Month: June 2015

Music from Ukraine and the Donbass

I’m honored to present a guest post from Pekka Gronow. Pekka is well-known in the world of ethnomusicology, audio preservation, and discography. He was the head of the archives at the Finnish Broadcasting Company, as well as the curator of the Finnish Institute of Recorded Sound, and is an adjunct professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Helsinki. He is the author of innumerable articles and books related to the recording industry and global music on record, not the least of which is An International History of the Recording Industry, co-authored with Ilpo Saunio (London: Cassell, 1999). Additionally an editor of the Herculean project to document the activities of the Lindström record labels (The Lindström Project, Volumes 1-4), Pekka has to be the only person appearing within Excavated Shellac to have spoken to European parliament on sound copyright issues. – JW

Pekka Gronow:

Since spring 2014, continuous fighting has been going on in the Donbass area of Ukraine. On one side are pro-Russian separatists, who are trying to establish the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk with the support of Putin. On the other side are the forces of the newly independent Republic of Ukraine. This article is not an attempt to take sides, but I want to present two records which illustrate the historical background of the conflict in musical terms.

Russia already had a flourishing record industry before WWI. After the 1917 revolution all industries were nationalised, and gradually the country closed its doors to the outer world. Record production continued at a low level in state factories. In 1935, Stalin decided that in spite of the country’s huge economic problems, Soviet citizens must have some luxury. In the five-year plan, high priority was given to the production of caviar, chocolates, a sparkling wine called “Soviet champagne,” and 78 rpm records. Engineers were ordered to modernise record factories, and recording studios were soon again operating at full capacity. By the 1950s, the country was producing a hundred million records a year.

The caviar-producing sturgeons have long since been fished into extinction, and today caviar is mainly accessible to Russian oligarchs, but the huge production of 78 rpm records, today still unknown outside the country, may be one of the happiest remnants of the old Soviet Empire. Every year the state record company issued a thick catalogue of records which reminded the dealers’ numerical catalogues of major American record companies. The first part of each catalogue was devoted to masterpieces of classical music. They were followed by optimistic popular songs, dance music, folk songs (“old time music”) and finally a large section of minority-language records for the non-Russian population of the Soviet Union (these would have been called “foreign-language records” in American catalogues). The main difference was a section of political songs and speeches at the start of each Soviet record catalogue, inevitably headed by the voice of the party secretary.

Maria Nikolayevna Mordazova (1915-1997) was one of the greatest stars of Soviet “old time music”. She was born in the village of Nizhnaya Mazovka in the Tambov region of Russia, near the Ukrainian border. During the war she became nationally known for her broadcasts as the soloist of the Voronezh folk choir in a program called “The suffering Donbass,” which reported on the atrocities of German forces in the region.

Maria Mordazova became what was probably the closest Soviet equivalent of country music, as millions of state farm workers tuned in weekly to hear her singing familiar old-time songs on the air. (Instead of commercials for patent medicines, they had to listen to political speeches between the songs.) “Da zadumal malchik zhenitsya was recorded in 1954, nine years after the end of the war and just a year after Stalin’s death. The song tells the story of a young man looking for a bride. It is in the traditional call-and-response form of Russian choral songs, but on this recording the response part is performed by just one singer, who is identified as M. Zelenova.

Maria Mordazova remained as the soloist of the Voronezh folk choir until 1977. She also became a popular solo performer of chastuskas, humorous old-time songs. She made many recordings and was frequently heard on the radio. She received the prestigious “Hero of Soviet Labor” award in 1987, just before the downfall of the Soviet Union.

“The great patriotic war” of 1941-1945 has been one of the most dramatic events in Russian history. It had a unifying effect on a country which was just learning to live with communism. In present-day Russia, it is still remembered as one of the country’s greatest moments. But not everyone in the former Soviet Union remembered it that way. Ukraine, situated between Russia and Poland, had enjoyed a brief period of independence after World War One. During the 1930s, millions of Ukrainians had died of hunger because of the forced collectivisation of agriculture. In 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland among themselves. The easternmost part of Poland, with a predominantly Ukrainian-speaking population, was annexed to the Soviet Union at the same time as the Baltic countries.

When World War Two broke out, many Ukrainians saw it as a chance to liberate their country from the Soviet Union. They formed UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukraiinska Povstanska Armiya) which fought at various times both against Stalin and Hitler. The strongest support of the movement came from the regions which had only recently been occupied by the Soviets. The role of UPA is highly controversial. The Soviets saw them as traitors who joined the fascists. But for many Ukrainians they were freedom fighters, and when Ukraine gained her independence in 1991 they were recognized as freedom fighters and now have an honoured position.

