Fred Gaisberg in Kazan, 1901

In June of 1901, recording engineer Fred Gaisberg was in Russia for the Gramophone Company. This was his third visit to Saint Petersburg. He’d already been to the grand city in 1900, and for a second trip in 1901 that was smack in the middle of a frozen Russian winter, which he was eager to experience. This time, however, it was during Saint Petersburg’s famed white nights, the crepuscular glow that lasts all night and when true darkness doesn’t exist. He marveled at the night life, the stylish women and fashion, the carriages on the city streets. After a quick trip to Moscow, a thought occurred to him: we have some free time, why don’t we move farther east…to Tatarstan?

Born in 1873 in Washington DC, Gaisberg was without question one of the first trailblazers that made the industry a global one. He began working for the Columbia Phonograph Company which was producing cylinder recordings, and he accompanied artists on piano (as “Professor Gaisberg”) as early as 1889. Soon after, he began learning the technical side of the business and was working for Emile Berliner’s lab, also in DC. Berliner was in the process of revolutionizing sound recording in two important ways: he developed recording on a flat disc, and he developed disc recording where the cutting stylus vibrated laterally in the groove (and not vertically, cutting depth-wise into the groove, which could be inherently uneven). With Berliner, Gaisberg hunted for talent, played as an accompanist, continually made recording experiments with his employer and mentor, and even cleaned the chemical equipment.

Among fits and starts, financial troubles and successes, Gaisberg had by the late 1890s opened two recording studios for Berliner, in New York and Philadelphia, and the business was growing. With Pathé expanding in France, and Columbia making noise about establishing business overseas, Berliner began making moves to create a European office. An agent was hired in London, investors were gathered – one of whom, Trevor Williams, had the prescience to demand that local recording artists had to be part of the agreement, as, presumably, no one would buy American imports of whistling records forever. In 1898, Gaisberg, one of the few existing recording and repertoire experts, a champion of the capabilities of the phonograph at the time, was sent to London to fundamentally establish what would become the Gramophone Company.

While Gaisberg rehearsed, recorded, and located British artists of all stripes, Berliner’s brother built a record pressing plant in their home city of Hanover, Germany as a way of avoiding England’s unions. By May of 1899, Gaisberg was embarking on his first continental recording trip, with boxes of “portable” equipment weighing 118 kgs / 260 lbs each. His stops were Leipzig, Budapest, Vienna, Milan, Paris, and Madrid. Of course, Gaisberg had his sights on recording the best operatic and classical talent – however, funds for this fledgling industry were still small by comparison, and there was a tentative distrust of this new technology by many performers. He couldn’t yet afford or persuade the big timers just yet. This six-city trip, however, remains important in that it set the Gramophone Company in an outward, rather than inward direction. The solution for the company was global talent, and as the company expanded these multi-stop recording trips became longer and longer, with more local contacts being brought onboard, and more matrices being recorded with each visit. All of their major competitors, namely Pathé, the Lindstrom companies, and the British Columbia company, copied this method.

Gaisberg was first sent to Saint Petersburg in 1900. His tastes, after Milan, had grown to the point where anyone other than the most exalted classical performers were described in terms like: “a poor, conceited lot” in the case of the Irish, or “very poor artists” in the case of the Scotch (where early bagpipe performers were recorded). In a rigid sense, this attitude helped him eventually secure world class stars such as Caruso and Chaliapin. In the meantime, his local agents didn’t escape this invective, either. “The businessmen of Petersburg are mostly Jews, and a hard lot to deal with – shrewd, crafty, and unreliable,” he wrote in his diary during his first visit. “Always fingering for bribes – everything bribery.” Gaisberg had all the intolerant prejudices and imperious trappings of a erudite white man of his day, and they often come through in his diary, especially as he travels further east into what was no doubt a wildly different world for him. Still, he continued to expand the business into areas that today seem almost surprising, eventually cutting discs in Beirut, Burma, Japan, Turkey, Cairo, just to name a few. He began to introduce local folk music in the Gramophone Company’s repertoire – evidence enough that despite his outward intolerance he was likely far more progressive than most, during his time.

Which brings us back to Moscow in June of 1901. Gaisberg contacted a man named Theodore Birnbaum in Berlin to request a recording trip to Kazan, about 700 km to the east. Birnbaum, an Englishman, was the managing director of Deutsche Grammophon AG, and was in charge of the Gramophone Company’s engineers as soon as they disembarked in mainland Europe, coordinating their journeys and also finding artists to record. Birnbaum gave the go-ahead, and Gaisberg and one of his Saint Petersburg agents, a man known only as Lebel (or “Labelle”), left Moscow for Kazan, via Nizhny Novgorod.

Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, which is comprised predominantly of ethnic Tatars, who are Sunni Muslim. These two days spent recording in Kazan, which yielded a mere 38 seven-inch, single-sided discs, were probably the first recordings of a Muslim minority (perhaps even any ethnic minority) in Russia. However, from the moment they hopped off their steamer at 8 AM on the 24th, it was clear that Gaisberg was not prepared to deal with so drastically different a culture. Pekka Gronow has pointed to this visit to Kazan as among several in early recorded sound history where European recording engineers were bewildered and unqualified, proving that they needed more than just upper-crust European middlemen to develop a market, they needed locals who were familiar with the music, language, and culture.

After getting settled in their hotel, Gaisberg and Lebel met with another local agent whom Gaisberg refers to as “Old Malacapff” who left them to try to scare up local performers. Malacapff returned with a man named Izmail Abdrashitov, whom Gaisberg pitilessly described as “a petrified, yellow-skinned accordeon player with a musty smell to him. We asked him would he stop if we paid him 5 R. [rubles] and bring in someone who could sing. He agreed.” Abdrashitov would be one of the few artists credited on this quick trip, with 18 discs to his name.

