Saveli Walevitch – Bayoushky Bayou

Sometimes a song that’s deeply instilled in a culture can be just as effective to a listener as a piece that’s entirely new – although, effective in perhaps different ways. This classic Russian lullaby is usually titled and transliterated to “Kazach’ya Kolybel’naya,” or “The Cossack Lullaby.” While there appear to be several iterations of this ubiquitous tune, the version sung on this record is an abbreviated version of the one written by the famed Russian romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov, written in 1840.

It is sung by a mother to a son. As a lullaby, it certainly has a preoccupation with war, and includes a malicious swipe at the Chechens (a translation is below). Humanity loves to throw each other under the proverbial bus, doesn’t it. This was not the only poem where Lermontov uses the phrase “vicious” or “evil Chechen,” which I’ve seen whitewashed in some translations as “sly brigand.” Though I claim no prowess in this area, the historic reason for this is likely because Lermontov at the time had become the commander of a Cossack regimen of the Russian army, and fought the Chechens precisely in 1840. Lermontov was, and is still unquestionably considered to be a brilliant, even Byronesque writer, but no doubt a complicated man. He was an aristocrat, excessive, and often described as scornful and, like Lord Byron, “obnoxious.”

Yet, this performance by the relatively unknown Saveli Walevitch, with his guitar that threatens to go out of tune and the occasional random studio noises (10 and 15 seconds in), is perfectly earnest in its execution. Although he had a career spanning several decades, touring across the United States and Europe singing all manner of Russian folk songs, Walevitch’s output consists of just four songs on two records – all recorded in Camden, New Jersey for the Victor company, on May 24, 1928.

As a performer, Walevitch appears as early as 1921, in a folk song collection titled “Folk Songs of Many Peoples.” By the mid-1920s, he was regularly playing places like Steinway Hall in New York, Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the University of North Carolina, Stanford University, the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as for local groups like the Women’s City Club of Detroit, the Society of Arts in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Scarsdale Golf Club. His records were favorably mentioned in phonograph newsletters. A portrait of him was exhibited at Barnard College that same year. His wife, Anne Whelpley Walevitch (1893-1975), from Chicago, was his touring companion, accompanist, and wrote his program notes. He died in 1963.

Below is a transliteration of Walevitch’s version of the Cossack Lullaby, followed by a translation (any corrections needed, please advise).

Kazach’ya Kolybel’naya (as sung by Walevitch)

Spi, mladenets moy prekrasnyy,
Bayushki bayu;
Tikho smotrit mesyats yasnyy
V kolybel’ tvoyu. (x2)

Po kamnyam struitsya terik,
Pleshchit mutnyy val;
Zloi chechen polzyot na bereg,
Tochit svoi knizhal (x2)

No otets tvoi staryy voin
‎Zakalyon v boyu;
‎Spi, malyutka, bud’ spakoyin,
Bayushki bayu (x2)

Sam uznayesh, budit vremya,
Brannoye zhit’yo;
Smyelo vdyenish nogu v stremya
I voz’mosh’ ruzh’yo (x2)

Bogatyr’ ty budesh’ s vidu
‎I kazak dushoi;
Provozhat’ tebya ya vyydu —
‎Ty makhnosh’ rukoy (x2)

Da, gotovyas’ v boy opasnyy,
‎Pomni mat’ svoyu;
Spi, mladenets moy prekrasnyy,
‎Bayushki bayu (x2)

Translation by David Mark Bennett:

Sleep, my dear, beloved baby,
‎Bayushki bayu;
Silently the crystal moon shines
‎On your cradle blue (x2)

Muddy Terek River splashes
Boulders in the shade;
Evil Chechen creeps ashore while
‎Sharpening his blade (x2)

But your father is a warrior,
‎Battle-hardened, too:
Sleep, my son, and don’t you worry,
‎Bayushki-bayu (x2)

Soon enough there’ll be a time to
‎Learn the soldier’s way;
Bravely step into the stirrup,
Shoot while in the fray (x2)

You’ll look like a hero and be
‎Cossack through and through.
I’ll go out to see you off—
‎And you’ll just wave, it’s true (x2)

Think, when bracing for fierce battle,
‎Of your mother true;
Sleep, my dear, beloved baby,
‎Bayushki-bayu (x2)

Saveli Walevitch – Bayoushky Bayou

Notes
Label: Victor
Issue Number: 81263
Matrix Number: BVE-45063

Image courtesy of Amazon. Additional information from Lermontov’s “A Hero Of Our Time: A Critical Companion, edited by Lewis Bagby. For another excellent Walevitch track, see the Secret Museum Vol 1 (where else?)…

Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s Concertina – Dumazile

Ten years. I think now that we’ve reached ten years of Excavated Shellac, why not experiment with a new look, instead of something that reeks of 2007. I’d like to say something, but I won’t wax rhapsodic, or take some fond look back. I feel guilty enough for the slow posts. Plus, I think I’ve already done enough of that periodically, and really, the most important thing is that it keeps going.

Excavated Shellac speaks for itself. As a 78-related site, it was more or less the first of its kind: focusing solely on global vernacular and traditional music.
There are well over 220 individual transfers to listen to, download, and read about.
Most of the discs here have never been publicly issued before, though a number have since been extensively bootlegged.
The writing is book-length. It’s protected only by a Creative Commons license.
It is not written for collectors, though collectors sometimes read it.
Each chapter is meant to be an entry point for anyone.
The information is often collated here for the first time, drawn from various sources, many of which are unpublished. Plenty of new information on these discs is found here.
It is not representative of my collection, and is only a snapshot.
It is also meant to be an expansion on others’ influential works.
There are no ads on the site, something that I deliberately pay for.
We have no t-shirts.
There are no Kickstarters, and no GoFundMes – only an occasional recommendation.
The site has been quoted as a reference, used as a source in books, and honestly has allowed me to produce individual, hard-copy releases.

I think you know what I’m getting at – Excavated Shellac is meant as an alternative to the disproportionate amount of worldwide scholarship, reverence, and proselytism surrounding early recordings of jazz, blues, country, Western classical and popular music. Not because that music isn’t amazing – it often is. But, the world’s recorded music is absurdly bigger than those stories, fascinating as they are. Each country on earth had its own Robert Johnson or Charley Patton – some might have had two dozen of them. Companies in Europe were recording tanbur-playing Uzbeks almost 20 years before the United States had the notion to record a country record. How would you know otherwise unless you did some exploring? You could say that’s a “political” stance, and that would be pretentious. But it wouldn’t be wrong.

