June 22, 2016
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.
Issue Number: PPX 1
Matrix Number: 0X-9-1 / 0X-10-1
May 11, 2016
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
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:
“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
Issue Number: SG 159
Matrix Number: SG 170 B
April 17, 2016
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.
Label: HMV (Calcutta)
Issue Number: P 4480
Coupling Number: 8-11752
Matrix Number: 4046ak
With thanks to Richard Nevins.
February 29, 2016
Lovey’s Original Trinidad String Band first made history in 1912. Not only were they the first band from Trinidad to record the island’s local music on 78 rpm records, but they were also, according to historian and writer John Cowley, “the first English-speaking band predominantly composed of musicians of colour to make phonograph records.” They were considered a “mixed” group, with both Creole and non-Creole members.
Lovey was a metalworker and a violin player named George Baillie, born ca. 1880. At the time of their extant recordings, his group was considered one of the best string bands in Trinidad. For those unfamiliar, the early music from Trinidad was filled with waltzes and paseos, finely orchestrated dance tunes for the cultured classes and performed especially around Carnival – yet, firmly grounded in the music of the Caribbean and nearby Venezuela. To me it has an elegant, maybe a slightly narcotic feel. You can hear nascent echoes of what was to appear in calypso music of the future, as well as hints of the wild Martiniquan biguine music later recorded in France. Music from Trinidad would change dramatically over the next two decades, rendering these recordings isolated mementos.
Lovey’s Band records are very rare. Copies of some, I believe, have not yet been found. Much of the published information on Lovey’s Band, and admittedly much of what I’ve paraphrased here, comes from the scrupulously researched CD on the Bear Family label from 2012, Calypso Dawn: 1912, which was produced by calypso experts John Cowley, Steve Shapiro, and Dick Spottswood, with a top-shelf restoration and mastering job by Christian Zwarg. In that release, Cowley describes Lovey’s group from the ship manifest of their trip to New York. At that time, it contained 12 players: two violinists, a clarinetist, a flautist, a tiple player, a pianist, a double bassist, two guitar players, two cuatro players, and one braga/machete player (a ukulele-like instrument).
That release features most of the recordings made that same year in New York City for Victor and for Columbia. However, Lovey and his group, likely with a different line-up, returned to the studio in late July-early August 1914 to record another 40 tracks for Columbia. It’s unknown if those were recorded in Trinidad or New York. Cowley contends that since the 1914 recordings are missing W. Edwards, their clarinetist from 1912, Lovey’s 1914 paseos have a different feel. I would have to agree. That said, this tune, never before issued, still has a latter-third that marvels, with the band breaking loose in fine form. Composer credit is given to Lovey, and while there were several other early tunes titled “Oh, Mr Brown” performed by the likes of Arthur Collins and others, this appears to indeed be Lovey’s original. I am curious if the melody ended up being adapted or covered by later performers, as so often occurred with Lovey’s tunes.
Lovey is documented as actively performing with his band throughout the 1920s. He died in 1937.
Issue Number: L54
Matrix Number: 59316-1
January 25, 2016
I’m very happy to host another guest post from my friend Robert Millis, who has a beautiful new release out featuring all manner of amazing Indian 78s (caveat: I worked on it, and am gladly biased). Rob will be appearing this Saturday, January 30, in Los Angeles, at the Velaslavasay Panorama (a unique and wonderful venue) and I’ll be second banana, playing some ear-piercing 78s in the gazebo. Please come by – tickets are almost sold out.
I would have loved to include a track by Zohra Bai in my Indian Talking Machine book/CD set recently released on Sublime Frequencies, but her records are scarce and highly coveted by collectors in India. I finally received one through a friend after the book was put to bed so I am using this Excavated Shellac guest post as a supplementary entry to my book.
In the book I relate a brief story of driving in a car in India while a tape of Zohra Bai was being played. One passenger (a musician) in the car kept turning mid-sentence to sing along with the tape, repeat an ornamentation or marvel at her technique. It was as if he was having two conversations, one with the present and one with the past. That was my introduction to her work, and it left a strong mark on me.
The first thing you notice about this record on its faded and stained label is that it is credited to “the late” Zohra Bai, and indeed it was issued after her death which occurred in 1913, though there is some speculation that she may have died in 1911, as the word “dead” was noted on her HMV contract possibly in that year (that’s some stiff upper lip British efficiency for you). Zohra Bai was born in 1868 and so died far too young, and the world was robbed of a unique and powerful voice.
