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.

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).

 

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.

 

12. Folk Music in Sweden

Late Welfare State Capitalism. Sweden is not top-of-mind when people think of world music that might interest them. African drums or Indian sitars are more likely candidates. Most people would be hard pressed to describe Swedish folk music at all- ABBA is about as traditional as it gets.

Even for me, years of pouncing on older recordings of vernacular music from any nation on earth associated Sweden with only endless anodyne fiddle and accordion dances. Impossibly long and exotic titles, but tiresome music. The stunning Swedish herding call and the keyed fiddle track on the Secret Museum of Mankind series stood as glorious but seemingly isolated exceptions to the rule.

But as so often, I wasn’t really paying attention. I recently stumbled across a 28-volume Folk Music in Sweden CD series issued by Caprice Records in the 1990s. How can tiny Sweden produce a 28-CD series, starting in the early 1990s, when it took Great Britain until 1998 to put out the 20-volume Voice of the People Series, and took France until 2009 to limp over the finish line with a mere eight sets? I imagine the stereotypically generous Swedish welfare state deciding that a huge series of folk music CDs was in the national interest, providing a free set to every household, and throwing in a voucher for keyed fiddle lessons.

One the face of it, the Sweden series has it all. Far from isolated, there is a whole CD devoted to the herding music that burst out of nowhere on the opening track of Secret Museum Volume 4. There is a three-CD set of instrumental music recorded in the 1910s, and 1938 field recordings of ancient church choral music from the island of Runo.

Even I would find it too much to digest at once 28 CDs of folk music from one country, so to date I’ve purchased only the above items. Some numbers in the series suggest hit-and-miss fusion efforts, such as Adventures in Jazz and Folklore, but in general the emphasis is on archival and field recordings.

So my perspective so far is partial, but here’s what I think. Perhaps inevitably, the herding track on the Secret Museum is by far the strongest on the dedicated set, with most other tracks derivative and less powerful. Almost unique among old world music collectors, Pat Conte, Mr. Secret Museum, is a man of both exhaustive reach and exquisite taste. But no question that the notes of the Sweden CD very helpfully put this music in context beyond Pat’s evocatively slight commentary, and the CD predates the Secret Museum reissue. An example of a frustratingly common pattern, Elis Lisslass, the singer of the definitive herding piece, gets merely one other track on the CD, a duet, suggesting either tragic lack of further recordings or odd priorities by the compilers.

The 3-CD set of early instrumental recordings, said to be the first to truly capture Swedish folk music, implies that even the 1910s was “too late”. Ethnographer Yngve Laurell, trained by the pioneering ethnomusicologist Erich von Hornbostel in Berlin, considered Sweden behind in using the phonograph to chronicle national stylings, and spent 1913-1920 making amens. But from a contemporary perspective, he appears to have been content with endless pedestrian fiddlers and clarinetists. There are the rare and tantalizing possibilities of a single keyed-fiddle player, a single fretted zither player and a blower on a birch bark flute, and some of these pieces are the highlights of the set, but more often than not the recordings seem short and random. Perhaps somewhere else in the 28-volume series are keyed fiddle recordings worthy of the 3-minute flash of insight from the Secret Museum.

The Runo set also promised much but delivered less. Runo, a longstanding Swedish community off the coast of Estonia, boasted a mere 300 people in the early 1940s when World War II persuaded the entire population to bid final farewell for the mainland. Extant for over 600 years, Runo preserved an archaic Swedish dialect, and a choral tradition defined by a 1695 reformed hymn book. In 1938, Carol-Allen Moberg, a musicologist, and the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, visited the island.

Until the 1910s, “chorales” has been sung unaccompanied, the community too poor and isolated to purchase the standard church organ. So in the 1930s, the visitors concentrated on solo renditions, outside church, of the old unaccompanied styles, and captured only a few congregational examples. The irony, of course, is that the supposed glories of the choral style, lining by the minister and in response, free from the strict tonality of the organ, the unexpected accidentals of the assembled congregation, was not captured at all. Instead we have mostly bare bones solo lines plus a couple of group pieces with organ. The latter are actually quite strong, but the notes imply that the true wonder of the original approach is conspicuous by its absence. Couldn’t they have persuaded the old-timers to get together and reminisce?

