Somali Music in the 78 rpm Era

Today, there are several appealing and prominent reissues available that feature groove and dance music from Somalia from the 70s and 80s, such as Sweet as Broken Dates (Ostinato) and Mogadisco – Dancing Mogadishu (Analog Africa). While attention to this musical history tends to focus exclusively on the 45 rpm era, I am betting few realize that music of the Somali people was issued on 78, as well. It’s a cloudy history that’s still revealing itself, but by piecing together rarefied details from assorted histories, we can begin to provide a more holistic scrutiny of what was made available, and when.

First it should be stated that the sovereign nation of Somalia as it is today did not exist until 1960. Secondly, the Somali people primarily live, and have lived for millennia, across numerous regions along the Horn of Africa, from eastern Ethiopia to northern Kenya. During the 78 rpm era those regions were messily divided up into colonies: Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland (which united to form today’s Somalia); French Somaliland, which existed from 1883-1967 before first becoming a French republic and eventually the nation of Djibouti; and British Kenya, which became an independent republic in 1964. Only Ethiopia had its independence during this period, apart from a much-resisted Italian occupation that lasted from late 1935 to 1941.

Of course the recording industry, at least during the first half of the 20th century, also was primarily controlled by international conglomerates headquartered in colonial powers, and thus the history as a whole is complicated. It’s no surprise that the first recordings in the Somali language were made explicitly for colonial posterity. These first recordings were made under the auspices of the Musée de la Parole et du Geste in Paris in 1931. That year, hundreds of musicians, dancers, and artisans from French colonies across the globe were brought to Paris for the Paris Colonial Exposition, a massive-scale, six-month event staged at the Bois de Vincennes, essentially meant to celebrate the colonies as a thriving, diverse success. While there, many of these performers made recordings for the Musée, and a substantial number of them were issued commercially, most notably the stunning discs by the famed Malagasy troupe featured on CD reissues by Yazoo and Fremeaux.

In total, the Musée recorded fourteen sides of songs and recitations by a group of soldiers from French Somaliland. All are vocal performances, unaccompanied. The Musée’s recordings were not readily available to the public at large – they were ethnographic recordings, essentially; made for science and posterity. However, six of these sides were grouped on three 78s and commercially issued by Pathé, one year later. At least one of those discs was also issued in Italy, several years after that. These discs were played live at events sponsored by the Musée as late as 1934.

Not all of these recordings were in the Somali language. In fact, what was recorded was a mixture of songs in Somali and the Afar language. The Afar, also known as Dankali, live in Djibouti, Eritrea, and parts of Ethiopia. Of the commercial Pathé releases, only one single side appears to be solely Somali, pictured above. Thankfully all of the sides recorded by the Musée are now digitized along with photos of the singers/soldiers themselves, on the BnF’s Gallica site.

The second center of Somali recording was Addis Ababa. Ethiopia saw three primary recording events during the 78 rpm era. The first was organized by the Germans, who in mid-1935 (or possibly earlier) made approximately 110 discs’ worth of largely Ethiopian music for the Parlophon label (and later, it seems, repressed by the Italian branch of Odeon). One single disc out of those 110 or so was Somali, and was performed unaccompanied by Hassan Galibe Effendi. Below is one side, titled “Oolka.”

Hassan Galibe Effendi – Oolka

The next group of sessions in Addis Ababa was organized by an Eritrean businessman named Saleh Ahmed Checchia. In 1938-1939, he arranged for 124 discs’ worth of music to be issued on the Italian Columbia imprint. This group of recordings was again predominantly Ethiopian, but also included some performances by Eritreans, and one single side of Somali music, a wedding song performed by Ibrahim Aio’.

The third and last of the Ethiopian sessions for 78 rpm release occurred in the mid- to late 1950s, for HMV. Over the course of approximately five years, beginning in 1955 to mark Emperor Haile Selassie’s “Silver Jubilee” (25th year of reign), HMV recorded 67 discs’ worth of music from the region. Within this group were 11 Somali tracks, all spread out on split-sides across multiple discs. Two were by an artist named Godudo Mohamed, another two by Maria Abdalla, but the remaining seven were by oud player and vocalist Ahmed Awad (or “Aoud”). Below is a buoyant track recorded late November 1957 by Awad from these sessions, titled “Dahier” or “Dahyèr.”

Ahmed Awad – Dahier

The third center of Somali recording during the 78 rpm era was the Arabian Peninsula. As with the Ethiopian sessions, these Somali appearances on disc were only very occasional. This connection, however, makes sense. The trade routes between the Somali coast and the the region go back thousands of years, for one, and Somalis have long lived on the Peninsula, particularly in Yemen. In addition, the Arabian Peninsula was host to a flourishing, local 78 rpm label scene, decades before the UAE saw the glint of a skyscraper. Major labels likely had a difficult time establishing a solid market in the area, especially in the run-up to World War II, when the Depression took hold globally, trade routes were eventually interrupted and recording halted. They tried, though. Labels like HMV and Baidaphon who were active in Baghdad began with baby steps recording music from the region in the late 20s and early 30s, but by the early 1950s, they were competing with dozens of independent labels operating out of Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, or Mumbai.

One major label that recorded artists from the Arabian Peninsula more widely was Odeon. Between 1935 and 1938 they recorded over 100 discs in Aden, and had at least two circulating catalogs advertising their content in both ’37 and ’38. In that batch of recordings was at least one disc by Somali artist Muhammad Ali Hajji al-Somali.