She recorded 3 times for the Gramophone Company from 1908-1910, making a total of 78 recordings. She was under an exclusive contract and paid Rs 2500 per year. Outside of this, as with many early recording artists, not much is known about Zohra Bai: some say she was part of the courtesan tradition and was a dancer and performed in the courts of North India. Experts claim she learned from Ahmad Khan, a famous sarangi player, and hence you can hear the sarangi in her voice. Collectors assert she was beautiful, claiming you only have to listen to her voice to know this must have been true. There are two photographs of her, though neither has been proven beyond a doubt to actually be her. What is known is that her voice helped define the Agra gharana (style or school) in Indian classical music and that she was an enormous influence on Faiyaz Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and even perhaps Abdul Karim Khan, all stalwarts of the Hindustani classical tradition. To many, no higher honor can be paid to her than to say she influenced such singers.
This track was recorded in Delhi in 1910 by George Walter Dillnutt, but not issued until 1919. It is a thumri. Thumri’s are often referred to as “light classical” works. But here “light” in no way implies a less complicated form of music that might require less training or talent. It is simply that in such music more liberties can be taken with the raga, more melodic invention is “allowed” than in the stricter dhrupad or khyal styles, of which it is also said Zohra Bai was a master. This piece is a Zila, which means at least two ragas–including all their associated rules and moods–are interwoven by the performer during the performance. Thumri usually revolve around the erotic love stories of Krishna, and are usually told from the woman’s point of view. In this piece, Zohra laments how frogs (dadurwa) and peacocks (mor) are making so much noise (shor) that she is frightened. She is alone in the monsoon rains, unable to endure the longing she feels for her lover.
At the end you can hear her announce herself (as many vocalists did at this time in India), almost as if she is signing her work, making sure we know who was singing. This practice was common in India during the early recording era, with some artists going so far as to provide their address. But listen closely, it sounds almost as if she says “Zohra Bai died in Agra” You can hear this same phrase on several of her other recordings. Maybe she says something else, or maybe she had been mis-taught the English. Or are these recordings actually not her, but someone paying homage? Perhaps she is singing from the beyond. The mystery around this will never be solved, just as the facts of her life will never really be known. Another ghost haunting shellac grooves. But what a legacy of recordings left behind. Had she died a few years earlier we might not have had even this much.
Thanks to Suresh Chandvankar of the Society of Indian Record Collectors. Also musician Keshavchaitanya Kunte who helped with the translation of the bandish (lyrics). And, in absentia as always, Michael Kinnear for all the discographical work.
“Is this Zohra Bai?”
Label: Gramophone Company (HMV)
Issue Number: P 4023
Coupling Number: 8-13990
Matrix Number: 13684o
January 18, 2016
The modern history of the Oceanic islands that comprise the present-day French collectivity of New Caledonia has in many ways been the stuff of brutality and exploitation. Plundered for its sandalwood, used as a penal colony, exploited for its nickel reserves, seized upon for land tracts by settlers, enmeshed in the sugarcane slave trade, revolts, murder – this is the wretched stuff of colonization the world over. On top of it all, like many other areas with tribal cultures, the islands had a history of documented cannibalism, no doubt creating ghoulish imagery of crazed “natives” in the minds of the rest of the world.
Then came the missionaries. In much the same way that virtually every other land-hungry nation on earth attempted to tame indigenous populations, religion was an important component for control. When it comes to traditional music, however, things are complicated.
Before World War II, recordings from islands of the Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, were few and far between, and recorded almost entirely by ethnographers. One major exception was of course the music of Hawaii, which was an international craze and brought many outstanding performers to wide, cross-over acclaim, and helped to popularize a kind of Polynesian sound, however real or manufactured. Another exception would be the few dozen discs of Maori music recorded by Columbia Records in New Zealand. Some music by Tahitians also appeared on a few commercial discs, as well. By and large, however, early recordings of traditional music from islands in Oceania were either non-commercial discs recorded and issued privately for posterity or scholarly consumption, or were discs recorded at their home-bases by major labels and private institutions on the occasion of a major ethnographic event, like the Colonial Exposition in Paris in 1931, where many Pacific Islanders traveled to participate and record.
