Category: Sierra Leone

African test pressing, Number 1

For the next few weeks I thought it would be enjoyable to post some of my one-sided, African test pressings. By their very nature and format, these recordings are mysterious. There is no artist or title information on them. There is no African 78rpm music discography to consult for further information, and I would not hold your breath for one either as such an effort, no matter how worthy, would take at least a decade of full-time, backbreaking (some might say “thankless”) transcribing, research, and collaboration. So, in order to attempt to identify the music and artists on these records we have only what we can see – such as the paper label and the stamped matrix numbers in the shellac – and most importantly, what we can hear.

So, what exactly is a 78rpm test pressing, anyway? It’s the same as a vinyl test pressing, except the process to make a 78rpm record is a bit different. There are many complicated steps in that process, but the Cliff’s Notes version goes something like this: the life of a 78rpm record on shellac began, before the use of magnetic tape, with the creation of a one-sided wax or lacquer master created by a cutting stylus. The master was then copper-plated and the wax removed, leaving a “metal master.” These metal masters were negative impressions. The metal master was then electroplated in order to create a “metal mother,” which was a positive impression of the master. These metal mothers were used to create “stampers.” A stamper was also a negative impression, but was coated with chromium, enabling it to be strong enough to be used in a pressing machine and create a score of duplicates. These impressions made from the stampers were the 78s that were sold to the public – several steps removed from the original recording, as you can see. Very often, the first few discs from a new stamper were made as test pressings. They tend to sound better than your average 78 because the stamper was brand new, and hadn’t been overused in the creation of duplicates (a source of many a noisy shellac record).

Collectors of early jazz, blues, pop, and country records have the benefit of well-researched discographies notating primary and alternate takes of recordings – in other words, if you found a test pressing of an American jazz record from the 1920s, chances are high that you could ID that performer, artist, and song title simply from the matrix number on the record, if you had nothing else to go by. You might get incredibly lucky and find that hypothetical test pressing was a hitherto unknown take of a well-known performance. It’s not quite the same with recordings made outside the US, alas – far from it, in fact. Most of the time we are right back where we started, using our eyes and ears.

I’m gonna get a little nerdy here (if I haven’t already). Starting with the most obvious clue, it’s clear this record was made by the Gramophone Company in England. The second clue is the number impressed in the shellac: 0AB-70007-1A. I know that the company used the prefix 0AB- for His Master’s Voice recordings made in West Africa, beginning in the 1930s. However, checking all of my West African HMVs, I don’t have anything that goes as high as 70007, even up through the late-1950s. What does that mean? Well, this record, if it ever was released publicly, was likely issued on a series that I don’t have any examples of. It also could have been a private pressing, or a disc pressed by the Gramophone Company for a different label, or it may never have been issued to the public at all.

The music? Well, it’s clear as day to me that it’s definitely West African, and probably from Nigeria. The tell-tale signs are the percussion and rhythm style, and the addition of the pennywhistle, which was used frequently by highlife bands in Nigeria, such as the Jolly Orchestra and other groups that I have examples by. If I had to guess, I would say that it’s Yoruba, and from the late 1940s – mid-1950s. But, I could very well be wrong on both counts. It’s possible that this piece can be identified, either by another intrepid collector or by a trip to the EMI Archive. It’s possible that it may remain a mystery. But the music is here, for now…

Update 1/27/11

Following the comments on this thread, we seem to have narrowed things down a little – judging simply by the music, it seems this could be the band Congo Abana Club, from Sierra Leone (recording in Nigeria, perhaps) and their soloist “Piccolo Pete.” Thanks to all who have participated in the discussion here and on the Excavated Shellac Facebook page!

Update 1/30/11

Enlightening things further: we now have confirmation that the language is NOT Yoruba (admittedly, things were heading in that direction). Further, in the comments section, the well-known African music scholar John Collins has graciously stepped in, illuminating us with more important detail.

Update 6/25/11

Reader Bill Dean-Myatt has offered that this disc was likely recorded in Freetown, Sierra Leone, between September 1954 and February 1955.

Update 2/16/12

Reader nikiibu has confirmed that the language is indeed Mende, from Sierra Leone.

African Test Pressing, Number 1

Technical Notes
Matrix Number: 0AB-70007-1A

For more information on the production of 78s, you can visit here.