After World War II, independent label owners and performers from the Persian Gulf region and the Arabian Peninsula sometimes turned to Mumbai for both recording and pressing discs. This could be, according to scholar Ahmad Al-Salhi, due to the fact that there was a Gulf community in Mumbai, and there was an independent pressing plant there (owned by The National Gramophone Company, whose primary label was Young India) that would clearly produce short runs of 78s for small entrepreneurs, outside of the grip of the EMI mega-conglomerate and their pressing plants. One of these small labels was Saleh Phone, who issued two known Somali 78s by Abdullah Gharshi and Edapai Medban Uoronehi. Additionally, there may have been a connection between Saleh Phone and Salimphone, the label owned by Omani singer and performer Salem Rashed al-Suri. Two additional Somali 78s appeared on al-Suri’s label Salimphone, performed by Mahmud Ismail Hadidi and Anisa Amma Muhammad. Both of these Salimphone discs have “Salehphone” written on their labels. Were they originally issued on Saleh Phone and recorded in Mumbai? This was not a completely uncommon practice. Some discs from the Gulf were re-pressed by other labels that were usurped by other labels, etc.

Disc scans of Somali releases courtesy of Ahmad Al-Salhi.

Aden Crown was a label that was founded ca. 1937 probably right after Odeon had ceased recording in Aden. They were active in the run-up to World War II, and then immediately after the War. Founded by Ali bin Abdullah al-Saffi and his brothers, Aden Crown issued approximately 190 78s which were pressed by Decca in London. Out of those, at least four were in the Somali language. The known performers were Muhammad Hasan al-Barbarawi, Ahmed Harush, Muhammad Kahin Ishaq, and the performer featured on the disc at the top of this post, Hussein Warsima al-Gharami. Likely recorded just after World War II, the music is listed as saut Somali, indicating the popular music of the Gulf, saut, which features oud, violin, and mirwas drum.

Hussein Warsima al-Gharami – Gharami Somali, Pts 1-2

Like with many aspects of the early recording industry, this is still an ongoing process of unfolding and will doubtlessly change, but one that will hopefully add to the global history of the medium.

Many thanks to Ahmad Al-Salhi and Francis Falceto for a wealth of information and correspondence. Also a big thanks to Gabriel Lavin and Thomas Henry.

Discs featured
Parlophon B 90940-II (mx 146221)
HMV JOE-46 (mx 0AE 166)
Aden Crown 1190-A (mx RAM 478)


Abiken Khasenov – Kui “Sarzhailau”

“On the dombra, not fingers must play but the soul” – Z. Karmenov

Instrumental folk music in Kazakhstan is its own particular art form, and its compositions are known as kuis (also kyuis, or küjis). Kuis can date as early as the 8th century CE, and commonly they were a vehicle to express emotion as well as hidden references to cultural traditions among the people of the Great Steppe. From what I understand, the earliest kui songs were meant to be played on the kobyz, the bowed string instrument of Kazakhstan – but later, the long-necked, two-string dombra became the primary instrument for performing those compositions (as well as the primary channel for relating epic Kazakh vocal music).

Some kuis do contain a vocal element, in fact, despite it being considered an instrumental genre. There are several styles of kui: tekpe (tökpe) which is associated with the west of Kazakhstan and has what is called a “sweeping” up and down playing of the dombra, producing a drone-like effect; shertpe, which is generally associated with eastern Kazakhstan and means “plucking and flicking,” and varies between softer playing and a major attack; zheldirme, a kui style that tends to be lyrically didactic; tolgau, with more philosophical content; and ceremonial kuis for weddings and events. One of the greatest composers of shertpe kuis was Tättimbet Qazangap-uly, and he composed the kui piece here, titled “Sarzhailau,” or “The Golden Steppe.” You can hear the distinct qualities of the shertpe style – the delicate melody and sudden, percussive hammering.

Tättimbet was from the Argyn tribe, born in 1815, and, as legend has it, composed his legendary 62 kuis in the yurt of a grieving man, Küshkibai, who had lost his son, and who resolved to end his life by starving himself to death. Tättimbet was summoned to play for Küshkibai and while the music continued, he overcame his grief. After coming to and confronting the sight of such a youthful, dombra-playing kuishi, the wealthy Küshkibai asked how such a young man could carry such a worldly, enlightened sense of grief in his kuis. Tättimbet answered, “Your grief is the grief of one person, while I bear in myself the grief of all people.”

Tättimbet died in 1862. Like all kuis, his works are passed down through oral tradition and memorized. In the Soviet era, Kazakh music fared quite well, despite the records’ scarcity today. Kazakh music on disc was certainly dwarfed by music from Russia proper, with its thousands of popular, classical, and nationalist recordings. However, compared to other musics by non-Russian cultures in the USSR, the availability of Kazakh music was overwhelmed only by the number of Uzbek discs available. Pekka Gronow has documented that in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union was still pressing 78s, well over 400 Uzbek discs were readily available. For Kazakh records, that number was nearly 300. This was a considerable figure, despite the fact that many of these 78s were likely nationalistic. It’s also a considerable figure when you compare that number to the relatively small number of available Azeri discs, 95 in total, when the Azeri and Kazakh populations were not wildly far apart at the time.

Abiken Khasenov was without question one of the primary interpreters of shertpe kuis in the 20th century. Born in 1897 in the central-east Kazakhstan district of Shet, he learned dombra from his uncle, and eventually found a home at the Kazakhstan State Drama Theater, where he taught from 1934 onward. This disc was recorded in 1957, and issued on a special imprint of the Soviet state-run label (pressed in Tashkent, but featuring an illustration of the Abay Opera House in Almaty) marking the 40th anniversary of Kazakhstan since the Russian Revolution. Khasenov died just a few years later, in 1962.

Abiken Khasenov – Kui “Sarzhailau”

Label: Tashkentski Zavod
Issue Number: n/a
Matrix Number: 28536

Quote from:
Kendirbaeva, Gundir. “The Specific Nature and Peculiarities of the Manifestation of Folklorism in Kazakhstan.” Central Asiatic Journal 37-3/4 (1993): 169-187.

Additional information from:
Levin, Theodore, Saida Daukeyeva, and Elmira Köchümkulova, eds. The Music of Central Asia. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016.

