April 17, 2016
I had no intention of returning so quickly to India, but this newly discovered disc was just too fascinating to ignore. It features a type of song that, as far as I know, was almost never recorded for commercial reasons. In the Gramophone Company’s ledgers for that day, September 21, 1916 in Madras, there is no artist, title, or catalog number listed. There’s just one phrase: “crying song.”
British engineer George Dillnut must have really been stretching his ears that day, as when the mysterious Krishnasawmy stepped up to record this piece, he’d just finished recording several songs by Cunniah Naidu on the snake charmer’s pungi, another type of music that appeared infrequently. The record label must not have known what to do with this – perhaps the Europeans who recorded this thought of these performances as something like “Indian novelty songs.” Perhaps that was one reason that this piece was not even listed as a “song” on the label, and instead was described as “talking.”
Except that while it is most certainly exaggerated, it’s not just talking at all – this incredible song is called an oppari, and it’s a traditional Tamil song that’s sung during a funeral. An oppari contains exaggerated crying and wailing between each sung line in a single breath, emphasizing the tragedy of the death, and to show that the recently deceased is truly missed as they send them off to the next life. As each line about the deceased’s virtues is sung, the singer sometimes self-flagellates, beating their chest.
Although Krishnasawmy was a man, oppari performers are usually women of the lower caste who sing for deceased men who left wives and children. However, professional wailing can apparently be performed for most deaths in Tamil society. Oppari songs can occasionally be sung in the home, as well, unrelated to a funeral. Contemporary ethnomusicologists have suggested that oppari songs can be a way for Tamil women to express their voices, concerns, and even protest. While oppari is associated with women, there have been male oppari singers, historically up to today. The male performers are usually from the Dalit (oppressed) caste. Ethnomusicologist Paul Greene stated that “Even when men perform it, oppari is a performance of women’s emotions.” He suggests that despite the long-standing tradition of men performing oppari, men’s embodiment of women’s grieving in an oppari performance steals women’s own voice, in a way.
Oppari singers are then both musicians, actors, and craftspeople. Many train for years to perfect their melodic phrasings as professional weepers, and also as performers who can push the boundaries of expression (since, one would assume, they do not often know whom they’re singing about). This expression might, to some non-Indians, border on mockery, just as the wailing on this record might be quickly mistaken for laughter. But it is not a mockery, nor is it laughter – it is yet another regional performance style which, amazingly, made it to 78.
Label: HMV (Calcutta)
Issue Number: P 4480
Coupling Number: 8-11752
Matrix Number: 4046ak
With thanks to Richard Nevins.
January 25, 2016
I’m very happy to host another guest post from my friend Robert Millis, who has a beautiful new release out featuring all manner of amazing Indian 78s (caveat: I worked on it, and am gladly biased). Rob will be appearing this Saturday, January 30, in Los Angeles, at the Velaslavasay Panorama (a unique and wonderful venue) and I’ll be second banana, playing some ear-piercing 78s in the gazebo. Please come by – tickets are almost sold out.
I would have loved to include a track by Zohra Bai in my Indian Talking Machine book/CD set recently released on Sublime Frequencies, but her records are scarce and highly coveted by collectors in India. I finally received one through a friend after the book was put to bed so I am using this Excavated Shellac guest post as a supplementary entry to my book.
In the book I relate a brief story of driving in a car in India while a tape of Zohra Bai was being played. One passenger (a musician) in the car kept turning mid-sentence to sing along with the tape, repeat an ornamentation or marvel at her technique. It was as if he was having two conversations, one with the present and one with the past. That was my introduction to her work, and it left a strong mark on me.
The first thing you notice about this record on its faded and stained label is that it is credited to “the late” Zohra Bai, and indeed it was issued after her death which occurred in 1913, though there is some speculation that she may have died in 1911, as the word “dead” was noted on her HMV contract possibly in that year (that’s some stiff upper lip British efficiency for you). Zohra Bai was born in 1868 and so died far too young, and the world was robbed of a unique and powerful voice.
