Category: Azerbaijan

Bala Melikyan – Xaric Segah

I reached out to Excavated Shellac followers on Facebook, asking for suggestions in an attempt to give myself a much-needed kick to complete a new post. One of the primary requests was string music from Iran. I decided for something in the ballpark, geographically and musically, though slightly more complicated.

The artist featured here, Bala Melikyan, was an Armenian from Nagorno-Karabakh, the currently autonomous, disputed territory inside present-day Azerbaijan. Mountainous Karabakh has been a region with ethnic strife between the majority Armenians, who refer to it by the ancient name of Artsakh and are allied with Armenia, and the Azeris. The conflict dates back well over 100 years, rooted in the Bolshevik takeover of what was then known as Transcaucasia, and is something I will freely admit to being only a novice at grasping. What I can say, however, is that when it came to recording music in the Caucuasus prior to the Russian Revolution, the region was ethnically complex. Whenever a recording engineer went to Tbilisi in Georgia (considered the cultural center of the Caucasus at the time), or Baku in Azerbaijan, multiple ethnicities were recorded, and often the musicians played with each other, regardless of ethnicity. Singers commonly performed in multiple languages. This, on its own, naturally suggests deep musical ties all across the Caucasus, and of course, Iran.

Such is the case with Bala Melikyan. Born in 1888, Melikyan was a Christian Armenian from Shusha in Karabakh, a city known for its musicians who practiced the Azeri musical form known as mugham, and one of the primary cities for Armenians in the Caucasus, along with Tbilisi. His instrument was the tar, the long-necked lute of the region with a resonator that is “waisted” with an hourglass shape, traditionally is made of mulberry wood, and with three sets of double strings. Melikyan was the son of a famous tar player from Shusha known simply as Grigor (1859-1929). I’ve documented Grigor as having recorded for the Gramophone Company in at least two sessions in Tbilisi, under the names Balitka Grigor (1909) and Bala Grigorevich (1910), respectively.

Prior to the Russian Revolution (as discussed in this earlier post), the recording industry in the region was for the most part run by Europe-based multinational corporations. Even smaller labels, liked Extraphone in Kiev, who recorded in Baku, were sub-branches of European companies. After the onset of World War I and the Russian Revolution, there was a dramatic slowdown if not a full shutdown. Recording in the Caucasus and many other places under Soviet control essentially ceased after 1915 (and the 1915 sessions made by the Gramophone Company were completely lost). The industry began to pick itself up throughout the 1920s – but this time, it was governed by the State.

According to Anzor Erkomaishvili, after the Revolution there was no recording in the Caucasus until 1930*. This is one of the first – a tar improvisation by Melikyan in the Azeri mugham repertoire, in the segah mode. It was likely recorded in Tbilisi, as the flip side is from the same sessions and features a kemanche (violin) solo by Sasha Oganezashvili (1889-1932). Oganezashvili, a Georgian who was also known as Alexander Ohanyan Arshak, had actually recorded with Bala Melikyan’s father in 1909, for the Gramophone Company.

Melikyan died in 1935. This disc was issued first on the MuzTrust label, then reissued a few years later on the SovSong label. SovSong was pressed by the Aprelevka pressing plant – long before the famous and well-distributed Aprelevsky Zavod imprint of the giant Soviet recording apparatus.

Bala Melikyan – Xaric Segah











Label: SovSong
Issue Number: 414
Matrix Number: 1010

*This seems to hold true. There were, however, Georgian, Armenian, and Azeri songs pressed on 78 on the Muzpred label in the mid-1920s, all performed by a man named Armenak Kahurov. It may be very likely, however, that these were all recorded in Russia.

Ashug İslam Yusufov – Song About Stalin


Post updated December 2018 – see postscript below – JW

Who couldn’t admire a man like Moe Asch (1905-1986), the farsighted individual who began Folkways Records in 1948? Here was someone who not only understood the value of both current and historical recordings of international folk music at a time when few others did, but against all odds released completely original takes on field recordings (Tony Schwartz, Sounds of the Junk Yard), blues (Elizabeth Cotten, Reverend Gary Davis), spoken word (Huey P. Newton, Al Capp), and contemporary electronic music (Tod Dockstader, Halim El-Dabh), just to name a few genres where Folkways tread under Asch’s hand. If you think the amazing Secret Museum of Mankind series started it all, Asch and Henry Cowell were onboard in the 1950s with their multi-volume Music of the World’s Peoples, as well as with two collections of early international recordings collected by Erich von Hornbostel, and a familiar little something called The Anthology of American Folk Music. As many doubtlessly know by now, Folkways is now Smithsonian Folkways, and virtually every one of their releases is available through download, on a store-bought CD, or on a custom CD.

However, before Asch started Folkways, he manned other labels. First, there was “Asch” and later, “The Disc Company” (whose slogan was “The Folkways of the World on Records”). Disc Company, before going bankrupt ca. 1947 (a whole separate story), released, among other things, a series of five far-reaching box sets of international music on 78rpm, recorded “on location.” Three of them (Cult Music of Cuba, Folk Music of Ethiopia, and Folk Music of Haiti) were recorded by ethnomusicologist and general editor of Disc’s “ethnic series,” Harold Courlander. The fourth box set, American Indian Songs and Dances, was recorded by a gentleman named Charles Hoffman.