So, thank you for continuing to stop by. I’ve made many friends through this endeavor. I’ll breeze into year 11 with something I love – South African concertina music. This disc was recorded ca. 1954, during what I would consider the golden age of Sub-Saharan African 78 recording, roughly from 1947-1965. I’ve mentioned this before, but prior to World War II, recording in Sub-Saharan Africa was a bit erratic, mostly in fits and starts, not getting started until the late 20s, and interrupted by the Depression. But after World War II, all hell broke loose. Well over 100 individual labels were active in Sub-Saharan Africa recording all manner of artists, and the quality as well as the variety of talent that appeared was just incredible. People have sometimes asked me if there’s an African 78 discography. Er, not yet. We’re talking something like 25,000 78s in West Africa alone, never mind Congo, East Africa, and Southern Africa, all preposterously rife with popular indy labels and cheap shellac.

The concertina in South Africa has always been associated historically with itinerant miners, or itinerant entertainers, as they traveled from town to town. There are more traditional concertina performances, like this one, but the instrument is also used in more “modern” sounding music, too. Several scholars have called it “transport music,” meaning the instrument was supposed to help you as you walked long distances. Even the rhythm feels like walking….marching forward…

Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s Concertina – Dumazile

Label: HMV
Issue Number: JP 549
Matrix Number: 0AS.1262

Zerbib – Ya Men Erid Ektali

This one is special for several reasons: while it’s not the earliest disc I’ve featured here (that goes to Imdad Khan’s 1904 sitar solo), it’s among the earliest Algerian records ever made. It is difficult to pinpoint a date when it was recorded, but I’ve been advised that it was no later than October of 1907. The precise identity of the artist, Zerbib, is still unknown to us, but he was almost certainly a Jewish singer, and perhaps a member of the Zerbib family of Constantine, Algeria. He sings Andalusian classical music here on this 11 1/2″ disc, reminding me of the style performed later by artists such as the ones I featured on Opika Pende, Sassi Lebrati and Mahieddine Bachtarzi.

This information, while scant, doesn’t come out of thin air. Nor is it often found in books – or if it is, it’s in wildly disparate sources that need to be triangulated. It also helps to know kindred spirits. Our friend Thomas Henry, aka Ceints de Bakélite, along with our local comrade Chris Silver of the Jewish Maghrib website, are also keen collectors and researchers of early North African music. Thomas recently delivered a presentation about early recordings in the Middle East and North Africa at the Médiathèque Musicale de Paris last Thursday, and this made me think that it was time to try and transfer this baby. I consulted them both for additional information, as well as engineer Chris Zwarg, and they were able to help solidify some facts.

This is the very first “vertical cut” recording that’s appeared on Excavated Shellac. Those take some special care. I know I have a number of hardcore 78 collector maniac readers, but I also know that the majority are not entrenched in that insular camp. So, I’ll briefly explain this process, hopefully without too much needless pedantry. Bear with me…

Most 78s, and most records as we know them today are “lateral cut” – meaning the sound vibrations of a recording are cut by a stylus into the sides of the groove. In the early years of recording, cylinders and discs by a few record companies were made using a vertical process, also known as “hill and dale.” With the vertical process, the cutting stylus etched the sound recording vibrations into the bottom of the groove. The most notable companies who practiced this are now legendary names: Edison in the United States and Pathé Frères in France, who issued today’s entry. To play back these records on contemporary equipment, you either have to manually switch the pin connections to your turntable cartridge, or use one of the couple of preamplifiers that have this function built into them.

The early records that the frères produced seem designed to be contrarian. Apart from their non-standard record sizes (a group that ranged from 8″ to a mammoth 20″), Pathé’s records were “center-start” until the mid-19-teens, meaning you started the record at the center and it played outward toward the edge. Until the mid-1910s, they did not use a paper label, and instead engraved the artist, title, and disc information right where a label might be, filling the engraved letters and numbers with a light pigment as you can see in the top scan. Pathé’s vertical cutting method caused discs to sometimes have a deep or a shallow groove, which today can cause tracking problems with some contemporary turntables, sending lighter tonearms skating across records. Consumers at the time had to use a special Pathé-branded sapphire ball-shaped stylus with their records, but that ball-shaped needle was not usable with any other 78s that were vertically cut besides Pathé’s! Maybe most importantly, Pathé used a reproduction method that was different than other companies, and it often lessened the sound quality of their releases. Most companies were recording acoustically onto beeswax masters, which were electroplated to create metal masters or “shells.” Pathé had to be different. Until 1929, the company would make initial recordings on blank wax cylinders, and then mechanically (or “pantographically”) copy the grooves of the cylinder as it played, onto a master disc as it spun. If on this or any Pathé record you hear some repetitive scraping noise, it’s very likely the sound of that master cylinder spinning! And let’s not even begin to discuss speed, which for Pathé can be anywhere between 85 and 100 rpms. It seems a large percentage of this oversized disc wasn’t even used, as the tracks are a little over 2 minutes long and play at about 90 rpm. This would indicate that it was probably originally released as a cylinder. Who here has seen an Algerian cylinder recording? They have near vanished.

Pathé’s history as it pertains to global music is still being discussed and discovered. Those discs appear so infrequently, it’s difficult to complete the picture. What we do know is that Pathé, like the other major labels of the day, recorded global folk music quite extensively. During their “etched” era, well over 100 years ago, they recorded as far away as Tatarstan, India, and Thailand. While they may not have been the very first to record in Algeria (the Gramophone Company first made recordings there in 1906, Odeon (Disque Yafil) sometime in 1907), Pathé was on the forefront to capture local sounds.

To hear more of what are likely the only examples in existence, please browse the “Archives de la Parole” collection in Gallica, the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s digital library; here’s one example to whet your appetite.

Zerbib – Ya Men Erid Ektali

With thanks to Thomas Henry, Chris Silver, and Christian Zwarg.

Notes
Label: Pathé
Matrix Number: 10144
Transfer/Serial Number: 21422 BC

It looks better in an original sleeve:

pathe2

Some Aspects of Patriotism and Nationalism on 78

img_6570

Nationalism, patriotism, and cultural romanticism in its various forms have been present in all manner of global recorded music, including vernacular and folk music. Ask many outside the United States and surely they’ve observed examples of America’s juggernaut of musical pride, whether it’s the plainly stated “do or die” patriotism of George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy” (commonly known as “(I’m a) Yankee Doodle Dandy”), or the symbolic folk populism of “This Land Is Your Land.” To clarify, I’m not really talking about topical songs that merely reference current events, but instead, musical styles and songs that are meant to evoke cultural and/or national pride.

