20. The Cleveland Colored Quintet

Good Bye Pharaoh. In America, white interest in black music has always centered on recognition and distance. The origins, history and social status of black Americans produced music both familiar and remote, thoroughly American but not the America experienced by whites. That tension spread black ideas into mainstream popular music, most famously in the guise of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. This movement is often portrayed as singular and decisive, yet is really one turn in a lengthy back-and-forth between all the peoples of the New World. Black music in America was as much shaped by as shaped its musical surroundings.

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For the dominant culture, in this case whites, the price of dominance is cultural anxiety. Blacks are derided for poor social accomplishments and integration but lauded for a sharper cultural edge. The two are intimately related- it is often precarious social standing that produces musical innovation that is truly disruptive rather than merely progressive. Today, at least for middle class whites, there is a nervousness that affluence and authenticity are at odds. It is all nonsense, of course, but palpable nonetheless.

But what happens when black musicians self-consciously take up elements of white musical sensibility? There is the case of The Cleveland Colored Quintet.

Rummaging through a used record store in Las Vegas, of all places, I came across two 78s by the Cleveland Colored Quintet on the Sacred label. The group’s name and track titles suggested material in the tradition of the early gospel artists, such as the Fisk Jubilee Quartet. Indeed, once I heard the records, such as On the Jericho Road and Reign Massah Jesusit was clear that these pieces were antiquated even at the time of recording- Sacred Records did not begin production until after World War II. I was intrigued and looked for more information. 

The Cleveland Colored Quintet (CCQ) fall into the category of black musicians who made early recordings but whose music was judged “not black enough” to be included in the first three editions of the landmark Blues & Gospel Records discography. The CCQ were a male vocal group with a repetoire that spanned both African-American spirituals and late nineteenth and early twentieth century white religious fare. Formed in 1914, the group enjoyed some success touring the north east United States and Canada with various preachers. The CCQ made about twenty recordings between 1923 and 1926 in Columbia’s Personal series, for sale at church gatherings. The recordings appear under the name of The C. & M. A. Gospel Singers or Quintette, referring to The Christian & Missionary Alliance, the church group the members were associated with. The CCQ did not record commercially before the 1940s.

The 1920s recordings were reissued on the Document label in 1997, but the notes make no reference to the Sacred Records discs I had found. Recorded too late for the Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943 discography, the CCQ’s subsequent records turn up in the companion volume The Gospel Discography 1943-1970 by Cedric J. Hayes and Robert Laughton. The latter lists 28 sides, all recorded in 1947, on Sacred and a number of other labels, all issued commercially. The earlier discography makes no reference to later recordings, such allusion being standard practice, and the later discography is silent on earlier ones. The group’s two names may be to blame- the 1920s recordings using the church affiliation, and the later ones The Cleveland Colored Quintet. According to Colin J. Bray, the author of the notes for the Document CD, the second was the group’s “correct” name.

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The abrupt end to recordings in 1947 appears to have been due to the sudden death, on stage, of Alexander E. Talbert, the group’s bass. This is a reminder of the group’s vintage. The men were likely born in the 1880s, and appear quite elderly in a publicity photograph from the 1940s. Some may have been born even earlier, judging by what appears to be a 1920s photograph used for the cover of the Document CD. This explains the CCQ’s devotion to an earlier style of gospel singing, honed by the group before the race record explosion in the 1920s.

Prior to that period, much white interest in black music in America was a matter of “refining” the latter in the manner of the former- harmonizing spirituals for the parlor piano and the like. But the effort was not one-way. The original Fisk Jubilee Singers from the 1870s embarked on a concert tour to raise funds for the recently founded yet impoverished Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, an institution designed to advance higher education for freed slaves after the Civil War. The Singers found most success with renderings of old-time religious music molded by slaves from scraps of white Christianity and African legacy. In a climate of newly-found dignity for blacks, the combination of “roughly-hewn” spirituals and well-educated singers harmonizing in the European concert tradition seemed most fitting, from the perspective of many blacks as well as whites. The minstrel show, the most prominent portrayal of black music in America at the time, was generally much less positive and nuanced.

The Singers sparked a “jubilee craze” raising large sums for the University and prompting many imitators, both genuine and otherwise. Relatively few such performers made recordings prior to 1920, but a later group of Fisk singers, the Fisk Jubilee Quartet, first recorded in 1909, was positioned as a valuable exclusive for the Victor Company. According to estimates by Tim Brooks, author of Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, the Fisks sold two million records over a decade, on both Victor and Columbia, and were probably the second biggest-selling black recording artists prior to 1920, after Bert Williams.

In the 1920s, with the surprise success of early jazz records and blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, the “jubilee” sound began to seem old-fashioned. The appearance of country blues records later in the decade further sidelined the jubilee style. All these developments turned the jubilee logic on its head, finding success with less “managed” black voices, with any non-black influence more marginal. The gospel sound evolved too, with more personal lyrics, more complex and forceful vocals and more contemporary music.The 1930s saw a new breed of quartets, such as The Heavenly Gospel Singers, Golden Gate Quartet and Dixie Hummingbirds.

So it perhaps not surprising, but intriguing nonetheless, that even by the 1940s, the CCQ were still firmly in the jubilee vein. The 1947 records make no attempt to keep with the times, and may have traded on a nostalgia among older folks. Indeed, some of the CCQ’s 1947 recordings appear to be one of only a few times certain pieces were captured commercially post-war. What I’m most interested in is how groups like the CCQ have been viewed since their demise. These artists go entirely against the grain of how black music in America has been regarded, by blacks and especially by whites, who emphasize what is perceived as primitive, earthy, raw, etc. Indeed, much mainstream western popular music since the 1950s is premised on judicious use of this black American “edge.” Widespread white adoption of black musical features is either praised or taken for granted, whereas black “imitation” of whites is often looked askance at.