She recorded 3 times for the Gramophone Company from 1908-1910, making a total of 78 recordings. She was under an exclusive contract and paid Rs 2500 per year. Outside of this, as with many early recording artists, not much is known about Zohra Bai: some say she was part of the courtesan tradition and was a dancer and performed in the courts of North India. Experts claim she learned from Ahmad Khan, a famous sarangi player, and hence you can hear the sarangi in her voice. Collectors assert she was beautiful, claiming you only have to listen to her voice to know this must have been true. There are two photographs of her, though neither has been proven beyond a doubt to actually be her. What is known is that her voice helped define the Agra gharana (style or school) in Indian classical music and that she was an enormous influence on Faiyaz Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and even perhaps Abdul Karim Khan, all stalwarts of the Hindustani classical tradition. To many, no higher honor can be paid to her than to say she influenced such singers.
This track was recorded in Delhi in 1910 by George Walter Dillnutt, but not issued until 1919. It is a thumri. Thumri’s are often referred to as “light classical” works. But here “light” in no way implies a less complicated form of music that might require less training or talent. It is simply that in such music more liberties can be taken with the raga, more melodic invention is “allowed” than in the stricter dhrupad or khyal styles, of which it is also said Zohra Bai was a master. This piece is a Zila, which means at least two ragas–including all their associated rules and moods–are interwoven by the performer during the performance. Thumri usually revolve around the erotic love stories of Krishna, and are usually told from the woman’s point of view. In this piece, Zohra laments how frogs (dadurwa) and peacocks (mor) are making so much noise (shor) that she is frightened. She is alone in the monsoon rains, unable to endure the longing she feels for her lover.
At the end you can hear her announce herself (as many vocalists did at this time in India), almost as if she is signing her work, making sure we know who was singing. This practice was common in India during the early recording era, with some artists going so far as to provide their address. But listen closely, it sounds almost as if she says “Zohra Bai died in Agra” You can hear this same phrase on several of her other recordings. Maybe she says something else, or maybe she had been mis-taught the English. Or are these recordings actually not her, but someone paying homage? Perhaps she is singing from the beyond. The mystery around this will never be solved, just as the facts of her life will never really be known. Another ghost haunting shellac grooves. But what a legacy of recordings left behind. Had she died a few years earlier we might not have had even this much.
Thanks to Suresh Chandvankar of the Society of Indian Record Collectors. Also musician Keshavchaitanya Kunte who helped with the translation of the bandish (lyrics). And, in absentia as always, Michael Kinnear for all the discographical work.
“Is this Zohra Bai?”
Label: Gramophone Company (HMV)
Issue Number: P 4023
Coupling Number: 8-13990
Matrix Number: 13684o
April 5, 2015
Imagine a somewhat frail, virtually blind woman in her mid-60s showing up in Chennai to a Columbia records recording session in 1932 or so, to play solos in the Carnatic / South Indian tradition on the large veena string instrument. This was a musical world that was almost exclusively male. Yet, Veena Dhanammal (also called “Veena Dhanam”) was at that time, and still is today, considered one of the major Carnatic artists of the early 20th century. This recording session would have been a very special occasion.
Her year of birth is cited alternately as 1868, 1867, or 1866 – though a recently published biography of her goes with the year 1868, perhaps the most accurate. She was born in a now historic neighborhood of Chennai once known as “Black Town” by the British colonizers due to its population of so-called “natives,” but whose name was changed to George Town in 1911, after the crowning of King George V. As her various biographies state, she was born into a family of professional musicians and dancers in the “devadasi” tradition.
Dhanammal’s musical education began with her own grandmother, Kamakshi Ammal, who taught her vocal technique. Among others, she was also a student of 19th century blind veena player Baldas Naidu, as well as Dharmapuri Subbaraaya Aiyyar, considered a chief proponent and composer of javalis – a type of love song, sometimes with erotic overtones, featured in an instrumental form in today’s post.
Much of the information about Dhanammal is folkloric and anecdotal. According to her granddaughter, Tanjore Balasaraswati, herself a renowned dancer, there was little room for children in the Dhanammal household. By the time Balasaraswati was born in 1918, Veena Dhanammal’s reputation was massive, having been apparently the first woman musician to perform in a Chennai concert hall in 1895. Balasaraswati recalled that her grandmother, despite being a gentle person, disallowed any leisure time or the crying of infants in the house, and demanded she be treated as a revered musician even by family.