Of course it’s true that nationalistic music can sometimes be brutal and offensive, purely propagandistic, and even hurtful to other people – the WWII-era German “Charlie and his Orchestra” recordings are an extreme example. That said, this is not to say that nationalistic or patriotic songs can’t be musically interesting. The fact remains that they can sometimes be uplifting to both those for whom they were intended to reach, or even to outsiders, despite their complex baggage.

A glaring aspect to consider whenever discussing the tricky topics of patriotism and nationalism is perception. Whether or not a musical work is patriotic or nationalistic, completely inspiring or utterly repulsive, might be up for righteous debate depending on whom you ask, at what point in history you ask them, their background, and their viewpoints. It’s a fascinating topic to me (and one that has been written about by many experts) as someone who likes to explore music I’m unfamiliar with, and to learn a little about how it was consumed, and the different forms that appeared on record during the 78 era. I’m especially interested in how my own mind reacts when confronted with something that immediately sounds deeply traditional from my admittedly Western standpoint, yet upon examination may also be viewed, directly or obliquely, as some form of propaganda.

People’s Record, or Renmin Changpian, was based in Shanghai, and was formed after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the subsequent nationalization of the Chinese record industry. Foreign companies that were active in China prior to 1949, such as EMI and Victor, had been sent packing. The 78s issued on People’s Record were varied, and many of them were in effect paeans to the new CCP and its leaders, as part of the larger effort to unify the country. On the other hand, some material issued by the China state-run imprints were master pressings of classic vocal performances by Chinese opera stars such as Mei Lanfang, taken from previously existing discs.

Perhaps taking a cue from Stalin’s Soviet Union, which made it a point to record varied folk music from regions with minority populations in the USSR, People’s Record also issued compelling traditional music performed by China’s ethnic minorities, the likes of which had never been commercially recorded before. This piece is sung by two Miao women of Guizhou Province. “Miao” is a broad term used for several ethnic groups in the mountainous areas of China and parts of Southeast Asia, including the Hmong. The title of the piece is descriptive and listed as “Minzu quyu zizhi xiaochang,” which loosely translates to “Little song about Regional National Autonomy.” It is sung in a local language (not Mandarin), and is a praise song to Chairman Mao (the first sung words of the song) and the CCP, suggesting that everyone gather together and build up their community. A Pao, one of the singers of this piece, was documented as having met Chairman Mao numerous times, and having recorded this praise song in 1953. She was born in 1930, yet died young in 1966, one month after the official start of the Cultural Revolution. People’s Record was operational until about 1955, when it was merged to form “China Record” (Zhongguo Changpian).

A Pao and Yang Huiyun – Minzu Quyu Zizhi Xiaochang

4img050The gusle is the one-stringed fiddle of the Balkans made of maple wood, and the “guslari” is the Serbian term for the people who play it, singing epic poetry in an emotional, droning wail, quite unlike other music from the region. One writer in 1913 described it as “a sighing-forth of sound.” The gusle is used as a backdrop for the singing of epic poetry, usually about the historical struggle of Serbs against Ottoman rule, and by extension it has been a powerful instrument for national identity.

Ian Nagoski, in his Black Mirror CD release, re-introduced the contemporary public to Petar Perunović Perun (born 1880), a Serbian nationalist of Montenegrin birth, veteran of the Balkan Wars and World War I, and a gusle player both on and off the battlefields. Perunović toured the United States regularly, playing for Balkan communities in order to stir national pride. Based in Saint Paul, Minnesota for some time, he recorded several discs privately in the summer of 1927 at the famed Marsh Laboratories in Chicago – noted for being the first studio to make electrically recorded discs (albeit primitively). These discs were issued under the label name Srpske Gusle (Serbian Gusle). This topical and patriotic piece is from a hitherto undocumented 12″ recording from the same session, whose title translates to “Warfare for Liberation and Unification of Yugoslavia.” Perunović died in Montenegro in 1952. A monument dedicated to him exists in the town of Tunjevo.

Petar Perunović Perun – Vojevanje za Oslobodjenje i Ujedinjenje Jugoslavensko

Not all patriotic or nationalistic music is overt – some is by its very nature simply pastoral, wistful, or a deliberate tribute to cultural tradition. Countries as different as Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Switzerland all had recorded folk song types that were more like scenes played out in an imagined mountain air, with musicians acting as shepherds in the recording studio, ringing bells, making animal noises, shouting joyful banter…until a music break, which in this particular example is a group yodel with string instruments.

The group here is the Streichmusik “Edelweiss” Trogen, named for the town of Trogen in the aforementioned Appenzell Innerrhoden Kanton. Formed in 1913, the group featured Hans Rechsteiner (1893-1986) conducting and playing the cello, brother Jakob Rechsteiner on bass, Ulrich Graf playing the hammered dulcimer of the Appenzell region known as the hackbrett, Emil Fürstauer (1891-1975) on bowed bass, Josef Inauer yodeling, and Jakob Neff on violin (the lineup on this track could be slightly different). This track, “Appenzeller Alpauffahrt” is an imitation of an annual, festive event known as the Alpauffahrt. Dressed in traditional costume, locals in Appenzellerland honor the customary migrating of cattle and goats from protected winter enclaves, to pastures higher in the Alps when spring has officially arrived. Thousands of Swiss folk 78s were recorded, yet it’s precisely these nostalgic outdoor scenes that deliberately imitate and evoke a romanticized vision of an older, rural way of life, perhaps even creating the mood that the shepherds in the Alps continue tradition in the face of modernization. The Trogen group is now based in Herisau, about 30 minutes further west.

Streichmusik “Edelweiss” Trogen – Appenzeller Alpauffahrt, Pt 1

Despite my point that this broadly defined phenomenon was, and remains, global, it feels disingenuous to not provide an American example. Every morning in my little grade school we had to face the American flag, put our hands over our hearts, and sing “America the Beautiful.” However, I don’t collect American jazz, blues, country, R&B, popular, or classical music on 78, so I can’t offer anything “new” from my collection. I’ll just settle for a link to a clip of one of the most painfully overused pieces of musical Americana, sadly co-opted and abused by people on all sides of the political spectrum in the decades after it was written, to invoke their concept of “freedom.” It’s especially important to remember that this piece of music was written by a progressive, gay, anti-militant agnostic of Lithuanian Jewish heritage, who was inspired by a speech made by New Deal liberal Henry Wallace.