The fact that groups like the CCQ performed black and white music in equal measure is often seen to imply that the performers were “too middle class” to be sufficiently in touch with their roots, in thrall to white values, trying to please white audiences or some such argument. Of course, the CCQ’s “colored” label is one more reason to for us to feel uneasy. Given the reaction, you might think it inconceivable that the CCQ members actually appreciated both styles or had legitimate reasons to want to appeal to different audiences. Just as white middle class affluence and U.S. industrialization prompted a longing for a simpler past, so the constrained existence of most blacks prompted interest in progress and sophistication. Jazz, city blues and modern gospel represented such change, but so did more direct black fascination with non-black styles.

One could argue that groups like the CCQ were actually remarkably well-rounded and pioneering, sidestepping rigid racial divisions and embracing musical diversity. The contributions of middle class blacks like the CCQ should be regarded as just as significant and interesting as those of their more numerous less fortunate bretheren. For the prevailing culture to ultimately value black music as a symptom of second class status, and dismiss other black paths as suspect, puts a disturbing slant on our artistic fascinations.

The likes of the CCQ were grudgingly included in the latest edition of Gospel & Blues Records 1890-1943. Some of this music does sound somewhat staid to modern ears, used to “raw” as the standard, but I think we are far from a full assessment of early black recording artists that tried to transcend as well as embrace the status quo.

I’ve uploaded The Cleveland Colored Quartet’s Reign Massa JesusLet me know what you think.

19. Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard- Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music 1923-1936

Try Harder. Great story, mediocre music. That’s how I’d sum up Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard, the 3-CD compilation of American county music released in 2012 by Tompkins Square.

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Let’s start with the great story. In 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky, Nathan Salsburg, noted guitarist and curator at the Association for Cultural Equity, the Alan Lomax archive, stumbled across news of a local man, recently deceased, with 78s in his house, destined for the dumpster. Salsburg rushed over to discover a large stash of early country records hoarded by little known collector, Don Wahle. The collection included many rare and un-reissued sides. Salsburg stayed the dumpster hands and rescued everything not already succumbed to mold and disintegration.

Salsburg, entranced with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, had long been mulling an aggregation in the same vein, and saw in Wahle’s hoard the opportunity. Of course, the difficulty for Salsburg is that Harry Smith’s Anthology stimulated modern interest in early recordings of country, blues and gospel music in America, whereas Work Hard follows decades of exhaustive reissues and examination. Smith had the field to himself, with the choicest cuts still unknown to the wider world. Today, there’s a reason why some sides remain unissued- they’re not very good. Contrary to booster rhetoric, by definition not every old country record can be a classic. Inevitably, many old sides are thoroughly derivative and second-rate. Yet to my ears, that’s primarily what is offered by Work Hard.

To the uninitiated, and that may be the primary audience for Work Hard, the collection may appear fresh and unexpected. The old photographs, quaint imagery and raucous delivery may be compelling to many a casual listener. The tale of the old record collector who’s precious finds were nearly lost to the crusher is a great lead that garnered much more mainstream press interest than is typical for this kind of release. If nothing else, the “work, play, pray” themes grasp at a little more coherence than Smith’s “ballads, social music, songs”.

The couple of stronger tracks come from familiar sources. Buell Kazee’s Poor Boy a Long Way from Home is another slice of that performer’s insistent banjo and dark notes, in stark contrast to the also-rans crowding the rest of the set. Elder Golden P. Harris, who made two custom recordings for the Consolidated Recording Corporation in New York in 1931, and made two more, date unknown, on his own label, also gets a spot. I had heard only the stunning I Want to Lead a Christian Life, so was excited to experience one of the remaining three. I was not disappointed- same fervent voice and ancient violin propel My Christian Friends in Bonds of Love. No surprise that both the Kazee and Harris tracks have been reissued previously, but so far as I know, there is no in-print CD collecting the works of Kazee or Harris. Now those would be fine additions to the 78 reissue canon.

Guest essays, particularly that by Amanda Petrusich on the “Work” theme, are a welcome complement to the standard discographical  ephemera and biographical scraps. Petrusich asks the intriguing question as to when we stopped writing songs about work. The main reason a fair number of old country records are about work is because the performers were typically no more than semi-professional. There was also a deep association between this country music and a certain way of life. But I take issue with Petrusich’s cheap swipe at the “bloodlessness of the modern-day desk job,” which she contrasts with the supposed nobility of more physical labor worth setting to music. Lazy boredom in the present, dependent on yet dismissive of the fruits of technology, obscures the weaknesses and romanticizes the strengths of the past. I find it easier to romanticize pre-modern rural life from a laptop in an air-conditioned office. Modern work is a rich source of material, and it’s lack of imagination that dictates relationships and partying as the only things to sing about.

I feel a curious sense of guilt criticizing so many of the reissues reviewed on these pages. The passion and care of the compilers, the exquisite packaging and the voiceless dead seem to deserve more. But as I will continue to argue, without sharper perspective and more debate, without pushing beyond reverence, without trying harder, reissues also risk neglect, dumpsters and ketchup.

Verdict: Both Work Hard and Pray Hard averaged 1.75 (c.59th percentile), with Play Hard, weighed down with one too many cheesy sketches and workaday breakdowns, bringing up with rear at 1.64 (82nd percentile). The 3-CD set is available from Tompkins Square.

Classics #3- Malay Malay Oya by Devar Surya Sena & Ensemble

This is my first post about a 78 rpm record in my collection (Malay Malay Oya). U-PM works to promote wider interest in old recordings of world music, regardless of format; and is the business of bringing perspective to the wealth of reissues already in our midst rather than just adding to the heap. But there is an undeniable thrill in giving life to a stunning old record that appears never to have been reissued.

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This 78 is also notable in that it hails from Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, a country very rarely featured on compilations of old ethnic recordings. There are no entries for Sri Lanka on Excavated Shellac, and very few references online to 78s from the country. In my 25 years of collecting, I’ve encountered only a handful of old recordings on any format from this part of the world.

