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.

Garrot Bounce 001

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. 

13. Scattered Melodies & The Crying Princess

Scratchcard. This is a review of two recent LPs from Sublime Frequencies, a Seattle- based label specializing in world music, old and new. The LPs are Scattered Melodies: Korean Kayagum Sanjo and The Crying Princess: 78 rpm Records from Burma.

The most significant thing about these releases is that each opens a window on a part of the world very rarely touched by reissues of old recordings. Prior to Scattered Melodies, I had found a mere 11 tracks from Korea, almost all field recordings. There are no pieces from Korea on the Secret Museum series, and nothing on the Excavated Shellac list of in-print CDs and LPs. Korea represented c.0.7% of world population in 1900, my proxy for the ratio of old recordings we should expect other things being equal, but constitutes less than 0.2% of my collection. This is among the larger gaps of any country. Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, which lasted until the end of World War II, was bad timing for early recording of traditional and popular music. Just as the first wave of audio technology was maturing, the famed “Hermit Kingdom”, long in thrall to both China and Japan, suffered colonization, with seemingly no Imperial interest in local culture. Sustained freedom and wealth in South Korea should have prompted collation of what older recordings were made, but perhaps any reassessment has been marketed to locals only.

Burma, today’s Myanmar, is similarly under-represented. Nothing on the Excavated Shellac list, only one track from the Secret Museum, and just 11 tracks in my collection prior to The Crying Princess. Burma’s population in 1900 is said to have been less than half that of Korea, but still the country’s track total lags. In Burma’s case, it is unclear whether British occupation until 1948, interrupted by Japanese invasion, created positive recording conditions, but no doubt isolated military rule from 1962 hampered international awareness of any legacy output. With the country now moving towards democracy, perhaps further reissues will be possible.

Either way, Robert Millis, the compiler of both LPs and co-founder of Sublime Frequencies, didn’t wait for a CD to show up in his mailbox. He and other co-founder Alan Bishop traveled to both Korea and Burma, looking for 78s. Millis is an avid collector, behind the Victrola Favorites book and CD on Dust-to-Digital. Neither record offers much detail on his journeys, but what is presented stems from finds in stores and homes, and from local collectors. Like other compilers, Millis is quick to state that the recordings are far from representative of either country, little is known about the performers and styles, and the usual mix of exoticism, rarity, age and mystical affinity drove the endeavor.

The Korean pieces, improvised plucking of various stringed instruments, notably the kayagum, a local zither, evokes comparisons with Blues slide guitar. Ethereal and raw no doubt but monotone and tedious after a while, as much meandering as direction, at least from this distance. This is the inevitable downside of the Sanjo technique, these “scattered melodies” as the translation has it. Perhaps accustomed scales and intervals box me in, but I heard nothing here to match, say, Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark was the night, cold was the ground. That piece scatters the pedestrian Blues norm, but shows what was possible. The Korean sample is very small, so there may be exceptions yet to be discovered, if my ears can hear. The record notes quickly swirl into a general ode to 78s, positioning the particular records as more sign than meaning.

The Crying Princess largely consists of angular, scraping, often conversational pieces that suggest story as more important than music, encrypting the whole for the foreigner. There are two big exceptions. The first two tracks on the second side are gloriously strident, melodic and heartfelt. Oddly, to me at least, the liner notes simply state that these tracks are performed on the Burmese harp, and devote more time to side 1.

Overall, I am most impressed with the efforts of Millis and Bishop to hunt down old recordings from the four corners of the earth. Millis is now in India, on a Fulbright Scholarship, beginning to piece together the 78 rpm inheritance of another country where reissues are thin on the ground. For both Burma and Korea, this is just the start of collation, dissemination and evaluation of what was left to us in shellac and field recordings. But as always I’m craving more opinion and less throw-up-your-hands subjectivity. Millis writes that music is too “wide-ranging, too subjective [to admit judgment], and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise”. Yet everything my ears have always told me says it’s not that simple.