Christian missionaries began appearing in New Caledonia from the 1840s. Missionaries typically placed restrictions on what could be sung and banned ceremonial activities, such as dancing. Group singing, so long as it was in the familiar harmonies of Christian hymns, was usually encouraged. As such, early recordings of this kind are heavily mediated by outside musical influence, by their recording circumstance, and the weight of cultural interference.
Yet, in many cases, they are all we have as examples of traditional songs from this time period. It’s difficult to resist their easy charm, sweetness, and how they reside between the familiar and unfamiliar. In New Caledonia, the Kanak people adopted some of their communal songs to this Protestant hymn form. By the end of World War II, after decades of strain, relations were warming between New Caledonians and the French, perhaps in part because of their important assistance to the Allies during the war. In 1946, New Caledonia officially became a French overseas territory. Today’s selections were made at that pivotal time.
Thanks to a 1946 article by a music student in the Journal de la Société des océanistes, we know something about these recordings. They were not, in fact, recorded for the more well-known Musée de l’Homme in Paris, and in fact were recorded under the auspices of a group called Lettres et Arts d’outre-mer (Humanities and Arts of the French Territories), at the Pathé studios in Paris on November 8, 1945, and issued privately as a two-record “tirage limité” (limited edition) as is written on the label. The recording sessions were organized by a Ms Humbert-Sauvageot and featured a group of indigenous, New Caledonian soldiers who were members of the heralded Battaillon du Pacifique. The choir consisted of: Mahe Warawi (farmer, descendant of the chief Henri Naisseline), Robert Wayawidri (farmer), John Willi (fisherman), Dick Bouama (navigator), Jules Kakou (trader), Emmanuel Dogo (farmer), Auguste Kaalo (pearl fisherman), Boae Kielle (farmer), Leack Schleitz (fisherman), and Pierre Tiaou (farmer), all from either Maré Island, or the main island (Grand Terre).
I’ve included both sides of the record. They sing two traditional songs. “Yeretiti,” the 2nd song here, is also known as “La poulpe et le rat” (The Octopus and the Rat), and is apparently an old folkloric tune sung by warriors. “Retokengo” is a song for competition by teams, and is sung as players take the field. It looks to be more frequently titled “Ilo” and a rough transliteration of part of the song was made in ’46:
Reto kengo ana awane
Ejebetchi mené guéritene
Tchogouro natane tcho kani butch
Dadené kazorino dékadé
Ilo, ilo, keedje dékotcho hueté (repeat)
Tcho ko koé mé gada
A French translation was included as well – and although I suspect it too is inaccurate, I’ve translated it to English:
Let’s unite, dear brothers
To play against our opponent
For it is the union that is the strength
The country is counting on us to save his honor
Play, do not lose heart
Play, do not despair,
Play, and be confident
Because the force is in unity
Label: private (Lettres et Arts d’Outre-mer)
Issue number: n/a
Matrix number: 2400-1/2402-1
December 12, 2015
Don’t feel alone if you listen to this obscure West African disc and think, “What the hell?” It really is one of those records. A group of rural female singers wailing along with a group of urban musicians in a studio already creates an odd juxtaposition, but it’s pushed over the top with the addition of a keyboardist on an electric, monophonic organ, who, for whatever reason, occasionally quotes the “Tuileries” movement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
I included a piece from Cameroon on Opika Pende that has a similar, if a bit more chaotic feel (Onana Mbosa Isidore’s “Kurungu”), and I’d always wondered if I’d ever hear another disc like it. It didn’t take long. This brazen, almost anachronistic blend of traditional, classical, and modern music, seems to have occasionally crept out of the studios of Opika, one of the most successful independent Congolese record labels and one of the primary sources of the birth of Afro-pop. It almost seems as if it was a deliberate attempt on their part to “modernize” some traditional music.
If two records like this exist, then surely there are more. The Kinsahsa-based Opika issued approximately 2,000 individual 78s from its inception in the late 1940s until the company folded in 1957. I’ve written about Opika in the past both in print and on the site, and that the company was started by Greek Jews from Rhodes, the Benetar brothers, Gabriel and Joseph. Their main competitor in Kinshasa, the Ngoma label, was also Greek-run and issued a similar amount of discs, before folding not long after Opika. But during their years of activity, it was a furious race to press more and more popular records – the rumbas, the cha-cha-chas, the guitar bands, and the artists who would become legends, like Wendo and Nico.