According to legend, Dhanammal and Abdul Karim Khan had a special relationship. The possibly apocryphal story goes that after hearing Dhanammal perform while he was on a concert trip to Chennai (then Madras), Abdul Karim Khan was so speechless after witnessing her performance and her close attention to pitch, that he immediately gave her all the money he had earned earlier that day. Another story exists where Dhanammal, a fan of Hindustani classical music, gave all HER money to Abdul Karim Khan. Regardless of what transaction occurred, it appears there was certainly a mutual appreciation between them.
This instrumental javali song (known as “Narimani”) in the kamas raga is indicative of Dhanammal’s style – very slow, nearly minimalist, and without any accompaniment whatsoever, no mridangam drum or harmonium. Just…quiet. She also played the instrument without a plectrum. While Dhanammal made her name in the 19th century, by the time she recorded for Columbia, quite late in her career, there were other female veena artists – Shanmuga Vadivu, for example (and the mother of M.S. Subbulakshmi). However, Dhanammal is the one who is most revered. I am not sure how many records she made – it may only have been this session for Columbia. Although worth mentioning are a series of 5 discs that were issued in 1908 by the Gramophone Company and that were credited as being performed by “Veena Dhanam’s Daughters.”
As a tangential aside, it’s interesting to note that just a few years prior to this recording, there was a strong anti-devadasi campaign being initiated, claiming that the devadasi tradition was akin to prostitution, with an “Anti-Nautch” bill being passed in the late 1920s. Dhanammal and others were members of the Madras Devadasi Association, who did not agree with the movement’s tenets. Dhanammal was, by all accounts, a true and even aristocratic professional, devoted to her craft. She died in 1938.
Issue Number: VE 57
Matrix Number: WEI-2578-1
The aforementioned biography on Veena Dhanammal is written by Lakshmi Subramanian and is titled “Veena Dhanammal: The Making of a Legend” on Routledge India. A biography on her granddaughter was written by Douglas M. Knight and is titled “Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life,” and is published by Wesleyan University Press.
July 8, 2013
The mystery of this record rests in the biography of the singer. The late 19th and early 20th century Hindustani recording and performance circuit was rife with baiji-s[i], most notably, Kesarbai Kerkar (check out Ian Nagoski’s recent release of some of her classic 78s), Moghubai Kurdikar, Laxmibai Jadhav, and Gangubai Hanagal. While “Saraswatibai” would have not been an uncommon name at the time, the two Saraswatibai-s I encounter most often that were active around the time of this recording are the daughter of Abdul Karim Khan, Saraswatibai Rane, and his last wife, Saraswatibai Mirajkar. Given that these Saraswatibai-s were rather well-known singers, I concluded that Faterpekar was an alias of the better known Saraswatibai-s. However, a quick comparison with recordings of Rane and Mirajkar led me to conclude otherwise. So who was she?
The recorded output of Saraswatibai Faterpekar is likely scant given her relative obscurity in the literature. She’s never mentioned in the most common sources. There is one reference to a singer with the same name in K.P. Mukerji’s memoir The Lost World of Hindustani Music, which suggests that a Saraswatibai Faterpekar was a student of Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan of Bombay’s Bhendibazaar Gharana (school). Curiously, no histories of the Bhendibazaar cite her as being Khadim Hussain Khan’s student.
Suresh Chandvankar (from the Society of Indian Record Collectors) suggests that Saraswatibai was Goan (like Kesarbai and Moghubai), from the village of Fatarpe and arrived in Bombay, the hub of the burgeoning entertainment industry in the 1920s to seek fame and fortune in the big city. She must have been well-regarded at the time, as she was able to secure high-profile concerts. Micheal Kinnear’s Bio-Discography of Abdul Karim Khan has a reproduction of a 1938 concert poster where she headlines a show the day before the matchless Abdul Wahid Khan (Abdul Karim’s cousin!). This is about all I know about Saraswatibai Faterpekar’s biography. Perhaps readers of this blog will fill in the glaring gaps, giving us a better picture of the woman behind the voice.
The present recording, from the Columbia “Special Western Indian Recording” GE-1500 series, was likely recorded around 1933. Saraswatibai’s voice is ripe with rasa (literally the “juice” of aesthetic expression), a rich tone and articulation. Her taan-s (rapid vocalic passages) towards the end of this track rivals the best singers of her time. Basant is a late evening raga, so bask in Saraswatibai’s performance after 9pm!