Fred Gaisberg in Kazan, 1901

In June of 1901, recording engineer Fred Gaisberg was in Russia for the Gramophone Company. This was his third visit to Saint Petersburg. He’d already been to the grand city in 1900, and for a second trip in 1901 that was smack in the middle of a frozen Russian winter, which he was eager to experience. This time, however, it was during Saint Petersburg’s famed white nights, the crepuscular glow that lasts all night and when true darkness doesn’t exist. He marveled at the night life, the stylish women and fashion, the carriages on the city streets. After a quick trip to Moscow, a thought occurred to him: we have some free time, why don’t we move farther east…to Tatarstan?

Born in 1873 in Washington DC, Gaisberg was without question one of the first trailblazers that made the industry a global one. He began working for the Columbia Phonograph Company which was producing cylinder recordings, and he accompanied artists on piano (as “Professor Gaisberg”) as early as 1889. Soon after, he began learning the technical side of the business and was working for Emile Berliner’s lab, also in DC. Berliner was in the process of revolutionizing sound recording in two important ways: he developed recording on a flat disc, and he developed disc recording where the cutting stylus vibrated laterally in the groove (and not vertically, cutting depth-wise into the groove, which could be inherently uneven). With Berliner, Gaisberg hunted for talent, played as an accompanist, continually made recording experiments with his employer and mentor, and even cleaned the chemical equipment.

Among fits and starts, financial troubles and successes, Gaisberg had by the late 1890s opened two recording studios for Berliner, in New York and Philadelphia, and the business was growing. With Pathé expanding in France, and Columbia making noise about establishing business overseas, Berliner began making moves to create a European office. An agent was hired in London, investors were gathered – one of whom, Trevor Williams, had the prescience to demand that local recording artists had to be part of the agreement, as, presumably, no one would buy American imports of whistling records forever. In 1898, Gaisberg, one of the few existing recording and repertoire experts, a champion of the capabilities of the phonograph at the time, was sent to London to fundamentally establish what would become the Gramophone Company.

While Gaisberg rehearsed, recorded, and located British artists of all stripes, Berliner’s brother built a record pressing plant in their home city of Hanover, Germany as a way of avoiding England’s unions. By May of 1899, Gaisberg was embarking on his first continental recording trip, with boxes of “portable” equipment weighing 118 kgs / 260 lbs each. His stops were Leipzig, Budapest, Vienna, Milan, Paris, and Madrid. Of course, Gaisberg had his sights on recording the best operatic and classical talent – however, funds for this fledgling industry were still small by comparison, and there was a tentative distrust of this new technology by many performers. He couldn’t yet afford or persuade the big timers just yet. This six-city trip, however, remains important in that it set the Gramophone Company in an outward, rather than inward direction. The solution for the company was global talent, and as the company expanded these multi-stop recording trips became longer and longer, with more local contacts being brought onboard, and more matrices being recorded with each visit. All of their major competitors, namely Pathé, the Lindstrom companies, and the British Columbia company, copied this method.

Gaisberg was first sent to Saint Petersburg in 1900. His tastes, after Milan, had grown to the point where anyone other than the most exalted classical performers were described in terms like: “a poor, conceited lot” in the case of the Irish, or “very poor artists” in the case of the Scotch (where early bagpipe performers were recorded). In a rigid sense, this attitude helped him eventually secure world class stars such as Caruso and Chaliapin. In the meantime, his local agents didn’t escape this invective, either. “The businessmen of Petersburg are mostly Jews, and a hard lot to deal with – shrewd, crafty, and unreliable,” he wrote in his diary during his first visit. “Always fingering for bribes – everything bribery.” Gaisberg had all the intolerant prejudices and imperious trappings of a erudite white man of his day, and they often come through in his diary, especially as he travels further east into what was no doubt a wildly different world for him. Still, he continued to expand the business into areas that today seem almost surprising, eventually cutting discs in Beirut, Burma, Japan, Turkey, Cairo, just to name a few. He began to introduce local folk music in the Gramophone Company’s repertoire – evidence enough that despite his outward intolerance he was likely far more progressive than most, during his time.

Which brings us back to Moscow in June of 1901. Gaisberg contacted a man named Theodore Birnbaum in Berlin to request a recording trip to Kazan, about 700 km to the east. Birnbaum, an Englishman, was the managing director of Deutsche Grammophon AG, and was in charge of the Gramophone Company’s engineers as soon as they disembarked in mainland Europe, coordinating their journeys and also finding artists to record. Birnbaum gave the go-ahead, and Gaisberg and one of his Saint Petersburg agents, a man known only as Lebel (or “Labelle”), left Moscow for Kazan, via Nizhny Novgorod.

Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, which is comprised predominantly of ethnic Tatars, who are Sunni Muslim. These two days spent recording in Kazan, which yielded a mere 38 seven-inch, single-sided discs, were probably the first recordings of a Muslim minority (perhaps even any ethnic minority) in Russia. However, from the moment they hopped off their steamer at 8 AM on the 24th, it was clear that Gaisberg was not prepared to deal with so drastically different a culture. Pekka Gronow has pointed to this visit to Kazan as among several in early recorded sound history where European recording engineers were bewildered and unqualified, proving that they needed more than just upper-crust European middlemen to develop a market, they needed locals who were familiar with the music, language, and culture.

After getting settled in their hotel, Gaisberg and Lebel met with another local agent whom Gaisberg refers to as “Old Malacapff” who left them to try to scare up local performers. Malacapff returned with a man named Izmail Abdrashitov, whom Gaisberg pitilessly described as “a petrified, yellow-skinned accordeon player with a musty smell to him. We asked him would he stop if we paid him 5 R. [rubles] and bring in someone who could sing. He agreed.” Abdrashitov would be one of the few artists credited on this quick trip, with 18 discs to his name.