I also can’t resist commenting on the LP format. Part of me thinks that LP-only reissues, in this day and age, confine old world music to an even more remote corner of the cultural attic. Not only is the music and age of the recordings not instinctive for the vast majority of people, but an “obsolete” format only adds to the obscurity. I suspect Sublime Frequencies simply accepts specialist status and regards the LP as more aesthetically attractive to the tiny coterie of likely buyers. The typical run of 1,000 copies reissues the rare and forgotten only for it to be quickly rare and forgotten once again. I suppose this is making the most of bare financial viability, but I’m convinced different presentation could change the equation.

Verdict: 1.94 for The Crying Princess (29th percentile); best tracks Perfumed Forest, Parts 1 and 2. I ended with a 1.75 average for Scattered Melodies (60th percentile), which is my compromise between inscrutable allure and listening reality. Both LPs are still available from Sublime Frequencies.

11. Older Recordings of Traditional Music from Australia

Nothing Outback. Recently, I had the good fortune to visit Australia. I was asked to speak at a conference and took my family along for some vacation. Whenever I travel, these days usually within the U.S. but occasionally abroad, I seek out old records and unknown reissues.This trip was a rare opportunity.

In 25 years of collecting, I’ve found only three LPs of field recordings from Australia. One of the first old world music records I ever bought was Traditional Songs of the Western Torres Straits on Folkways, which has a stunning opening track amid the mediocre and obscure, convincing me to press on all this time for other sparks of gold. Also early on I found Bush Traditions- Traditional Performers of Australia (Larrikin Records, the label founded in the 1970s to capture Australian folk music), a compilation of performances by descendants of Australian colonists, smashing my prejudices that only the music of the colonized was worthwhile. The third, discovered much later, was Arnhem Land Volume 3- Authentic Australian Aboriginal Songs & Dances on HMV from the 1950s. A fourth eluded me- a CD reissue of early Aboriginal recordings. I gripped the case but the assistant could not find the CD on the shelves. Turns out this experience foreshadowed my visit to Oz.

I was casually convinced that I would have no problem finding old recordings in Australia. After decades of Apartheid by any other name, the country appears to have made important strides towards some semblance of practical restitution. Out of a predominantly British colonial heritage, Australia seemed to assert a no-nonsense independent identity. Surely, I thought, some choice field recordings and reissues must be part of these developments. The flight to Sydney reassured me- the Qantas attendants decked out in ties and dresses printed with Aboriginal art.

So here and there, as chances arose, I began my search. No shortage of old record stores, junk stores and charity shops. But I kept coming up with nothing. Owners scratched their heads, saying either “I’ve never been asked that before” or “There is demand for that sort of thing but it’s very hard to find.” Very few 78s, and nothing of interest. Museum gift shops had no CDs at all. The “Australian” section at the record stores implied local music started with punk. A couple of performers down at Circular Quay in Sydney played the didgeridoo, but both the solo white guy and Aboriginals in full regalia were backed by techno beats. A guide book, borrowed from the lovely Tara Guesthouse, recommended the Folkways shop, home of Larrikin records, but it turned out the store had closed in 2009 and the Larrikin catalogue languishes without contemporary reissue. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation shop pointed me to some revival recordings of Waltzing Matilda and the like. In both Sydney and Melbourne, sought after recordings seemed as rare as an Aboriginal face.

So, what’s the problem? Certainly older recordings seem few on the ground. No Australian 78s at Excavated Shellac, no entries on that site’s in-print CD list, and nothing from the Secret Museum of Mankind series. A few Folkways records but confined to Aboriginal music. Listings on Amazon appear recent, revival or fusion. It is striking to compare my 600+ older recordings of traditional music from England, today only three times the population of Australia, with a mere 30 or so from non-Aboriginal Australia. The Australian National Film & Sound Archive likely houses some important treasures but specifics are less than obvious and only a few clips (no CDs) appear to be available. No doubt there is more out there than my short trip could procure, but I can’t recall an effort falling so short.

