January 22, 2017
This one is special for several reasons: while it’s not the earliest disc I’ve featured here (that goes to Imdad Khan’s 1904 sitar solo), it’s among the earliest Algerian records ever made. It is difficult to pinpoint a date when it was recorded, but I’ve been advised that it was no later than October of 1907. The precise identity of the artist, Zerbib, is still unknown to us, but he was almost certainly a Jewish singer, and perhaps a member of the Zerbib family of Constantine, Algeria. He sings Andalusian classical music here on this 11 1/2″ disc, reminding me of the style performed later by artists such as the ones I featured on Opika Pende, Sassi Lebrati and Mahieddine Bachtarzi.
This information, while scant, doesn’t come out of thin air. Nor is it often found in books – or if it is, it’s in wildly disparate sources that need to be triangulated. It also helps to know kindred spirits. Our friend Thomas Henry, aka Ceints de Bakélite, along with our local comrade Chris Silver of the Jewish Maghrib website, are also keen collectors and researchers of early North African music. Thomas recently delivered a presentation about early recordings in the Middle East and North Africa at the Médiathèque Musicale de Paris last Thursday, and this made me think that it was time to try and transfer this baby. I consulted them both for additional information, as well as engineer Chris Zwarg, and they were able to help solidify some facts.
This is the very first “vertical cut” recording that’s appeared on Excavated Shellac. Those take some special care. I know I have a number of hardcore 78 collector maniac readers, but I also know that the majority are not entrenched in that insular camp. So, I’ll briefly explain this process, hopefully without too much needless pedantry. Bear with me…
Most 78s, and most records as we know them today are “lateral cut” – meaning the sound vibrations of a recording are cut by a stylus into the sides of the groove. In the early years of recording, cylinders and discs by a few record companies were made using a vertical process, also known as “hill and dale.” With the vertical process, the cutting stylus etched the sound recording vibrations into the bottom of the groove. The most notable companies who practiced this are now legendary names: Edison in the United States and Pathé Frères in France, who issued today’s entry. To play back these records on contemporary equipment, you either have to manually switch the pin connections to your turntable cartridge, or use one of the couple of preamplifiers that have this function built into them.
The early records that the frères produced seem designed to be contrarian. Apart from their non-standard record sizes (a group that ranged from 8″ to a mammoth 20″), Pathé’s records were “center-start” until the mid-19-teens, meaning you started the record at the center and it played outward toward the edge. Until the mid-1910s, they did not use a paper label, and instead engraved the artist, title, and disc information right where a label might be, filling the engraved letters and numbers with a light pigment as you can see in the top scan. Pathé’s vertical cutting method caused discs to sometimes have a deep or a shallow groove, which today can cause tracking problems with some contemporary turntables, sending lighter tonearms skating across records. Consumers at the time had to use a special Pathé-branded sapphire ball-shaped stylus with their records, but that ball-shaped needle was not usable with any other 78s that were vertically cut besides Pathé’s! Maybe most importantly, Pathé used a reproduction method that was different than other companies, and it often lessened the sound quality of their releases. Most companies were recording acoustically onto beeswax masters, which were electroplated to create metal masters or “shells.” Pathé had to be different. Until 1929, the company would make initial recordings on blank wax cylinders, and then mechanically (or “pantographically”) copy the grooves of the cylinder as it played, onto a master disc as it spun. If on this or any Pathé record you hear some repetitive scraping noise, it’s very likely the sound of that master cylinder spinning! And let’s not even begin to discuss speed, which for Pathé can be anywhere between 85 and 100 rpms. It seems a large percentage of this oversized disc wasn’t even used, as the tracks are a little over 2 minutes long and play at about 90 rpm. This would indicate that it was probably originally released as a cylinder. Who here has seen an Algerian cylinder recording? They have near vanished.
Pathé’s history as it pertains to global music is still being discussed and discovered. Those discs appear so infrequently, it’s difficult to complete the picture. What we do know is that Pathé, like the other major labels of the day, recorded global folk music quite extensively. During their “etched” era, well over 100 years ago, they recorded as far away as Tatarstan, India, and Thailand. While they may not have been the very first to record in Algeria (the Gramophone Company first made recordings there in 1906, Odeon (Disque Yafil) sometime in 1907), Pathé was on the forefront to capture local sounds.
To hear more of what are likely the only examples in existence, please browse the “Archives de la Parole” collection in Gallica, the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s digital library; here’s one example to whet your appetite.
With thanks to Thomas Henry, Chris Silver, and Christian Zwarg.
Matrix Number: 10144
Transfer/Serial Number: 21422 BC
It looks better in an original sleeve:
October 12, 2008
That is the English translation of today’s track from the great Lili Labassi (spelled L’Abassi on the label, and also known as ‘Lili El Abbassi’), a well-known Jewish chaabi singer and violinist from Algeria. This piece was released in the early 50s on the French Pacific label in their “Collection Musique Orientale” series, and was likely distributed in both North Africa and Algerian enclaves throughout 1950s Europe (Marseilles, for instance).