This record, Malay Malay Oya by Devar Surya Sena and Ensemble comes from the dominant Sinhalese ethnic group. Devar Surya Sena (1899-1981) was born Herbert Charles Jacob Pieris, the son of Sir James Pieris, one of Ceylon’s most prominent politicians. The name “Pieris” stems from Portugal’s part-colonization of the country in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the 19th century, the Pieris family, in naming, education and aspirations had embraced the mores of the British colonists, even while Sir James worked for the country’s independence. Herbert was sent to boarding school in England from the age of 12, then studied at the University of Cambridge. In 1923, he married Winifred de Silva, from another prominent Ceylon family. Theirs was said to be the first Ceylon society wedding in London.

Herbert was torn between his parent’s ambitionIMG_0560 (2) that he should have a brilliant legal and political career, and his love of music. He studied for a time at the Royal College of Music in London. After working for some years as a barrister, Herbert and Winifred decided to return home. The case for greater self-government was building, and a new sense of Ceylonese identity and appreciation for local culture. Herbert and Winifred went so far as to change their names- becoming Deva Surya Sena and Nelun Devi. In 1931, after much lobbying, not least by Sena’s father, Britain granted Ceylon greater autonomy and gave citizens, women included, the right to vote. Independence did not come until 1948.

In 1928, Sena gave a concert to the elite of Colombo, devoting the first half to operatic arias and the like from Europe, but reserving the second for the music of Ceylon. According to Sena’s own account, this was the “first time in history” Ceylonese music had been performed in such a setting. The recital was a great success, persuading Sena to dedicate himself to showcasing Ceylonese music to a wider audience, particularly a Western audience. He conducted research across the island, gave concerts internationally, led radio programs and made records. His appreciation of both local and Western culture, his musical ability, and proper English accent made him a particularly effective ambassador.

I am unsure whether the apparent absence of any contemporary reissue of Sena’s recordings is an indication that he has been largely forgotten or that his approach has been called into question. While Sena was accomplished on a number of instruments central to Ceylonese music, he also made recordings accompanied by piano and violin. No doubt blurring the lines between Western and Ceylonese music was a tactic to engage Europeans, although it is certainly true that much so-called “traditional” creativity is precisely the appropriation of foreign influences. The western violin indisputably found new life on the Indian subcontinent. The competing instincts of preservation and improvement lie at the heart of many folk music revival efforts of the period.

The piece included here, Malay Malay Oya, features vocal and violin that “sound Ceyonlese”, but piano that “sounds Western.” Today’s penchant for “raw” and “primitive” old recordings casts suspicion on anything refined or somehow tampered with. It would be wise to remember that “authenticity” is vulnerable to fashion and misreadings of how culture and change actually work. Sena’s blending of styles and instruments is really no different from various musical amalgams lauded today.

I find this piece thoroughly charming and arresting, just the effect Sena intended. The arrangement makes sense in its historical context, and given Sena’s background and ambition, and should be considered not redacted. Malay is said to be a boatman’s song, chronicling the sights and sounds of the river. The other side of the record might be judged more “authentic”, but is not as strong as Side 1, in my view.

I am not aware of any CD reissue of Sena’s work. In 2008, the Devar Surya Sena Trust published a compilation of Sena’s writing as Music of Sri Lanka. A CD accompanied the book but contains only five tracks, which appear to have been drawn from radio broadcasts and are sub-par in terms of sound quality. If anyone knows of a CD of Sena’s 78s, I’d be grateful to hear about it.

18. Bali 1928 & Open Strings

If this was Radiohead, I wouldn’t hold back. One premise of the Un-Popular Music site is that vintage recordings of world music, if even on the radar of the average music lover, are assumed to be some combination of dull, alien or difficult. Even if there is an allure of the exotic or primitive, once on the CD-player too often the music feels like too much hard work- crackling, dense, repetitive and seemingly a far cry from the gushing notes. Another UPM premise is that amid the specialist chatter lie numerous jewels that would transfix a mainstream audience. But there are some varieties of old world music harder to wrest from the caricature.

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Two examples- Bali 1928 (World Arbiter, 2009), the first of five CDs resurrecting the earliest gamelan recordings (the rest of the series seems never to have appeared), and Open Strings (Honest Jons, 2009), a collection of 1920s instrumental pieces from the Middle East. I’ll admit I can’t make much sense of either. Yes, hazy, shimmering gongs and cymbals; evocative for a minute or two but quickly swirling and confusing. Curling, tense oud solos that flash and tease but offer no compromise. No vocals, unconventional rhythms, rhythm as melody in Bali, and no notes or even track details in the case of Open Strings. I don’t like this music!!!!

These might both be labeled “classical” music, the ill-fitting English term applied to any music regarded as more composed than social, more studied than spontaneous, and more refined than raw. Including such under UPM’s “old world music” heading is akin to considering Charley Patton and Elliott Carter in the breath. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but how to be sure that the music will be judged using the “right” criteria? Indeed, the Bali 1928 CD is not merely “classical” but billed as avant-garde. 

My temptation is to conclude that this kind of old world music does indeed play by different rules. The setting may be ceremonial or theatrical accompaniment not solo listening, responses to unheard precedents, or self-conscious experimentation. I get impatient with any presumption that I must simply work harder to assess the music on its own terms. The reality is that these recordings could hardly be more distant in time, culture and intent from today’s listener. Aside from cultural insiders and specialists, like any music this has to connect anew viscerally not academically. The recordings have long drifted far away from context, cannot change but must adapt or be content with the stacks.

