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.

4. Mortika- Recordings from a Greek Underworld

Lost in the Underworld? This double-set on vinyl (Mississippi/Canary Records, 2009) is very alluring. When I first saw it, on a high shelf in a Manhattan record store, it was hard not to buy- stark, enigmatic black-and-white cover and the “underworld” theme conjuring taut, raw, passionate music . I convinced myself money was too tight to buy yet another record, but it was only a matter of time.

Old music from Greece can be very stirring, balanced precariously between Europe and the Orient, but imagination and reality are often far apart. There are numerous CD reissues of old Greek music, usually termed Rembetica, all in a sweat about the drugs and violence said to have surrounded these styles. The imagery is dark and brooding, words such as “classic” and “masterpiece” are thrown around, and there are long treaties on bouzoukis and harp guitars.

My problem is that by definition not all old recordings can be classics and masterpieces. Compilations are put out by enthusiasts who are torn between appeals to a popular audience and the technical details beloved by the specialist. The line between quality and rarity starts to blur. Old world music reissues generally lack the discipline of the popular audience. They quickly default to purity and representation rather than a more objective assessment for the contemporary listener. Hence the popular audience pays no attention. I listen to Rita Abadzi for the same reason I listen to Pink Floyd and Beyonce.

For me, Mortika falls very much on the allusions/technical/random collection of tracks for insiders side of the ledger, with almost no pieces coming close to crossing the chasm to the modern world. Give me Zmirneikos Balos by Marika Papgika on “Greek Oriental Songs and Dances” on Folklyric Records or Prepei na Skeptetai Kaneis by Rita Abadzi from The Secret Museum of Mankind, Volume 2 on Yazoo. Don’t misunderstand me- the Mortika approach works for insiders and specialists, and there’s nothing wrong with a niche market, but I’m convinced there’s much more potential.

Verdict: 1.62. This is the bottom 15%. The best track is The Dervish by Marika Papagika. Mortika appears to still be available, such as on Discogs.