Notes
Label: Renmin Chiangpan (People’s Record)
Issue Number: 53356-1
Matrix Number: n/a

Label: Srpske Gusle
Issue Number: 5668
Matrix Number: n/a

Label: Edison Bell
Issue Number: F576
Matrix Number: BK369

A photo of the Edelweiss group, thanks to reader Reto. Note the phone number is simply “9”!

edelweiss

Traveling With the Taishōkoto

The roots of the instrument known as the taishōkoto begin with a trip to Europe and the US during the early 1900s by a man with the stage name of Gorō Morita (real name: Nisaburo Kawaguchi). A musician and successful instrument maker, Gorō Morita returned to Japan and began working on a portable musical instrument that was, according to researchers, meant to be an inexpensive way for Japanese people to play western music, and one which applied some of the same mechanics found in a typewriter. Some of this history is cloudy. It’s also stated that he was influenced by the two-string nigenkin instrument, a kind of variation on the koto. Perhaps it’s safe to say that he was influenced by zithers in general, and several posit that while in Europe he may have come in contact with the violin-zither, the German akkordolia instrument, or maybe even the Swedish nyckelharpa. Some also suggest that while in the U.S., he may have seen the mountain dulcimer.

taishokoto_ebay

In any case, in September of 1912 in his family home of Nagoya, Morita perfected his instrument, introducing the Japanese version of what is ostensibly a keyed dulcimer or “keyed banjo” as it’s sometimes called (though it’s not much like a banjo). Morita first named it the kiku koto, then later changed the name to taishōkoto (also commonly taishōgoto) because of its relation to the koto coupled with a nod to Emperor Taishō. The instrument has a hollow body like a zither and a row of numbered keys that are pressed against the strings to changed their pitch, and it’s always strummed. The early version had only two strings, though today’s Japanese version normally has six strings.

Sales were apparently slow for several years, though there is proof that the quick learning-curve to play the instrument was part of its sales pitch and eventual popularity (even with advertisements directed toward geisha girls, indicating that they could learn taishōkoto faster than the shamisen). Gradually, it became a hugely successful amateur instrument during the later Taishō era, especially with young people as an acceptable method to play Western music. Interest waned during the run-up to the World War II, and it was forgotten in the country until the 1970s, when it became a popular instrument once again, directly marketed toward middle-aged women.

Despite this long preamble, I’ve never found a Japanese 78rpm disc that featured taishōkoto. Doubtless they do exist (if anyone can contribute, please do) amid the scores of shamisen and koto records and the thousands of western-influenced Japanese discs – but I’ve not heard one. To me, the story of the taishōkoto is interesting because of where it ended up.

“Waves of nightingales” is the rough English translation of the name of the South Asian instrument known as the bulbul tarang or “Indian banjo.” Another scholarly source translated it as “the nightingale’s cascading voice.” But, essentially it’s a modified taishōkoto! Like its ancestor, its history is also muddy. Some sources state that the taishōkoto arrived in India from Japan in the 1930s, leading to its popularity as an instrument for amateur and home use in the Punjab region. The South Asian version has two sets of strings – one set for melody, which is what the keys hammer, and another set of tuned drone strings. The scant technical writing on the bulbul tarang usually mentions that the instrument is humble or unadorned, even rudimentary, something close to a children’s instrument.bulbul

Because of its amateur status, it’s not surprising that very little bulbul tarang was recorded during the 78 era. Examples are all very rare, and recorded in the 1930s, featuring instrumental performances by artists such as Jagannath Mohile, K. Arumuga Mudaliar, and the example here, recorded in Calcutta by Master Shankar Banpel, in the Mishra Kafi raga.

 

A surprising twist in this story is the abrupt appearance of the taishōkoto in recordings from Kenya, beginning in the mid-1950s. Fans of CDs of 60s Zanzibari and Kenyan music may recognize it instantly. East African taarab music had been sporadically recorded in the early 20th century. The first major burst began in 1928 and lasted approximately three years, with HMV recording artists like Siti binti Saad and her group, Columbia recording in Zanzibar, and Odeon recording in Mombasa. After the early 1930s, there was a major recording lull in East Africa. Up to that point, the taarab music recorded was more traditional, principally featuring oud, violin, and darabukka drum. After World War II, when recording picked up again, that older style seems to have given way to two strains of a more orchestrated type of taarab – one that was influenced by Middle Eastern orchestras, and another that was influenced by Indian and Bollywood orchestras, referred to as taarab ya mtindo ya kiHindi. This is not surprising, since many Indians in East Africa were in the independent music and film industry, operating and owning music stores, theaters, and small record labels. Indian taarab especially adopted the taishōkoto, and one of the primary stars (he’s often credited as “Radio Star”) was Yaseen Mohammed. To accompany the bulbul tarang solo, I’ve uploaded a piece by Yaseen and his erstwhile partner Mimi (last name unknown – for now), on a Kenyan 78 from probably 1956 or so. Yaseen recorded for many labels (Jambo, Mzuri, and Columbia just to name a few) and was obviously a sought-after crooner.

It’s a perfect example of taishōkoto on a Kenyan disc, and has both Indian and Middle Eastern influence. Hundreds of records in this style were recorded and enjoyed. They turn up rarely, if ever. While there are valiant attempts being made, with the East African market flooded with over 50 small 78 labels, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a true discography any time soon – I still come across, or am made aware of, entire labels for which there appears to be no existing documentation whatsoever.

Master Shankar Banpel – Mishra Kafi

Yaseen and Mimi – Nalihi Tafuta

Notes
Label: Columbia
Issue Number: GE 1833
Matrix Number: CEI 7135-1

Label: Columbia
Issue Number: EOM 20
Matrix Number: CES 10034-1A

Photos:
a) eBay
b) Fotokannan – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10581114

Osvalds Uršteins – Vilciens no Rīgas uz Valku

I’m very happy that Pekka Gronow has offered us another guest post, after his fascinating article on Ukrainian music in June of 2015. Pekka, as I mentioned in his previous post, is a pillar in the world of discography, audio archives, and ethnomusicology. He’s an adjunct professor of musicology at the University of Helsinki, although readers may know him from his published works in conjunction with Dick Spottswood, his book An International History of the Recording Industry (written with Ilpo Saunio), and any number of appearances and articles on these and related subjects.

This one is a bit different – as Pekka explains, there was little to nothing recorded in Latvia in the way of “folk” music… – JW

Pekka Gronow:

The Train from Riga to Valka

Today we know a great deal about the history of recorded sound. Many artists, labels, and genres have been documented in detail, and some countries even have comprehensive national discographies – online or in print. There is not much about the history of recorded jazz or opera that has not already been researched.