But that’s not solely what these labels recorded. What has been left out of the books and the many fine reissues that feature 78s from the Congo are the hundreds of traditional recordings these labels made (or, in this case, perhaps “semi-traditional”), as well as the hundreds of recordings they made outside Kinshasa. Their history has not yet been written – or much heard. Ngoma, for example, chose to record many traditional cultures around Congo, in dozens of local languages. These sound like rough and raw field recordings for the most part, and they did the same in Cameroon as well. Opika, while they did not record nearly as much traditional music as Ngoma, had several West African distributors. From the early 50s, they began recording both top high-life bands in Ghana, such as E.K.’s Band, and issuing them with a new colorful label. Also, likely due to improved train transportation, economic competition, and the portability of tape machines, Opika began recording artists from Côte d’Ivoire and then-Upper Volta, both regions that had been totally ignored by record labels until the early 1950s.
This disc certainly falls into the latter category. Recorded circa 1954 for Opika’s Côte d’Ivoire/”Haute Volta” distributor C.I.C.A. (I believe the short form of a French concern known as the “Compagnie Industrielle de la Côte d’Afrique”), this strange gem by Ms Josephine Bran is in the Alladian language, also known as Alladyan, Allagian, or on this disc as Aladjan. It’s spoken in the southern part of Côte d’Ivoire in about 21 villages today, with a total of about 23,000 speakers. Whether or not it’s an attempt to blend traditional music with a modern backing group in the style found on most uptown Congolese rumbas, or whether this amalgamation found an audience, is hard to say. And who is that playing the Solovox organ, which also turns up on a lot of popular Congolese recordings of the day? According to Congolese music expert Vincent Kenis, it’s Gilbert Warnant, the Belgian recording engineer and talent scout for Opika for most of the 1950s. Vincent also mentioned that the Solovox segment in the middle of the piece is in fact the French children’s song “Nous n’irons plus au bois” (English: “We’ll go to the woods no more”). Did they ever think that someone 60 years later would hear their little secrets? Did the singers have any idea? That is, in part, what’s exciting about it – it’s just different, and opens up many questions.
Issue Number: 1584
Matrix Number: Part 21932 21
November 11, 2015
Sometimes, you have to feel lucky just to own certain records, in the sense they’ve had a life before you that you can only guess at. Kurdish records from the 78 rpm era are precisely that, for me. While listeners and collectors in the west might think this is really exploring the margins of recorded sound, I disagree. Globally, it’s no more on the margins than listening to or collecting Cajun recordings. Though Cajun music is obviously far more popularized here in the US, both are representative of a regional, vibrant culture, where only a finite amount of historic discs exist. In the case of Kurdish recordings, they are representative of the musical traditions of what is commonly called, for better or worse, a “stateless nation.”
Kurdish maqam is slightly different than other types of maqam, in the sense that the term “maqam” doesn’t refer to classical Middle Eastern modes, and instead refers to specific themes or pieces. Horn and Shepherd’s Bloomsbury Encyclopedia poetically referred to the music as “monophonic hymns” – apt, once you begin listening to the emotional and embellished delivery in today’s example. The vocal style portrayed here, accompanied by oud though can also be accompanied by tanbur, is simply riveting, and it’s one that seems to have changed very little.
Iraqi-Kurdish classical singer Hesen Cizrawî (transliterated on this disc as “Hassan Jazrawi,” but also found spelled in innumerable variations), was born in 1917 and died in 1983. Judging alone by the frequency of his name mentioned in books, his later recordings on websites, bootleg cassettes, and on YouTube, as well as the related comments therein, Cizrawî is without a doubt one of the most important Kurdish artists of the 2nd half of the 20th century. His father, Mihemed Arif Cizrawî, was also a well-known singer that recorded as early as the 1930s – but Hesen seems, in a way, to have a more resounding voice to my untrained ears. Not necessarily more artistic or subtle, but certainly a bracing voice that will jolt you upright. Here, he is accompanied by Dawud Al-Kuwaiti on violin, and Saleh Al-Kuwaiti on oud.
Most texts don’t even address Kurdish recordings before 1970. Some, like the aforementioned encyclopedia, openly admit to having no clue. Well, we can put an end to that mystery here and now. The first documented recordings (so far) of Kurdish music were made in Turkey and issued by the Orfeon label sometime before 1920 – a grand total of 7 records. These would remain the only Kurdish recordings made in Turkey for decades, as there was a strict ban on the Kurdish language – just a sample of the difficulties Kurds experienced. Kurdish 78s made in Iraq or Iran, for example, would have to have been smuggled into Turkey for sale to Kurds through the black market.
