October 4, 2016
The roots of the instrument known as the taishōkoto begin with a trip to Europe and the US during the early 1900s by a man with the stage name of Gorō Morita (real name: Nisaburo Kawaguchi). A musician and successful instrument maker, Gorō Morita returned to Japan and began working on a portable musical instrument that was, according to researchers, meant to be an inexpensive way for Japanese people to play western music, and one which applied some of the same mechanics found in a typewriter. Some of this history is cloudy. It’s also stated that he was influenced by the two-string nigenkin instrument, a kind of variation on the koto. Perhaps it’s safe to say that he was influenced by zithers in general, and several posit that he while in Europe he may have come in contact with the violin-zither, the German akkordolia instrument, or maybe even the Swedish nyckelharpa. Some also suggest that while in the U.S., he may have seen the mountain dulcimer.
In any case, in September of 1912 in his family home of Nagoya, Morita perfected his instrument, introducing the Japanese version of what is ostensibly a keyed dulcimer or “keyed banjo” as it’s sometimes called (though it’s not much like a banjo). Morita first named it the kiku koto, then later changed the name to taishōkoto (also commonly taishōgoto) because of its relation to the koto coupled with a nod to Emperor Taishō. The instrument has a hollow body like a zither and a row of numbered keys that are pressed against the strings to changed their pitch, and it’s always strummed. The early version had only two strings, though today’s Japanese version normally has six strings.
Sales were apparently slow for several years, though there is proof that the quick learning-curve to play the instrument was part of its sales pitch and eventual popularity (even with advertisements directed toward geisha girls, indicating that they could learn taishōkoto faster than the shamisen). Gradually, it became a hugely successful amateur instrument during the later Taishō era, especially with young people as an acceptable method to play Western music. Interest waned during the run-up to the World War II, and it was forgotten in the country until the 1970s, when it became a popular instrument once again, directly marketed toward middle-aged women.
Despite this long preamble, I’ve never found a Japanese 78rpm disc that featured taishōkoto. Doubtless they do exist (if anyone can contribute, please do) amid the scores of shamisen and koto records and the thousands of western-influenced Japanese discs – but I’ve not heard one. To me, the story of the taishōkoto is interesting because of where it ended up.
“Waves of nightingales” is the rough English translation of the name of the South Asian instrument known as the bulbul tarang or “Indian banjo.” Another scholarly source translated it as “the nightingale’s cascading voice.” But, essentially it’s a modified taishōkoto! Like its ancestor, its history is also muddy. Some sources state that the taishōkoto arrived in India from Japan in the 1930s, leading to its popularity as an instrument for amateur and home use in the Punjab region. The South Asian version has two sets of strings – one set for melody, which is what the keys hammer, and another set of tuned drone strings. The scant technical writing on the bulbul tarang usually mentions that the instrument is humble or unadorned, even rudimentary, something close to a children’s instrument.
Because of its amateur status, it’s not surprising that very little bulbul tarang was recorded during the 78 era. Examples are all very rare, and recorded in the 1930s, featuring instrumental performances by artists such as Jagannath Mohile, K. Arumuga Mudaliar, and the example here, recorded in Calcutta by Master Shankar Banpel, in the Mishra Kafi raga.
A surprising twist in this story is the abrupt appearance of the taishōkoto in recordings from Kenya, beginning in the mid-1950s. Fans of CDs of 60s Zanzibari and Kenyan music may recognize it instantly. East African taarab music had been sporadically recorded in the early 20th century. The first major burst began in 1928 and lasted approximately three years, with HMV recording artists like Siti binti Saad and her group, Columbia recording in Zanzibar, and Odeon recording in Mombasa. After the early 1930s, there was a major recording lull in East Africa. Up to that point, the taarab music recorded was more traditional, principally featuring oud, violin, and darabukka drum. After World War II, when recording picked up again, that older style seems to have given way to two strains of a more orchestrated type of taarab – one that was influenced by Middle Eastern orchestras, and another that was influenced by Indian and Bollywood orchestras, referred to as taarab ya mtindo ya kiHindi. This is not surprising, since many Indians in East Africa were in the independent music and film industry, operating and owning music stores, theaters, and small record labels. Indian taarab especially adopted the taishōkoto, and one of the primary stars (he’s often credited as “Radio Star”) was Yaseen Mohammed. To accompany the bulbul tarang solo, I’ve uploaded a piece by Yaseen and his erstwhile partner Mimi (last name unknown – for now), on a Kenyan 78 from probably 1956 or so. Yaseen recorded for many labels (Jambo, Mzuri, and Columbia just to name a few) and was obviously a sought-after crooner.