He continued: “Next came two vile-smelling creatures with little squeezed up eyes, broad fat faces. Their love for hair made them tack on their heads a variety of greasy mildewed strands of false hair until it reached their knees. Their singing would bring tears to your eyes. The song would be a rhythm of about 8 bars, repeated over and over again, to the accompaniment of 5th in the bass (accordeon) organ-point fashion. We asked the accordeon player if that was the best he could do, and he said it was. He said Tartars have no artists or places of amusements, and he had to recruit these people from disreputable resorts. After they left, a priest came in and recited verses from the Coran (or better yet, sang).”

The “vile-smelling creatures” were left uncredited on their single issued disc, and it is still unclear whom the priest may have been (though it looks like he was accompanied on some discs by Abdrashitov on accordion).

Gaisberg loved to gallivant around Europe, going to the theater, dining with performers, playing cards, and entertaining a host of ladies (so many pass through his diaries, it’s difficult to keep track), but Kazan likely gave him something he’d never experienced: culture shock.

“The Russian part especially contains handsome buildings and churches. Streets are orderly, and there are plenty of parks. But the Tartar section is beyond doubt the dirtiest, filthiest, vile-smelling place I have ever come across. All the Tartars have that peculiar Oriental smell about them that seems to asphyxiate you. I always felt faint when near them. They are quite Oriental in appearance. Small eyes; expressionless immobile features. The women of the better clans are never seen. Strict seclusion is enforced, and should they go out it is always closely veiled. The custom is a laudable one if all women were as ugly as the commoner class we saw. […] We did however make the acquaintance of some beautiful Russian girls. One was a pure type of Russian blonde, and the other of gypsy-type, dark. It cost me about $25 for their society.”

On the morning of June 25th, the group were still hunting for talent. “Our first people were some Tatar students with their master. They sang us some songs. Then two more women. Later another man. The different songs these people sang sounded every one like the other.”

None of these performers were credited, except for “another man,” who was accordionist and singer named Yarulla Valiulin. It seems they made one more attempt to find talent that evening. After dinner, Abdrashitov took the group to a Tatar bar, which Gaisberg described this way:

“Before charging the Russians with being dirty, one must get his standard of filth fixed by visiting this joint. They crowd about 8 men and 8 women in an unventilated box of a room – in the centre a table with a kerosene lamp. The harmonica would start up one of the merry monotone dirges, then the crowd would join in and continue for half an hour with the most solemn expressions on their stony faces. Well we saw all we could and got out as quick as possible. I wanted to take a photo of two girls but they refused saying, “God would be displeased”. A rouble induced them to forget Allah. These girls instinctively cover their faces when a man looks at them. We tried to get them to take off the mantle in singing in the machine, but without it they were as embarrassed as young school girls.”

They left the next morning.

This uncredited disc is likely one of the few in existence from the Kazan sessions. If Gaisberg’s diary can be compared with the original ledgers, this anonymous, unaccompanied trio are probably the “Tatar students with their master.” The title is “Taravikh.” The word literally means “gather,” but I believe this is an excerpt of what is known as the “taravikh-namaz,” a prayer for Tatar Muslims meant to be performed collectively, along with the night prayer, during Ramadan. I find it unlikely that anyone other than the performers had any inclination of the spiritual nature of what was being sung. Still, it’s far better we have it, than not.

Trio – Taravikh

Label: “Berliner’s Gramophone”
Issue Number: 24023
Matrix Number: 2951 (2951a in ledgers)

Much gleaned from Hugh Strotbaum’s Recording Pioneers, and Pekka Gronow’s work.

Kipene Su’a and his Royal Samoans – Ua Ou Fiafia Tele

Early commercial recordings of traditional music from the Samoan Islands were not common. There were field recordings made onsite as early as 1910 (by Roland Burrage Dixon), and of Samoans in the United States as early as 1893, but commercial discs were a different story. Of course, there were mainstream popular musicians who utilized “Samoa” or “Samoan” in their song titles, such as Andy Iona’s “Samoan Love Song.” There were also Hawaiian music recordings made by Samoan recording artists, probably the most notable being the outstanding discs by Tau Moe (1908-2004), who was originally from what is now known as the territory of American Samoa, and whose group was sometimes credited on disc as the “Samoan Troupe” or “Samoan Dancers.” Probably to Western consumers of hot Hawaiian steel guitar music, “Samoan” added an additional exotic and unfamiliar flourish – yet at the same time, there were recordings that could be construed as “Samoan” in circulation.

The artist featured here, whose full name was Kipeni Su’apa’ia, has more than a little in common with Tau Moe. Su’apa’ia was born in 1889 either in a small coastal village on Savai’i island known as Sale’aula, or in a village on the island of Upolu (sources differ), both of which are in the nation of Samoa, or Western Samoa. And, like Tau Moe, he traveled well over 2,500 miles to Hawaii in the early part of the 20th century. It’s unclear precisely what brought them to Hawaii. It could have been work, or the German or New Zealand occupations of Samoa, but it could have been something else. The Su’apa’ia family story goes that in 1892, Kipeni’s father Saimasina and mother Tui were presiding over their dying son Salu (one of Kipeni’s many siblings), with little to nothing that could be done to cure him. Two Mormon missionaries attempted to treat the boy, stating that only the power of God could cure his illness. The boy recovered, and Saimasina and his family became firmly dedicated Mormons. In the case of Kipeni, it’s entirely possible that he moved to Hawaii to help work for the Mormon community at Laie, on Oahu, which had been active since 1865 and was in the process of building a new mission. While in Laie, young Kipeni was the first to help translate the Mormon hymnal into Samoan, which was published in 1918. One year later, Tau Moe, also a Mormon, was living in Laie as well.