[i] “Bai” was a common suffix added to women’s names in western India, especially those in the performing (singer/dancer) communities.
Issue Number: GE 1518
Matrix Number: WEI 2584-1
Additionally, Suresh Chandvankar of the Society of Indian Record Collectors has graciously given us some additional scans from a catalog:
February 18, 2012
It’s not uncommon to have multiple generations of a family of musicians captured on disc – though the case of the Khan family is extraordinary in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that a full three generations of Khans were recorded on 78 rpm records, dating to the very earliest recording sessions in India. The family tradition still continues, with numerous members active as professional musicians.
Imdad Khan (1848-1920) was the very first solo sitar instrumentalist to be recorded on disc. Born in Agra and raised in the nearby town of Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, Imdad Khan studied with his father, Sahabdad Khan, who familiarized Imdad with sitar, sarangi, and khyal, the North Indian classical singing style (Sahabdad’s brother Haddu was a famed khyal singer). He also studied with veena master Bande Ali Khan (1830-1890). Gradually, Imdad transformed Indian sitar playing, creating his own, incredibly popular style. In fact, he became something of a celebrity. His patrons were wealthy landowners and members of the Calcutta elite (such as Sourindo Mohun Tagore of the Bengali Tagore family), and he even played for the Queen. Yet his most impressive legacy is the entire school of music that stemmed from his performances and teachings – the Imdadkhani gharana – which, as sitar playing goes, is at least partly based on khyal vocal performance. It’s still very much in vogue to this day.
This short sitar solo, “Sohini Qawwali,” was recorded in Calcutta on December of 1904 by the Gramophone Company. The engineer was William Sinkler Darby. This was only the second time recording engineers from England had visited India, yet the market was exploding. According to scholar and researcher Michael Kinnear, the Gramophone Company had learned its lessons from the first tour of Asia (1902-1903), and was ready to record better artists and improve the company’s standing in the marketplace. Plus, smaller independent labels had already begun to set up shop and snap up popular artists. On this particular recording tour, Darby and his assistant Max Hampe started in Calcutta (recording, among other things, 6 tracks by Imdad Khan), after which they moved on to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai (Madras), Colombo in Sri Lanka, Yangon (Rangoon), and eventually back to Calcutta where they recorded a Tibetan music troupe. Darby and Hampe recorded some very important performers on this trip along with Imdad Khan, including Abdul Karim Khan, female singing legend Gauhar Jan, shehnai master Talim Hossein, Sikh musicians and singers, and even two performers from Peshawar, Pakistan.
Instrumental solos weren’t as commonly recorded during the first decade of the 20th century. And the subtleties of the sound of the sitar, in particular, seem to have been difficult to capture during the acoustic recording era. Yet, at about 108 years later, we can still experience the master at work.
Imdad’s son, Enayat Khan (also spelled Inayat, Enayet, etc.) was born in 1894 and studied under his father, who taught him both the sitar and the surbahar, also known as the bass sitar. The surbahar’s origins trace back to ca. 1825-1830 in Lucknow. It has fixed frets and a wider neck than the traditional sitar. It generally has 6-8 strings (4 for melody and 2-4 for drones) and 13-17 sympathetic strings. Enayat was more commonly a sitar player, yet I chose here an example of his surbahar playing – an alap (an introduction) to the Bageshri raga. He died young, in 1938.
Interestingly, Enayat Khan recorded this piece in early 1933 thanks to the newly established Megaphone label. Megaphone, launched by an entrepreneur named J. N. Ghosh, had its origins ca. 1910 as a gramophone machine and harmonium manufacturer. However, by the late 1920s, Ghosh wanted to compete with the Gramophone Company, issuing 78s of artists he felt were ignored by the massive label, including Enayat Khan. By July of 1932, Ghosh began recording and releasing his own Megaphone discs, though they were pressed (rather poorly, I’m afraid – at least my examples are!) by the Gramophone Company at their plant in Dum Dum. Over the next 25 years, Megaphone released thousands of discs. Ghosh died in 1958, and his nephews took over the company – in the 1980s, they were making Megaphone cassettes.
