African test pressing, Number 1

For the next few weeks I thought it would be enjoyable to post some of my one-sided, African test pressings. By their very nature and format, these recordings are mysterious. There is no artist or title information on them. There is no African 78rpm music discography to consult for further information, and I would not hold your breath for one either as such an effort, no matter how worthy, would take at least a decade of full-time, backbreaking (some might say “thankless”) transcribing, research, and collaboration. So, in order to attempt to identify the music and artists on these records we have only what we can see – such as the paper label and the stamped matrix numbers in the shellac – and most importantly, what we can hear.

So, what exactly is a 78rpm test pressing, anyway? It’s the same as a vinyl test pressing, except the process to make a 78rpm record is a bit different. There are many complicated steps in that process, but the Cliff’s Notes version goes something like this: the life of a 78rpm record on shellac began, before the use of magnetic tape, with the creation of a one-sided wax or lacquer master created by a cutting stylus. The master was then copper-plated and the wax removed, leaving a “metal master.” These metal masters were negative impressions. The metal master was then electroplated in order to create a “metal mother,” which was a positive impression of the master. These metal mothers were used to create “stampers.” A stamper was also a negative impression, but was coated with chromium, enabling it to be strong enough to be used in a pressing machine and create a score of duplicates. These impressions made from the stampers were the 78s that were sold to the public – several steps removed from the original recording, as you can see. Very often, the first few discs from a new stamper were made as test pressings. They tend to sound better than your average 78 because the stamper was brand new, and hadn’t been overused in the creation of duplicates (a source of many a noisy shellac record).

Collectors of early jazz, blues, pop, and country records have the benefit of well-researched discographies notating primary and alternate takes of recordings – in other words, if you found a test pressing of an American jazz record from the 1920s, chances are high that you could ID that performer, artist, and song title simply from the matrix number on the record, if you had nothing else to go by. You might get incredibly lucky and find that hypothetical test pressing was a hitherto unknown take of a well-known performance. It’s not quite the same with recordings made outside the US, alas – far from it, in fact. Most of the time we are right back where we started, using our eyes and ears.

I’m gonna get a little nerdy here (if I haven’t already). Starting with the most obvious clue, it’s clear this record was made by the Gramophone Company in England. The second clue is the number impressed in the shellac: 0AB-70007-1A. I know that the company used the prefix 0AB- for His Master’s Voice recordings made in West Africa, beginning in the 1930s. However, checking all of my West African HMVs, I don’t have anything that goes as high as 70007, even up through the late-1950s. What does that mean? Well, this record, if it ever was released publicly, was likely issued on a series that I don’t have any examples of. It also could have been a private pressing, or a disc pressed by the Gramophone Company for a different label, or it may never have been issued to the public at all.

The music? Well, it’s clear as day to me that it’s definitely West African, and probably from Nigeria. The tell-tale signs are the percussion and rhythm style, and the addition of the pennywhistle, which was used frequently by highlife bands in Nigeria, such as the Jolly Orchestra and other groups that I have examples by. If I had to guess, I would say that it’s Yoruba, and from the late 1940s – mid-1950s. But, I could very well be wrong on both counts. It’s possible that this piece can be identified, either by another intrepid collector or by a trip to the EMI Archive. It’s possible that it may remain a mystery. But the music is here, for now…

Update 1/27/11

Following the comments on this thread, we seem to have narrowed things down a little – judging simply by the music, it seems this could be the band Congo Abana Club, from Sierra Leone (recording in Nigeria, perhaps) and their soloist “Piccolo Pete.” Thanks to all who have participated in the discussion here and on the Excavated Shellac Facebook page!

Update 1/30/11

Enlightening things further: we now have confirmation that the language is NOT Yoruba (admittedly, things were heading in that direction). Further, in the comments section, the well-known African music scholar John Collins has graciously stepped in, illuminating us with more important detail.

Update 6/25/11

Reader Bill Dean-Myatt has offered that this disc was likely recorded in Freetown, Sierra Leone, between September 1954 and February 1955.

Update 2/16/12

Reader nikiibu has confirmed that the language is indeed Mende, from Sierra Leone.

African Test Pressing, Number 1

Technical Notes
Matrix Number: 0AB-70007-1A

For more information on the production of 78s, you can visit here.

33 thoughts on “African test pressing, Number 1

  1. I was just listening to the 78 album Native Brazilian Music, then paused that to listen to this, then a minute later wondered if I had paused it at all or if I was still listening to the Stokowski recordings.

  2. I second Dax Diaz! Extremely Brazilian feeling to the rhythm, which I have to admit I’ve never registered in African music recorded in Africa. Maybe I’ve not heard enough Yoruba music? The flute melody also had me thinking spontaneously of Brazil. Thanks for giving us the privilege of hearing this Jon!