For the next forty years or so, Kipeni Su’apa’ia, or “Kipeni Su’a” as he was sometimes known, would have a number of occupations. It appears he was a school principal, as well as the leader of the local band in Laie. He was considered a “Chief” and a member of the local Chief Council. He also formed a group, sometimes known as the “Royal Samoans, or the “Samoan Warriors,” or the “Samoan Serenaders,” that performed around Hawaii, playing traditional, secular songs, sometimes in the form of a “pageant” or play that focused on daily life in Polynesia. On April 5th, 1935, he and his group, for this session named the “Royal Samoans,” recorded ten sides for Victor records in Honolulu. Only two songs – one 78 – ended up being issued. It’s unknown why the remaining songs were rejected. Judging by its paucity, the existing 78 was not a big seller, but it is a lovely record.

The track is credited as a “Warrior’s Welcome Song,” and the first line – “ua ou fiafia tele” – roughly translates to “I am very happy.” It does not appear that a translation of this particular song exists, but I hope one is eventually made available. There is no further information on the other members of Su’a’s group, alas. Kipeni Su’apa’ia eventually moved to Southern California, settling outside of Los Angeles. He did publish a book – Samoa: The Polynesian Paradise – that was published in 1962 (“the first book about Samoa written by a Samoan”). He passed away in 1977 in Van Nuys.

Kipene Su’a and his Royal Samoans – Ua Ou Fiafia Tele

Label: Victor
Issue Number: 25289
Matrix Number: BVE-89092

Special thanks to Les Cook (Grass Skirt Records).


Manyoso and Hassani Kachre – Banana

After eight years, why not return to Malawi for an example of the driving banjo and guitar music that was flourishing in the country after World War II.

During what was essentially the entire 78 rpm era, Malawi had not yet achieved independence – that would happen in 1964 – and the region was a British colony known as the Nyasaland Protectorate. Something happened after the War, where European banjos were suddenly being played by local troubadours, usually with a second guitar player. The theory is that these banjos were brought back by local soldiers who were fighting for the British in the East African campaign, many as members of the King’s African Rifles colonial regiment. Of all countries in southern and eastern Africa, the Western-style banjo seemed to take off in Malawi above anywhere else.

In my prior write-up on the Paseli Brothers, I’d found one source that listed the brothers as the very first Malawians to commercially record local music. This turned out to be incorrect. Not only was there a disc on Gallotone by a guitarist known as the “Nyasaland Singer” that predated the Paselis work by some time, but there were two tracks in the local Malawian Yao language recorded in Zanzibar in 1930 for Columbia, and performed by a member of the local police. It’s difficult to gauge the relative importance of those 1930 recordings, as no copies have surfaced that I know of.

Once Hugh Tracey had recorded Black Paseli and the Paseli Brothers for Gallotone, the floodgates opened. The local branches of HMV, Columbia, and Johannesburg’s Troubadour Records began recording Malawian popular music at a faster clip, and many of these examples featured banjo and guitar duets. These were usually influenced by a South African style of repetitive vamping that could go on forever, but with some expert picking along the way.

East Africa and southern Africa were rife with local independent 78 rpm labels. Malawi, however, was not, for some reason. This disc is an example from an obscure local label from the little town of Limbe, situated near the industrial and business-center known as Blantyre, in southern Malawi. I could find no trace of the artists (though the proper spelling of their surname should be “Kachere”). There is virtually nothing I could find about the Famous label other than that they were distributed by the Nyasaland Record Co, Ltd, based in Limbe, and pressed at least 60 discs, which look to have been pressed by Decca in England. Judging by the appearance of the crescent on the label, Famous might have been owned and run by Muslims. Many South Asians were in the region and ran small 78 labels, so that’s also a possibility.

A peculiar bit of provenance: this copy and another rare disc on Famous were once the property of a French Catholic missionary priest named Bernard Burel. Burel was born in 1924 and became a member of the Company of Mary, or the Montfort Missionaries. He was active in Madagascar from 1951 to 1960, after which he returned to the offices of the Company in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, acting as “Procure de Missions.” Why he owned this and other African secular 78s is unknown, but he was compelled to keep them, stamped with his name, for over 50 years.

Manyoso and Hassani Kachre – Banana

Label: Famous
Issue Number: FR 1159
Matrix Number: FR 1159 B

Celestino Fogu – Ballo Sardo Tradizionale

In the years since I last posted a Sardinian disc, I’ve been lucky to acquire quite a few 78s featuring the masterful and sometimes brash cantu e chiterra performers such as Gavino de Lunas and Giovanni Cuccuru, and the triple-pipe (llauneddas) master Efisio Melis. But, there are of course other folk music forms in Sardinia, so here’s a scarce disc featuring an example of traditional dance music on the local diatonic accordion, or fisarmonica. I first heard something similar on Paul Vernon’s In Dialetto Sardo CD performed by singer Gavino de Lunas and Pietro Porcu on the fisarmonica. I somehow managed to find a new copy of that record, but never anything else resembling it – until recently.

Ballo means “dance” in Italian, and in Sardinian it’s more properly spelled ballu. Evidence of Sardinian dance goes back to 3,200 BCE. There are several types of Sardinian folk dances, although the title of this track is generic enough that I’m not sure which it refers to (if any). These are dances performed, often in local costume, at festivals. Some have intricate footwork and are circle dances that move clockwise (ballu tundu, for instance – also known as ballu sardu) with dancers holding hands.

Celestino Fogu was born in 1882 in the small village of Osilo, located in the northwest of Sardinia near the larger town of Sassari. Little is known about his life except that he was short in stature, and a bricklayer by trade on top of being an itinerant musician. After the First World War, Fogu was apparently a sought-after local performer, as he was expert in animating the dance with satirical lyrics, rustic double entendres, and comical faces. It appears that Fogu did not appear on disc much before he died in 1959, although he did accompany performers in the early 1930s on the Excelsius, Fonotecnica, and Fonola labels, and recorded solo for Odeon in 1938. This “traditional Sardinian dance” is from those 1938 sessions. It’s seen a few plays, but hey.