In my view, many old world music recordings, particularly those with “classical” airs, suffer an unfortunate combination of excessive respect and scant attention. Open Strings included a companion CD of contemporary responses to the older pieces. The reviews I’ve read tend to praise the former for hiss and vintage but critique the latter for being a bit trite. This translates to these older recordings being considered sufficiently obscure and other-worldly as to be beyond critical grasp, yet add a drum machine and reaction flows freely. The no-notes format of Open Strings implies that statement and interpretation are somehow illegitimate, reinforcing the “silence” of old world music recordings. Open Strings is so open its closed. 

What is needed is honest, contemporary evaluation of old recordings in their new setting. It is essential to acknowledge that the original setting was quite different, and the performers may have found meaning in the music that we may be hard pressed to capture let alone fully appreciate or share.

My goal with UPM is to bring my long search for musical wonders to a wider audience. I’ve spent many years immersed in vintage recordings of world music precisely because, by definition, this “genre” hides the greatest amount of sonic treasure. The sheer array of cultures, peoples, styles and periods swallowed by the best catch-all term I could come up with- old world music- is overwhelming. In the early 21st century, we are moving from a constant musical present to a growing realization that more than a century of recording leave us with an ever-deeper, accessible musical past. The recordings survive even when the performer expires. As inherited musical variety has steadily diminished, recorded variety continues to increase, even as awareness of recorded variety staggers.

But I am in the business of shaping taste. Our ears are cultural and deaf through habit. Music contains powers of expression and communication that, under certain circumstances, can soothe personal anxieties and jailbreak political fixes like nothing else can. Never mind crises, music is a daily joy and refuge. In the United States, in 2014, it is hard to conclude that a musical era is not coming to an end. Most even remotely popular music is derivative of styles that peaked years ago. I don’t think this is just part of the “kids these days” cycle. Creatively there is nowhere else to go inside the same old paradigm. Vintage recordings of world music represent a wealth of old/new ideas. Where else will innovation come from? Old world music is promising precisely because it is unexpected. Magazines like Songlines and FRoots are full of “world music” acts, both local and fusion, but ultimately revel in seemingly inevitable obscurity even while mainstream ignorance is bemoaned. True mainstream relevance looks rather different.

Tapping this musical energy means being critical as well as intrigued, selective as well as embracing, contemporary as well as historical. The Bali 1928 CD, by itself, sits squarely in the specialist camp, although might contribute to something more. Open Strings attempts to look in both directions, but is literally tongue-tied. Let me lead by example. I found both CDs generally dense and unexciting. If you disagree, please return the favor. 

VerdictBali 1928, still available from World Arbiter scored 1.8 (52nd percentile)- intriguing enough to avoid castigation but sufficiently obscure not to push higher. Open Strings, still available from Honest Jons, ranked just above at 1.83 (48th percentile), for the same reason. The best track on the first Open Strings disc is the final one- Mehmet and Ahmet Balki-Oglu – Aydin Oyun Havassi (details are on the Honest Jons site, but not in the notes).

 

Classics #2- Garrot Bounce by Lord Nelson

This track (Garrot Bounce) captures Trinidadian Calypso at the peak of its powers. Calypso, the music of carnival and social commentary, sweet, assertive and knowing, rarely holds it all together. Antique dance music seems leisurely to modern ears and many songs are no more than vehicles for foxy lyrics. By the 1960s, the pace had picked up but a growing “party, party” mentality excused the lazy and mediocre, before the genre dissolved into Soca in the 70s.

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First recorded in 1962, the year of Trinidad’s independence, Garrot Bounce was the A side on Robert Nelson’s inaugural 45, and remained the Calypsonian’s calling-card throughout the decade. It was reissued several times, and then extended over two sides on a 1967 release. The version I have, which is the extended take, is from a 1973 LP of Calypso hits by various artists.

Garrot Bounce gets almost everything right. The pace is snappy, and Nelson jumps in with gusto, playing with a line long after other singers would have quit. With Soca looming but still unimagined, the studio is crowded with musicians. The horn section is crisp and numerous, the drums sweating and tight, never mind guitars, piano, bass, congas. Odes to “real” music and “real” musicians can be overdone, but it’s hard to figure how a synthesizer could have done anything but slow things down. Making full use of its six-plus minutes, the track has multiple parts- cracking repeated horn break, reduction down to a piano line, and a gloriously drawn-out sax and brass battle that is endlessly inventive. 

The title appears to refer to the “Garrot” as the maligned small islander who bursts onto the scene with his “bounce” that wins over the big-timers in Trinidad. “Garrot” is a pejorative term for people from the small islands in the East Caribbean chain. Nelson was born in Tobago, Trinidad’s little sister island, so the title may reference the novelty of a small island Calypsonian. “You come from the island, and that is no disgrace“.

Nelson, who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2010, was never crowned Calypso Monarch and never won the Road March.  He spent time in the United States after high school, including a stint in the army. His Calypso career started late, giving him precious little time in the genre’s heyday, before Soca took over and made him seem old-fashioned and forced to play by someone else’s rules. Nelson’s material from the 70s onwards seems to pale in comparison to Garrot Bounce, but I haven’t heard his sole album and other singles from the 1960s.

Before Garrot Bounce, much Calypso seems quaint and dated; and afterwards collapsed into indistinct Soca and the reign of the DJ with speakers bigger than a man. After another overhyped Carnival or make-do party, I imagine Garrot Bounce blowing everything sky high.

Thanks to the Calypso Archives for discographical information. There appears to be no contemporary reissue of Garrot Bounce. 

17. Longing for the Past- The 78 rpm Era in Southeast Asia

Longing for the Present. How to write a true review of Longing for the Past, the recently released international 78 rpm box set from Dust-to-Digital, focused on Southeast Asia? The reviews I’ve read tend to consist of praise for the lavish packaging, extensive notes and period photographs, rudimentary awe that the recordings are exceedingly rare, obscure, other-worldly, etc., and the recommendation that we really should cast off our musical blinkers and pay more attention to this sort of thing. Not a bad word is said. Any push back from the listener is positioned as not putting in enough effort or being narrow-minded.