It was a different story in Iraq and Iran. From the late 1920s through the late 1930s, small batches of Kurdish records did appear on Polyphon, Parlophon, Baidaphon (recorded in Sulaymaniyah), and even Sodwa, the short-lived 78 label based in Aleppo, Syria. In the late 1930s, a series of over 20 discs were made in Iraq and pressed by HMV in Pakistan, primarily featuring Meryem Xan, and the elder Cizrawî. After World War II, Columbia began a series of Kurdish discs also featuring the Cizrawîs, among many others. This was one of them – recorded February of 1948 in Baghdad. Further recordings were made by local labels, such as Chakmakchi Phon, and for more on those recordings, let me take you back in time…
Issue Number: GIA 26
Matrix Number: COF 93
Thank you to Bill Dean-Myatt, Ahmad AlSalhi, Amir Mansour’s work, and collector friends.
October 9, 2015
I am happy to say that Dust-to-Digital has released my new LP/CD, Excavated Shellac: Reeds, which is now available through all the usual outlets, along with a reissue of Strings with some rare bonus tracks. Reeds is an intense listen, but as you might expect, I really love the music, with all its sometimes uncompromising harshness. It’s meant to be a bagatelle – a short collection, intended to be a door-opener, and written in the same manner as I produce this site. I had help from just the same folks who worked on Opika Pende, namely Debbie Berne, David Murray, and Michael Graves. Supporting releases like this help me to continue work on larger projects. I strongly believe that if you appreciate this site, you will enjoy my releases.
So, in honor of that, here’s one that got away. The Mij-Wiz label is a bit of a mystery, which is one of the reasons it didn’t make the cut for the LP. There were many post-WWII, independent 78 rpm labels issuing Middle Eastern and Arab-American music. Some made original recordings, some bootlegged recordings made overseas. Some were beautifully produced and some, like this one, were very poorly pressed. Much of the music issued on these labels was popular music of the day – Umm Kulthumm and Mohammad El Wahab ballads, so-called “belly dance” music, and songs from films. Some regional music crept out, however. The handful of discs issued on the Mij-Wiz label make it seem to me as if it were a private, independent pressing of some kind, as they all feature the same thing: a man named Naseef Saikley playing dance music on the mijwiz.
The mijwiz is a short, nasal-sounding, single-reed instrument made of bamboo cane, with two pipes that are tied together – a drone and a melody pipe. In the musical instrument hierarchy it’s considered a “double clarinet,” and is similar to the arghul of Upper Egypt (featured on Reeds) and numerous other instruments stretching across the Middle and Near East. The mijwiz is considered a popular instrument used by the Druze in Syria, but it is also simply a common instrument for weddings all throughout Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. This piece, in fact – “Dabke Jabali” to transliterate it a bit better – is a well-known line-dance at weddings: The Mountain Dabke.
Many thanks to reader/commenter “Hammer,” who identified Saikley as a Lebanese Christian who immigrated to the U.S., and was based in New Jersey. My hunch is that this record and others on Mij-Wiz was issued in a set, likely in the early 50s.
Issue Number: n/a
Matrix Number: D-2-6 47-610 MMS
August 16, 2015
From the Great Steppe, we now travel to the middle of Sweden, to a small village about five miles outside the city of Örebro called Tysslinge. In the previous entry we focused on the morin khuur of Mongolia, and now we’ll pause for a little rumination on one of the most dignified and fascinating stringed instruments of Europe, the nyckelharpa.
Without a doubt, the nyckelharpa, sometimes described as the bowed hurdy-gurdy, is positively medieval. Its origins, though debated, seem to date back to at least the middle of the 14th century, and documentation of its use and existence under various names and slight iterations appear in church paintings, early books on music, and relief sculptures, for several hundred years, until the modern era. Primarily, however, evidence suggests that the nyckelharpa was an instrument that flourished mainly in small villages of the Swedish region of northern Uppland. The nyckelharpa is a “keyed fiddle,” and quite large. Played with a bow and held with a strap around the neck, the instrument today has 16 strings and 37 keys. The keys are pressed as a player bows, hence the hurdy-gurdy comparison. Except the nyckelharpa has 12 sympathetic strings and 1 drone string giving it a unique sound when its 3 melody strings are bowed. Now firmly part of the Swedish folk tradition, today it is the Swedish national instrument, even found on the printed kronor.