Unlike island neighbor Corsica, which saw almost no traditional folk music recorded during the 78 rpm era, Sardinia saw the Gramophone Company’s Italian branch (La Voce del Padrone), Columbia, Odeon, and local labels like Fonotecnica/Fonola of Milan, pressing discs of Sardinian folk music. The earliest Sardinian performances on commercial 78s were made in the early 1920s by ethnomusicologist Gavino Gabriel (1881-1980), himself from Sassari province – and they’re quite good. By the late 1920s, however, local artists were regularly traveling to Milan to record, and their discs were kept in print long after World War II.

Celestino Fogu – Ballo Sardo Tradizionale

Label: Odeon
Issue Number: GO 19305
Matrix Number: Mo 7601

Pavel Toydemar – Oy, Payramen; Ikten Koktyt; Oy, Luy Modesh

Mari El is a Republic of Russia located about 400 km east of Moscow, just north of the city of Kazan and Russian Tatarstan. The northern bank of the Volga cuts through Mari El’s southwest, then runs along its southern border. About half of the Republic is Russian, but the other half is made up of Mari people, an ethnic minority that has been present in the region for possibly as far back as the 5th century. The Mari are considered a “Finno-Ugric” culture…meaning, essentially, that they speak a language that is from the same family as Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and about 35 other languages.

The Soviet recording monolith is fascinating because it’s so complicated, musically and politically. Prior to World War I and the Russian Revolution, all the major European conglomerates like The Gramophone Company, Pathé, and the German labels like Homocord and Favorite, were quite active in Russia. So were many smaller, independent labels like Syrena and Apollo based in Warsaw, Extraphone based in Kiev, and RAOG, the Russian Stockholders Company of Grammophone. During this period, while popular and classical music were the norm, thousands of recordings from the Caucasus and Central Asia were made, as well as ethnic minority music of Russia found closer to Europe. Train travel made cities accessible to recording engineers during these early years, as well as for recording artists not based within those cities. Recordings were made as far east as Tashkent in Uzbekistan.

After both the War and the Revolution, commercial recording ground to a near complete halt. The industry as a whole was socialized and became a state-run monopoly. Some discs from the pre-Revolutionary years were re-pressed during the early 1920s but not many, it seems. By the mid-20s, two imprints, MuzPred and then MuzTrust, were pressing discs once again, but it was nothing compared to the vibrant scene in, say, 1912. In the early 30s, however, Stalin began promoting “national music cultures” within the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (never mind that the borders of some “ethnic” ASSRs were created artificially). In 1934, he suggested to composers and musicians that overt nationalism was, in fact, bourgeois. Over time, all kinds of music was being recorded in dozens of local languages. Some was operatic propaganda, some was classical music in local languages by composers from unions, but some recordings captured as part of this grand plan were excellent examples of local folk music.

The Soviet recording industry had multiple factories, and each plant had its own label for most of its existence: Aprelevski Zavod (for the Aprelevka plant, near Moscow), Noginski Zavod (in Noginsk – in operation until WWII), Tashkentski Zavod (in Uzbekistan, created from salvaged technology from the Noginsk plant during WWII), the Riga plant, and the Leningrad Plant. Eventually it all became known as Melodiya in 1964. By 1960, when they were still pressing 78s, annual sales were approximately 95 million, and they had discs in over 40 languages, from Yakut to Uyghur, from Avar (Dagestan) to Bashkir (Bashkortostan), to Abazin in the Caucasus, from Komi to Chechen to Udmurt.

In 1959, there were at least 69 78rpm discs in the Mari language available. This was one of them, recorded in 1938. It’s amazing their paucity, today.

Pavel Stepanovich Toydemar was born in 1899 in the rural village of Verkhniy Kozhlayer. Considered the first “professional” modern-day Mari musician, Toydemar studied music and Mari theater in Moscow, later becoming an employee at Moscow’s Museum of Ethnology. While studying, he met Mari composer Ivan Klyuchnikov-Palantai, who urged him to become an expert in Mari folk instruments and to document Mari traditional music. Toydemar played the svirel (flute) and the shuvyr (bagpipe), but his primary instrument became the kusle (also karsh). The kusle is a zither that is played on the lap, and has a similar structure and sound to that of the Finnish kantele – delicate, soft, and artful.

Toydemar plays three tunes here in a medley, the last being a classic Mari song that translates to “The Marten Playing.” A vocal version was performed in Road to Life (1931), the Soviet Union’s first sound film. Toydemar died in 1958, while touring.

Pavel Toydemar – Oy, Payramen; Ikten Koktyt; Oy, Luy Modesh

Label: Aprelevsky Zavod
Issue Number: 6980
Matrix Number: 6980/4 1-0673

(Pavel Toydemar – image from

Abubakar – Shah Na Mbere, Pts 1-2


This, it seems, is the very first commercial recording from the Comoro archipelago in the Indian Ocean; or, at least the first in a Comorian language. It has never been reissued or discussed, as far as I know.

In earlier entries, I’ve mentioned the race to record musicians in East Africa by European record companies that began in 1928 and was halted after 1930. Of course, records and gramophone players had already been present in the region likely for two decades or so, but these early sessions marked the first attempts to record “popular” music of the region and to solidify an East African market. The Gramophone Company recorded three sessions that featured Zanzibari musicians (in 1928, 1929, and 1930, respectively), most notably Siti binti Saad and her group. In all three sessions, the musicians were sent to Mumbai to record. In 1930, Odeon recorded on site in Mombasa and then a little in Kampala, Uganda. That same year, Pathé sent East African musicians by boat to Marseille and then on to Paris to record. And from February to April of 1930, Columbia had a team recording in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam. This record is from those Columbia sessions in Zanzibar – issued on their “Tanganyika & Zanzibar” series, which had one of the most beautiful early label designs in history.

