to join him.

Haj Fathi Chakmakchi’s second son Abdullah took over the management of the shop in Mosul in cooperation with his cousin and brother-in-law Mohammad al-Najm, but in 1944 he, too, moved to Baghdad and opened another branch of the company in the Haydar Khana area (opposite Khalil Café) in the middle of Al-Rasheed Street.

Abdullah eventually left Iraq and travelled to England to study music recording and production techniques. After he returned to Iraq he focused on his favorite hobby, which was the recording of Arab and Iraqi singers and concerts, and the import of record players.

Haj Fathi decided to build a recording studio in the mid-1950s and began recording local singers at a time when there was no other recording studio in Iraq except the studio at the radio station. This is roughly when the Chakmakchi 78 rpm label began. He invited top Iraqi musicians to record in his studio, and masters were sent to Greece or Sweden to be pressed, then shipped back to Iraq to be distributed by his local outlets.

Al-Rasheed Street, Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Haj Fathi’s third son Sami opened yet another branch of the family business in 1951 at the entrance of Al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad. This became the famed Chakmakchi shop in Iraq. Haj Fathi and Sami were in charge of the record production side of the business, in addition to building relationships with Arab artists such as: Um Kulthum, Mohammed Abdul Wahab, Abdul Halim Hafez, Muharram Fouad, Sabah, and Faiza Ahmed; with Iraqi artists, such as Al-Ghazali, Hudayri Abu Aziz, Zohour Hussein, and Salima Murad; and with Kurdish singers like Muhammed Aref Jazrawi, Hassan Jazrawi, Taher Tawfiq, and many others.

It seems that approximately 200 78 rpm discs were issued on the Chakmakchi label were produced before the company began manufacturing 45 rpm records in approximately the mid-1960s. Abdullah kept master copies of his recording sessions (including alternate takes, such as one where Um Kulthum made a mistake and repeated a song more than once) as well as his tape recordings of events and concerts, as part of his huge audio library, which is now with his grandchildren. The grandson of Chakmakchi refuses to sell the archive despite large amounts of money being offered to him by wealthy Arab collectors. The family understands the Chakmakchi recordings’ value as a national treasure and cultural asset, and part of Iraqi heritage.

The first recording company in Iraq had for many years survived the winds of change. They could have adapted to new technology and the emergence of digital formats, but the primary reason for the disappearance of the Chakmakchi label was the indifference of officials at heritage institutions that left the company to face various abuses of their copyrights, which forced the family to finally close its doors in the mid-1990s. However, today the name is still embedded in the minds and memories of music lovers and old singers of Iraq, and the entire region.

Muhammad Aref Jazrawi (Mihemed Arif Cizîrî in Kurdish) was born in the Cizîr (Cizre), Turkey, in 1912. He later moved to the city of Duhok in northern Iraq and recorded a large number of folk songs for Kurdish radio in Baghdad, and then for Kurdish TV in Kirkuk. He played the tanbur (tembûr), the long-necked string instrument originating in Mesopotamia. His songs were distinguished by their simplicity of words and the sweetness of the melodies. He died in Duhok in late 1986 and was buried there.

The song featured here is titled “Leh Leh Khafshi” (Lê Lê Xifşê). Khafshi is a small type of deer or gazelle, (a common reference in folk songs to a beautiful girl). The song is in the pasta style, which is a type of metered song that is sung after completing the maqam. It’s in the same key as the maqam and meant to connect harmoniously with it.

Yusef Omar Daoud Al-Bayati was born in 1918 in the Hasan Pasha district in Baghdad. He studied maqam under the best singers of that time, namely Mohammad al-Qubbanchi, and was nicknamed “the prince of Iraqi Maqam.” His first recorded concert was in 1956. He was also featured in films and dramas. He died in 1986.

Maqam is the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music. The word “maqam” in Arabic means place or location. Each maqam is a semi-improvised musical recitation of poetry, performed within formal structures that govern the use of melodies, rhythm, and poetic genre. This song is performed in the Iraqi Maqam of Urfa. This maqam is named for the famous Anatolian city, located in modern day Turkey and thus may have Turkish origins.