Swedish folk music was certainly recorded in the 78 rpm era, though it was not the main output of Sweden’s recording industry and can be devilishly difficult to find, even in Sweden. In terms of early recorded music from the country, including the output of Swedish-Americans, fiddle, nyckelharpa, and bagpipe tunes are nearly completely absent – most what you find are the enjoyable, light-hearted comic tunes with accordion. The songs we’ll present today are quite different, and truly shine a light on the early folk tradition in Scandinavia. I’ve always thought that, not unlike the hardanger fiddle tradition of Norway, Swedish folk music has almost a wistful, yet stately and regal quality – almost baroque – that is thoroughly beautiful. Traditional music can be both “folk” and refined.
It is Tysslinge where Erik August Sellin was from. Born in 1869, Sellin was actually a multi-instrumentalist, playing besides the nyckelharpa, the clarinet, accordion, and violin. He lived portions of his life in Stockholm, with travel to the U.S. and to Berlin as a touring musician, though apparently the tours were not as successful as he’d hoped. He did, however, record several nascent examples of nyckelharpa folk music for Odeon, and for the Gramophone Company, in 1912 and 1913, respectively. This piece (link below), recorded in Stockholm on August 12, 1913, is a medley of two tunes, “Tysslingevalsen” (Waltz from Tysslinge) and “Hopparvalsen” (Jumping Waltz). Bowed instruments can sound so distant on these early recordings, even in perfect condition. I am sure well-seasoned Excavated Shellac readers have the innate ability to hear magic through the fog.
The nyckelharpa has evolved and changed in its construction. Sellin’s instrument was found in an attic, and dated from the mid-1800s. It’s a type known as a silverbasharpa which he made changes to, increasing the number of keys from 20 to 29, increasing the keys’ notes, adding a layer of rosin that acted as insulation against the rattling of the keys, modifying the bow to increase elasticity, and also adding a piece of rubber to the “frog” part of the bow, so he could play pizzicato. Sellin died in 1937. His life is well documented in a privately published book from 1982, in Swedish, written by Roger Berlin.
Flash forward nearly 40 years. Apart from the scarce early examples, one of the most interesting series containing folkloric music on 78 from Sweden were the occasional discs issued by the Radiotjänst label, run by the Swedish national broadcast company. While most of their releases on 78 were classical, from about 1946 or so, Radiotjänst periodically recorded excellent folk music by the most renowned traditional musicians in the country. Only several dozen of these discs were issued and those don’t exactly grow on trees either, but they constitute a wide array of top performances. Probably the most well-known nyckelharpa musician of the 20th century, Eric Sahlström, was among those captured – on a mere 2 discs, in 1950.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Eric Sahlström not only revolutionized and popularized the nyckelharpa, but he helped reinvigorate interest in Swedish folk music in general. Born in 1912, Sahlström hailed from Uppland, an area north of Stockholm known for keeping the nyckelharpa tradition alive when it had fallen out of favor. He, too, redesigned the instrument, creating the chromatic version played most commonly today, with 3 rows of keys, augmenting an original design by August Bohlin. Sahlström taught classes, appeared on radio and television, and rekindled interest in the Swedish folk tradition. A soft-spoken, avuncular man, at least in his TV appearances (at the 5:50 mark), he bridged the gap between the older and modern era, while still keeping the roots in place. Today, there is an Eric Sahlström Institute, in Tobo, and his composed works are performed by many. Thanks to him, there is recognition of this rich tradition. He passed away in 1986. This track is one of his own compositions, also known as “Fiddler’s Joy” recorded ca. early 1950.
Eric Sahlström nyckelharpa photo by Karsten Evers.
Image of young Erik Sellin from Roger Berlin’s Allmogespelmannen Erik Sellin (Vintrosa: författaren, 1982).
Label: Gramophone Company
Coupling Number: 587911
Matrix Number: 5115ab
Issue Number: RA 153
Matrix Number: RTJ 2988 A
With thanks to Tony Klein.
For more Sahlström on Radiotjänst there’s Volume 1 of the Secret Museum of Mankind, of course!