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.