Mari El is a Republic of Russia located about 400 km east of Moscow, just north of the city of Kazan and Russian Tatarstan. The northern bank of the Volga cuts through Mari El’s southwest, then runs along its southern border. About half of the Republic is Russian, but the other half is made up of Mari people, an ethnic minority that has been present in the region for possibly as far back as the 5th century. The Mari are considered a “Finno-Ugric” culture…meaning, essentially, that they speak a language that is from the same family as Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and about 35 other languages.
The Soviet recording monolith is fascinating because it’s so complicated, musically and politically. Prior to World War I and the Russian Revolution, all the major European conglomerates like The Gramophone Company, Pathé, and the German labels like Homocord and Favorite, were quite active in Russia. So were many smaller, independent labels like Syrena and Apollo based in Warsaw, Extraphone based in Kiev, and RAOG, the Russian Stockholders Company of Grammophone. During this period, while popular and classical music were the norm, thousands of recordings from the Caucasus and Central Asia were made, as well as ethnic minority music of Russia found closer to Europe. Train travel made cities accessible to recording engineers during these early years, as well as for recording artists not based within those cities. Recordings were made as far east as Tashkent in Uzbekistan.
After both the War and the Revolution, commercial recording ground to a near complete halt. The industry as a whole was socialized and became a state-run monopoly. Some discs from the pre-Revolutionary years were re-pressed during the early 1920s but not many, it seems. By the mid-20s, two imprints, MuzPred and then MuzTrust, were pressing discs once again, but it was nothing compared to the vibrant scene in, say, 1912. In the early 30s, however, Stalin began promoting “national music cultures” within the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (never mind that the borders of some “ethnic” ASSRs were created artificially). In 1934, he suggested to composers and musicians that overt nationalism was, in fact, bourgeois. Over time, all kinds of music was being recorded in dozens of local languages. Some was operatic propaganda, some was classical music in local languages by composers from unions, but some recordings captured as part of this grand plan were excellent examples of local folk music.
The Soviet recording industry had multiple factories, and each plant had its own label for most of its existence: Aprelevski Zavod (for the Aprelevka plant, near Moscow), Noginski Zavod (in Noginsk – in operation until WWII), Tashkentski Zavod (in Uzbekistan, created from salvaged technology from the Noginsk plant during WWII), the Riga plant, and the Leningrad Plant. Eventually it all became known as Melodiya in 1964. By 1960, when they were still pressing 78s, annual sales were approximately 95 million, and they had discs in over 40 languages, from Yakut to Uyghur, from Avar (Dagestan) to Bashkir (Bashkortostan), to Abazin in the Caucasus, from Komi to Chechen to Udmurt.
In 1959, there were at least 69 78rpm discs in the Mari language available. This was one of them, recorded in 1938. It’s amazing their paucity, today.
Pavel Stepanovich Toydemar was born in 1899 in the rural village of Verkhniy Kozhlayer. Considered the first “professional” modern-day Mari musician, Toydemar studied music and Mari theater in Moscow, later becoming an employee at Moscow’s Museum of Ethnology. While studying, he met Mari composer Ivan Klyuchnikov-Palantai, who urged him to become an expert in Mari folk instruments and to document Mari traditional music. Toydemar played the svirel (flute) and the shuvyr (bagpipe), but his primary instrument became the kusle (also karsh). The kusle is a zither that is played on the lap, and has a similar structure and sound to that of the Finnish kantele – delicate, soft, and artful.
Toydemar plays three tunes here in a medley, the last being a classic Mari song that translates to “The Marten Playing.” A vocal version was performed in Road to Life (1931), the Soviet Union’s first sound film. Toydemar died in 1958, while touring.
Label: Aprelevsky Zavod
Issue Number: 6980
Matrix Number: 6980/4 1-0673