Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History Of The World’s Music Photo: Dust-to-Digital

Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History Of The World’s Music

March 12, 2021

Written by:

Garth Cartwright

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Dust-to-Digital - the US record label that specialises in ensuring “lost” music often made by marginal communities many decades ago - likely needs little introduction. Since founding the label in 2003, Lance and April Ledbetter have done a remarkable job in ensuring rare gospel and blues, Cambodian and East African and Yemeni and Morrocan music, have been made available for contemporary audiences.

The music is superbly mastered so giving the listener a taste of how dynamic these recordings sounded when played for posterity some generations ago. And their box sets are stunning packages, little pieces of art in themselves. Dust-to-Digital might reissue analogue music but they are keyed into our digital world: their daily Twitter and Instagram posts are stunning, amongst the best things on the net, and all the music they issue is available from Bandcamp (so you don’t have to fret about postage, import duty etc - that said, their CDs/LPs are gorgeous!).
I’m pretty sure the world doesn’t need another white guy record collector waxing rhapsodic about music from cultures that are not his own. I wanted to avoid as best I could all cultural romanticism, tourism, and exoticism, yet also be able to offer interesting and uniquely rare selections.
Excavated Shellac cover
Excavated Shellac cover
To kick 2021 off and save us all from drowning in the lockdown blues, Dust-to-Digital have gone and issued a stunning package called An Alternate History Of The World’s Music that contains 100 previously un-reissued 78-era recordings and a beautifully illustrated 186 page book (every tune gets discussed - the first is a South African miner’s protest against police brutality, the last a dreamy Cuban innuendo).

The provocative title is there to make interested parties wonder just what is contained within. Well, let’s start with what’s not: no jazz, blues, country, gospel, pop, crooners, classical, opera - you know, the usual suspects when it comes to 78-era reissue projects. Instead, a sonic smorgasbord from across the globe unfolds: Afghanistan, Sudan, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Uganda, Spain, Albania, Mongolia, Mexico and onwards and onwards. Ever wondered what the Crimean Tartar Orchestra might sound like? No? Fabulous (raucous, minor key, brass party music) in fact.

This digital-only release is the work of Excavated Shellac, a website that began in 2007 with a 78-collector doing a daily-post (it's worth following Excavated Shellac on Instagram, Facebook et al for the extraordinary music and info’ posted regularly). Avoiding Robert Johnson and Geeshie Wiley and other such blue chip 78-era collectibles, Excavated Shellac focuses on music recorded across the non-Anglo world, offering a taste of the music being made in myriad communities at the dawn of recorded sound. These three minute snippets from a lost world are fascinating, a daily treat; An Alternate History gathers 100 of such from what website founder Jonathan Ward says of a record collection that “slowly and constantly both grows and shrinks, regularly accessioning and deaccessioning.”

Ward is a Los Angeles-based “metadata czar” who works in the field of museum documentation. Applying scientific rigour to his record collection, Ward has gained huge amounts of information on recordings where there has often been very little. This ensures he has worked closely with Dust-to-Digital on several projects (Opika Pende: Africa at 78rpm, Excavated Shellac: Strings, Excavated Shellac: Reeds) and Sublime Frequencies’ Indian Talking Machine set. Thus I’m chatting with one of the world’s foremost authorities of the 78-era.
Jonathan Ward. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
Jonathan Ward. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
“It was very important for me to add as much contextual information as possible,” he explains, “and to remove as much of myself and my own particular opinions from the text as possible. I’m pretty sure the world doesn’t need another white guy record collector waxing rhapsodic about music from cultures that are not his own. I wanted to avoid as best I could all cultural romanticism, tourism, and exoticism, yet also be able to offer interesting and uniquely rare selections.”

Ward is, I realise, a humble authority, but one whose passion for music pressed on shellac is tangible in everything he says and writes. 78s, he notes, were invented at the end of the 19th Century and remained the recorded music format until the late-1950s (for the US and UK) while continuing in Asia, the Soviet Union, Columbia, parts of Africa and several other regions well into the 1960s: to emphasise this Alternate History features ‘60s-era 78 recordings from Uzbekistan, Kenya, South Africa and Burma. Anyone who has ever heard a good condition 78 played on a decent system will know what Excavated Shellac has long proved: 78s are the bomb! The electrical era (1920s on - prior acoustic recordings sound thin) captured dynamic performances created live in a room. An Alternate History is an audiophile's dream yet such beautiful, powerful music has been transferred not from master tapes but often via the only known copy of a 78 in existence.