Among the Ukrainians who joined the UPA during the war was the entire Ukrainian State Bandura Orchestra. The bandura is a Ukrainian folk instrument which combines elements of the lute and the zither. It is considered the national instrument of Ukraine. After the war, the members of the bandura orchestra escaped to the USA, where they recorded “Ya siohodnia vid was vidyizdzayu” (“I shall leave you tonight”), a traditional Ukrainian folk song associated with the UPA, for the Surma label in late 1940s or early 1950s.

The Surma label was the product of Myron Surmach, who ran a Ukrainian book and music store on New York’s 11th Street, next to the Ukrainian Catholic Church. I had the opportunity to interview old Mr. Surmach in his shop in 1977, when he was already in his eighties. He had been a major force in the production of Ukrainian-American records since the 1920s, when his store was an outlet for ethnic records issued by Columbia and Victor. One of his discoveries was the fiddler Pavlo Humeniuk, who made a long series of best-selling records for Columbia, including a musical sketch called “Ukrainian wedding”.

When the majors discontinued the production of foreign-language records after World War Two, many record shops in ethnic neighbourhoods were able to fill the demand by importing records from Europe. Ukrainian-Americans did not have this alternative. Little Ukrainian music was produced in the Soviet Union. In addition, most Ukrainian-Americans viewed Soviet products with suspicion. The door was open for small producers like Myron Surmach, who started producing records themselves and also distributed other Ukrainian records made in the USA and Canada. “Ya siohodnia vid vas viyidzaju” is a traditional Ukrainian folk song associated with the UPA. According to the label, the song was collected by bandurist W. Yurkewich from Sambir.

Maria Mordazova and M. Zelenova – Da zadumal malchik zhenitsya

Octet of Banduryst (directed by Stephen Hanushewsky) – Ya siohodnia vid was vidyizdzayu


Label: Leningradski Sovnarhoz
Issue number: 24671
Matrix: 24671 (Note: Soviet 78s usually did not have catalogue numbers, only the matrix number was printed on the label)

Label: Surma
Issue number: SU 116
Matrix: SU 116 A

Miss Nancy and D. Lincoln’s Orchestra – Stambol Junjongan Hati

I picked out and transferred this disc for a couple of reasons. First, my good friends at Radio Discostan recently uploaded a podcast we did together, where I brought out some of my favorite performances by women singers on 78s – we called some of them “glass-shattering” for their remarkable vocal acrobatics. This record could easily have been added to that mix.

Recorded ca. 1936 in Singapore, it features the Malay singer known only as Miss Nancy, accompanied by a group that frequently backed singers of the day, David Lincoln’s Orchestra. Though, “orchestra” by present-day standards might be a misnomer. It features only violin, guitar, a ukelele or smaller guitar holding down the rhythm, and most importantly, a Hawaiian guitar, and is in effect more like a krontjong band. I’m afraid I was unable to find much about Nancy, as it was typical of Indonesia and Malaysian female entertainers to be referred to on record only by their first names, prefaced by either “Miss” or “Che” (though there is record of her making  a number of discs).

Here she performs a stambul song, or a song originating from Komedi Stambul, a rich type of theatre popular in the region from the late 19th century, with roots in Turkey (“stambul” being derived from “Istanbul”). Its title is something like “Adoring Heart” or even “Bless Your Heart.” Musically it is quite typical of the popular entertainment of the day, and Nancy appropriately takes her strident blare to welcome sonic heights.

The second reason for picking this disc is a little different. This record came from the collection of Benno Häupl, who passed away in late April. Benno was a legend among collectors for his seemingly relentless peregrination, his tenacious collecting habits, his considerable knowledge of cultures and willingness to relate all manner of worldly escapades, as well as for his collection itself – surely the most diverse and perhaps the most significant private collection of global music on 78 rpm outside of the United States.

Collectors talking about other collectors – to outsiders that must seem like inside baseball at best, and gossip at worst. But it got me ruminating about these relationships, and I started digging through old e-mails. I corresponded with Benno for only about 8 to 10 years, and therefore am in no position to write a remembrance with any real depth, as I solely knew him as a collector and even in that pigeonholed realm there are others who had known him for 30, 40, maybe even 50 years. We were not quite close enough to be “friends.” However, I have to say that his taste had certainly been a strong influence on mine, even if we hadn’t eventually connected. For one, he was well-known as a sometime contributor to numerous CDs including the Secret Museum of Mankind series, as well as various releases on Heritage/Interstate, and was a chief source for Paul Vernon’s Ethnic Music on Records reference book, the only book of its kind.