Born in 1928 in Gouripur in what is now Bangladesh, Enayat Khan’s son, Vilayat Khan, became one of the most important and well-known sitar players of the 20th century, carrying on and expanding upon the musical traditions of his father and grandfather. I recently read a section of an ethnomusicologist’s article stating that there was no proof that Vilayat Khan studied with his father before his death. In fact, Vilayat Khan recorded his first 78 for the Megaphone label at age 8! His father died one year later and Vilayat continued to study with his uncle Wahid Khan, a renowned surbahar player, as well as his mother and mother’s father. Vilayat’s career was long, was well-documented and often peppered with hyperbole. The word “unique” is frequently used when encapsulating his life, as well as “legendary” and “revolutionary.” He toured the world over, won numerous honors (some of which he famously refused, claiming that the judges were unfit to judge his or anyone else’s talent), and was prolifically recorded. He’s also well-known for providing the soundtrack for the 1958 Satyajit Ray film The Music Room (Jalsaghar). He passed away in 2004 from lung cancer. This piece, the Mishra Khamaj raga, was recorded in 1952, and Vilayat Khan is accompanied by tabla master Alla Rakha (1919-2000).
Vilayat Khan – Raag Mishra Khamaj
Many members of the Khan family are still performing today, including Imrat Khan (also the son of Enayat), Shujaat Khan and Hiayat Khan (both sons of Vilayat), Irshad Khan and Wajahat Khan (both sons of Imrat), and Shahid Parvez Khan (the son of Enayat’s brother Walid).
Issue Number: P 61
Matrix Number: 2622h
Issue Number: M.C.C. 25
Matrix Number: 0E 1525
Issue Number: N.92565
Matrix Number: 0JW 2899
Thank you to Ajith Raman, Bill Dean-Myatt, and the works of Michael Kinnear.
September 30, 2009
It’s a busy time for me, and while I’ll have some great music and special announcements coming soon, I am happy to know that there are some fine curators jumping into the game at Excavated Shellac this autumn. For the first of two guest posts, we have a selection from Stuart Ellis, the man behind the phenomenal Radiodiffusion Internasionaal blog. If you haven’t combed through the archives of international 45s at Radiodiffusion, you must do so. The sounds are varied, thought-provoking, and rare. Stuart is also behind the terrific Sublime Frequences release Bollywood Steel Guitar. That fact alone should be a perfect introduction to his post… – JW
The earliest known report of anyone playing slide guitar was of Gabriel Davion, a native of India who had been kidnapped by Portuguese sailors and was brought to Hawaii in 1876. Of course, Indian string instruments, like the gottuvadhyam and the vichitra veena use a slide and are known to have existed since the 11th century. But it was not until Ernest Ka’ai and his Royal Hawaiian Troubadours toured in 1919 that the slide guitar was introduced to India.
Most people agree that Van Shipley was the first electric guitarist in India and the first to record instrumental versions of film songs, beginning sometime in the early 1950s. Van was born in the city of Lucknow in Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. When most people hear his name, they say “But that’s not an Indian name!” Well, that’s because not everyone in India is Hindu. Shipley was Methodist.
Inspired by his mother, who played the sitar, Shipley took to music at a young age. His first instrument was the violin. He attended Saharanpur to study Indian Classical music. There, he studied under Ustad Bande Hassan Khan and his son Ustad Zinda Hassan Khan, who were both famous Khyal singers from Northern India. At the same time, he took lessons in western music from an American identified as Dr. Wizer.
Shipley then returned to Lucknow to attend college, where he became involved with All India Radio. After college, he went to the city of Pune to work for the Prabhat Film Company before moving to the center of India’s film industry, Bombay (Mumbai). It was there that he caught the attention of producer and director Raj Kapoor, who spotted him performing a stage. Kapoor enlisted Shipley to play violin on the soundtrack for “Barsaat” (Rain) in 1949. The following year, Shipley added his electric guitar to a dream sequence in “Awaara” (The Tramp), which brought him to the attention of The Gramophone Co. of India. In 1955, Shipley teamed up with accordionist Enoch Daniels, whom he had met while working for the Prabhat Film Company in Pune. This musical partnership ultimately lasted for many years.