“The 78 rpm industry was a massive, global enterprise that produced hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of individual recordings,” says Ward. “Yet statistically almost none of this material is accessible today as it has never been reissued or made available. It’s as if it never existed - an ‘alternate universe’ in a way. When people think of early recorded sound - if they ever do - they tend to think of early American jazz music. We’ve been told for decades that those are the primary performers and performances to revere. However, every country had their own roots musicians, their pop bands, their entertainers and troubadours.”

Raging against forgetting is what fired Ward to undertake this project.

“The throughline of the text in this project is the industry itself,” he continues, “and how it worked from a global standpoint, focusing in particular on areas of the world where it’s likely that most people had no idea a 78 rpm record industry existed. Places like the Persian Gulf, the Okinawan islands, Zanzibar. It’s an alternate history in the sense that by showcasing these hidden treasures it’s a humble attempt to make our history of recorded sound more egalitarian, more holistic.”
Interior of a European record pressing plant, late 1930s. Photo via Dust-to-Digital
Interior of a European record pressing plant, late 1930s. Photo via Dust-to-Digital
For listeners who love to travel via music, An Alternate History is the perfect balm for our current confinement : here, this project says, is humanity at its most creative and playful.

“I believe many people who are not steeped in this subject can be just as fascinated and moved by this music as I am,” Ward says, “they just need an entry point, an on-ramp of sorts. I try to provide that in the text; hopefully it can be something you can flip through, pick up, put down, come back to. Some of this music might seem alienating, like it dropped down from another planet, but it’s real music by real people, and it’s been right here all along.”

An Alternate History Of The World’s Music is a stunning listening experience. And also a reading pleasure: Ward’s book is beautifully illustrated with old 78 sleeves, photos and advertisements and each track gets an entry that gives as much detailed information on the artist/song/recording as he could find. I doubt there will be a better reissue project or music book in 2021 - and here you get both combined!

To give you a taste of the contents of Ward’s book here are nine of the bio’s he has written to accompany the 78s he chose for Alternate History. If these interest you - and they should! - I suggest you go to Bandcamp and purchase Alternate History: 91 more entries plus a fascinating Introduction await you (and 100 recordings!). Nothing else this year (on in many others) is likely to match this stunning collection of lost sounds and histories.
Ne’Matjon Qulabdullaev | Bilmasang Bilgil | Uzbekistan • 1962. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
Ne’Matjon Qulabdullaev | Bilmasang Bilgil | Uzbekistan • 1962. Photo: Dust-to-Digital

Ne’Matjon Qulabdullaev | Bilmasang Bilgil | Uzbekistan • 1962

Qulabdullaev was one of the Uzbek masters of the dutar, the longnecked string instrument found all across Central Asia, from Iran to western China. The Uzbek variant is one of the largest. Predominantly made of mulberry wood, the dutar is two stringed, and used mainly to accompany folk groups, though the occasional solo can be found. This piece was recorded as late as 1962, its title translating to “If You Don’t Know, Let Me Tell You.” It’s sung in the voice of a man who is deeply in love with a woman unaware of his feelings. Similar to that of Iran, the music of Uzbekistan suffered wild fluctuations in recording. Companies were operating in parts of the Caucasus as early as 1902, though things seemed to ramp up dramatically from the time of the Gramophone Company’s 1909 recordings in Tashkent and Kokand. According to British Library scholar Will Prentice, over 4,000 recordings were made in Central Asia by the Gramophone Company alone by late 1917. This is understandable, given the fact that this region was extremely diverse, with many rural people of varying cultural groups. Numbers of discs made by Pathé, the Germans, and Kiev-based labels like Extraphone, are still unaccounted for. Good luck setting your hands on any of them; as with much of Central Asia, we are lucky to have even a few early recordings in existence.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Soviet record industry was nationalized, and outside recording companies expelled. Some recordings, but not nearly as many, were made between 1919-1933 and production occurred in fits and starts until Stalin, in the 1930s, embarked on a development scheme that would greatly expand the 78 rpm industry within the Soviet Union, repairing its rundown factories and promoting the music of its various “territories'' within the union. The plant at Tashkent and its imprint, “Tashkentski Zavod,” produced the most discs of Central Asian music: by 1959, for example, there were over 400 discs issued and available in the Uzbek language alone. Ultimately, a massive amount of recordings were made in the Soviet satellite states after World War II. Many of these recordings were in part influenced by Stalin’s fiercely nationalistic agenda in the form of operas, Soviet classical music, and patriotic anthems. At the same time, many were genuine, non-Russian language recordings of traditional music. Naturally, this complicates how one might view “Soviet” music during this period and even what could be construed as “folk.” How strong was Soviet political ideology within traditional cultures, and what impact did it have on musical output? In order to make these judgments, more of those recordings must be made available.
Demka Dhe Hajro E Shoket | Këngë e Mahmudisë | Albania • 1930. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
Demka Dhe Hajro E Shoket | Këngë e Mahmudisë | Albania • 1930. Photo: Dust-to-Digital

