July 23, 2009
It’s time to visit another region we’ve not been to yet on Excavated Shellac: the mountainous country of Laos, once known as the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, and at least at one time, was one of the least explored countries in the world in terms of its music. I cannot fully grasp how much or little Laotian music was recorded during the 78rpm era, to be honest. Certainly the French were in the region, recording in Vietnam and Cambodia, as was Columbia and Odeon. Burmese music was being recorded mainly by the Gramophone Company and their subsidiaries, which made sense as they had large control over the Indian market, and Burma was a part of British India until 1937. There was an obscure series of Laotian discs released around the late 1920s by Victor on their 40000 series, and one can hear a cut from that series on Black Mirror. And then there’s the French series where today’s track stems from – but more on that in a minute. First, the music…
In Laos, the central instrument of traditional folk music is the khene. The khene (also spelled kaen, khéne, khène, khaen, etc.) is a free-reed mouth organ made of bamboo, in double rows, sometimes measuring as large as 2 metres long, and is used generally to accompany vocalists. The khene traditionally has 7 notes per octave, and there are several different types, usually associated by name with different Laotian ethnic groups. I’m not sure which type of khene is being played on today’s track, but there is definitely accompaniment by the traditional so or so-ou fiddle, made from a coconut shell. After the khene fades away, the so player continues and a vocalist joins in, and all are accompanied by a small flute, which is probably the khui, or bamboo flute. The piece is apparently an “old dance” or “danse ancienne” as the label states.
In 1931, Paris hosted the Exposition Coloniale Internationale. Twenty-five years in the making and hosted on 500 acres, the Paris Colonial Exposition was meant to be a monument to French imperial policies, an effort “to promote a French identity as a colonial people, a people whose genius lay in assimilating peoples so that they both kept their petit pays and yet partook of the universal identity of a French-defined and French-administered humanity,” according to scholar Herman Lebovics*. Various countries from around the world, both those under French colonial control and those who were also colonial powers (the US, Netherlands, etc.), had pavilions which featured exhibits, art, crafts, food, dance, and music – a similar feel to the World’s Fairs held in the US, which also focused on the so-called “exotic.” To preserve some colonial aspect of authenticity, participants were not even allowed to wear European clothing. As you might expect, many musicians (or, “natives” as they were called in print) traveled thousands of miles to take part in this event, and, lucky for humanity, many of them were recorded.
The Institut de Phonétique at the Musée de la Parole of the University of Paris was started in 1911, and by the 1920s, under the stewardship of Jean Poirot, began to collect folkloric recordings on discs. The 1931 Exposition was an opportune time for the Musée to record musicians from across the world while they remained in Paris for the event, effectively creating an instant library of traditional music. Along with recordings of Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese musicians, there were musicians recorded from North Africa, East Africa, Upper Volta, Togo, French Soudan, Somalia, New Caledonia, Mozambique, Mauritania, Madagascar (including a version of the classic “Ohay Lahyé”), and on and on. Some of these recordings were released by the new Phonothéque Nationale at the Musée, which was created in 1938 as an archive, and seems to have been at least partially funded by UNESCO at one point. Besides producing their own recordings, the Musée acquired important folk recordings as gifts – the Viceroy of India bestowed records to the Musée, as did Carl Lindström, and King Fuad I of Egypt. Their archives are now at the Bibliothèque Nationale.
This is one of those recordings made in Paris by the Musée during the Exposition. Another wonderful recording from these sessions exists on CD, in fact, and should be mentioned, perhaps in the “myth-busters” department. On the Secret Museum of Mankind Vol. 3, there’s a wonderful khene solo, from these very same sessions. In the notes, however, it is stated that the recording was made in Laos, and that the humming noise that you can hear (and can hear also on this track, at :11 and elsewhere) was a steamship passing along the Mekong! However, as romantic and beautiful an image that is, according to the Phonothéque Nationale catalog, that is not a ship on the Mekong, and it probably isn’t a ship on the Seine either – it most likely is one of the musicians. A slightly more muffled version of this piece, split into two tracks, originally appeared on the out-of-print Folkways LP, “Music of Southeast Asia.”
And if you haven’t checked it out yet, be sure and grab Haji Maji’s latest post from Vietnam – an excellent piece!
Label: Pathé (Phonothèque Nationale)
Issue Number: 3426
Matrix Number – Part 5634-1, M3-115282
*Lebovics, Herman. True France: The Wars Over Cultural Identity. Ithaca: Cornell, 1992.