A little mystery surrounds the fifth and final set in the series, the fascinating Folk Music of the Central East USSR – which included today’s musical offering. Courlander was most likely not involved and it was Moe Asch instead who chose the recordings. Where the recordings came from, however, seems to be an unknown. The best guess that has been posited is that they came from Herbert Harris, the man behind another small New York label, Stinson. Harris, a CP member who ran a Soviet-themed movie-house on 46th Street, became the owner of a swath of Soviet 78rpm recordings given to him when the Soviets pulled their exhibit from the 1939 World’s Fair, after the Hitler-Stalin pact. Asch, in the early 40s, had a business relationship with Harris and both Asch Records and Stinson released recordings from Harris’ Soviet collection. Could this group of Central Asian recordings also have stemmed from Harris?

Who knows? One interesting tidbit is that, after the bankruptcy of The Disc Company, several of those Disc box sets were eventually reissued by Asch on Folkways, on 10″ and 12″ LPs. Courlander’s Cult Music of Cuba, Folk Music of Ethiopia, and Folk Music of Haiti are three examples. What became of Folk Music of the Central East USSR? A few tracks made it to the 1951 Folkways release Music of the Russian Middle East, but the rest vanished, and can only be heard on the original Disc 78rpm records.

Today’s piece is one of the vanished, featuring a fierce, plaintive vocal by Yusofov (a more accurate spelling of his name). Thanks to intrepid Excavated Shellac reader ‘volkan’ who provided very helpful information, we know that this piece of music is NOT, as it states on the label, from Georgia at all! It is in fact Azeri music, sung in the Azeri language, and performed in the Ashik style (a type of folk poetry), with accompaniment on the tar. And, unless I’m going deaf, there is no accompaniment of the balaban on this track – thanks also to volkan, we can confirm that the balaban is not a cello as stated, it’s a double-reed wind instrument.

So, the question is, was this a pressing error? Was the “Song of Stalin” actually not included on the original box set? I double-checked all of Folkways’ historic Central Asian material currently available and this song does not appear on any release. Even Henry Cowell, who wrote the notes to the original box set, could say little about the music as he knew it:

Very often well-known old melodies have new words added, as in the case of the Georgian “Song of Stalin” in this album, which is a traditional type of tune.

A “traditional type of tune” eh? Not much to go on, Henry. Perhaps others in the fray can help? In the meantime, Woody Guthrie put it best in a letter to Moe Asch:

I can’t understand one single word of this Central Eastern lingo, but by hearing these songs I know more about our humanly race than I could learn by reading a thousand Congressional Reports.

Ashoug Esslam Yousobof – Song About Stalin

Postscript (December 2018):

After years, I can confirm that at least some of the tracks on this set were obtained by dubbing discs that were issued on the State-run Soviet record label. The side featured on here was originally issued in 1938 on the Noginsky Zavod imprint. The plant in Noginsk published most of the Central Asian 78s prior to World War II, after which the Tashkent plant (“zavod”) was established and took over that duty.

The artist is indeed transliterated from the Russian as “Ashug Islam Yusobov” and the balaban player is credited (though does not appear). The title is “Pesnya O Staline,” – indeed “Song About Stalin.” The instrument is credited as a “saz,” not the tar.


(Much info gleaned from Peter Goldsmith’s Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.)

Technical Notes
Label: Disc
Issue Number: 1507
Matrix Number: 319-6596

Teyyub Damirov – Jeirany

damirov.jpgI’m kicking off February with a series of musically intense posts. Get ready.

Today, we move over to Central Asia for a blistering solo by Mr. Damirov, performed, I believe, on the garmon, a Russian button accordion commonly used in Azeri folk music. I find this piece to be absolutely perfect – both frenetic and fluid, deeply traditional yet utterly contemporary.

The “Dictaphone” label – well, that’s a story in itself. In the US in the early 1950s or so, someone, somewhere (a record shop? a multilingual entrepreneur?), decided to bootleg music from the Near and Central East, presumably for sale to immigrants in the States, likely in New York City (the Balkan record label shop, perhaps?) or in Fresno, California. This someone set up a series of more or less uniform-looking record labels with the same typeset, and little to no pertinent information on them, save for the artist and title. Sometimes, the original title was changed or altered. “Perfectaphone” is the label that I’ve seen most often – that was for Turkish music. “Armenophone” is another that crops up, obviously the Armenian imprint. Then there was “Dictaphone” for music of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian countries, there was Smyrnaphone, a label called simply Eastern – and maybe the least common, “Kurdophone” for music from Kurdish regions (though most if not all of the discs I’ve seen on this label are Turkish).  This beautiful Dictaphone record was almost certainly bootlegged from Russia’s state-run Melodiya label, which was a real giant in terms of output.

Whomever was running this outfit had a pretty good ear – most everything I’ve heard on all of these labels is really quite good, if not stone beautiful. Yes, Perfectaphones have quite a bit of Turkish popular music from the mid-20th century on there, but also plenty of folk and classically-tinged material. And, surprisingly, as bootlegs they sound pretty nice.

For more Damirov, check the Secret Museum’s Central Asia CD. There are some garmon players on YouTube, as well – try here.

Temiuv Damirov – Jeirany

Technical Notes
Label: Dictaphone (originally from CCCP, most likely)
Issue Number: No. 15
Matrix Number: n/a