Of all the musical forms in the region, the remarkable taarab, sung in Swahili and played largely in coastal areas, was by far the prevailing style preferred by the record companies. They recorded it almost exclusively in Zanzibar and Mombasa, in part due to the runaway success of the 28 records from Siti binti Saad’s first session, which was entirely taarab music. Deeply influenced by the music of Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and South Asia, taarab has its origins in Zanzibar in the late 19th century. The cloudy  story is that the sultan, Barghash bin Said, invited a musical ensemble from Egypt to play and teach his musicians. From there, this secular style of music with poetic lyrics spread to the mainland, even as far as Uganda and Burundi. It also took root in Comoros, and was played in the Comorian community in Unguja (Zanzibar island).

The Comoros, located some 480 miles south-southeast of Zanzibar off the coast of northern Mozambique, were also an important trading spot for centuries between coastal Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. The French officially colonized the islands in the mid-19th century, and as with with Réunion, they created a plantation-based economy. When this recording was made in 1930, the Comoros were part of the colony of Madagascar; however, culturally there had always been a deep connection to the Swahili coast.

Comoros has its own brand of taarab, known as twarab. According to scholar Werner Graebner, taarab was introduced from Zanzibar to the main island of Ngazidja (also known as Grand Comore) at some point prior to 1912/1913, and perhaps as early as 1908, when the first musical association was established on the island. The center of musical activity was the main port of Moroni. By the late 1920s, there were several twarab groups on the island. But, they were never recorded.

When Columbia Records of England came to Zanzibar in 1930, they, like the others, recorded the stripped-down style of taarab that was popular at the time, featuring mainly oud (or sometimes the gambus), violin, percussion, and vocals. The Zanzibari artists were by then well-known and credited by their full names: Budda bin Mwendo, Subeit bin Ambar, Malim Shaban, Abeid bin Mohamed. But, there were two discs recorded by a mysterious artist known only as “Abubakar.” His discs were listed as being in the “Kingazija” language, now known more commonly as Ngazidja, the language of the Comorian island of the same name. It’s not known if he was from Comoros or from the Comorian community in Zanzibar, or if he was in fact a Zanzibari who spoke the dialect. The fact that he was credited only by a single name, without “Sheikh” or “Effendi” as some of the other musicians were, may indicate that he was not a member of the elite class of Zanzibari musicians.

I’ve included both sides of this piece. It sounds like he is accompanied by an oud (though perhaps a gambus as it’s credited as “native instrument” instead of “ud” or “oud”), along with violin and percussion.

Abubakar – Shah Na Mbere, Pts. 1-2

Label: Columbia
Issue Number: WE 52
Matrix Number: 62175/6

Much info gleaned from Janet Topp Fargion’s and Werner Graebner’s writing.

Association Folklorique de la Côte Est – Tia Ambady


Hello, hello – it’s been a while. The collecting hasn’t stopped and has continued apace, but I’ve been concentrating on some upcoming releases which I hope can see the light of day soon. That, coupled with a reticence to repeat myself endlessly across numerous posts, created a little delay. But, we are back. This one is still hot from the hands of the postal service. Maybe it’s still fresh to me. It’s back to the music of Madagascar after many years, for a style that barely made it to disc during the 78rpm era: accordion-based dance music.

The first substantial, commercial recordings of Malagasy music were made by the French divisions of the Columbia and Odeon labels, on site, in 1930. The Columbia session resulted in over 160 records. Primarily, Columbia featured groups accompanied by piano or harmonium, often examples of Malagasy operetta known as kalon’ny fahiny. There were also some performances with the classic valiha tube zither, mandolin, guitar, and sodina, the local flute. These records weren’t just for locals in Madagascar – they were also for the French who might be interested in “exotic” music of the colonies. “[In Madagascar] reigns a delightful atmosphere of musical fragrances, songs with languid and fresh melodies; all a sensuous and endearing poetry,” claimed the Columbia catalog that advertised those discs, which also deliberately noted how essential it is to the listening experience that the Malagasy music they recorded was substantially influenced by its connection to Europe. It could be that this was the reason for the inclusion of all the piano/harmonium music – however, kalon’ny fahiny music was extremely popular in Madagascar at that time. While many examples had an “uptown” operatic feel to it, much of it is inescapably in keeping with the melodies of Malagasy folk music, and the incredible nasal, vibrating soprano vocals.

It’s unclear if Odeon was recording at the same time, immediately before, or immediately after Columbia. They, too, issued a generous 125 records, at least. And again, their session yielded a large amount of music by elite theatrical troupes accompanied by piano (though violin, guitar, mandolin, and accordion performers also were recorded), their bandleaders finely coiffed and dressed in suits in their catalog. Odeon’s exclusive representative on the island was a massive distribution company founded in Réunion at the turn of the 20th century, Cie Marseillaise de Madagascar, but again, these discs were also distributed in France to intrigued locals. However, as historian Paul Vernon has pointed out, the initial pressing for these discs in this nascent market was scant: about 50-100 copies each. While they appear to have been occasionally re-pressed, virtually all of them are rare.

Today, if anyone at all is familiar with early Malagasy music, it’s due to an incredible selection of recordings made in 1931 in Paris, during the massive, years-in-the-making Paris Colonial Exposition, where Malagasy musicians (among many others) traveled to perform, staying for months. Most all of these discs have been compiled on influential and highly recommended CDs, namely The Music of Madagascar on Yazoo, and Madagascar: Musiques de la côte et des hauts plateaux on Fremeaux. They prominently featured stunning choirs accompanied by the valiha, whereas most all the several hundred Odeons and Columbias that had been released just prior, did not. The performances with valiha (pronounced “valee”), the tube zither that, when played, sounds like rain on a quiet lake, could have been out of fashion by 1931, perhaps increasing their importance in hindsight. During the Exposition, the French office of HMV issued twelve records’ worth of songs by the visiting musicians; Polydor also issued twelve discs, and Pathé issued seven. Some of the same tracks appear to have been recorded by both companies. Some of the Pathé/Polydor discs were re-pressed in limited amounts by the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, and some of the Polydor tracks were re-pressed after World War II, after the Philips label had the rights to the French Polydor/Polyphon material.

