I’m very pleased to have cajoled another friend with a fine collection into producing an Excavated Shellac-only guest post. This week’s entry is from Rob Millis, co-producer of the museum-worthy Victrola Favorites release on the Dust-to-Digital label. Rob, along with his partner Jeffery Taylor, is also one-half of the experimental Climax Golden Twins (who have a new release on the Journal of Popular Noise). I’m excited that Rob chose to highlight a type of music I also find fascinating – if it is new to you, and I hope to most it will be, I believe you will find this special stuff. – JW
Recorded in May or June of 1908, this lovely piece is set in the kharahapriya rag with an 8 beat time cycle called athi. The performer is Brahma Sri Tiruchendur Appadurai Aiyengar (or Iyengar), a Carnatic (Southern) Indian classical musician of some renown in his time. Most likely recorded in Madras (present day Chennai), the performer was perhaps from – or employed in – the city of Tiruchendur, in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where Telugu is one of the primary languages. Tamil Nadu is the heart of Dravidian culture, and simply one of the most ancient places on Earth.
The jaltharangam, often written jalatarang, is an oddity. Meaning “water waves,” the jalatarang consists of small – often porcelain – bowls filled with water and struck with small – often bamboo – sticks. The bowls are arranged in front of the player in a semi-circle not unlike the tuned drums and gongs of Southeast Asia. The amount of water in each bowl determines the tuning (you can try this at home, kids). The jalatarang is mentioned in a 17th century Indian text, and under a slightly different name in even earlier texts (including the Kamasutra), where its mastery was considered one of the essential 64 arts to be learnt by women. The other 63 arts probably get more attention these days, but Alexander the Great is said to have taken jalatarang players back to Macedonia after his subcontinent sojourns which make this simple little instrument potentially over two thousand years old. Some call it, along with the rudra vina, the very oldest South Indian instrument. Rarely recorded, not given much credence by the stalwarts of Indian classical music, it has a crystalline, delicate, shimmering tone, making it an utterly ridiculous instrument to record in 1910. This was the era of acoustic recordings, when mid-range, volume, and voices like Caruso carried the day by simply (and effectively) shouting into a horn. But record it they did, those plucky English Gramophone Company employees, and thank heaven. Classical Indian music is generally improvisational and long form – taking as much time as the performers need to fully explore the raga and beat cycle. But they did what they could in the 78rpm era to provide a taste of this form. And old records such as this are often the only examples of nearly forgotten styles, performers, and ragas.
A beat up ancient record, found in a forgotten junk store in Tamil Nadu last year, about which I can find almost nothing. Who owned it? Who played it? How did it survive? It is like a venerable, wizened old monk. You have to work at listening to recordings like these and fill in the gaps with imagination. Plenty of crackle and hiss like London fog adds to the mystery. The shruti box, barely heard in the background, the drum, possibly a Mridangam (clay pot drum) practically blending in with the crackles and pops, and an ethereal melody in danger of being swallowed, drifting over the top, seeming to come out of thin air or down from the heavens…inscribed in the grooves as though by an angel…which actually was the logo at this time for the Gramophone Company before it adopted the more familiar faithful dog of His Master’s Voice fame. The label is gorgeous too, and wears its history well, as old – relatively – as the instrument it captures.
– Rob Millis
Label: Gramophone Concert Record
Issue Number: G.C.-19455
Matrix Number: E 9274