We intersected almost immediately after I began to focus my interests. In the ensuing years, I’d heard Benno’s mythic stories of traveling to Lahore, Pakistan to purchase the remains of a Hindustani 78 store from the 30s, with the entire stock sitting in boxes in a basement, new and untouched, and how it took him years to pick up one copy of each record, regularly sending the owner of the shop insulin and medicine to ensure that it might still remain there until his next trip to the city. I’d heard about Benno’s trips to hunt for 78s in Port Dickson, Malaysia, Mali, Cappadocia, and Cambodia. He told me a bit about his trips to Yemen and Oman, the latter a place that he highly recommended I rent a car and drive through, even giving me route advice, and I heard the story of how he bought what was left of an entire 78 label’s stock in Kuwait. If it existed on 78 and was painfully rare and regional, likely Benno had not just one example, but perhaps 50, perhaps 100, perhaps, like his Indian records, thousands.

Benno would occasionally sell large portions of his collection with an eye toward eventual dissemination, and several times he explained his plan and reasoning to me in detail. He told me he didn’t much care for African music, for example – he “only” had 500-600 of them – so he sold them off, one by one, rarity by rarity. This was entirely disingenuous, in a funny sort of way. Of course I knew he loved certain African music, such as the early music of Morocco, Ethiopia, and Madagascar, among others. Those discs weren’t going anywhere! What he clearly had admiration for stayed close to him. But even what he divested was frequently top shelf, and even one-of-a-kind. Over several years, he continued to sell his Caribbean collection, and a significant portion of his Indonesian and Malaysian discs.

But, good lord, he was ferociously competitive, forcing the few who might deign interest in the same recordings on the market to reconsider if they came to light. With an eagle-eye, he left few stones unturned. If he prevailed on a particularly brutal auction where we were primary competitors, he would immediately send me a note apologizing, stating that, well, sorry, but his collection “had priorities.” Quite often I would manage to triumph, and again, I would receive a congratulatory e-mail from Benno, commending me for my erudite taste, but always letting me know that it didn’t really matter quite as much to him, as he luckily had some 43 examples of said rare musical style already safe in his collection. It’s disheartening to have an elder statesman of sorts treat you like an interloper, no matter if it was sugar-coated or not. But then again, that’s precisely what I was: the competition. It’s all in the game. My comparatively sedate collecting habits evolved precisely from and with the benefits of the internet age. For Benno, someone who had been traveling the world to hunt for records for decades, the rest of us neophytes, “erudite” or not, must have seemed like cheap carpetbaggers.

Whether or not he truly felt that way, it never showed beyond playful jabs, and he readily admitted to me that he mainly collected via the internet. He remained a congenial bastion of arcane knowledge, always happy to divulge information and source material, especially if I was working on a project. That’s not to say that I didn’t sometimes find him contradictory, intermittently fanciful, and occasionally patrician to the point of total frustration. He had so many amazing, unfinished projects. He kept collecting like a runaway train – two weeks before he passed, he had bought a rare bagpipe 78 from me. But, in this world of 78 collectors, it would be peculiar if one weren’t an eccentric or complicated in some noticeable ways – and this was the only side of him I ever got to know.

Today, I own a LOT of records that once were Benno’s, and nearly each one came with an ornamented story. I’m just one of many music fans out there with “Benno stories.” Very little has of yet been written about him. Some people call the great Joe Bussard “the king of record collectors.” It’s a fun if hyperbolic moniker – Mr Bussard is surely one of a kind, and what he’s preserved has rightly become legend. But if you want to talk about global scope, miles traveled, countries visited, regions recorded, and rarities rescued…if I’m forced to take that mantle seriously, you know where I’ll place my bet. So, no, I didn’t know Benno well. I don’t have a clue what moved him. But maybe he got me to think about the reasons for collecting 78s to begin with, and what was exciting about them, as well as the dark side. To the consternation of many collectors, Benno’s wish was that his collection go to an institution. I hope all the “Benno stories” go with it.

The last time we had a substantive exchange was back in January. He was just as energetic as ever, and left me with this:

I plan to go to the probably most remote area of the Sahara: the Ennedi Plateau and the Tibesti Mountains in the North of the Chad – for a month in February and March.  I always wanted to see the pond at the Archei Canyon – “discovered” by Westerners only some 15 years ago – where there are 6 or 7 Nile crocodiles in the middle of the desert, surviving since the climate change after the Ice Age!!!  A mystical place where camel caravans stop by to “have a drink”.  From the last town it takes 5 days “through the void” by Landcruiser to get there.

Enough gossip for now.
All my best

Miss Nancy and D. Lincoln’s Orchestra – Stambol Junjongan Hati


Label: HMV
Issue Number: P. 16160
Matrix Number: 0C 3372

Special thanks to Alfred Ticoalu, and Will Hancock, for the photo of Miss Nancy.