Demka Dhe Hajro E Shoket | Këngë e Mahmudisë | Albania • 1930

Albania’s geography is almost 75% mountainous. Its rough landscape could act as a metaphor for this music, seemingly born out of isolation. This plaintive, polyphonic drone belongs to the Tosks, the southern Albanian cultural group, and played by an ensemble known as a saze. Men sing drones on the syllables of “ay” and “e,” accompanied by the violin, often the clarinet, and the eight-string llautë. This style of music, based on Albanian polyphonic singing but using some Western instruments, was a kind of urban folk that developed during the turn of the 20th century in Albanian cities. It still thrives today. The 1920s Albanian population in the United States was minuscule in comparison to that of, say, Ukrainian, Scandinavian, or Middle Eastern immigrants. Yet some of the first examples of Albanian folk music on record were indeed performed by Albanian-American immigrants and released on short-lived New York-based labels such as Mi-Re Rekord and Albanian. However, by the late 1920s, Polydor, Homocord, Columbia, Odeon, and the ubiquitous HMV were recording this traditional music in the country itself, in Turkey, and in Greece, where the Epirus region has significant geographic and cultural overlap with Albania. Much of that material never made it past the immediate border of Albania, much less to the United States.

This piece, “The Song of Mahmudi,” is a wedding song, and was likely recorded in Tirana in 1930 by the Odeon company. It features the group led by Demkë and Rrushan Hajros—father and son violinists, they were from Korçë in the southeast. The lyrics, sung by Çoban Arifi, are a dialogue between a mother and daughter. “Stand up Mahmudi, the wedding guests have arrived,” says the mother. “I cannot, Mother, for I am ill.” The group’s session for Odeon yielded at least 15 discs. They were well-known in the region up to Demkë’s death in 1947.
Ali Muhammadi | Vitha | Sudan • late-1950s. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
Ali Muhammadi | Vitha | Sudan • late-1950s. Photo: Dust-to-Digital

Ali Muhammadi | Vitha | Sudan • late-1950s

The immediate years after World War II sparked a recording frenzy in Sub-Saharan Africa led by smaller, independent labels. As discussed earlier, on-site recording in Sub-Saharan Africa began late compared with the rest of the world, and was sporadic through 1947. The combination of the Depression and the war had a devastating effect on the European multinational recording companies and when they returned to Sub-Saharan Africa, they found they were not alone. The recording landscape was changing. When magnetic tape and portable machines became widely available, these large companies were forced to compete with many dozens—even hundreds—of local 78 labels, the histories of which are only beginning to come to light. Anyone with a tape machine and a shop could become an entrepreneur, record musicians, have discs pressed locally or in Europe, and make some money selling 78s. Nowhere was this more apparent on the continent than in East Africa, where at least 50 small 78 labels were in operation. The vast majority of these records were distributed only locally. The centers of activity were Nairobi, Mombasa, Kampala, and Dar es Salaam and the recordings were, with a few exceptions, from Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

What makes this recording so exceptionally rare is that it’s from Sudan. Sudan was essentially a British protectorate until its independence in 1956, yet it seems that, like neighboring Chad, the country was comprehensively ignored by most record labels during the 78 era. There were a few nano-exceptions: a 1903 session for Zonophone where two songs by a Sudanese vocal quartet were recorded; a 1930 HMV session in Cairo that yielded three records by Fatma El-Chameya in “Old Sudanese”; a mid-1930s session for Odeon; a local label in Khartoum known as Munsphone that issued at least one 78 in the 1960s along with its many 45 rpm records, and—this record on Tom Tom. Tom Tom was a label pressed in Kampala, Uganda, by the Opel Gramophone Record Company, Ltd.