Muhammad Aref Jazrawi – Leh Leh Khafshi (Pasta)

Yousif Omar Daoud Al-Bayati – Maqam Urfa, Pts 1-2

Chakmakchiphon catalogs:

Chakmakchiphon advertisements:

Muhammad Aref Chakmakchi in their store, 1952, with famed singer Eliyya Baida, and Suaad Muhamed:

The Chakmakchi studio band:

The same photo, annotated:

The company car:

The shop (on right) on Al-Rasheed Street:

The same corner, 1960:

Chakmakchiphon sleeves:

Somali Music in the 78 rpm Era

Today, there are several appealing and prominent reissues available that feature groove and dance music from Somalia from the 70s and 80s, such as Sweet as Broken Dates (Ostinato) and Mogadisco – Dancing Mogadishu (Analog Africa). While attention to this musical history tends to focus exclusively on the 45 rpm era, I am betting few realize that music of the Somali people was issued on 78, as well. It’s a cloudy history that’s still revealing itself, but by piecing together rarefied details from assorted histories, we can begin to provide a more holistic scrutiny of what was made available, and when.

First it should be stated that the sovereign nation of Somalia as it is today did not exist until 1960. Secondly, the Somali people primarily live, and have lived for millennia, across numerous regions along the Horn of Africa, from eastern Ethiopia to northern Kenya. During the 78 rpm era those regions were messily divided up into colonies: Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland (which united to form today’s Somalia); French Somaliland, which existed from 1883-1967 before first becoming a French republic and eventually the nation of Djibouti; and British Kenya, which became an independent republic in 1964. Only Ethiopia had its independence during this period, apart from a much-resisted Italian occupation that lasted from late 1935 to 1941.

Of course the recording industry, at least during the first half of the 20th century, also was primarily controlled by international conglomerates headquartered in colonial powers, and thus the history as a whole is complicated. It’s no surprise that the first recordings in the Somali language were made explicitly for colonial posterity. These first recordings were made under the auspices of the Musée de la Parole et du Geste in Paris in 1931. That year, hundreds of musicians, dancers, and artisans from French colonies across the globe were brought to Paris for the Paris Colonial Exposition, a massive-scale, six-month event staged at the Bois de Vincennes, essentially meant to celebrate the colonies as a thriving, diverse success. While there, many of these performers made recordings for the Musée, and a substantial number of them were issued commercially, most notably the stunning discs by the famed Malagasy troupe featured on CD reissues by Yazoo and Fremeaux.

In total, the Musée recorded fourteen sides of songs and recitations by a group of soldiers from French Somaliland. All are vocal performances, unaccompanied. The Musée’s recordings were not readily available to the public at large – they were ethnographic recordings, essentially; made for science and posterity. However, six of these sides were grouped on three 78s and commercially issued by Pathé, one year later. At least one of those discs was also issued in Italy, several years after that. These discs were played live at events sponsored by the Musée as late as 1934.

Not all of these recordings were in the Somali language. In fact, what was recorded was a mixture of songs in Somali and the Afar language. The Afar, also known as Dankali, live in Djibouti, Eritrea, and parts of Ethiopia. Of the commercial Pathé releases, only one single side appears to be solely Somali, pictured above. Thankfully all of the sides recorded by the Musée are now digitized along with photos of the singers/soldiers themselves, on the BnF’s Gallica site.

The second center of Somali recording was Addis Ababa. Ethiopia saw three primary recording events during the 78 rpm era. The first was organized by the Germans, who in mid-1935 (or possibly earlier) made approximately 110 discs’ worth of largely Ethiopian music for the Parlophon label (and later, it seems, repressed by the Italian branch of Odeon). One single disc out of those 110 or so was Somali, and was performed unaccompanied by Hassan Galibe Effendi. Below is one side, titled “Oolka.”

Hassan Galibe Effendi – Oolka

The next group of sessions in Addis Ababa was organized by an Eritrean businessman named Saleh Ahmed Checchia. In 1938-1939, he arranged for 124 discs’ worth of music to be issued on the Italian Columbia imprint. This group of recordings was again predominantly Ethiopian, but also included some performances by Eritreans, and one single side of Somali music, a wedding song performed by Ibrahim Aio’.