Shipley set off the steel guitar craze in India. Other steel guitar players from the 78 era include Batuk Nandy, Brij Bhushan Kabra, Kazi Aniruddha, Mohon Bhattacharya, Nalin Mazumdar, Robin Paul, S. Hazarasingh, Sujit Nath and Sunil Ganguly. But most of these guitarists only recorded Tagore songs, with only a few (Kazi Aniruddha and S. Hazarasingh) recording Filmi tunes (Sunil Ganguly and Batuk Nandy would start doing film songs in the 60s and the 70s, respectively).
One distinction that set Shipley apart was that he played an eight string guitar, which he had designed and built to give him the drone sound that was more common in Indian classical music than in the Film songs. Almost all of the other Indian steel guitarists played a National Dual Six Console guitar. Shipley also designed his own electric violin as well, which he dubbed the ‘Gypsy Violin’ and used on many of his later records.
Shipley’s first album, The Man with The Golden Guitar, a title that stuck with him the rest of his career, was released in 1962. He would go on to release an album every year until 1982, as well as a dozen or so EPs. He also toured the world, playing shows in Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean Islands, Suriname, Guyana and the U.S., including the cities of New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Buffalo, and Detroit. Besides recording, Shipley acted in a few films as well, including 1964s “Cha Cha Cha.”
Shipley died on March 8, 2008 of a heart attack at his home in Mumbai. His daughter Ingrid is an artist and musician who lives in New York, and his nephew Valentine is a singer/songwriter in India.
Issue Number: GE. 8303
Matrix Number: CEI 42414-IC
Thanks to Derek Taylor at Bagatellen for the information.
January 26, 2009
I’m very pleased to have cajoled another friend with a fine collection into producing an Excavated Shellac-only guest post. This week’s entry is from Rob Millis, co-producer of the museum-worthy Victrola Favorites release on the Dust-to-Digital label. Rob, along with his partner Jeffery Taylor, is also one-half of the experimental Climax Golden Twins (who have a new release on the Journal of Popular Noise). I’m excited that Rob chose to highlight a type of music I also find fascinating – if it is new to you, and I hope to most it will be, I believe you will find this special stuff. – JW
Recorded in May or June of 1908, this lovely piece is set in the kharahapriya rag with an 8 beat time cycle called athi. The performer is Brahma Sri Tiruchendur Appadurai Aiyengar (or Iyengar), a Carnatic (Southern) Indian classical musician of some renown in his time. Most likely recorded in Madras (present day Chennai), the performer was perhaps from – or employed in – the city of Tiruchendur, in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where Telugu is one of the primary languages. Tamil Nadu is the heart of Dravidian culture, and simply one of the most ancient places on Earth.
The jaltharangam, often written jalatarang, is an oddity. Meaning “water waves,” the jalatarang consists of small – often porcelain – bowls filled with water and struck with small – often bamboo – sticks. The bowls are arranged in front of the player in a semi-circle not unlike the tuned drums and gongs of Southeast Asia. The amount of water in each bowl determines the tuning (you can try this at home, kids). The jalatarang is mentioned in a 17th century Indian text, and under a slightly different name in even earlier texts (including the Kamasutra), where its mastery was considered one of the essential 64 arts to be learnt by women. The other 63 arts probably get more attention these days, but Alexander the Great is said to have taken jalatarang players back to Macedonia after his subcontinent sojourns which make this simple little instrument potentially over two thousand years old. Some call it, along with the rudra vina, the very oldest South Indian instrument. Rarely recorded, not given much credence by the stalwarts of Indian classical music, it has a crystalline, delicate, shimmering tone, making it an utterly ridiculous instrument to record in 1910. This was the era of acoustic recordings, when mid-range, volume, and voices like Caruso carried the day by simply (and effectively) shouting into a horn. But record it they did, those plucky English Gramophone Company employees, and thank heaven. Classical Indian music is generally improvisational and long form – taking as much time as the performers need to fully explore the raga and beat cycle. But they did what they could in the 78rpm era to provide a taste of this form. And old records such as this are often the only examples of nearly forgotten styles, performers, and ragas.