This company began business in 1956, and was run by the German businessman Dr. George van Opel, the grandson of Adam Opel, founder of the Opel automobile company. At its peak, the plant was pressing up to 50,000 records a month until it was closed in 1960 reportedly due to nationalist boycotts against foreign-owned businesses. Tom Tom mainly featured musicians from Kenya and Uganda, but this rarity proves they also were recording musicians from South Sudan. There was no local language printed on this 78, although it was clear that it was not in Arabic. What was the origin of this performer? What I knew was that the disc features a performance on a plucked bow-harp with 5 or 6 strings, and that it was Sudanese. Beyond that, nothing. I first contacted two ethnomusicologists in London at SOAS, who told me that the language was most likely either Lango or Acholi, two cultures native to both Sudan and Uganda, though they could not tell me which. Then, a US-based linguist sent the track to a South Sudan-based linguist, who then sent it to a colleague in the Doro Refugee Camp, in the far northeast of South Sudan. The song was played to numerous people in the camp who confirmed that it was in an older iteration of the Regarig language, also known locally as “Rerok.
Negatoua | Ya Bati Zefen | Ethiopia • 1935. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
Negatoua | Ya Bati Zefen | Ethiopia • 1935. Photo: Dust-to-Digital

Negatoua | Ya Bati Zefen | Ethiopia • 1935

An extraordinary amount of attention has been paid to Ethiopian music in Western countries in the past 20 years, thanks in large part to the brilliant French CD series Ethiopiques, 29 volumes strong as of this writing. These releases focus almost exclusively on modern Ethiopian music from the 1960s and 1970s, with elements of jazz and funk. But what existed before then, from the 78 rpm era? A mere 325 discs or so. The Italians were the major colonial power in the Horn of Africa during the ugly European race to occupy the continent. Despite the Italians’ entrenchment in Eritrea and Somalia, however, the Ethiopian Empire strongly resisted the invading army until the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1936.

Prior to the mid-1930s, there had been no recording whatsoever in Ethiopia—just as there had been negligible recording in Libya, also under brutal Italian rule during that time. Apart from a handful of important traditional recordings made in 1910 in Germany by Tèssèma Eshèté (the only known copies, once located in a library, now apparently destroyed) and some unissued sides made by Pathé for the Archives de la Parole in Paris in 1929, it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that the German Parlophon label began commercially recording Ethiopian music in any significant volume. What was recorded on these rare 1930s discs (as well as on the only other known Ethiopian 78s, made in the late 30s by Columbia, and the early 1950s for HMV) was strictly traditional, usually featuring the one-stringed fiddle, the masenqo, the krar bowl-lyre; or choral works with percussion. Ancillary documentation suggests that approximately 100 discs of Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali music were recorded during these Odeon/Parlophon sessions, around November of 1935. This was one of them, performed by “Signora” Negatoua with accompaniment by two masenqo fiddles. The title is simply a descriptor: a zefen—or folk—song performed in the bati mode, one of the four musical kiñits, or modes, for Ethiopian secular music. Negatoua sings this song to a rejected lover, whose loss she now laments. She calls him “Gedayie, Gedayie,” “my warrior” or “my hero,” and cries, now that he has gone (probably an indirect reference to his leaving to fight against invasion).
Paulos Dikito | Hendeyi Kumunda | Zimbabwe • 1954. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
Paulos Dikito | Hendeyi Kumunda | Zimbabwe • 1954. Photo: Dust-to-Digital

Paulos Dikito | Hendeyi Kumunda | Zimbabwe • 1954

It’s unclear when acoustic guitars first came to southern Africa. It’s surmised that they arrived there much as they arrived elsewhere in the world: through Portuguese traders traveling in the 15th and 16th centuries. It started to become popular in areas of sub-Saharan Africa from the late 19th century onward, and found its way into recorded African music from the late 1920s, but the true renaissance period of solo African guitar was the 1950s-early 1960s.

As ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey has suggested, the combination of the establishment of factories producing cheap guitars, coupled with the movement of rural populations into urban environments all across southern Africa, helped usher in this fascinating era. Like the accordion or concertina, the acoustic guitar was portable, making it suitable for the many itinerant musicians who entertained migrant laborers (miners, especially) in beer halls or on farms, between cities and countryside. Many of these performers made it onto the thousands of African guitar 78s issued in the 1950s and ‘60s, on labels large and small. Every label issued them, though nearly all would be considered “rare.” While a few performers are known today—namely Jean Bosco Mwenda of Congo and George Sibanda of Zimbabwe—the vast majority of these troubadours remain unknown and unheard. Paulos Dikito fits precisely into that camp. Nothing is known about him except that he recorded a few records for HMV, with this one being cut ca. August 1954 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Grupo Istmeño | Coge el Pandero Que Se Te Va | Panama • 1928. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
Grupo Istmeño | Coge el Pandero Que Se Te Va | Panama • 1928. Photo: Dust-to-Digital

Grupo Istmeño | Coge el Pandero Que Se Te Va | Panama • 1928

The Panamanian tamborito is a marvel. Almost never recorded before the 1950s, tamborito means “little drummer,” and is the national couples dance. Some date the origins of the tamborito to the 17th century, and speculate that its influences are mestizo, European, and West African. The African element is expressed in its rhythm and booming set of three drums known as the caja, the pujado, and the repicador. Leading the tamborito is a female vocalist, the cantaora alante, who sings lines echoed by a chorus in a call-and-response fashion.