The third and last of the Ethiopian sessions for 78 rpm release occurred in the mid- to late 1950s, for HMV. Over the course of approximately five years, beginning in 1955 to mark Emperor Haile Selassie’s “Silver Jubilee” (25th year of reign), HMV recorded 67 discs’ worth of music from the region. Within this group were 11 Somali tracks, all spread out on split-sides across multiple discs. Two were by an artist named Godudo Mohamed, another two by Maria Abdalla, but the remaining seven were by oud player and vocalist Ahmed Awad (or “Aoud”). Below is a buoyant track recorded late November 1957 by Awad from these sessions, titled “Dahier” or “Dahyèr.”

Ahmed Awad – Dahier

The third center of Somali recording during the 78 rpm era was the Arabian Peninsula. As with the Ethiopian sessions, these Somali appearances on disc were only very occasional. This connection, however, makes sense. The trade routes between the Somali coast and the the region go back thousands of years, for one, and Somalis have long lived on the Peninsula, particularly in Yemen. In addition, the Arabian Peninsula was host to a flourishing, local 78 rpm label scene, decades before the UAE saw the glint of a skyscraper. Major labels likely had a difficult time establishing a solid market in the area, especially in the run-up to World War II, when the Depression took hold globally, trade routes were eventually interrupted and recording halted. They tried, though. Labels like HMV and Baidaphon who were active in Baghdad began with baby steps recording music from the region in the late 20s and early 30s, but by the early 1950s, they were competing with dozens of independent labels operating out of Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, or Mumbai.

One major label that recorded artists from the Arabian Peninsula more widely was Odeon. Between 1935 and 1938 they recorded over 100 discs in Aden, and had at least two circulating catalogs advertising their content in both ’37 and ’38. In that batch of recordings was at least one disc by Somali artist Muhammad Ali Hajji al-Somali.

After World War II, independent label owners and performers from the Persian Gulf region and the Arabian Peninsula sometimes turned to Mumbai for both recording and pressing discs. This could be, according to scholar Ahmad Al-Salhi, due to the fact that there was a Gulf community in Mumbai, and there was an independent pressing plant there (owned by The National Gramophone Company, whose primary label was Young India) that would clearly produce short runs of 78s for small entrepreneurs, outside of the grip of the EMI mega-conglomerate and their pressing plants. One of these small labels was Saleh Phone, who issued two known Somali 78s by Abdullah Gharshi and Edapai Medban Uoronehi. Additionally, there may have been a connection between Saleh Phone and Salimphone, the label owned by Omani singer and performer Salem Rashed al-Suri. Two additional Somali 78s appeared on al-Suri’s label Salimphone, performed by Mahmud Ismail Hadidi and Anisa Amma Muhammad. Both of these Salimphone discs have “Salehphone” written on their labels. Were they originally issued on Saleh Phone and recorded in Mumbai? This was not a completely uncommon practice. Some discs from the Gulf were re-pressed by other labels that were usurped by other labels, etc.

Disc scans of Somali releases courtesy of Ahmad Al-Salhi.

Aden Crown was a label that was founded ca. 1937 probably right after Odeon had ceased recording in Aden. They were active in the run-up to World War II, and then immediately after the War. Founded by Ali bin Abdullah al-Saffi and his brothers, Aden Crown issued approximately 190 78s which were pressed by Decca in London. Out of those, at least four were in the Somali language. The known performers were Muhammad Hasan al-Barbarawi, Ahmed Harush, Muhammad Kahin Ishaq, and the performer featured on the disc at the top of this post, Hussein Warsima al-Gharami. Likely recorded just after World War II, the music is listed as saut Somali, indicating the popular music of the Gulf, saut, which features oud, violin, and mirwas drum.

Hussein Warsima al-Gharami – Gharami Somali, Pts 1-2

Like with many aspects of the early recording industry, this is still an ongoing process of unfolding and will doubtlessly change, but one that will hopefully add to the global history of the medium.