A beat up ancient record, found in a forgotten junk store in Tamil Nadu last year, about which I can find almost nothing. Who owned it? Who played it? How did it survive? It is like a venerable, wizened old monk. You have to work at listening to recordings like these and fill in the gaps with imagination. Plenty of crackle and hiss like London fog adds to the mystery. The shruti box, barely heard in the background, the drum, possibly a Mridangam (clay pot drum) practically blending in with the crackles and pops, and an ethereal melody in danger of being swallowed, drifting over the top, seeming to come out of thin air or down from the heavens…inscribed in the grooves as though by an angel…which actually was the logo at this time for the Gramophone Company before it adopted the more familiar faithful dog of His Master’s Voice fame. The label is gorgeous too, and wears its history well, as old – relatively – as the instrument it captures.
– Rob Millis
Label: Gramophone Concert Record
Issue Number: G.C.-19455
Matrix Number: E 9274
September 7, 2008
Back to India so soon? Yes, I’ve focused on the music of India several times over the past 17 months on Excavated Shellac, but haven’t until now posted an example of a Indian soloist in the South Indian, Carnatic classical tradition.
The partially blind violinist Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu was born in 1893 in Bangalore, and rose to fame as a professor of music at the Maharajah’s College in Vizianagaram, the first college in India established to promote music. In 1936, he had become the principal of the school and by 1938 was giving solo, improvisatory concerts. He died in 1964.
Naidu’s technique is renowned. Much has been written about him and how he fits into the history of Carnatic music, but certain words crop up often when discussing his technique: “simple,” “deceptively simple” and even “minimal.” He was known to be a listener of Western and Hindustani music, and would imbue his solos with occasional flourishes from outside influences – without disturbing his own music’s tradition. This was one of the very first Indian records I’ve ever owned, found in a heap at the bottom of an apartment complex I lived in around 1993, in New York City. While I am by no means an expert, this record made me appreciate Carnatic soloing, and Indian classical music in general.
This piece is a “thanam” (or taanam), an improvisatory section of the Kalyani raga. I believe it was recorded sometime in the 1940s or so. There is a subtle, uncredited accompanist on the veena.
News: by the end of the month, I will be adding catalog and matrix numbers (the numbers/letters that are stamped or etched into the “dead wax”) for each record, at the end of each post (including old posts). While this is of zero interest to most people and can be ignored, these numbers can be very helpful to pinpoint dates and recording locations by historians and collectors, and can help flesh out some of the info on Excavated Shellac.
And next week, we will return to Africa with a beautiful piece of music. It will be a limited download, so get ready…all will be revealed…
Issue Number: N.8970
Matrix Number: OMC. 11839-1
Over the next several months, you will see a few guests here at Excavated Shellac. I’ve asked a number of like-minded friends, whose collections are varied and excellent, to drop by and give us an example of a favorite piece of music of theirs that revolves at that fast speed. They have provided the words, image, and music. (I have provided the audio cleanup and mix, unless otherwise noted.)
Generally regarded as one of the 20th century’s most important Hindustani classical singers, Abdul Karim Khan was born in 1872 into a family of musicians in the village of Kirana in Hayrana state in north-central India. The kirana gharana (school) of singing extends to his ancestors but it is most commonly associated with his style because of his (relatively) prolific teaching, performing and recording in the first part of the 20th century. A notable branch of the school was founded by his cousin, the brilliant, eccentric, hearing-impaired, opium-loving, Sufi-devoted Abdul Wahid Khan who was Pandit Pran Nath’s guru and therefore the originator of the kirana school as it exists in the post-psychedelic United States.
Abdul Karim Khan studied sarangi with his family before leaving his home, never to return, as a teenager, in search of a guru. During this time, he approached Bande Khan (grandfather to been player Zia Mohuiddin Dagar and singer Zia Fariduddin Dagar) in search of been lessons. (Sarangi was primarly an accompanist’s instrument and been was a soloist’s instrument.) Bande Khan told him to study singing. As a singing duo with his brother Abdul Haq, Abdul Karim Khan was appointed as a court musician by the raja of Baroda state in Northwest India, but when Abdul Karim fell in love with one of the prince’s daughters, Sardār Māruti Rāo Māne who was his student at the time, the class difference between the royalty and musician-servants forced the two lovers to abscond in order to stay together. They landed further south, in Bombay, where Abdul Karim taught, sang and, in 1905, recorded about thirty performances for the Gramophone company. That same year, his daughter Hirabai Badodekar (later a renowned singer herself) was born. (YouTube clip here.)