It’s a perfect example of taishōkoto on a Kenyan disc, and has both Indian and Middle Eastern influence. Hundreds of records in this style were recorded and enjoyed. They turn up rarely, if ever. While there are valiant attempts being made, with the East African market flooded with over 50 small 78 labels, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a true discography any time soon – I still come across, or am made aware of, entire labels for which there appears to be no existing documentation whatsoever.
Issue Number: GE 1833
Matrix Number: CEI 7135-1
Issue Number: EOM 20
Matrix Number: CES 10034-1A
b) Fotokannan – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10581114
March 3, 2014
On the Opika Pende set, I included what I think is an excellent example of praise singing from Western Kenya featuring the nyatiti. This important instrument of the Luo people is an 8-stringed lyre that’s plucked like a lute, using quick repetitive phrases. The resonator is sometimes held against the player’s chest, sometimes not, but generally the player has small metallic rings attached to his foot, which are tapped against the body of the nyatiti. The short melodic phases (known as puch) and hard tapping make for a pulsing, driving musical experience, accompanied by loud and intense praise poetry. It’s a music for all significant occasions in Luo culture, and traditionally the musicians were itinerant. To hear a sample of the Opika Pende song on iTunes, click here. For a dynamic video of a present-day Luo praise poet, click here.
Today’s track is a musical development – an attempt to bring the nyatiti into the electric age via electric guitars (a lead, and a bass). It must have seemed a natural switch, to attempt to transform and update Luo praise singing with a non-traditional instrument. This certainly has happened all across Africa (and elsewhere), with often really interesting results. Sure, in some cases if a modern or more western instrument took hold, it transformed the older musical type into something that would often soon cease to exist. Varying opinions exist on that, but I am not a purist. Yet, in any case, I’m not sure if this switch to electric guitar ever really took hold – this is the only example I’ve come across. Even if it’s more common than I know, it’s something different to my ears and hopefully yours. While many link the sound of “benga” music back to the nyatiti, this is more of a precise interpretation of nyatiti praise music, just on electric instruments. It’s pretty killer.
The Mambo label was one of the first labels run by the important music entrepreneur and producer Arvindkumar P. Chandaran, who based his company and music store in town of Kericho, west of the Great Rift Valley. Chandaran’s name dots many East African 45 rpm labels (Hundhwe, Saba Saba, Stranger, Pwani, and Wachezaji, just to name a few), and as a producer he apparently was a driving force in popularizing benga, both with his slew of labels and his well-known Chandaran music store. While the 45 era in East Africa was staggering in terms of volume (as evidenced by the excellent Kentanza Vinyl site), the 78-era in East Africa was also incredible – dozens of small, privately owned labels were competing and releasing discs in varying amounts (often small amounts I bet). Most all are very difficult to find on 78 (though 45s were also issued by many of these labels): Mzuri, Rafiki, Robina, Tom Tom, Tejura, Festival, Twist, Equator Sound, Africa, Kenyans, African Voice, AGS, Nyota, CMS, Jogoo, Jambo…it goes on. I would say this 78 was recorded and pressed sometime during the early to mid-1960s.
Mambo Sweet Voice!
Issue Number: MV 58
Matrix Number: APC 118 2H 1 670
April 4, 2012
I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of readers of Excavated Shellac were familiar with the incredible Kenyan recording of “Chemirocha,” which was captured by the South African ethnographer and recordist Hugh Tracey on his 1950 expedition across East Africa. If ever there was an early recording from Africa that could be described as infamous, “Chemirocha” is it. Decades ago, that recording was issued by Tracey on his long out-of-print Music of Africa LP collection (#2: Kenya), then later by John Storm Roberts on his groundbreaking and long out-of-print Nairobi Sound LP, and later, sounding clear as a bell, on the recent Sharp Wood CD Kenyan Songs and Strings.
