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.

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.

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.

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.

8. The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of and The Return…

Bigger Dreams. The reissue of 78s and field recordings of American blues, gospel, jazz and country music is the most developed activity of its kind. Stylistic and geographical limits, a short span of “classic” recordings and decades of work have resulted in near-complete compilation and contemporary availability. One of my earliest signposts to old world music read “Delta Blues”, but the allure proved much more powerful than reality, forcing me to broaden my horizons to the rest of the world. Yet for many collectors, blues or jazz is all-encompassing.

These two CD sets on Yazoo, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of (2006) and The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of (2012) are intriguing progress markers in this business of reviving interest in old music. The first set focuses on the extremely rare, pointing to the fact that the broader reissue project is near-completion, new discoveries are thinning and only the exceptional can make a splash. But consistent with past reissues, the selection is strict blues, country, etc. The second set mixes a few more rarities with an attempt to lay out the “best” recordings of these vintage styles. The selection also includes some random Irish and Polish tracks. These innovations speak to the need to move from quantity to quality, now quantity is not the problem, and a recognition that extolling American roots music but ignoring the rest of humanity makes no sense. The notes mention that “collectors today” are much more open to musical variety than those in the past.

But the attempt at quality and diversity feels half-hearted. Contrary to most reissues, the Return CD disavows any effort at biographical or chronological detail, arguing that this information is easily available at the click of a mouse. The tracks are in no particular order, rarities scattered among classics, with no obvious signposts for the novice. The few “other ethnic” tracks seem especially arbitrary. It is not clear why certain tracks are viewed as “classic”, indeed many appear merely rare, although I’d agree that some were obvious for inclusion. The compilers are at pains to say that appreciation of this music is simply “about the music”, but for the collectors its clearly much more important than that.  As with Opika Pende, these sets are supposed attempts to popularize old world music, but in fact only appeal to collectors who crave the very details omitted to (fail to) reach the popular audience.

My effort with U-PM is most definitely to popularize old world music, which does include focusing “on the music” and not record labels, matrix numbers, and speculation about what a performer’s grandfather did for a living or what he had for breakfast. But U-PM is equally about more sweeping analysis, stronger judgements and bigger detail. The Return CD suggests that progress is being made on both fronts, but its still early days.

One welcome feature of these sets is the attention to collectors themselves. Rather than just a footnote, the collector is center-stage, with discussions of personalities, media, methods, tastes and excesses. The collectors are rightly positioned as essential players in the transition from past to present. A book/CD account of the great record collectors, in any genre, is a big missing piece of the puzzle for any serious assessment of recorded music.

Verdict: 1.81 (Stuff- about 52nd percentile) and 1.89 (Return- about 39th percentile). The second set features quite a number of tracks I already own, which I exclude from my database to avoid double-counting. Some of these are outstanding pieces, like Last Kind Words Blues by Geeshie Willie and I’ll Lead a Christian Life by Elder Golden P. Harris, and would have lifted the average. For me, the best new discoveries include Track 17 on CD1 of Stuff, “The Grey Eagle” by J. D. Harris, and Track 19 on CD2 of Return, “Seneca Square Dance” by Fiddling Sam Long. Both sets are available from Yazoo.

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.

6. Opika Pende- Africa at 78 RPM

I Want a Grand Narrative. Opika Pende, the 4-CD set of 78s from Africa, released in 2011 on Dust-to-Digital, is perhaps the most sumptuous of a long line of bold reissues of folk and traditional music from around the world. Evocative old photographs and odes to neglected musical glories go without saying. Opika Pende attempt to capture an entire continent, staking out a middle ground between more straightforward national retrospectives and somewhat random “global” collections. The book-like presentation is also tellingly ambitious.

But in another sense, Opika Pende is as hesitant as others. So many introductions to old world music reissues are quick to cast aside any impression that a “grand narrative” is being attempted, and Opika Pende is no exception. Compilers note that the assembled recordings are no more than an incomplete picture of the whole, and fall back on value as simply musical enjoyment and rarity, alongside some fleeting remarks on what may be gleaned about style, location and recording.

It is certainly true that any geographically or culturally bound survey must contend with  meager original recordings, limited space, or both. Opika Pende divides Africa into four regions and tries to hit as many countries as possible. A plethora of traditions, countries, peoples, art music, religious, ceremonial and popular styles, settings, time periods and intentions vie for real estate, with “Africa” and “this stuff is neglected/important” the only unifying forces. Imagine the oddity of an equivalent collection on “North America” or “Europe”. The exhibition is rich, but meaning is slight. We are back to the fundamental tension at the heart of old world music reissues, between representation of the subject and reception by the contemporary listener.

In my view, it’s time to take it to the next level. Old record aficionados complain that aural history never gets its fair share of attention- museums are stuffed with books and artifacts, but old records are tottering in uncertain private collections. Old man record collector has amassed the cultural equivalent of a branch of the Smithsonian but institutions say “no interest.” The missing piece, it seems to me, is context and perspective. In one sense, the last thing we need is another isolated, picturesque reissue of yet more random old records.

Jonathan Ward, the collector and compiler of Opika Pende, and curator of Excavated Shellac, spent countless hours tracking down every scrap of meager information on each track, for which he is to be congratulated. But can we go further, and in other directions? I want to see how all reissues fit together, what remains to be reissued, and what appears lost. I want to know what came before. I want to have a clearer sense of what has happened to each showcased tradition, and the extent to which it influenced modern styles. I want to know about related reissues. I want the social, economic and political back story. This bigger canvas, which is less about scant details on specific recordings and more about a different perspective, will thrill the enthusiast and open a new door for the contemporary listener.

The ultimate need of the contemporary listener is a way to evaluate the music itself- to see a path other than enthnomusicology, a path that allows the music to live fully in its new circumstances, disembodied yes, but capable of new connections and meaning alongside all other music and amid life. Collections like Opika Pende try to straddle this divide but end up both insufficiently academic and unnoticed by music lovers.

The “grand narrative” I want is a tall order, not just a lack of imagination on the part of reissue compilers. Neglect of old world music, and old recordings generally, is a vicious circle, but we have to start somewhere. Attempts at grand narrative are how more established cultural segments attained their contemporary standing, and their evolution and dissolution spur more sophisticated interpretation and wider understanding. Grand narratives, by definition, are to be challenged as much as embraced. Opika Pende’s hesitancy is understandable, but now is the time to push forward.

Verdict: 2.04 (top 19%). In my view, the best tracks include Track 12 on CD1 (Ahlen Bikoum), Track 11 on CD 2 (Kenssa) and Track 9 on CD3 (Ja Bane). Opika Pende is available from Dust-to-Digital.

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.