He continued: “Next came two vile-smelling creatures with little squeezed up eyes, broad fat faces. Their love for hair made them tack on their heads a variety of greasy mildewed strands of false hair until it reached their knees. Their singing would bring tears to your eyes. The song would be a rhythm of about 8 bars, repeated over and over again, to the accompaniment of 5th in the bass (accordeon) organ-point fashion. We asked the accordeon player if that was the best he could do, and he said it was. He said Tartars have no artists or places of amusements, and he had to recruit these people from disreputable resorts. After they left, a priest came in and recited verses from the Coran (or better yet, sang).”

The “vile-smelling creatures” were left uncredited on their single issued disc, and it is still unclear whom the priest may have been (though it looks like he was accompanied on some discs by Abdrashitov on accordion).

Gaisberg loved to gallivant around Europe, going to the theater, dining with performers, playing cards, and entertaining a host of ladies (so many pass through his diaries, it’s difficult to keep track), but Kazan likely gave him something he’d never experienced: culture shock.

“The Russian part especially contains handsome buildings and churches. Streets are orderly, and there are plenty of parks. But the Tartar section is beyond doubt the dirtiest, filthiest, vile-smelling place I have ever come across. All the Tartars have that peculiar Oriental smell about them that seems to asphyxiate you. I always felt faint when near them. They are quite Oriental in appearance. Small eyes; expressionless immobile features. The women of the better clans are never seen. Strict seclusion is enforced, and should they go out it is always closely veiled. The custom is a laudable one if all women were as ugly as the commoner class we saw. […] We did however make the acquaintance of some beautiful Russian girls. One was a pure type of Russian blonde, and the other of gypsy-type, dark. It cost me about $25 for their society.”

On the morning of June 25th, the group were still hunting for talent. “Our first people were some Tatar students with their master. They sang us some songs. Then two more women. Later another man. The different songs these people sang sounded every one like the other.”

None of these performers were credited, except for “another man,” who was accordionist and singer named Yarulla Valiulin. It seems they made one more attempt to find talent that evening. After dinner, Abdrashitov took the group to a Tatar bar, which Gaisberg described this way:

“Before charging the Russians with being dirty, one must get his standard of filth fixed by visiting this joint. They crowd about 8 men and 8 women in an unventilated box of a room – in the centre a table with a kerosene lamp. The harmonica would start up one of the merry monotone dirges, then the crowd would join in and continue for half an hour with the most solemn expressions on their stony faces. Well we saw all we could and got out as quick as possible. I wanted to take a photo of two girls but they refused saying, “God would be displeased”. A rouble induced them to forget Allah. These girls instinctively cover their faces when a man looks at them. We tried to get them to take off the mantle in singing in the machine, but without it they were as embarrassed as young school girls.”

They left the next morning.

This uncredited disc is likely one of the few in existence from the Kazan sessions. If Gaisberg’s diary can be compared with the original ledgers, this anonymous, unaccompanied trio are probably the “Tatar students with their master.” The title is “Taravikh.” The word literally means “gather,” but I believe this is an excerpt of what is known as the “taravikh-namaz,” a prayer for Tatar Muslims meant to be performed collectively, along with the night prayer, during Ramadan. I find it unlikely that anyone other than the performers had any inclination of the spiritual nature of what was being sung. Still, it’s far better we have it, than not.

Trio – Taravikh

Label: “Berliner’s Gramophone”
Issue Number: 24023
Matrix Number: 2951 (2951a in ledgers)

Much gleaned from Hugh Strotbaum’s Recording Pioneers, and Pekka Gronow’s work.

10 thoughts on “Fred Gaisberg in Kazan, 1901

  1. Thank you so much for this extensive post Jonathan! I laughed, wondered and imagined while reading; I was speechless while listening. Just incredible that a disc this old, with this history, shows up after 118 years.

  2. Here’s another example of what I call perfect music. It’s a wonder how good the record sound despite the age and the technology involved. This is pure spirit music of the highest order! It’s obvious that Fred Gaisberg had no idea that he was recording important music.

  3. Hi Jonathan,
    Thanks for the wonderful website.
    After reading your 1901 Kazan piece, I remembered I had a “younger” Kazan recording.
    Recorded by Franz Hampe (1906/1907)
    Doublesided 18cm Gramophone Record (brown label)
    Quality: mint
    Kazan Tartarian – Female song
    side number: 14294 (mtx 2797 k)

    Kazan Tartarian – Female song
    side number: 14295 (mtx 2826 k)

    Label text in arabic and cyrillic script.
    Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi again JW,
      About this “taravikh” in your Kazan article:
      Tatar being a Turkic language I checked my Turkish-English Redhouse dictionary.
      I found your “taravikh” as “tervik”, which means:
      (1) a causing to repose, a giving rest
      (3) an allowing a congregation to rest between two sections of a service, especially in the supererogatory night-service of Ramazan…
      (related: terviha/tervihat).
      Confirms your theory.

    2. Thanks so much, Hugo! I appreciate the good words. That’s an interesting session, those Hampe recordings from 1907 – made in St Petersburg as far as it looks like. Those titles should be “Ay Dunya” (Ay Danube) and “Ah Dzanash” according to Kelly and for those keeping score at home.

  4. Fantastic post – the excerpts from Gaisberg’s diaries are pure gold! ‘Their singing would bring tears to your eyes… ‘ is a classic bit of double-speak!

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