Over the next twenty years, his style was informed by a number of visits to Karnataka state in the South, close contact with singers in the gwalior gharana, and changes in the economics of music caused by the crumbling of the courts under British colonialism. Abdul Karim Khan saw that a musician could no longer simply inhabit a court as a paid servant, and became an innovator in charging admission for classical concerts. His family moved in 1913 to Pune, where he founded another music school. In 1922, his wife left him, also resulting in a split with Abdul Wahid Khan (who was related to Abdul Karim by marriage). The event is said to have marked a shift in his style to slower, more contemplative singing. Meanwhile, during the period of increasing modernization and the anti-colonial struggle lead by Ghandi (and radical politics generally), Abdul Karim Khan refused to record again until the mid-30s, when he accepted offers from the minor Ruby Company and the dominant and British-owned Gramophone company’s primary competitor, German-based Odeon. From 1934 until 1936, just a year before his death, he recorded several dozen pieces. La Monte Young said in the first issue of Halana that Abdul Karim Khan died on tour in a railway station by simply turning to the man next to him and saying “I’m going now,” then pulling down his turban and dying on the spot. For Young, it was an example of utter mastery and control.
Abdul Karim Khan’s voice, like his recorded output, is notable for just this sense of mastery, but both are filled with a lightness and sweetness which one does not often associate with the most serious musicians. He chose repeatedly to sing light pieces, bordering on the folksy, making his name as a singer of the relatively modern and fanciful khayal rather than the older and more devotional dhrupad, and he rarely gave in to the kind of heroic and almost macho qualities one hears in Abdul Wahid Khan’s very few recordings or the most ferocious recordings of Abdul Karim’s most renowned spiritual heir, the brilliant Bhimsen Joshi (YouTube clip here.). He was a noted and early classical exponent of romantic thumris. For me, there is something touchingly feminine about his voice. If you’ll forgive a level of psychological speculation, it feels as if within himself he was reconnecting with his lost daughter and wife (or evoking that kind of unifying bond to his listeners) even in the relatively austere classical performance presented here, made for the Ruby Record Company in March of 1934, just three years before his death, with Shankarrao Kapileshwari (harmonium), Shasuddin Khan (tabla) and Balkrishna Kapileshwari and Dashrath Buwa Mule (tambouras).
My copy of this record is a post-war (and probably post-Indian independence) repressing. (HMV acquired Ruby in 1946, so despite going with an indie label, the Brits wound up owning his voice anyway. Such is the music biz.) His music, or some part of it, has been reissued every decade or two since his death, but remains woefully under-heard and certainly under-appreciated in the West. A bio-discography, which I have not yet been able to lay hands on, was authored by Michael Kinnear and published a few years ago in Australia. I’m grateful that a summary of it was posted here.
“Ustad Abdul Karim Khan’s recording of the composition ‘Jamuna ke tir’ in Raga Bhairavi stands as one of the great masterpieces of music. When I first heard the recordings of Abdul Karim Khan I thought that perhaps it would be best if I gave up singing, got a cabin up in the mountains, stocked it with a record player and recordings of Abdul Karim Khan, and just listened for the rest of my life.” – La Monte Young
Issue Number: BEX 259
Matrix Number: RS 601
February 18, 2008
The life and long career of renowned Khyal vocalist Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (1897-1967), or Pujya Pandit Shree Omkarnathji Thakur as the record label at right would have it, is documented colorfully elsewhere. Born in poverty, he eventually spent years in Pandit Vishnu Digambar’s music school in Bombay, and became the principal of a music school by age 20. By ca. 1934-1935, when this record was pressed in India, he was already recording masterworks.
Blessed with, according to legend, his father’s “precious mantra” written on his tongue, Thakur’s vocal style is immediately dramatic. He improvises and modulates his voice on lyrics and syllables in an almost dizzying fashion (most apparent in Part 2 of today’s post), known as bol taan in Indian classical music.
This well-known track was most likely released decades ago on LP – it was also released on a hard to locate Indian CD titled “Golden Milestones” but as far as I can tell, the sound quality on that CD is quite poor. Therefore, I offer both sides of this fine performance here.
For more Thakur music on the web, check this post on Mehfil-E-Mausiqi.
Issue Number: VE.1016
Matrix Number: CEI.7358-1, CEI.7359-1