Compared to, say, blacks in America in the 1920s, Australian Aboriginals did not amount to a viable market for vernacular music. Colonists may have been too in thrall of the motherland to preserve much tradition before it vanished. Percy Grainger was sent to England to finish his musical training and devoted himself to recording English folk songs. Australia always seems to be trying to play catch-up with first Britain, then America, and now perhaps China.

My wife came to the rescue. One day when I had to work, she went back to a record store closed the previous day but rumored to perhaps have something. She interrogated the owner who did indeed have three LPs of Aboriginal music. She had him play them just to make sure. She waved her magic wand once before when I first started buying 78s in London. I was convinced I couldn’t find much until she tracked down Harold Moore’s and their now defunct basement full of shellac.

So I came away with what seemed to be the last three old-time recordings of traditional music in Australia, with the colonists neither featured nor seeming to care. I haven’t listened to these precious records yet but will report back when I do.

7. Cyprus Folks Dances & Songs- George Averof

Totally 80s. A common view might be that collecting recordings of old world music is a niche pursuit. But that’s upside down. Most people think themselves broadminded if they like Neo Soul and Progressive Rock, but that’s just a couple of styles over a handful of decades in one or two countries. Old world music is not a genre- it encompasses every country and people, long spans of time and an endless tangle of styles.

But collectors of old world music still need boundaries. One of mine is time. For me, the past happened before I was born (1970), the year that marked, more-or-less, the final spark of 78 rpm recording in the developing world, the blossoming of color television, decimalization in the United Kingdom, and the close of the 1960s, the decade that so hastened today’s modern world. Traditional music recorded prior to 1970 suggests the isolation and archaism I’m looking for, whereas post-1970 conjures drunk tourists and synthesizers. The year is ultimately arbitrary, and individual recordings succeed and fail on both sides of the line, but nonetheless the marker is quite reliable.

So when confronted with “Cyprus Folk Dances & Songs” (CBS) from 1985, I don’t know what to do. The performer, George Averof, is an old-timer, born 1913. The material looked thoroughly traditional. Old recordings from Cyprus are hard to find– no field recordings on Folkways, no in-print CD reissues on the “Excavated Shellac” list, no tracks on the “Secret Museum” series and not a whisper from my 12,000 strong collection. But 1985 is Huey Lewis and the News and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. This was very much the present. By 1985, is anything really traditional any more? I need to keep my focus. The dizzying array of contemporary “world music” is too confusing and knowing. I need to keep my focus.

If this record had been from almost any other country, I wouldn’t have bought it. But Cyprus is a mystery with nothing else to go on. Theoretically, music from Cyprus should be first rate. Teetering between Europe and Asia, it has the chance to take the best and sidestep the excesses of both. It turned out to be quite a fine album. So authentic you can almost hear the hiss and crackle. No sign of Spandau Ballet. Yes, mostly rudimentary Greek-style dances but then three-minute moments of delicacy and inventiveness. Why no 78s from Cyprus? Why no field recordings? Why no reissues? Why did we have to wait until 1985 for the past to bust into the present? What else from 1985 is languishing for a few dollars?

Verdict: 2.05 (top 18%). I bought this record in Music & Video Exchange in Notting Hill Gate, in London. The best tracks are 3 and 4 on Side 1- Zeimpekiko: Aivaliotiko and Dance Oriental: Arapié.

5. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sings Thumris

At last, a record that doesn’t make me irateSmiley. This is a joy to listen to. But let’s start with some background.

India, encompassing a sixth of the world’s population, boasts a plethora of musical forms. The first half of the 20th century witnessed a mass of recordings, but examples turn up on very few CD reissues from Western firms. The only dedicated CD appears to be the Vintage Music from India set on Rounder from almost 20 years ago. I’ve encountered a few reissues aimed at the Indian market, but production tends to be very poor. The 60s and 70s produced a string of LP reissues but finding these is left to chance. Is it a copyright problem?