Labassi began his 78rpm-era recording career in 1929 with HMV. He later recorded with Polyphon in the 1930s, Columbia, and finally Pacific. Chaabi, what Labassi is known for, is a loose term essentially meaning “popular” or “of the people.” There is chaabi from Algeria, such as we have here, but there is also chaabi from Morocco as well. Algerian chaabi developed in Algiers and is indelibly linked to the masterful Hadj Mohamed El Anka, considered the father of the genre. His chaabi was an older style, employing rootsy folk melodies and poetry. But by the mid-1950s and the start of the Algerian War (1954-1962), a modern chaabi style had become popularized.
Labassi was a contemporary of El Anka, but I think this piece seems to fall right in between the rootsy and the modern. Playing violin and singing, Labassi is accompanied by oud, piano, kanun, and percussion. Both sides are included on this track, and you’ll hear why I decided to include both – not just because it’s a lengthy piece and it would be necessary to include both sides anyway, but because the second side (beginning at about 2:47) is the more improvisatory side, with Labassi showing off his considerable vocal skills. This was very common in recordings in North Africa and the Middle East, when it came to extended, 2-sided songs – time would nearly always be made for improvisation, or a brief ‘taxim.’
Issue Number: CO 7036
Matrix Number: AI-0372-2/AI-0373-2
Thanks to Karim Boughida for the title translation [updated and changed 10/14, as Karim listened to the song and realized that the title’s meaning was different]! For more Lili Labassi, try the Secret Museum’s North Africa volume. In 1998-1999, two volumes of a CD set of Labassi’s work titled “Le Genie Du Chaabi” was released, but it seems all but impossible to find now. I have no idea about sound quality, either…
April 14, 2008
There are two posts today (one musical, one visual), this being Excavated Shellac’s one year anniversary, for what it’s worth. Many more people have stopped by over the past year than I would have expected, and I appreciate that.
This post features another favorite type of music of mine: early Algerian raï. Raï is a major force in North African music today (I just combed through 5-10 current raï compilations at Amoeba Records this weekend), although musically it’s a shadow of what it used to be, nearly unrecognizable in comparison. Take a listen to the track samples on the Rough Guide to Raï, for instance, and for the most part you’ll hear what may sound ostensibly to Western ears like current North African pop music. Lyrically current raï departs from standard pop, but musically it’s undergone a renaissance. With one notable exception on the CD by the great Cheikha Remitti (1923-2006) who up until her death still sang the original raï, you will barely hear a glimpse of the hypnotizing rosewood flutes and older, raw voices found in early raï – which, as you can probably surmise, is barely represented on CD.
Raï means “opinion” or “advice” in Arabic – although I’ve read that it can sort of mean “Right on!” when exclaimed. The origins of the music converge in the 1920s-1930s in the seaside port of Oran, where rural bedouins and migrants brought their music into the city. Generally a male or female singer sang accompanied by only one or two gasba, the aforementioned desert rosewood flute, and a guellal, the Algerian hand drum. And raï’s vocals are intense: a driving, repetative lyrical force that sometimes lingers around a very narrow range of notes, which gives it the effect of a chant. What gave raï its reputation however was the way in which women, the Cheikhas, eventually popularized the genre in the mid-20th century, and the controversial subjects that they sang about. In much the same way that Greek rebetika music is known as the music of the Greek underworld, early raï is referred to as the music of Orani brothels and taverns.
Which is probably a narrow view, unfortunately. Raï music was obviously a far cry from classical Arabic music, and many singers sang about social issues, poverty, and the police – but there are raï songs about love, too. This piece, by Cheikha Djerba, recorded in 1954 (!), is one of them. The title, “Rah Alia Rah” translates to “He’s Gone.” I quickly played this for a friend who is a native colloquial Algerian Arabic speaker and he was able to discern that it was sung by a woman who yearns for her husband, who has traveled overseas to find work.
Here are both sides of this record. Pathé gave us this recording a bit muffled for some reason (it’s not digital distortion), but it hardly distracts.
For more early raï, there are wonderful pieces by Cheikha Relizania on both R. Crumb’s “Hot Women” CD, and the Secret Museum’s North Africa volume. There were also several volumes made in France of a series titled “Anthologie du Raï” in the 1990s which seem completely unavailable – if you have any of these, please get in touch!
Also a great surprise, this fellow on YouTube plays a batch of classic raï from 45s, right on his record player for your eyes and ears.
Thanks to Karim B. for the translation!
Issue Number: PV 477
Matrix Number: CPT 11644 (21) – M3-164009