What would this set, and others like it, have to sound or look like to be open to criticism? Let’s take a step back. Why do today’s reissues look and sound as they do? The format of typical reissues of vintage international music reflects the haphazard business of collecting old records, limited information on artists and styles, and commercial realities which mean seemingly perpetual pioneering.

There is still a big gap between the hundreds of thousands of folk and vernacular music issued commercially worldwide, never mind field recordings, in the first half of the 20th century and the amount of such material currently available on in-print reissues. Many masters and company logs were destroyed long ago, so even knowing what was recorded can be difficult. The gap is exacerbated by the lack of cumulative attention to reissues, with each tending to appear in isolation as one-off collection with little reference to what may have gone before. Past 78 rpm, LP and cassette reissues die with the format. For many countries and styles, records simply turn up a random, there is little background information, and scant means to categorize a piece of music as representative or unusual, let alone the sophistication or confidence to judge a piece “good” or “bad” from a particular point of view. Hence many reissues constitute a collector’s finds more than a clear account of a particular country, style or time span, or even clear personal preference.

In the case of Southeast Asia, and many regions of the world, we are truly at the beginning of reissue work. It can be very hard to find more than a handful of reissues of historical recordings, although sometimes extant collections are confined to local markets. It’s like being back in 1950 and trying to assess American roots music from the 78 rpm era.

Harry Smith’s classic Anthology of American Folk Music, a compilation of Blues, Country and Gospel 78s reissued on Folkways Records in 1952 is credited as the decisive moment for American roots 78s, going on to influence the 1960s folk revival and the turn of American popular music generally. Does Longing for the Past represent the equivalent of the Anthology for Southeast Asia? Should reviewers use such an analogy as a guide?

There are similarities. The Anthology was based on Smith’s personal collection and the music on the three LPs was as much random as organized. Yet the reissue was much closer in time to the originals than is the case for Longing for the Past, the collection was produced by an American for Americans first and foremost, and had to contend with relatively circumscribed geographical, musical, linguistic and historical breadth. Longing for the Past is much more ambitious in terms of scope, and is the work of a cultural outsider. The Anthology spans records released in the late 1920s and early 1930s, while Longing for the Past sprawls from 1905 to 1966. 

Longing for the Past might more accurately be compared to an imaginary digest of American recordings spanning 1905-1966, taking in everything from Caruso to Elvis, Leadbelly to Judy Garland, Charles Ives to Charlie Parker, and Jerome Kern to The Byrds. While the outsider might be dazzled by the range of material, the insider would likely conclude that the collection made little sense. There would be some head scratching that this mythical compilation chose to include some obscure Garland song but made no mention of Over the Rainbow, and featured Frank Luther as a leading exponent of country music but left out Charlie Poole.

It is not clear from the notes accompanying Longing for the Past whether the compilers regard the recordings as capturing some lost “purity” that contemporary artists would do well to pay attention to. Harry Smith definitely had such a thing in mind. The title itself, Longing for the Past, might be seen to evoke such sentiments but it is hard to disentangle reissue from revival. There are only glimpses of how the performers and their audiences regarded the music from an aesthetic perspective. A mode is described as “thought to be joyful in effect” or a piece “thought to be majestic and gentle” but generally no guidance is offered. Nor are the compilers reactions recorded. It would be fascinating to know how David Murray and the other compilers react to the music itself, rarity and significance aside. The instruments in one piece are noted as out-of-tune, emphasizing the priority given to historical coverage as much as contemporary musical resonance.

It would be interesting to learn how sales are trending between the United States, home of Dust-to-Digital, as well as other Western countries, and Southeast Asia itself. The notes are entirely in English, but of course the songs themselves would address native speakers most directly. Could Longing for the Past spark new interest in old styles in the respective countries of the region, or are locals already two steps ahead; or is the intent more a broadening of musical horizons for adventurous listeners in the West? Must the compiler simply wait and see?

From a contemporary perspective, this set does contain a good number of pieces that appeal strongly to my ears, as well as many that seem incomprehensible or simply redundant if one is not a native speaker or conversant in the topic at hand (e.g. many of the dramatic and poetic items). But I have to wonder whether the set could have been re-worked to feature more of the former and less of the latter. Leave the historically significant but otherwise inaccessible to the academic, certainly if the audience is Western. Like most other reissues of international 78s, this collection is caught between academic respectability, collector obsessiveness and a mainstream audience.

As an outsider, the only way to truly critique reissues like Longing for the Past is for compilers to be more decisive in their intent, and to see connection to the contemporary listener as more than emphasizing rarity and exoticism. Without such adjustments, it is effectively impossible for outsider critics to do more than play-it-safe and pronounce everything a “wonderful reissue” and just keep listening to Arcade Fire.

There is no question that Longing for the Past is a great achievement, and the fruit of much labor. The packaging and layout are without fault; and the notes are nothing if not technically comprehensive. Yet the lack of critical voices is a sign of weakness not unbridled success. There is a vicious circle between poor sales and presentation defined by novelty rather than progress, and unwillingness to view quality from the perspective of the contemporary listener. What would a more focused version of Longing for the Past look and sound like, and what might it achieve? Put another way, now we have Longing for the Past, how should reissue work on Southeast Asia build from here?

BTW- there is one track in common between Longing for the Past and The Crying Princess, the single LP of Burmese 78s on Sublime Frequencies that appeared early in 2013- Track 9 on CD C In the Fragrant Forest (which the LP translates as The Perfumed Forest). The LP includes Part 2.

Verdict: All four CDs rank inside the 50th percentile, ranging from 13th (CD D) to 49th (CD B).

– Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia (A)- 1.88 (39th percentile)

– Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam (B)- 1.82 (49th percentile)

– Burma, Thailand (C)- 1.83 (48th percentile)

– Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia (D)- 2.12 (13th percentile)

In my opinion, the best tracks, aside from the brilliant In the Fragrant Forest, are Dji Hong by Miss Riboet on CD D (Track 2)- I am very keen to locate more recordings by this and other singers in the Komedie Stambul style- and Dongdang Sayang, Part 1 by Miss Rohani and company (CD D Track 3), both from Indonesia; and Thawai Phaka Thi by Lad Un (Cambodia- CD A Track 5).

Longing for the Past is available from Dust-to-Digital.

Classics #1: Tenha Pena de Mim- Araci de Almeida

Introduction. This is a new feature on the site- U-PM Classics highlights an individual old world music track from my collection. The track might foreshadow a forthcoming show or be an out-take from a previous show.

The goal of U-PM is to propel old world music into the mainstream. The best of these old recordings is a match for anything before or since, and represents a vast array of styles and approaches. Indeed, the catch-all term “old world music” constitutes the majority of musical range ever recorded. Yet this music is nowhere near the radar of the typical music-lover, and is assumed to be inaccessible, difficult, dull. Modern reissues get carried away with technical details and give little thought to the contemporary listener. The result is an indiscriminate selection that “represents” the artist or period but turns everything into a history lesson or mystical ravings rather than a musical experience that appeals to the non-specialist.

Just as each of the U-PM Shows put forward three outstanding tracks from a particular country, quality over quantity, U-PM Classics tackles individual tracks in their own right. This is consistent with U-PM’s approach to old world music- contemporary musical resonance first, history, context and technical details second. In my view, this approach is more in keeping with the spirit of the original artists and performers.

We are living in a golden age of reissues of old world music, but must people haven’t noticed. Ever-more reissues appear, reviewers offer dumbstruck praise but sales remain pitiful. All the while, reissues themselves end up almost as obscure as the recordings they attempt to revive. The true legacy and potential of old world music recordings remain far from realized. U-PM is all about trying to change that.

Classic #1. Our first U-PM Classic is Tenha Pena de Mim by Araci de Almeida. This was recorded in 1937 in Brazil (Victor 34229A). I first heard it in the late 1990s on the Bresil: Choro, Samba, Frevo compilation on Fremeaux (1998).

The track is one of numerous recordings from the period that transformed the complex ethnic and musical heritage of Brazil into something fresh and modern. From today’s vantage point, at least to me, much of this music seems tame and mediocre, but Tenha Pena de Mim demands attention. Fully conversant in contemporary styles and innovation, the track eschews the ordinary with a thoroughly original multi-part melody, clarinet solos of glorious imitation, and delivery from Araci de Almedia that is sweet, sassy and at turns delicate then belting. The rhythm throughout is a confident mid-paced swagger. The song’s musical character belies the ill-fated in love lyrics. The composers, Siro de Sousa and Valdemiro Rocha “Babaú” get only this credit on the Fremeaux double-CD compilation, and I have been able to find out little else about them.

Araci de Almedia (1914-1988) went on to become one of the mainstays of Brazilian music, most famously on her 1950s album of songs by the misfortunate Noël Rosa. But to my ears, none of her music before or since comes close to Tenha Pena de Mim. The track is still available on the Fremeaux double-CD.

The challenge for the entire U-PM project is how to articulate music using only words. I’m working on it 🙂

16. The Endangered Music Project

Endangered Reissues. I recently listened to the six CDs that make up the Endangered Music Project, reissues of historical field recordings. The series was produced by Mickey Hart, drummer from The Grateful Dead and a world music enthusiast, and Alan Jabbour who was then director of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. The CDs first appeared in the 1990s on the Rykodisc label, and in 2011 were reissued by Smithsonian Folkways.

To me, this series trips over the tensions lurking beneath old world music reissues. What was the vision for the set? The foreword to each CD points to the friction between modern technology as both preserver and destroyer of traditional cultures, but concludes that “all too often” technology “endangers precious ways of human life”. The series, in making old recordings available to a contemporary audience, is “dedicated to the hope that with education, empathy, and assistance, imperiled cultures can survive.” A portion of sales is marked for “the performers and their cultures” and to support further reissues.

In one respect, the Endangered Music Project (EMP) was welcome. There remains a mass of field recordings lying silent in institutional archives all over the world. Collating private material is a virtue but too often the archive renders the contents no less obscure. This “people’s music”, as many a tagline would have it, appears both “cultural treasure” and of no interest to anyone but the specialist few. Building on random past reissues, I for one would dearly love to see a series like this start to make sense of the legacy of world music field recordings over time, culture-by-culture and collector-by-collector.

The EMP stumbles rather than soars. First, the series had global pretensions, but with the exception of a Bali CD, everything is confined to West Africa and bits of the Caribbean and Central and South America. Second, the “endangered” branding implied contemporary music and cultures, and the first CD does include some 1980s recordings, but the vast majority of the series hails from the 1940s or earlier. There is very little attempt to connect older recordings to any present day survivals or evolutions. Third, the goal to change hearts and minds is belied by notes that serve to do just the opposite.

Let’s talk about the notes. Small text, pale green in one case, no call-outs or use of bold, and few pictures. It is not clear why particular selections were chosen, or even why certain collectors or regions were prioritized. My biggest criticism is the compiler’s assumption that lots of technical details, and no asserted connection to the modern world in terms of musical resonance or contemporary residue, was key to sales. No question that the historical information is interesting, and highlights peoples and collectors I’d not heard of, but even my mind wanders amid the five local names given to different sizes of hand-drum and discussion of time signatures and chord progressions. The very detail honed in the notes is precisely not what drove the performers themselves. Just as reviews of Taylor Swift do not discuss time signatures and chord progressions, if we are to capture the alleged “magic” of old recordings we have to think like “ordinary” performers and “ordinary” listeners.