  3. Nigerian/Yoruba from that period would be my guess, too, although it would be just a guess, and I’d be happy to be proved wrong!.

    The percussion accompaniment reminds me of some of the agidigbo sides by the Rosey Mambo Orchestra (Parlophone, early 1950s), while the whistle reminds me of Piccolo Pete who recorded for Decca around the same time. There were plenty of Latin-American influences on Yoruba music at that time, and of course, a lot of Latin rhythms were West African to start with! The whistle player is very good – I especially like that little burr or tremelo he/she affects from time to time.

  4. I agree – it does sound like Piccolo Pete, especially after listening to some of the Decca sides on the British Library site.

  5. almost 100 % shure this is not west-african – the flutes are far away from that area. Native Yoruba is different, also – while it might have spread its influence into places who celebrate Vodoo.

  6. Hi Monte –

    With all due respect, at the moment I disagree, though you may be correct about it not being Yoruba. The 0AB- prefix indicates that it was almost certainly recorded in West Africa. And I believe the flute playing is very much like flute playing by Piccolo Pete (also credited as Piccolo Peter), the leader of the Yoruba band the “Congo Abana Club.” You can hear clips of that band here:

    http://sounds.bl.uk/Browse.aspx?collection=Decca-West-African-recordings

    (Pete also played for the Congo Abana Band, but they have a more modern sound than the “Club”)

  7. The more i compare this with the Congo Abana Club Decca`s i think it`s the same group,Mr Piccolo Peter get`s credit on my Decca by the Congo Abana Club

    Jon do you have any other Test`s from this same group?

  8. I am inclined to agree, Mike – good sleuthing on your part!

    The Congo Abana Club discs were made much earlier than the Congo Abana Band records. I would say the Club discs were made in the late 40s. This test pressing, however, sounds like it may have been earlier.

    It is not a Decca pressing, though – I think it either pre-dates Piccolo Pete’s Deccas, or it’s him performing with another incarnation of the same band.

    I may have another test by the same band – I have to check. We may never completely solve the mystery…and soon I’ll post another test pressing we can all chew on.

  9. I agree it does sound like the piccolo pete – which if I recall were from sierra leone (the language is given as kroo on the British library scans).

    Total speculation but there was a community of brazilian immigrants in Sierra Leone (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saros_(Nigeria)), and I remember reading somewhere (Collins maybe? or from the Mainz literature) that the Brazilian social clubs did have an influence on early music and recordings in the area

  10. Zim – Completely right – pretty sure the Brazilian influence is mentioned in Collins literature on West African highlife, somewhere.

    Most importantly, I think you might be right-on about Kroo (or “Klao” as it is known). I was too busy focusing on the other records I have with pennywhistle from Nigeria. I bet you’re correct – this could very well be from Sierra Leone. But – seems the Decca listings say that they were recorded in Nigeria, which could very well be the case. Thanks!

  11. The BL files both Piccolo Pete and the Congo Abana Band under Nigeria, although it’s true that this is probably the recording location. I haven’t checked all the label scans, but I’ve looked at several, which all indicate either Yoruba or ‘Pigeon-English’ (sic), or in one case Ikale (also Nigeria). I do like the Pete/Abana Band sides, but I have to say that your test pressing has more of a kick to it, thanks to that percussion, and it’s possible that it’s Pete and the Band heading off in an Agidigbo direction. Another comparison among the BL’s Deccas might be the Rio Lindo Orchestra, also Yoruba. Or there’s the New Star Orchestra, on Yoruba Street Percussion, one of my favourites of the old Original Music compilations. You’ll gather that I’m quite attached to the Yoruba theory! But happy to be proved wrong – all part of the fun.

  12. Hi Monte –

    Sorry if I was coming off too heavy-handed in that last post – not intended.

    Ray – this is wonderful information! I have sent this track to a native Yoruba speaker who can at least confirm whether it is, or is not, in Yoruba.

    Monte, that is very interesting about the ILAM documentation, thanks for sending that. That escaped me. Hmmmmmm – another wrinkle. It ALMOST looks like a metadata error, as if they were keywording off the term “Congo” and the fact that they’re not singing in a Congolese language (still singing in Kroo). However, looking closer, I’m sure it’s correct.

    So – whether or not this tells us anything indepth, I can’t say, but to wit, I think we can all more or less agree on:

    1. This track sounds similiar to the Congo Abana Club and their soloist, Piccolo Pete, recording for Decca ca. 1948-1950.