Yet there are still many blank spots on the discographical map. I am not just thinking of exotic countries such as Burma or Bolivia. Even the recording history of many smaller European countries is poorly documented, unless they happen to have internationally known musical genres such as rebetika or fado. What do we know about the recording history of Chile or Slovakia? Are we missing something?

You can imagine my surprise when recently I came across a history of Latvian recordings from 1903 to 1944. How many such recordings can there be? The book soon dispelled any doubts I might have had on the subject. Latviešu skaņuplašu vesture, by Atis Gunivaldis Bērtiņš, is a beautifully illustrated book with numerical listings of several thousand Latvian 78s, beginning with the first recordings on the Gramophone label made in Riga in 1903, a detailed history of Latvian record labels, and biographies of major artists.[i]

From 1945 to 1990, Latvia was an involuntary member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; it was not politically correct to study the cultural productions of the former independent Republic of Latvia. Although some Latvian institutions had small collections of 78s, the largest collection can be found in the author’s private museum on a farmhouse near Kuldiga. (The museum is open to visitors by appointment, and last summer I found the owner a most congenial host, but it is a bit off the main roads).[ii]

A few years ago the National Library of Latvia embarked on a project to build a comprehensive collection of historical Latvian recordings. This resulted in a cooperative project which I believe to be unique: a virtual, digital, national collection of historical recordings which is to a large extent based on records in private collections. On the library’s website, we can listen to more than two thousand historical recordings. Most of us are unlikely to ever see copies of the records listed in Latviešu skaņuplašu vesture, but now it is easy to listen to a cross-section of pre-1945 Latvian recordings.[iii]

After reading the book, it becomes clear that during the first half of the 20th century, Riga was actually one of the centres of the European recording industry. (Even if you do not read Latvian, you will get a great deal of new information here.) Riga was known as “the Paris of the North,” a rapidly growing art nouveau city, and in 1903 Gramophone Company opened its second continental factory here to serve the rapidly growing Eastern European market. Soon Pathé, Lyrophon, and other European labels also had Latvian catalogues.

BellaccordThe story becomes really interesting in 1931 when the businessman Helmars Rudzitis started the Bellaccord label. It got its start by pressing imported masters from Artiphon, Kalliope and occasionally even American ARC, but soon built an impressive catalogue with local artists. The main categories are classical music, comic songs, operettas, and dance music. There was also some Russian repertoire, and a few Jewish titles. During the war, when Latvia was first occupied by the Russians and then by the Germans, Bellaccord recorded “A song for Stalin” and then “The song of the Latvian legionnaires.” The company also had special Estonian, Finnish, Lithuanian, and Swedish series’ for export.

What is there to hear? If you like Verdi, it is refreshing to hear Il Provenza sul mar sung in Latvian. If you are looking for authentic folk music on 78s, you will be disappointed. Like in most Northern and Central European countries, little folk music appeared on 78 rpm records. However, you can get a feel of Latvian folk melodies by listening to recordings made by classically trained artists. The category tautas dziesmas / folk songs on the website includes 218 titles, which give us a chance to hear a broad selection of folk songs, mainly performed by opera singers.[iv] Try, for instance, Apsegloju melnu kuili by Ernests Elks-Elksnītis, with amazingly good sound from 1908.[v]

To me, the most interesting are the recordings of Latvian pop songs of from the 1920s and 1930s. All over Europe and America, record companies were turning out fox trots, tangos and waltzes on an industrial scale, and at first hearing they may all sound the same, but they are not. Every country had its local tunesmiths and regional variants of international trends. It is fascinating to follow the flow of popular music across national borders. Today, English-language popular music prevails, but in Latvia in the 1920s, there was little evidence of Anglo-American domination. Instead of Tin Pan Alley, we find Latvian adaptations of German dance hits and film tunes. Only towards the end of the 1930s, there is an occasional American swing melody, like “Jeepers creepers” or “Bei mir bistu shein.”

There was also a flow of tunes between the smaller European countries. My special favourite is Vilciens no Rīgas uz Valku (The train from Riga to Valka), recorded by Osvalds Uršteins with a “jazz band” in 1938. In spite of the reference to jazz, the song is a comic waltz recounting a train ride from Riga to Valka, a small town on the Estonian border.

No Rīgas iet vilciens uz Valku.
Uz platformas stāvu es viens.
Te redzu es meiteni smalku,
Tai vaidziņš kā medus un piens.

There is a train from Riga to Valka
I stand on the platform alone
Then I see a pretty maiden
Her cheeks are like honey and milk

They meet on the train, and as it turns out that both will be leaving the train in Cesis, they decide to meet the same evening in the castle park (a popular tourist attraction even today). But the girl was just playing, and in the evening the man waits in vain:

Zem bērziem es vakarā staigāju viens,
Nakts ir jau pagalam, bet nenāk neviens.
Cik skumja ir vasara, acīs mirdz asaras,
Tevi es aizmirst vairs nespēju.

Under the birches, in the evening I walk alone
The night has gone, but no one comes
How sad is the summer, tears glitter in my eyes
I can never forget you

The song has become a “golden oldie” in Latvia, although it has not been on the market since 1945. The people seem to believe that it is a local song; you can find the full lyrics on a Latvian website where the author is listed as Alfreds Vinters, a productive composer of the era who fled to Sweden after the war.[vi] But the label clearly shows that the song is of Finnish origin. The composer is listed as “E. Salama”, and the original recording by Matti Jurva and the Ramblers orchestra was a big hit in Finland in the same year. The Finnish original, Savonmuan Hilima, is also the story of a train journey and a disappointed lover, although in this case the train is going from Kouvola to Kuopio. Even a birch tree occurs in both versions.[vii]

Very few Finnish pop songs have ever been translated into foreign languages. How did this song become known in Latvia? As it happens, Matti Jurva also recorded in Riga for Bellaccord’s Finnish series (but not this title), and was obviously successful in promoting his songs as well. But there were not many people then (or today) able to translate songs from Finnish into Latvian; the name of the translator remains a mystery.

After 1945, Rudzītis migrated to the United States, where he published his memoirs in 1984. He died at the ripe age of 97 in 2001.[viii] There is a train from Riga to Valka even today; it is the longest rail connection in Latvia. Vilciens no Rīgas uz Valku is also the name of a popular Latvian TV series that is accessible on YouTube. In the series, a host dressed as a conductor interviews guests in a saloon car. My favourite episode features Sestā Jūdze (“The sixth mile”), a Latvian country and western group.[ix] It reminds us that there are many examples of fascinating local popular music in Europe which are ingenious mixes of many traditions. Latvian “Kantri mūzika” groups wear orthodox cowboy attire, guitars and pedal steel dominate the sound, but the repertoire consists almost exclusively of original songs in Latvian.[x] I only hope there is an archive somewhere which preserves all these fascinating YouTube clips for future generations.