Many thanks to Ahmad Al-Salhi and Francis Falceto for a wealth of information and correspondence. Also a big thanks to Gabriel Lavin and Thomas Henry.

Discs featured
Parlophon B 90940-II (mx 146221)
HMV JOE-46 (mx 0AE 166)
Aden Crown 1190-A (mx RAM 478)


Abiken Khasenov – Kui “Sarzhailau”

“On the dombra, not fingers must play but the soul” – Z. Karmenov

Instrumental folk music in Kazakhstan is its own particular art form, and its compositions are known as kuis (also kyuis, or küjis). Kuis can date as early as the 8th century CE, and commonly they were a vehicle to express emotion as well as hidden references to cultural traditions among the people of the Great Steppe. From what I understand, the earliest kui songs were meant to be played on the kobyz, the bowed string instrument of Kazakhstan – but later, the long-necked, two-string dombra became the primary instrument for performing those compositions (as well as the primary channel for relating epic Kazakh vocal music).

Some kuis do contain a vocal element, in fact, despite it being considered an instrumental genre. There are several styles of kui: tekpe (tökpe) which is associated with the west of Kazakhstan and has what is called a “sweeping” up and down playing of the dombra, producing a drone-like effect; shertpe, which is generally associated with eastern Kazakhstan and means “plucking and flicking,” and varies between softer playing and a major attack; zheldirme, a kui style that tends to be lyrically didactic; tolgau, with more philosophical content; and ceremonial kuis for weddings and events. One of the greatest composers of shertpe kuis was Tättimbet Qazangap-uly, and he composed the kui piece here, titled “Sarzhailau,” or “The Golden Steppe.” You can hear the distinct qualities of the shertpe style – the delicate melody and sudden, percussive hammering.

Tättimbet was from the Argyn tribe, born in 1815, and, as legend has it, composed his legendary 62 kuis in the yurt of a grieving man, Küshkibai, who had lost his son, and who resolved to end his life by starving himself to death. Tättimbet was summoned to play for Küshkibai and while the music continued, he overcame his grief. After coming to and confronting the sight of such a youthful, dombra-playing kuishi, the wealthy Küshkibai asked how such a young man could carry such a worldly, enlightened sense of grief in his kuis. Tättimbet answered, “Your grief is the grief of one person, while I bear in myself the grief of all people.”

Tättimbet died in 1862. Like all kuis, his works are passed down through oral tradition and memorized. In the Soviet era, Kazakh music fared quite well, despite the records’ scarcity today. Kazakh music on disc was certainly dwarfed by music from Russia proper, with its thousands of popular, classical, and nationalist recordings. However, compared to other musics by non-Russian cultures in the USSR, the availability of Kazakh music was overwhelmed only by the number of Uzbek discs available. Pekka Gronow has documented that in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union was still pressing 78s, well over 400 Uzbek discs were readily available. For Kazakh records, that number was nearly 300. This was a considerable figure, despite the fact that many of these 78s were likely nationalistic. It’s also a considerable figure when you compare that number to the relatively small number of available Azeri discs, 95 in total, when the Azeri and Kazakh populations were not wildly far apart at the time.

Abiken Khasenov was without question one of the primary interpreters of shertpe kuis in the 20th century. Born in 1897 in the central-east Kazakhstan district of Shet, he learned dombra from his uncle, and eventually found a home at the Kazakhstan State Drama Theater, where he taught from 1934 onward. This disc was recorded in 1957, and issued on a special imprint of the Soviet state-run label (pressed in Tashkent, but featuring an illustration of the Abay Opera House in Almaty) marking the 40th anniversary of Kazakhstan since the Russian Revolution. Khasenov died just a few years later, in 1962.

Abiken Khasenov – Kui “Sarzhailau”

Label: Tashkentski Zavod
Issue Number: n/a
Matrix Number: 28536

Quote from:
Kendirbaeva, Gundir. “The Specific Nature and Peculiarities of the Manifestation of Folklorism in Kazakhstan.” Central Asiatic Journal 37-3/4 (1993): 169-187.

Additional information from:
Levin, Theodore, Saida Daukeyeva, and Elmira Köchümkulova, eds. The Music of Central Asia. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016.