Let me be clear- formal study of old recordings is vital, but it is not in short supply nor in demand by the general public whom this series is ostensibly trying to reach. If the “performers and their cultures” were hoping for big bucks from the proceeds I imagine they were disappointed. Better, to my mind, would be notes that discuss selections in terms of contemporary resonance as well as historical interest, seek reactions to the music from descendants, and explore how and why the music has evolved over time. If people in wealthy countries want to support “imperiled” cultures elsewhere, they don’t have to buy a CD to do it. The theory behind the EMP is that music has special power to cross the chasm between cultures and between past and present, but by itself music can also be inscrutable and jarring, not least when it is old and in a foreign tongue. There is no reason a contemporary audience has to “like” or even engage with historical music, however “imperiled”. Academics are there to attend to the unloved but popular attention is by definition instinctive and accessible, giving more than it asks.

If efforts like the EMP are to more fully realize their objectives, compilers must give more thought to what is presented and how presentation occurs, not just the fact of presentation. Simply asserting that music is old and interesting, and listening to it has something to do with helping imperiled cultures, will attract few new ears. The fact that the EMP ceased after a few years, with only six discs to its name from a fraction of the world, was partly due to change of ownership at Rykodisc, but also the overall incoherence of the project. Resurrection under Smithsonian Folkways a decade later, rehashing the same promotional language, still more confines the music to the archive than propels it out into the world. This kind of reissue is just as endangered as the cultures it seeks to aid. 

Verdict: I found only about 10% of the roughly 120 EMP tracks to truly jump the breach between historical curiosity and contemporary musical excitement. Perhaps a single CD featuring only those tracks, or a series spanning a larger number of collections but with today’s general listener in mind, would be have preferable; and might have raised more money for the imperiled cultures.

The six CDs were scored as follows, all between roughly the 40th and 80th percentiles:

  • The Spirit Cries: Music from the Rainforests of South America & The Caribbean- 1.78
  • Music for the Gods- The Fahnestock South Sea Expedition: Indonesia- 1.65
  • The Discoteca Collection: Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas- 1.66
  • L. H. Correa de Azevedo: Music of Ceara and Minas Gerais- 1.84
  • The Yoruba/Dahomean Collection: Orishas Across the Ocean- 1.73
  • The Arthur S. Alberts Collection: More Tribal, Folk & Café Music of West Africa- 1.87

The best tracks, in my view, include Tracks 1 and 7 on the Alberts Collection (tracks are not named), Rojão by Rouxinol and Chico Pepueno (Track 5 on L. H. Correa) and Marajó já teve fama by Satiro Ferreira de Barros (Track 8 on Discoteca). All six sets are now available from Smithsonian Folkways in digital form and as on-demand CDs.

15. JSP Records & Box Sets of International 78s

Buy One Get One Free. The goal of the UPM site is to popularize old world music
recordings. On the face of it, JSP Records wants the same thing. Founded by John Stedman in 1978 (John Stedman Promotions), the British label was founded to promote contemporary Blues artists. A growing number of vintage recordings have been added to the list, including international collections

JSP specializes in box sets, multiple CDs at a discounted price. On the international side, some of the releases are distinctive and high quality. The best example is the 2010 Out-Singing the Nightingale collection, a 4-CD set showcasing Lauren Brody’s efforts to rescue forgotten recordings from Bulgaria. This is often arresting music that is otherwise near-impossible to find. In 1998, Yazoo put out a single CD of 78s unearthed by Brody, casting JSP as the hero willing to bet on four. Other notable JSP output includes the 3-CD selection from Sherry Mayrent’s horde of Yiddish 78s, Cantors, Klezmorim and Crooners 1905-1953, and the oddly overdue Paese Mio Bello- Historic Italian-American Recordings 1911-1939. These latter two lack the incendiary combination of rarity, focus and quality of the Bulgarian reissues, but undoubtedly address a gap, proffer reasonable notes and flash a gem here and there.

Other JSP box sets head in an entirely other direction. Slovenia USA consists of three CDs, each featuring a particular Slovenian artist of the 1920s. No effort is made to place the recordings in the context of other Slovenian 78s, the notes are fawning and descriptive, and the music is yawningly humdrum. Three CDs of the stuff, at a knockdown price, makes me imagine Mr. Stedman rubbing his hands at the prospect of all those third generation Slovenian immigrants clamoring for that old-time accordion; and “for real” urban kids sampling some bitchin’ Slovenian banjo. The notes pair the music, polite choral and jazz leanings, with incongruous photographs of Slovenian folk in peasant garb dancing in meadows and standing next to haystacks. It’s as if the world was in the grip of a Slovenian crossover music craze, and JSP was rushing to cash-in. Mum picked up a copy in the checkout line at Wal-Mart, with US Weekly and a packet of M&Ms.

The Beyond Rembetika set is a special case- 4 CDs of 78s from Epirus, a distinctive but rarely independent region that today spans northern Greece and southern Albania. Music from Epirus is among the finest in the world- intense, wandering vocals, local polyphony and what Pat Conte described as “thick, syrupy” clarinet. The collection was put together by Chris King, who has become one of the most lauded producers of 78 RPM reissues. Mr. King, rooted in Blues and Country, stumbled across Greek and Albanian 78s and was hooked.

What is odd about Beyond Remebetika is that it is classic JSP but thoroughly atypical for Chris King. Mr. King is known for careful sound restoration and presenting recordings alongside historical photographs, and lyric translations, namely a “total experiential package”, according to an interview in Uprooted Music Review. Yet Beyond Rembetika is quantity over quality- the cover proudly proclaims “92 sides”, the tracks are in no discernible order, and the notes contain no images at all. The text is small and is a long way from either “experiential” or a satisfactory account of the musicians and recordings. There is some attention to the history of the styles, but very few of the pieces or artists featured are discussed directly.

As if to make amens, Chris King is also behind a single LP/CD of Epirotic music, Five Days Married and Other Laments, which is obviously much shorter as well as much more engagingly packaged.