Thanks to Jukka Rislakki for helping with the song translation.

 

Osvalds Uršteins – Vilciens no Rīgas uz Valku

Record Electro

Notes
Label: Bellaccord
Issue Number: 3756
Matrix Number: M 4656

 

[i] Atis Gunivaldis Bērtiņš: Latviešu skaņuplašu vēsture. Laika Grāmata, Riga 2015. 367 pp., illustrated, discographies.

[ii] http://www.visit.kuldiga.lv/lv/ko-darit-apkartne/vesture-un-kultura/skanuplasu-un-senlietu-muzejs

[iii] http://audio.lndb.lv/en/objects/

[iv] http://audio.lndb.lv/en/objects/genres/folk_lv/

[v] http://audio.lndb.lv/en/advanced-search/object?id=61580

[vi] http://www.dziesmas.lv/d/Vilciens_Riga_-_Valka_-_A-Vinters/4775

[vii] Matti Jurva, Ramblers orkesteri: Savonmuan Hilima (E. Salama). Columbia DY 171, 1938

[viii] Helmars Rudzītis: Manas dzīves dēkas. Grāmatu Draugs, Brooklyn, N.Y. 1984

[ix] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_a8AFR8DDA

[x] http://www.countrymusic.lv/kantri-muzika-latvija

Zutty and his Band – Runenae Papa (I Want a Lot of Love)

This is what is known as a “sleeper record.” A “sleeper” has a few definitions, but by my standards it’s a record that otherwise has all the superficial hallmarks of being relatively common or uninteresting, whether it’s because of the label, the label series, the artist, or sometimes all three – but instead, it’s been overlooked, it’s not that common, and outstanding. In the course of trying to find ideal discs for the site, and maybe obsessively avoiding repetition, and while churning away at other projects in the background, I thought this would be yet another chance to push the boundaries a little. As a listener, I can’t always submit to the plaintive wail.

This record is a beautiful example of a mixture of styles. It’s a Latin or Caribbean-flaired “rhumba” being played by hot jazz musicians – a kind of Creole tune, performed by musicians from the south and midwest. It was recorded in Chicago, on March 27, 1935, and the first of three records made by a small group led by Arthur James “Zutty” Singleton (born 1898), a journeyman New Orleans jazz drummer who had already made his mark in music history by playing on the legendary 1928 “Hot Five” sessions by Louis Armstrong, some outstanding Jelly Roll Morton discs (including those by his “Trio”), and records by both Charles Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs and Fats Waller.

In 1934, the British-based Decca Record Company started an American branch. They’d been cannily active throughout the Great Depression, noted as a hideous time for most record companies, who were dropping like flies or merging to stave off certain collapse. Decca acquired several labels that had once been strong and were now fallen giants (Brunswick, Edison Bell, and some of the Champion catalog, among others), and when they began pressing music for the recovering American consumer, they charged a competitive 35 cents a piece.

Zutty’s band at this time consisted of Zutty of course on drums, Leonard Bibles on bass, Henry Gordon on piano, Mike McKendrick on guitar, Vernell Yorke on trumpet – and the determining factor on this disc: the great Horace Eubanks (born 1894) on clarinet and vocals. Eubanks was from East St. Louis, and was also a Creath and Morton alumnus from sessions going back to 1923. According to legend he learned clarinet from New Orleans musicians, and his playing as well as his eccentric vocal (outside of the chorus, what exactly is it he’s saying?) make this more of a Horace Eubanks solo record than anything else. He’s credited as writing the A-side, an equally strong Caribbean “beguin” [sic] titled “Look Over Yonder.”

Was this eccentricity the reason this two-sided proto-Latin-jazz disc didn’t sell nearly as well as the other sides Zutty’s band cranked out that same day? “Bugle Call Rag” and “Clarinet Marmalade” were two jazz standards from those sessions, and those well acquainted with stacks of jazz 78s will easily recognize those titles. I was introduced to this record by a Los Angeles collector and it took a good 4 years to find a nice copy. And in true sleeper fashion, it was just a few dollars.

Zutty moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s and recorded for numerous bands, famously appearing on Slim Gaillard’s novelty tunes like “Atomic Cocktail” and Harry “The Hipster” Gibson’s “Who Put the Benzedrine (In Mrs Murphy’s Ovaltine)” as well as popping up in films like the 1950 scenery-chewing Kirk Douglas vehicle Young Man With A Horn. He passed away in 1970. Horace Eubanks unfortunately died in 1948, after apparently spending some years institutionalized.

Caveat: this record has appeared once on CD, on a release titled The History of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues Vol 1: Jazz, Blues, and Creole Roots, 1921-1949. But I think it’s safe to say that this transfer is markedly better. Let’s give it some new life, eh?

Zutty and his Band – Runenae Papa (I Want a Lot of Love)

Thanks to Cormac!

Notes
Label: Decca
Catalog Number: 431
Matrix Number: C881-A

 

Moshir Homayoun – Rāst-Panjgāh

Persian classical recordings such as this might seem beguiling to the uninitiated. On the one hand, they could put some listeners in a familiar musical vicinity, with the recognizable, hallowed sounds of a solo piano performance. Yet, on the other hand, what’s being played on the piano is not a Chopin prelude.

This June 1933 recording was one of the closing recordings made in Tehran until after World War II. Some of you might remember another from these sessions that I posted ages ago. These releases were a combined effort by The Gramophone Company (HMV) and the Columbia Graphophone Company, both ubiquitous, international recording companies that had headquarters in London. These labels had actually merged in 1931 as a result of the Great Depression, yet they operated somewhat independently. According to historian Michael Kinnear however, the ’31 merger created a surplus of engineers who were laid off, and the remaining engineers often traveled to sessions across the globe recording for both companies. In 1933, a man named Horace Frank Chown recorded 275 discs’ worth of music in Tehran for both HMV and Columbia. He’d just finished recording in Baghdad.

The discs sold poorly, and apparently this was a near 30-year trend. Again, according to Kinnear, all the companies active in Iran during these years were not local (a pretty common situation for the times), and had difficulties establishing themselves. Still according to early Persian music historian Amir Mansour, over 3200 disc sides of Persian music were recorded prior to World War II, thus middling sales were only part of the reason for this break in onsite recording in Tehran until the late 40s.