“Chemirocha” is deservedly infamous because of it’s backstory. Tracey arrived in Kapkatet, Kenya, inland from the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, to record the music of the Kipsigis. The Kipsigis were then known (and it seems still are) as a pastoral people whose livelihood, on the whole, depended on cattle, tea, and millet. Their language, interestingly, is not a Bantu language, and is part of the Nilotic language group, centered around southern Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda (Luo is also a Nilotic language). Anyway, Tracey discovered on his apparently rainy visit that the Kipsigis had heard numerous recordings by American country music star Jimmie Rodgers – likely purchased and/or brought to Kenya by the British, as Jimmie Rodgers discs were reissued in Britain on the Zonophone label. The Kipsigis, after hearing Rodgers’ music, were, according to Tracey, fascinated by his voice, which they deemed magical, and created a legend around him, calling him Chemirocha: Chemi (Jimmie) Rocha (Rodgers). According to the Kipsigis, Chemirocha, because of his prowess as a singer and player, had to have been half-man, half-antelope. The younger Kipsigis invented songs about him. This well known and beautiful version of “Chemirocha” can be heard, introduced by Hugh Tracey himself, here.
However, that was not the only song about Chemirocha that Tracey recorded. In fact, he recorded THREE Chemirocha songs – and the famous one described above technically was known in Tracey’s archive as “Chemirocha III.” They are all slightly different. This version, far less known and sung by young men, is “Chemirocha II,” and is slower, and more methodical. Tracey wrote in his notes that the other two versions of Chemirocha tunes were in fact songs usually performed by women, but the young men clearly knew them well enough to perform them, despite the embarrassment of their sisters, who were reticent to perform themselves. They are accompanied, as usual, by the 6-string bowl lyre of the Kipsigis known as the chepkongo (also chepkong, chemonge, or sometimes bukandit). In fact, the lyrics to this track are about the chepkongo, and how Chemirocha’s guitar playing sounds so similar to their own instrument. The instrument is used for both entertainment and ceremonial purposes. According to one source, in 1952 chepkongo songs by the Kipsigis were banned by the colonial-era Nandi African District Council.
These songs have continued to marvel, probably due to the fact that the two main elements, the Kipsigis and the American country star, seem incongruous to most. Their music in theory appears incompatible. Yet, despite distance and difference of culture, and with help from the rampant dispersal of the gramophone record, one influenced the other. Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. Quite possibly, the devastating effects of colonialism played a part in bringing those Jimmie Rodgers records to Kenya. As Barry Mazor points out in his book “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers,” some patronizing hyperbole abounds in the writing on these recordings – one source I came across stated that the Kipsigis developed a “Jimmie Rodgers cult.” This appears to be, at best, an extreme exaggeration. Mazor, referencing Tracey’s notes, states that the name “Chemirocha,” from the Kipsigis standpoint, stood for anything new and different that came from outside of their country. Further, according to Tracey’s notes, the singers of “Chemirocha I” ask why their country has been taken over by white men. That, in itself, is a tip-off that we’re not talking about a Jimmie Rodgers personality cult. The Kipsigis were fascinated by the quality of Rodgers’ voice and playing – not his personality, his career as a country music star, or his lyrics, which they could not understand. At any rate, Hugh Tracey loved the region and was impressed by the Kipsigis, and for that we can be thankful.
I have noticed since returning home that whenever members of my party refer to our recording sessions with the Nandi or Kipsigis they do so with a smile of pleasure…I can think of no single area where greater pleasure for any research man is inherent in the countryside. In human talent it has a special contribution to make to African music. – Hugh Tracey, 1951*
It should be mentioned that many of Tracey’s recordings can be accessed, via cooperation from Tracey’s ILAM (International Library of African Music), on the South African Music Archive Project website. The samples are low-resolution, stereo, and often poorly transferred, with sometimes incomplete or incorrect metadata – but still, it’s a phenomenal wealth of important content for researchers that deserves far more than lip service on a blog.