In my view, what keeps vintage world music from mainstream appeal is often a surfeit of dry, didactic details about the performers and context, which turns musical energy into an academic exercise. The burden of historical accuracy ends up smothering what is ultimately instinctive and emotional. Equally, beyond throwing around words like “beautiful”, “hypnotic” etc, the compiler’s passion is more asserted than articulated. A scathing review of Beyond Rembetika by Tony Klein, long-time expert on Greek music, takes Mr. King to task for his novice’s enthusiasm, alleging multiple errors and fuzzy language.

The JSP approach goes too far the other way, like a vendor in a flea market– “Now listen here. Four CDs for the price of one. Lovely old music, very rustic and alluring. Very rare recordings. Only a few left. Don’t delay, my son”. The unsuspecting customer, feeling this is something they “should” know more about, puts down his money. But back at home, some of the sounds are indeed arresting, but the experience is incoherent, many pieces sound the same, and it’s simply too much effort to make sense of. The set gathers dust or goes on eBay.

Was Chris King desperate to reissue all his finds in one splurge, but only JSP would touch it? Did John Stedman think this was going to be a big seller? Did Wal-Mart drive a hard bargain? I see huge potential to popularize vintage world music in a contemporary setting, but that’s not the same as flogging it off the back of a lorry.

VerdictSlovenia USA scored a depressingly low 1.56 across the three CDs (90th percentile). No stand-out tracks. Beyond Rembetika ranges as high at the 4th percentile (CD A) at 2.37 down to the 20th percentile (CD D) at 2.02. The fact that scores ran in order from A-D suggests the weariness of both the compilers and the scorer. In my opinion, the best tracks are Track 4 (The Asimouli – Anastasios Halkias) and Track 19 (N’anastenakso Den Makous – Stilianos Bellos) on the first CD.

Both sets are available from JSP Records.

14. Maria Teresa Vera

Where is the “Embodiment of Cuban Song? In 2001, I made a startling discovery. In a music store in Amsterdam, when compact discs were not far past their peak, I came across the “Musica Latina Nostalgia” series, reissuing Latin American 78s from the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve long been suspicious of this kind of fare- enthusiastic liner notes quickly collapse amid what to my ears sounds like endless trite, formulaic material, with the vernacular hopelessly tangled up in the commercialized “Latin” sound of the period. But forever hopeful, I looked for the most promising item to buy.

Swayed by the duo format (vocals, guitar), age of the recordings (1916-1924) and mixed ethnicities of the protagonists, I went for “Maria Teresa Vera Y Rafael Zequeira- Me Parece Mentira”. I had no prior knowledge of the performers, and the opening strains of the first piece seemed to confirm my suspicions. Then I was stopped dead by the most beautiful array of bright, delicate melodies, shifting time signatures, multi-section song structures and bewitching interplay of solo, part and harmony, track after track. To this day, this boasts the highest score of any old world music album I’ve ever found, barring some compilations.

So commenced years of searching for Maria Teresa Vera. She is both well-known and elusive; acknowledged as a major force in Cuban music (“the embodiment of Cuban song”) but absent from the CD racks. Rafael Zequeira died in 1924, forcing Maria to seek a new path. Already something of a star, in 1925 she formed the Sexteto Occidente, one of the first purveyors of Son, the amalgam of Afro-Cuban religious and social music with the more Spanish Trova, the style of Maria’s earliest recordings.

Son retains elements of Trova, but relies most on musical features which, in my opinion, tend towards the bland and uneven, at least on recordings. The style is first rhythmic, including heavy use of call-and-response melody. Improvisation is also a key tenet, which by definition only works well occasionally. Histories suggest that Son arose out of the growing confidence and visibility of the Black population, following the abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886. Shaky independence from the United States from 1902, and a steady opening up of the economy, fostered a stronger sense of nationhood and hybrid creativity. Son is characterized as the grandfather of Rhumba and Salsa among other subsequent trends.

But to me, at this distance and with only the recordings, Son sounds generally dull, languid and repetitive. No doubt in the 1920s, when to the wider public African musical derivatives were fresh, Son appeared exciting and innovative. Today, when the African contribution is taken for granted, it’s hard to look upon the development as our ancestors once did. It is also important to appreciate that the 78 rpm medium forced significant curtailment of the more expansive and meandering Son, which was really to be experienced live over hours of dancing, drinking and socializing. As always, not understanding the lyrics doesn’t help.

My bone of contention is my inability to find any post-1924 recordings featuring Maria Teresa Vera that bear any comparison to her acoustic period, either in style or quality. As the Internet gained traction, a few other CDs surfaced, but all from much later in Maria’s life, and with nothing like the fire of her vintage material. She engaged in another lengthy duo alliance, with Lorenzo Hierrezuela, but I’ve not uncovered any results from that. With Trova unfashionable until the somewhat politicized and hybrid Neuva Trova revival of the 1960s around the time of Maria’s death, perhaps she simply catered to demand or was engaged in creative exertions I can’t fathom or as yet unseen.

It is important to note that neither Maria nor Rafael are cited as authors of their acoustic songs. The composers are in fact among the giants of Trova, notably Manuel Corona and Rosendo Ruiz. Born long before the turn of the 20th century, these classic Trova composers appear to have made few recordings in their prime, but I have turned up a later CD from Sindo Garay, which I’ve yet to listen to. I am trying to find a copy of the CD Early Cuban Trova 1900-1940 released nearly 20 years ago on Alma Criolla Records.

In the final analysis, Maria may have been more performer than composer. In the twilight of Castro’s Cuba, perhaps new perspectives and reissues will emerge to address my lingering “outsider” questions about this enigmatic woman and the faint Trova legacy of a century ago.

Verdict: 2.675 out of 4 (top 1%). All the tracks are worth listening to, but Solitario Peregrino and El Triunfo de La Chancleta are the best. A couple of reissues of these sessions remain widely available, in both CD and digital form.