    2. The record itself was recorded somewhere in West Africa, due to it’s matrix number.

    3. The Congo Abana Club sang in Klao (Kroo), a language of Sierra Leone.

    4. The British Library lists Nigeria as a recording place for the Congo Abana Club sides.

    5. The Congo Abana BAND, Piccolo Pete’s next band, also recorded in Nigeria, and sang most of their songs in Nigerian languages.

    6…However, there is a Hugh Tracey record from 1958 showing the Congo Abana CLUB recorded in Congo…in a Sierra Leone language (Klao (Kroo) again)!

    So…an itinerant band, maybe? Wouldn’t be the first. And many popular West African bands recorded in multiple languages, sometimes from several countries.

  13. Just received confirmation from a native speaker that the language used in this track is NOT Yoruba. He added, “If it is Nigerian, it will be from the midwest (or the Niger Delta area, especially the Igbos in the area).”

  14. I have listened to the song and I take your word that it is Liberian Kru and may be the Congo Abana Club. This could easily be true as the it explains the word ‘Congo’ Abana as the ‘Congos’ is the work in Liberia to describe repatriated slaves (like the Americo-Liberians) and recaptives (those liberated on the high – some presumably from the Congo who were especially substantial at the latter end of the slave trade). Secondly, there was a large Kru population in Freetown Sierra Leone from the 1920s (circa 5000). Thirdly, the penny whistle was a typical Kru mariners instrument, for instance this is what Sunday Giant played in the Jolly Boys Orchestra palmwine group of Lagos in the 1930s of which he was the leader. Fourthly, and although the songs doesn’t include a guitar it is based on the same chord progressions and riff as the old Kru song ‘ Dagomba Wiya Tangabu’ (in Ghana known just ‘Dagomba”) Finally,the drum sounds like a frame-drum that was very popular in Freetown from the 19th century found in goombay music and later ashiko (assiko) music. Being mariners it should be noted the the Kru or Kroo seamen,or the Krus in the
    various Krutown in West African port towns influenced the popular music of many West africsan cities in S.
    Leone, Ghana, Nigeria and the Cameroons. For the
    language being Liberian Kroo or possibly S.Leone Krio you will need to get a speaker of these languages to confirm – all the best

  15. Great stuff from Dr.Collins, and very interesting discussion all along this comment thread. I’m looking forward to adding my two pence worth of random speculation to your further posts of unidentified test pressings!

  16. I had previously been led to believe that the Mr. Piccolo Peter credited on the Congo Abana sides was the Mr. Piccolo often referenced as a great Congolese guitarist periodically resident in Nigeria and who tutored both Celestine Ukwu and Oliver de Coque.

    I’ve long tried to find some more info about Mr. Piccolo… It’s been suggested that he might have been Jean “Piccolo” Tshamala from T.P. OK Jazz! (Piccolo Tshamala was played bass in OK Jazz rather than guitar.)

    In any case, whether or not Jean Tshamala and the mysterious Mr. Piccolo are one and the same, it’s probably unlikely that Tshamala is the Piccolo of the Congo Abana Band, as the Decca sides were recorded during a period when he would have been back in Kinshasa playing with the musicians who would soon become TPOK.

    (Besides it seems Piccolo Pete is a whistle player rather than a guitarist!)

  17. Okay, I am told that Piccolo Pete was in fact a Liberian mariner who had previously been a member of the Jolly Orchestra. (Yeah, it’s quite clear that there’s really no Congo music influence to be heard here… I don’t know why I ever bought that theory!)

  18. I come to this fairly late (to say the least), but we can put the language question to rest. The song on “African Test Pressing, Number 1” is in the Mende language of Sierra Leone.

    There were quite a few Abana clubs/groups in Sierra Leone in the 1940s and ’50s, distinguishable in their sound only by the language in which they sang. It was the same rhythmic tempo, the same penny whistle, the same harmonica… Among others, there was the Freetown Abana Club, fronted by a certain Moses Gbolie, and the Mendi (Mende) Abana Boys. The latter could be the musicians on the test pressing you uploaded.

  19. I’m coming back to say that it’s definitely the Mendi Abana Boys on the test pressing. The title of the song is ” Bi Ye Ma Nya.”Your test pressing was eventually released as the A side for Decca. The B side of the Decca release was “Je be ku be” (“Jebbeh Kubeh” would be the correct form).

    I hope this helps. And great work here.

  20. Thanks, Ray – this is really important. In my haste, I could not find the British Library copy to compare. However, I agree. Not the same – and the matrix numbers would not match Decca numbers.

  21. Hi all I have two 78 records with the same label , on the label it says english branch ,22-9-36 careless rapture – music in may – artist – Dorothy Dickson

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