December 2, 2012
There were certain regions in Sub-Saharan Africa where local music was barely recorded – if at all – by commercial companies or ethnographers, until at least after World War II. The result is that commercial recording of Sub-Saharan African music from ca. 1927-1946 is skewed heavily toward certain types of musical styles found in certain cities. This is, I suppose, an important thing to remember whenever one is about to make an attempt to describe what early “African music” sounds like. There are many exceptions to this generalization, of course. Often, rural populations had relocated to cities and companies were able to record musicians there. Sometimes artists were brought to cities, as was the case with the infamous London-based West African recordings on the Zonophone series from ca. 1927-1930, which really can be seen as the starting point for commercial recordings of Sub-Saharan popular music. There were also companies that were, it seems, casting about wildly for as many types of recording artists they could find, in order to develop a market. A good, early example of that are the 23 Ugandan discs issued by the German Odeon company in 1931 – the first time any company had recorded in Uganda. Of this mere 23, there were deeply traditional solo singers, one-string fiddlers, and even a Christian boys’ choir. (These remained the only Ugandan commercial recordings for probably a decade.) But, by and large, because of the recording sites and what we know exists, I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to say that what was captured pre-WWII in Sub-Saharan Africa is merely a nano-sampling of what existed.
The reasons for this are varied. For the most part, record companies simply did not have transportation routes available for them to lug their equipment until industrial expansion in the years following World War II. By the time they were able to do this, however, the advent of cheaper equipment and portable magnetic tape brought a host of local competitors. Independent labels cropped up everywhere, in many major cities – a topic I’ve discussed in numerous posts. These small businesses could record on tape, ship their tapes to various pressing plants in Europe or India, and still make money selling very limited runs of discs. In some cases, for example Congo, large labels like HMV and Columbia merely repressed recordings that had already been made by local labels.
It could be that because of these smaller labels, a few larger companies began venturing deep into various parts of Africa – Western Africa, in particular – to record some of the most intense traditional music on the continent. In the early 1950s, the two labels that did the most of this were Fiesta and Philips. They seem to have made it to Niger, and even to Chad, though primarily they captured traditional and border music in northeast and northern Senegal, Mali, eastern Guinea, Burkina Faso, and northern Côte d’Ivoire.
This disc is the only recorded example on 78 that I’ve come across featuring music of the Haalpulaar’en people of northern Senegal and southern Mauritania, surrounding the River Senegal. They are a subgroup of the Fulani, and speak the Pulaar language. On the disc label there is a clue to their identity – the title listed on the label is “Lele Toucouleur.” “Toucouleur” is an archaic, variant name for the Haalpulaar’en. Thanks to a Haalpulaar friend in the comment section, we know that “Lele” is a type of Pulaar music. The singer accompanies himself on the hoddu, the local plucked lute of the Haalpulaar’en. There are many variations of this instrument all across West Africa – it’s frequently known as the xalam. The derivative in Mauretania is called the tidinit. Some claim it is the origin of the banjo.
There are likely more early recordings featuring the Haalpulaar’en. Fiesta had its origins ca. 1950, and were a subsidiary of French Decca. They lasted well into the 45 era.
Issue Number: 928
Matrix Number: D 1357-2
December 2, 2012
“Near the edge of town I began to hear the heavy booming, in complicated rhythm, of a big drum, accompanied by the droning music of the Macedonian zurla…which told me that some kind of festivity was going on.”
This begins writer Catherine Brown’s 1933 description of a gypsy wedding.
The zurla or surla of Macedonia and southern Serbia is another in a series of wonderfully harsh-sounding double-reed shawms (types of oboes) that I can feature on the site. The zurla is closely related to the zurna of Turkey as well as the mizmar of Egypt, and is also related to the Indian shehnai, among other oboe-like folk instruments. And like many of those instruments, it is historically meant to be played outdoors at festivals and celebrations, very often for dancing. It’s immediately apparent why. The piercing, nasal quality of the zurla at close range can’t be underestimated, and this particular duo of zurle players take their performance to the next level, almost approaching sounds equivalent to harsh, free jazz noise.
Zurle come in small and large sizes – about 14 and 25 inches long, respectively. There is a small, thread-wound disc called a mendik that presses against the player’s lips, and which helps with tuning (or circular breathing, depending on who you ask). The reed is made from a kind of grass known as trska. The zurla is usually played in pairs, with one player holding down a drone, and the other playing the melody. They are accompanied by at least one musician on the tapan (more or less the same as the tupan, which accompanies the zurna in Turkey), the double-headed drum that’s worn around the chest.
The Sperry label, based at 10625 Shoemaker Street in Detroit, Michigan, was run by Sperry Boge and issued a number of recordings originating from tape, and all from Macedonian groups sponsored by Radio Skopje. Radio Skopje began broadcasting in 1944. I know very little information on Sperry, however, they were in operation for a number of years in the early 1950s, issuing approximately 120 selections on 78 and 33rpm. All of their records were RCA Custom pressings. RCA had three custom pressing plants in the United States including one located in Indianapolis, Indiana, and the pressing number on this disc indicates that this Sperry record was pressed in 1951 – though finding an actual recording date might be more difficult.
Issue Number/Matrix Number: E1-KB-1530
For another example of a group that appeared on Sperry, here’s a video of the Orchestra Čalgii. And for further information on the history of the zurla, check out Timothy Rice’s article in The Galpin Society Journal (March 1982), “The Surla and Tapan Tradition in Yugoslav Macedonia.”
Thanks to Joel Ackerman and Larry Weiner for additional info.