I could find nothing about the duo of Joash Makaya and Joseph Sambili, members of the Luhya people of Western Kenya. Which one of them is providing the guitar, soda bottle, and vocals, is unknown – conceivably it could be just one of them. But Makaya was the writer of this piece, which was likely recorded in Nairobi in the summer of 1956. I discuss this a little in the notes to Opika Pende, but this entire series was funded by the African Mercantile Company (the “AMC” on the label), and organized by a British ex-patriot named Peter Colmore, a gregarious entrepreneur based in Nairobi. Every disc I’ve heard on this rare series has been terrific. Makaya and Sambili take a little while to get into a groove (indicating yet again that there was no time for second takes with most 78 recording), but then glide smoothly into beautiful singing and playing.
So…five years of Excavated Shellac. Admittedly, the last few have been erratic in terms of posting, I realize. And who celebrates the anniversary of a website, anyway? I had an entire screed written, filled with complaints, anecdotes, opinions on blogging, opinions on collecting, the meaning of why on Earth I continue to do this…but I erased it. Ultimately, the meaning of why I do this is tied to the experience of listening and meeting people for whom this music (as opposed to merely the records) generates a response. It is entirely personal. Through it, I’ve met some generous people, incredibly knowledgeable contributors, and have had the lucky chance to release work publicly. I’ll keep updating Excavated Shellac so long as it continues to modestly make attempts to bridge a gap between ad-free interactive scholarship and entertainment. While the transfers have, and the writing has, I believe, improved over the years, I’ve kept to the same format and design. It’s a less-is-more approach…although with Opika Pende and Strings the amount of music released under the Excavated Shellac rubric has approached the 11-CD boxed set range, so the “more” part of “less-is-more” might be winning that battle. While it’s pretty easy to figure out who I am, at least on this website I will only be ‘JW,’ your (vaguely) anonymous moderator. And my one plug will be that if you have enjoyed these 150+ tracks on this website and have appreciated the commentary, please support my analog releases. You will not be disappointed.
Issue Number: GB.1472
Matrix Number: XYZ.5530
Issue Number: AMC.29
Matrix Number: 0AM 69
*Tracey, Hugh. (1951). Recording Tour, May to November 1950 East Africa. Newsletter. African Music Society, 1(4), 38-51.
Oh…a few posts that I had taken down over the years have been brought back to life. Have at them, if you hadn’t downloaded them already…
November 10, 2008
The events of this week find me wanting to temporarily curtail my sojourn into woodwinds in world music and present something both fun, and from Kenya. So here we are, spending a little time with an East African bar band; a bar band putting their own particular spin on a classic Perez Prado tune, in fact. While the Cuban influence was felt from West Africa, across Central Africa, and into East Africa in the 78rpm era – boleros, rhumbas, and cha-chas galore, especially in Congo – this is one of the few 78s in my personal collection where Africans actually cover a Cuban pop song.
Where were the Kiko-Kids from exactly? According to the scant information available, they were from Kenya, though there’s at least one source that indicates they were itinerant. The independent Tom Tom label, who released this week’s post, was based in Kampala, Uganda, and recorded music from across East Africa. The sleeve for this record, however, indicates that it was recorded in the Equator Club in Nairobi. (Boy, would I love to see some photos from that place in full swing.) Making things more complicated, on one of John Storm Roberts’ long out-of-print CD releases on his phenomenal Original Music label (Dada Kidawa Sister Kidawa) they are credited as Kiko Kids Jazz, from Tanzania. So, it’s quite possible that they should be best referenced as an “East African” band, but let’s, just for today, say they’re from Kenya.
As mentioned, Tom Tom was based in Kampala and their records were pressed there too, by the Opel Gramophone Record Factory, Ltd. “Opel” stood for Dr. Georg von Opel (1912-1971), the German industrialist. Opel was the grandson of the founder of the Opel automobile company, a member of the International Olympic Committee, and Vice-President of something called the International Leisure Association (I must remember to emulate that career track). According to reader Peter Steinringer, the Opel Gramophone company was founded in 1956 and closed in 1960, due to a Ugandan boycott of businesses owned by foreigners. Also according to Steinringer (in the comments), Opel produced 50,000 discs a month and had nearly 200 employees. The independent 78 rpm record label scene in East Africa was varied and broad, with dozens of small and large labels securing their places in the market. Most are also quite scarce, today.
Label: Tom Tom
Issue Number: TR 683
Matrix Number: T 5007