For me, India is one of the most reliable sources of old world music that makes sense to modern ears. Beyond Europe, the India region produced one of the world’s few sustained forms of art music. While “classical” development risk excessive formality and stunted emotion, it may also rescue vernacular styles from the “raw” dead end. Now- I am far from an expert on the nuances of India’s musical regions and styles. I quickly get lost amid the long, confusing names of singers and techniques. I’m too impatient so I’m forced to rely on my ears.

What caught my attention with this record was reference to the “Thumri” style, described as the “expression of the singer’s soul… purely romantic or devotional… and it needs for its unfoldment a feeling heart, a fecund mind and a delicate expression”. This suggested the highly ornamented, expressive vocal lines that stop me in my tracks, and certain Indian singers define like few others. This LP (Gramophone Company of India, 1973) features just four songs in the Punjabi “Thumri” style, an adaptation of the original said to have emerged in Uttar Pradesh in the late 18th century. Sure enough, this record is suffused with elegance and creativity, showering snatches of improvised beauty at every turn. Why does vocal improvisation “work” when so much instrumental extemporization- jazz the big culprit- falls flat?

My reading is that “Thumri” is thoroughly modern, elevating emotion over reason, sympathetic to the heightened sense of self afforded by increased leisure, itself the fruit, ironically, of rational advances in science and trade. While I know nothing of the language or direct meaning of the songs, the style forges a direct connection to the longings of modern life, or at least I imagine it so.

The majority of vintage world music is raw and untutored, genuinely people’s music, and that is what the enthusiast seems to want. But I wonder if the gap is too wide, and the music ultimately too unsophisticated to truly satisfy. Hence the general audience stays away and the enthusiast risks the distractions of rarity and politics. A style like “Thumri’ seems more attuned to the breadth of the modern world, but perhaps the gap is still too big and Jennifer Hudson is quite sufficient. But not for me- where else can I find reissues of old recordings from India?

Verdict: A very rare “3” average (top 1%). A small number of tracks allows a few LPs like this to climb to the top. The only failing, typical for Indian reissues, is the poor sound quality. I bought this record at a Music & Video Exchange shop in Notting Hill Gate in London, UK. I’ve purchased but have yet to hear the Khansahib Abdul Karim Khan LP from Mississippi/Canary Records, reissuing “Tumbri” pieces from a earlier master of the style, and still available at places like Discogs. Based on one or two pieces uncovered online. I should expect wonders. I’ll review either way.

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.


2. Nelu Ianca (Romania)

The “Nelu Ianca” LP is typical of numerous tantalizing yet suspect records languishing in the “International” section of second hand stores. The covers suggests some kind of folk music but it’s impossible to determine whether the contents is “authentic” or staid revival. English notes are minimal or absent, and there is no recording date. The price is normally low- a dollar or two- so I take a chance…

I’m almost always disappointed. In this case, the material appears very derivative and uninspired, which not understanding the words only exacerbates. During the Communist era, staged folk music was the norm, which more often than not sapped much of the life out of the performances. Nonetheless, Nelu Ianca appears much feted in Romania. It’s always good to be reminded that music is not actually a universal language- it’s often as incomprehensible as a foreign tongue, or we imagine we understand it, or interpret it to suit ourselves.

Romania appears to be a good example of a country with a fine, distinctive folk music but few historical recordings, or at least few reissues. Minimal Romanian emigration to the United States immediately preceding and during the ethnic recording boom of 1910-1930 means no help from America- Jewish overlaps aside. Over the past 20+ years, the only worthwhile recordings I’ve found have been a couple of 78s and one or two exceptions on otherwise forgettable LPs. Am I missing something?

But with scale and persistence, comes reward. I keep looking, and keep taking chances.

Verdict: 1.59 out of 4 (bottom 15%). I found this record at a Half Price Books store near Dallas, Texas.