Moshir Habibollah Homayoun Shahrdar (often spelled in several variants) was born into a wealthy merchant family in 1886. He is widely credited as being the first Iranian pianist, and judging by his appearance as a frequent accompanist on 78s (credited and uncredited), the Persian repertoire greatly benefited from his expertise. It looks like he made his earliest recordings in London in 1909, although if that is true, he was credited under the name Habibollah Khan. Outside of his classical musicianship he apparently had a checkered career, of which one can read about in-depth only in a wildly unsourced Wikipedia article (thus perhaps in part apocryphal?), which states that he was the mayor of Shiraz, the Chief of Police in Tehran, that he was the CEO for a steel company contracted by the Shah to build a railroad line for the Nazis, and later escaped to Shiraz in fear of Russian retribution.

This performance is merely titled by its modal system, or dastgāh – in this case, dastgāh Rāst-Panjgāh, which is one of the 12 primary dastgāhs of the radif. The radif is a complex system of over 400 classical melodies (gusheh) in a structure which I could hardly explain properly, except that these gusheh define a performance in a given dastgāh. There is documentation stating that early Persian pianos were retuned to better reflect the sound of the santur, the hammered dulcimer of Iran. Conversely, the santur was apparently rebuilt to better reflect the performance of a piano.

In any case, this is both sides of a lovely 12″ disc featuring Homayoun, who is noted as “Colonel” in the Gramophone Company ledgers. A digital copy of this is floating around, but I believe this is a far better transfer.

 

Moshir Homayoun – Rāst-Panjgāh

 

Notes
Label: Columbia
Issue Number: PPX 1
Matrix Number: 0X-9-1 / 0X-10-1

Mighty Spoiler – Social Calypsonians

JW: I’m very happy to present another detailed and lively guest post this month. I’d like to introduce Pelle Holmgren of Sweden, a calypso admirer with a newly launched website, who reached out to me to suggest that he write something about material I had on the Sagomes label of Trinidad. Lo and behold, he really delivered. In his own words: “[I] fell in love with calypso after hearing Van Dyke Parks’ album “Discover America,” which begins with a few bars from an old calypso recording of Mighty Sparrow’s. Since that day I’ve immersed myself in calypso and its history. My dream is that all the fragile 78s and 45s, scattered among collectors all over the world, are reissued at some point in the not too far future.”

Theophilus Phillip was born March 23, 1926 in Princes Town, Trinidad, which was then under British colonial rule. He’s said to have been a clever boy and was early on attracted to the humor and creative wit of the calypsonians – the eloquent bards of the island. His father, a railway worker, wasn’t keen on the idea of his son pursuing a career in this field, it not being considered a very respectable one. The saga boys of calypso fame were known to be promiscuous party animals, flashy and boastful. Still, to earn one’s livelihood by singing calypso was difficult even for the top-ranking figures of the art form. Conditions changed in the forties, however. Thanks to the deployment of American troops during the war years, the island experienced an extraordinary influx of yankee dollars. By the end of the war, the entertainment business was in a better swing than ever.

Despite his father’s disowning him, young Theophilus left home for the capital in the mid-forties. He began his calypso career by singing in the House of Lords Tent on Edward Street. (A “tent” is a venue where calypsonians present their compositions to a money and attention paying audience.) He soon earned his nom de guerre, The Spoiler, because of his flair for writing on risqué subjects. In 1947, together with fellow calypsonians, among them Lord Kitchener, Small Island Pride, and Lord Melody, he helped establish the Young Brigade Tent that would foster a new, hot-blooded postwar generation of singers, who favored fantastical tales over reflections on politics and morality. The following year he won the annual Calypso King Competition, thereby becoming the Mighty Spoiler. The winning number was “Royal Wedding,” a song about the marriage of the 21-year-old future regent of England (she was the same age as Spoiler, incidentally). When Elizabeth was coronated in 1953, Spoiler won his second crown, reprising his 1948 winner as well as introducing what is perhaps his most famed composition, the hilarious “Bedbug.”

The song at hand was released the same year on the local Sagomes label. The label had its own recording studio in Port of Spain and was managed by Eduardo Sa Gomes, a music store owner and former agent for U.S.-based record companies such as Decca and RCA, who had recorded and issued an impressive number of Trinidadian calypsos during the previous decades. The track is a rare piece. It hasn’t surfaced on any reissues so far, nor been referred to in any books I’ve read on calypso history. Melodically, the general listener may find it somewhat simple and formulaic. The purported craziness of Allan Whittaker’s orchestra may seem to have been subdued a notch or two in this session. In fact, their honks and beats are barely audible, apart from in between verses. My guess is that this is not due to sloppy arrangement or amateurishness on the part of the engineer. Sure, the recording equipment was rather basic and the whole band had to share a single channel with Spoiler, but more importantly, when orchestras played with calypsonians they were in all essence backing bands. There was simply no tradition – and hardly enough grooves on the shellacs – to have a horn-man break away into a 10-plus-bars solo. So the audience wasn’t expecting any of that. What they did expect, though, was fresh, funny lyrics and a good story. Thanks to the balance chosen between singer and orchestra, Spoiler’s words are fully decipherable and enjoyable, even to a foreign ear (at least a calypso-friendly one, as mine) 63 years later. So let’s have a listen to the first two verses of “Social Calypsonians”:

 

I was riding my scooter in St. Ann’s
met up with some social calypsonians

/repeat/

I heard they announce the Mighty Zandoli
who was going to sing them ‘Miss Netty Netty’

Well, is that night Spoiler got to know
how white people does render dey calypso

And he started:
“Ne-thee, Ne-thee,
“I said to give me the article you has in your abdomen,
“Give me the article you has in your abdomen,
“The doctor said it’s a bottle of marmalade”

 

Repetition of the first lines of the first verse was a well-established custom in calypso that has held sway to this day. A plausible theory holds that this was a strategy developed in order not to let the opening words get lost to a more or less unruly live audience.

The venue in St. Ann’s might possibly be the posh Hotel Normandie, which used to cater to an American crowd. That evening, the stage was apparently populated by “white people”, by which Spoiler meant “not of Creole descent,” like most of the prominent Trinidadian singers. The term “social calypsonians” might be a way for Spoiler to say he didn’t consider them to be true calypsonians – who were supposed to write and sing their own material – but rather entertainers, calypso singers, who sang already well-known calypsos to please the crowd.