As beautiful as these recordings are, one style that was not featured was accordion-driven music for dance, a style that crops up regularly on more contemporary ethnographic LPs and CDs from Madagascar. A few 78s managed to squeak out, however. I reissued a side from the obscure Colombe label on Opika Pende, one of a cluster of at least three discs of field recordings featuring accordion shunted between piano and operatic releases, issued in the early 50s. And this piece, from the Discomad label, ca. 1959-60.

While the performer’s name might make this look like an ethnographic recording, it’s not – the name of band/group performing here is actually “Association Folklorique de la Côte Est,” and its musical directors were François Leboto and Patrice Petera. It’s a song of the Betsimisaraka, the second largest ethnic group in Madagascar who are generally concentrated along the east coast. “Betsimisaraka” has been translated to “The Many Who Will Not Be Sundered,” “The Many Inseparables,” and perhaps the most contemporary-sounding, “Those Who Are Many and United,” the name stemming from the early 18th century when several local clans were joined. I’m not sure if this is basesa music of the Betsimisaraka, which is a kind of ceremonial dance music with accordion that is played during tromba. Tromba is a loose term for rituals having to do with spirit possession, but that can feature dancing, music, and celebrating. Either way, it’s rare to find performances this alive, with shouts and hollers, and not have them be ethnographic and instead commercial releases. This and the Colombe discs are the only 78s I know that feature this style of music.

The label Discomad was founded in Antananarivo ca. 1959-60 by a man named Raoul de Comarmond (1908-1993). Born in Mauritius, Comarmond started working with record companies in Madagascar as early as 1937 when he helped to organize a Polydor recording session. By the early 1950s, he was recording for the French branch of Decca, his discs branded with “R. de Comarmond” on them. His business, Comarmond et Cie, a distribution company, was located on Avenue de l’Independence (then “Avenue de 18 Juin”). He founded a pressing plant to produce his new discs in 1960, as well as Discomad’s sister labels, Decco and Decophone. All told, he issued approximately 350 78s, certainly the the most successful Malagasy label outside of the major European concerns. Discomad was issuing 45s by 1962, though I am unsure what the crossover was between formats. For example, the Association Folklorique de la Côte Est issued at least two 45rpm EPs on Discomad, yet this piece does not appear on either. It could be this was its only issue. In any case, Discomad continued for decades, run by Comarmond’s son, Jean-François, and then his grandson, Stephane.

Association Folklorique de la Côte Est – Tia Ambady

Label: Discomad
Issue Number: 59.536
Matrix Number: COM 1175

Thanks to Thomas Henry and the works of Paul Vernon!

Achmat – Krontjong Achmat Bandoeng

In urban areas around the world, traditional music blended with more popular music as well as music from outside cultures. This created entirely new genres, perhaps especially as the phonograph spread in popularity, and perhaps more so when radio became ubiquitous. It’s always been so, and the process is still at work today, despite those who opine that music was “better” or more “pure” at some earlier date. Because of this, the definitions of “traditional,” “folk,” and “popular” are at best just guideposts in a transcultural stew.

Kroncong music from what was once the Dutch East Indies in the colonial era, is a particularly enjoyable example of this intercultural mix. Philip Yampolsky, the leading scholar of music of Indonesia, agrees that some elements of kroncong were first brought to the region by black Portuguese sailors as early as the 16th century. One of these elements was the small cavaquinho, which locally became known as the kroncong. The term kroncong eventually expanded to refer to an entire genre of music.

The Portuguese influence was just one piece of the puzzle. The region was already mixed in terms of ethnicity. In the late 1800s, a type of theatre known as stambul was becoming extremely popular in both the Dutch East Indies and the Straits Settlements. Stambul theatre, or komedi stambul, was a kind of multi-ethnic popular entertainment featuring versions of stories from the East like Ali Baba, accompanied by music and songs. The performances could last hours. In the 1890s, kroncong songs and performers became part of stambul theatre, and conversely, kroncong performances contained stambul songs.

The genre developed over the next several decades until it solidified in the mid-1920s as a professional, popular music. Two of kroncong’s most important elements were the fluid, somewhat improvisatory violin playing, as well as a “walking guitar.” These, along with small lutes strumming alternately in the background and its relatively stable chord structure, gave kroncong a languid, almost Polynesian feel. Primarily, it was a vocal music, though here we have a piece that is solely instrumental, and a chance for the violinist to show off.

Both “Achmat” and “Achmad” are common names in Indonesia and this makes identification difficult, along with the fact that many performers from the region, both male and especially female, were only credited on records with their first names. We do know that our Achmat was from Bandung in western Java, and that he’s accompanied here by the Gadjah string orchestra of the city of Semarang. It’s likely this was a “house band” for Odeon records in the mid-1930s. Several years later, in 1938, our Achmat is documented as playing with the HMV label’s house band, but this is as about as much as we know for now.

Kroncong was recorded as early as May 1903, when the Gramophone Company first made one-sided discs in Singapore. It continued being recorded by multinational recording labels including the German labels Beka and Odeon. World War I shut down recording in the region for 10 years. When the labels scampered back to record, kroncong was even more entrenched, with a new, easy-going tempo, and hundreds if not thousands of individual kroncong records were issued prior to World War II, the Japanese occupation, and Indonesia’s independence (and then many more after that).


Achmat – Krontjong Achmat Bandoeng


Big thanks to Philip Yampolsky and Alfred Ticoalu.

Label: Odeon
Issue Number: A 204438b
Matrix Number: Jab 1586