All in all, my discovery of this epic series convinces me that every nation has a stash of old recordings still waiting to see the light of day, or confined to the local market. We are still in the relatively early stages of truly compiling, evaluating and disseminating this legacy. Caprice Records has done a good deed to Sweden and the rest of us by issuing this series, keeping everything in print, and including a full English translation. But the fact that it took someone like me over fifteen years to find it is a sure sign of the old world music marketing problem UPM seeks to address, and that there is so much more still to be revealed.

Verdict: Overall, pretty lowly, with Volume 8 denied a higher position by my prior discovery of the classic Elis Lisslass track.

Volume 8- Ancient Swedish Pastoral Music- 1.98 (27th percentile). Aside from Track 2 which is also featured on the Secret Museum Volume 4, the best tracks are Track 1 Kulning- Anna Karlsson and Track 3 Kulning– Karin Edvardsson Johansson

Volume 24- Chorales & Wedding Music from Runo- 1.73 (78th percentile). Best tracks are Track 32 Congregation Song #1 and Track 2 Hela varlden klagar sig (Nr 399)

Volumes 26-28- Swedish Fiddlers from the Past- combined c.1.60 (87th percentile). Best tracks are Track 6 on Volume 1 Brudmarsch fran Jamtland- Bengt Bixo (fiddle) and Track 35 on Volume 3 Polka fran Vastbo- Otto Malberg (fretted zither)

The entire Folk Music in Sweden series is still available from Caprice Records. The likes of Amazon also appear to stock most volumes.

10. You Never Heard So Sweet- Songs by Southern English Traditional Singers

You Never Heard So Sweet ‘n’ Low. In 1998, Topic Records, the longstanding independent record label devoted to English traditional music, issued the landmark Voice of the People series, 20 CDs of archive recordings from the British Isles. The set is all but unparalleled in its range and ambition. For reasons unclear, in 2012, after 14 years, Topic has issued further volumes in the series, although not numbered. A key factor appears to be the availability of particular historical collections, and perhaps a desire to use the moniker to raise awareness and boost sales.

Those familiar with the U-PM site know that England was the topic of our first show, and the country combines large numbers of old recordings of traditional music and a mediocre score. The original Voice of the People volumes do feature some outstanding performances but the majority of tracks are more notable than compelling for the contemporary listener. Upon discovering the new volumes, I had no reason to think things would be different, but could not resist the possibility.

You Never Heard So Sweet is from the collections of Peter Kennedy and Bob Copper. Kennedy (1922-2006) was the son of Douglas Kennedy, Director of the English Folk Dance Society after Cecil Sharp, the founder. Peter was nephew of Maud Karples, Sharp’s assistant during their visit to Appalachia in the 1910s and later a prominent advocate of folk song and dance. Bob Copper (1915-2004), one of the Copper Family from Rottingdean in Sussex, known for its unusual choral singing style, both recorded and collected songs from the 1950s onwards.

In large part, You Never Heard So Sweet suggests that Topic is now searching for scraps rather than tapping a new vein. Only the first and last tracks stand out, and their positioning suggests the compilers themselves are under no illusions. The opener is The Bold Princess Royal sung by Ned Dean from Hastings, a man said to have only this one song. The delivery is grave and powerful, and the melody outwits the ordinary. I picture Ned Dean agreeing with me that most other old songs are not worth bothering with. The final track is the carol Shepherds, Arise! sung by the Copper Family. This piece rises above standard Copper fare- rustic, dignified, devoted, and equal to the imagined legacy of English traditional music.

All the other tracks are musically uninteresting save for the academic, and charm only with a turn of phrase. One surprise was to hear the song Canadee-i-o performed in the field, by Harry Upton. I know this song from Nic Jones’ much feted album Penguin Eggs (1980). What struck me is how dull the field version is compared to the Nic Jones take. The tuning, backing and arrangement of the latter transform what might otherwise appear to be an uninspired piece. I don’t know whether the field recording is unrepresentative or if Jones’ creativity made all the difference.

Regardless, the experience pushed some questions around my mind. Are many field recordings the last gasp of tradition, and a poor showing compared to past renditions? Might the standard unaccompanied, solo voice of field recordings in England suggest an exhausted legacy once elevated by instruments and chorus? Reg Hall, the main force behind the entire Voice of the People effort has argued that the Copper style, the great exception to the rule, reflects 19th century glee club more than some ancient tradition, plus some Copper idiosyncrasy. One theory might be that only contemporary glee club energy and freshness saved older material, and family ties sustained the hybrid longer still to the point that it was mistaken for simply tradition. No doubt much undefined archaic glory has been lost, but we must be honest about why.