The singer, Mighty Zandoli, is presenting his version of calypso giant Roaring Lion’s “Netty Netty,” which goes back to the mid-thirties. The song, with its original chorus of “Netty Netty, give me thing that you have in your belly,” was banned in 1937 under the so-called Dance Hall and Theatres Ordinance for obscenity. When shellacs of Decca’s recording reached the customs in Port of Spain that year, the whole lot was seized and allegedly dumped into the sea. So instead Zandoli, an honorable crowd-pleaser, sings “give me the article you has [sic] in your abdomen” which was a line actually suggested as more appropriate – by the Police Department. (Not suprisingly, it never caught on with the general public). In her study Socio-Cultural Change and the Language of Calypsos, linguist Lise Winer remarks that “while the suggested revision is more ‘English’ it does nothing to change or obscure the original referent.”

A zandoli, for those who haven’t seen one, is a Caribbean lizard. There have been at least two calypsonians (or “chantwells,” as they were called initially) to use this moniker. One sang in the 1870s and the other, Sylvester Anthony, almost a century later. The Mighty Zandoli of Spoiler’s song might well have been a purely fictional character. Of the other singers name-dropped, the only one I have found a reference to is Lord Trafalgar, but he seems mostly to have been active in the twenties and thirties.

After listening to the clownish Zandoli and his phony refrain, Spoiler is amused enough to decide to stay and check out the next singer on the program. Spoiler relates:

 

Well, I run and put down meh scooter
I say, well tonight I go dead with laughter
I heard they announce the Lord Elephant
So that make the Spoiler walk little more in front

The announcer said “Friends, this is calypso,
“The Lord Elephant will sing ‘Canaan Barrow'”
The calypsonian said “If you don’t mind,
“I would rather sing them ‘Jump in the Line'”

Then he started

“Jump in the line and wiggle your anatomy,
“Mother, advance to the front,
“Jump in the line and wiggle your anatomy”

 

“Canaan Barrow” was another hit calypso, sung by King Radio in1948 (some sources cite Lord Melody as the composer). Its popularity gained it the status of “road march,” meaning its refrain was played and chanted in the carnival processions that year.

Lord Elephant has changed his mind, however. He now wants to sing the 1946 road march “Jump in the Line,” often attributed to Lord Kitchener. Its refrain and variants of it have been used in so many versions around the Caribbean (and on Belafonte’s massive hit album Jump Up Calypso for that matter) that it almost seems to have been born right into – or out of – the public domain. The words following the title usually go, “shake [or rock/wag] your body in time.” But Elephant, or perhaps the police or the patrons of the venue, deems that line too unsophisticated for the respectable crowd. So Elephant employs his poetical skills and comes up with… a stylish alternative. Again, Spoiler falls to the ground in heaps of laughter. And on it goes. One after the other, the calypso copycats fail miserably with their ridiculous accents and vain attempts to sing “decent” enough to keep potential censors at peace. Spoiler sure did have a ball that night.

As within the world of pop and rock stardom, alcohol was an ingrained element in the calypso community. Social drinking in the calypso and carnival season easily turned social calypsonians into solitary rumshop frequenters off-season, and Spoiler was by all accounts one of them. Mighty Sparrow (by now the king of all calypso kings) said of Spoiler that he was “one of the greatest calypsonians ever and I have never seen him sober a day in my life.” Throughout the fifties, Spoiler went on to produce some of the most imaginative calypsos ever written: tales about cat brain transplants and twin brothers, sleepwalkers and stalking shadows, female police officers and magistrates trying themselves, cases of canny backwards talking and extremely bad spelling. But years of intensive drinking finally took its toll on the bard. Spoiler died at 34 years old, on Christmas Eve 1960. He was buried at the Woodbrook Cemetary in St. James.

He did, however, return in 1981, when Noble-prized author Derek Walcott let the “Hot Boy” lend Spoiler two weeks’ leave from Hell, where all calypsonians are bound to end up – if you take their own word for it. Spoiler consoled his fans that he was still heeding the call of his youth: “I decompose but I composing still.”

– Lord Investor

Mighty Spoiler – Social Calypsonians

Notes
Label: Sagomes
Issue Number: SG 159
Matrix Number: SG 170 B

Krishnasawmy – Oppari, Pt 1

I had no intention of returning so quickly to India, but this newly discovered disc was just too fascinating to ignore. It features a type of song that, as far as I know, was almost never recorded for commercial reasons. In the Gramophone Company’s ledgers for that day, September 21, 1916 in Madras, there is no artist, title, or catalog number listed. There’s just one phrase: “crying song.”

British engineer George Dillnut must have really been stretching his ears that day, as when the mysterious Krishnasawmy stepped up to record this piece, he’d just finished recording several songs by Cunniah Naidu on the snake charmer’s pungi, another type of music that appeared infrequently. The record label must not have known what to do with this – perhaps the Europeans who recorded this thought of these performances as something like “Indian novelty songs.” Perhaps that was one reason that this piece was not even listed as a “song” on the label, and instead was described as “talking.”

Except that while it is most certainly exaggerated, it’s not just talking at all – this incredible song is called an oppari, and it’s a traditional Tamil song that’s sung during a funeral. An oppari contains exaggerated crying and wailing between each sung line in a single breath, emphasizing the tragedy of the death, and to show that the recently deceased is truly missed as they send them off to the next life. As each line about the deceased’s virtues is sung, the singer sometimes self-flagellates, beating their chest.

Although Krishnasawmy was a man, oppari performers are usually women of the lower caste who sing for deceased men who left wives and children. However, professional wailing can apparently be performed for most deaths in Tamil society. Oppari songs can occasionally be sung in the home, as well, unrelated to a funeral. Contemporary ethnomusicologists have suggested that oppari songs can be a way for Tamil women to express their voices, concerns, and even protest. While oppari is associated with women, there have been male oppari singers, historically up to today. The male performers are usually from the Dalit (oppressed) caste. Ethnomusicologist Paul Greene stated that “Even when men perform it, oppari is a performance of women’s emotions.” He suggests that despite the long-standing tradition of men performing oppari, men’s embodiment of women’s grieving in an oppari performance steals women’s own voice, in a way.

Oppari singers are then both musicians, actors, and craftspeople. Many train for years to perfect their melodic phrasings as professional weepers, and also as performers who can push the boundaries of expression (since, one would assume, they do not often know whom they’re singing about). This expression might, to some non-Indians, border on mockery, just as the wailing on this record might be quickly mistaken for laughter. But it is not a mockery, nor is it laughter – it is yet another regional performance style which, amazingly, made it to 78.

Krishnasawmy – Oppari, Pt 1

Notes
Label: HMV (Calcutta)
Issue Number: P 4480
Coupling Number: 8-11752
Matrix Number: 4046ak

With thanks to Richard Nevins.