The bigger the gap between older recordings and the present day, the more likely the latter is to misunderstand and not appreciate the former. But dry reverence is no solution, and relegates the legacy to obscurity. Canadee-i-o is a great example of life blown into legacy, although ironically “folk” presentation means the Nic Jones version is hardly well-known. The goal of U-PM is to focus on the “best” of old world music from every country, to make the most of our point in time and the available resources. Imagine the music of tomorrow built on every strand of tradition, not just, say, the blues and country that shaped contemporary American popular music, and much besides.

But we must face the fact that much tradition was abandoned out of choice, as other styles and pastimes seemed more enticing. Much traditional music was function as well as art, part of a cultural fabric more than rational evaluation. Today Coldplay resonates, where Nic Jones never mind Harry Upton do not. In my view, putting the best of traditional music alongside what is popular today, facing the chasm and redefining quality for this purpose, can greatly broaden the impact of the legacy and invigorate once again everyone’s musical life.

Verdict: 1.68 (just inside bottom quartile). You Never Heard So Sweet and other new releases in the Voice of the People series are available from Topic.

 

9. Blind Uncle Gaspard, Delma Lachney & John Bertrand- Early Cajun Music

Sitting in the Window of My Room. Cajun music is a reminder of the messy origins of the United States. In the 1760s, facing British domination in the New World, the French negotiated away Canada’s Maritime Provinces, and the emigration of French settlers to Louisiana, the name of the remaining French possessions in North America at the time. Some moved to territories others than present-day Louisiana, but New Orleans drew most. Many Acadians fought against the United States in the Revolutionary War. In 1803, French territories in the modern U.S. were handed over in the Louisiana Purchase, condemning the Acadian emigrants to loss of sovereignty a second time.

Two centuries of separation and assimilation produced the Cajuns of today, retaining a particular identity but ultimately one immigrant community among others. During the vernacular recording boom in the U.S. in 1920s and early 30s, Cajun musicians were recorded, both commercially and in the field. Pre-WWII, string bands were the norm, but the arrival of the accordion ushered in the sound more familiar today.

In my view, many early Cajun recordings go no further than routine dance music- unless you’re dancing in the bajou, the mind starts to wander. A few Dennis McGhee and Amèdé Ardoin tracks stand out, but generally the output appears workmanlike. From my earliest days collecting vintage recordings of traditional music, one Cajun track out-shined all others- La Danseuse (1929) by Delma Lachney and Blind Uncle Gaspard. The piece is quite different from anything I’ve heard before or since- beautiful, delicate violin-guitar interplay, thoroughly accomplished and unexpected. The track was included on Volume 2 of Harry Smith’s famous Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), and I first heard it in 1989 in the dying days of vinyl.

Since then, La Danseuse always seemed the exception that proved the rule- this piece was incredible but bore little resemblance to other older recordings from the region. But  obviously I was not paying attention. Only in 2012 did I realize that in 1999 Yazoo had released a CD compiling what appears to be almost all of Lachney’s and Gaspard’s recordings, plus those of another obscure Cajun musician, John Bertrand.

The CD acknowledges that this trio represent an “unusual byway” of Cajun music, “softer and more introspective than other styles”. Unfortunately, there is no track in the manner of La Danseuse, but Lachney and Gaspard showcase a number of other almost equally beguiling styles, notably ethereal French ballads backed by seemingly simple but evocative strumming or bowing. The melodies are at turns charming and eerie, but never obvious. The CD suggests that an out-of-the-way locale in Louisiana, little explored by folklorists, may account for these rare characteristics. Gaspard’s age (born 1880) and blindness may also have been factors, plus the creativity of both men amid tradition. By contrast, John Bertrand, no doubt partly included just to fill up the CD, serves as routine Cajun foil, but is more interesting when he sings than dances.

It is such a shame, for all the lame Cajun breakdowns, never mind the glut of Blues and Country recordings churned out over the period, that we are left with only a glimpse of the delightful byway of Americana represented by Lachney and Gaspard. Both men died before the Folk Revival of the 1960s.

But still the mystery lingers- is La Danseuse a one-off or are there other examples, whether vintage or more recent?

Verdict: 2.17 out of a possible 4. That’s about top 10%. The score would be higher if a couple of tracks, such as La Danseuse, were not already in the database. The CD is still available from Yazoo.