The couples dance in a circle: the women dressed in the colorful handmade pollera dress (which can take eight months to make) and the men in the traditional montuno outfit consisting of a white shirt, black pants, a straw hat, and a chacara bag hanging on their left sides, strapped around their shoulders. The band and chorus clap, sing, yell, and encourage. Why more Panamanian folk music was not preserved is at least partially, as always, a matter of worldview and economics. American companies were the only ones to have recorded traditional Panamanian music before World War II—a grand total of 22 discs, recorded in March 1928 and April 1930. It’s possible that engineers stopped in Panama on the way back to New York, either as a pit stop, or to test record sales in the region. What little information exists on sales of these Panamanian discs suggests that they sold fairly well. Unfortunately, nothing is known about this group from the “isthmus” except they stepped into the studio on both April 8th and 15th of 1930. Even more fascinating is that this group, in their fleeting visit to the studio, chose to record what is essentially a protest tamborito that dates from ca. 1912. Its lyrics are vehemently against the United States and its policy of depopulating the canal zone during construction—forcing the relocation of what turned out to be approximately 40,000 Panamanians.
Count Lasher | Perseverance | Jamaica • 1957. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
Count Lasher | Perseverance | Jamaica • 1957. Photo: Dust-to-Digital

Count Lasher | Perseverance | Jamaica • 1957

It’s hard to imagine, with reggae’s meteoric rise in popularity from the 1960s onward, that the first truly Jamaican record wasn’t recorded and released until 1951. It may have been that major record companies in previous decades had figured the gap was being filled by the hundreds of Trinidadian calypso records and, in fact, influential calypso artists from Trinidad, such as Sam Manning and Lionel Belasco, did add several Jamaican songs to their repertoire in the 1920s. For those recording sessions, they were accompanied by groups that directly referenced the Jamaican style of music, mento, in their names—the Cole Mentor Orchestra, for instance. But Trinidadian calypso and Jamaican mento, while similar, are two different styles of music.

Details are unclear regarding how mento, Jamaica’s original popular music, emerged in the late 19th century. It’s generally believed that it developed among the rural poor, synthesizing both African and European influences in what historian Kenneth Bilby called a “creolizing process.” It was a social music for dance, usually featuring banjo and guitar, though sometimes also homemade instruments such as bamboo saxophoness and plucked bass instruments called “rhumba boxes.” Though popular as live entertainment in the 1930s and ’40s, no true Jamaican mento was recorded until 1951, when a Sephardic Jewish businessman named Stanley Motta set up Motta’s Recording Studio (MRS) in a woodworking factory. When Motta began recording, mento still had rural roots but, depending on the performer, it also could be as slick and sophisticated as any urban popular music. Sometimes mento was even identified as “calypso” on Jamaican record labels for the sake of unknowing tourists, and just like calypsonians, its most prominent artists had names that suggested royalty: Lord Flea, Lord Composer, Lord Power, and the artist featured here, Count Lasha, or Count Lasher.

Count Lasher was the pseudonym of Terence Parkins (ca. 1926-1977). At one point one of the biggest stars in mento, recording 20 78s for various Jamaican labels, he is known today primarily for the cover version of his tune “Calypso Cha Cha Cha” that Bob Marley and the Wailers recorded under the title “Rocking Steady” in 1966. This piece, “Perseverance,” is a modified farm worker’s song, or a “digging song,” adapted for mento arrangement.
Crimean Tatar Orchestra | Taksim ve Peshraf | Crimea • 1940. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
Crimean Tatar Orchestra | Taksim ve Peshraf | Crimea • 1940. Photo: Dust-to-Digital

Crimean Tatar Orchestra | Taksim ve Peshraf | Crimea • 1940

In 1940, when this disc was recorded, the Crimean Tatars, an indigenous, Sunni Muslim Turkic people on the Crimean peninsula, had already suffered under Joseph Stalin’s rule. Although they’d been incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1921, Stalin had a deep mistrust in them in part due to their connection to Turkey, and Turkey’s position during World War I; come the 1930s, he began deporting the Crimean Tatars with Turkish passports and executing their intellectuals.

Bizarrely, however, this didn’t stop the Soviet monolith from recording their folk music—alongside that of other ethnic minorities under Soviet rule—for posterity. And in this service of a perceived unified Soviet identity, genuine traditions were documented. Just a handful of Crimean discs were recorded as World War II tore the Tatar people apart. Some Tatars allied with the Nazis in the hope for independence, though many actively fought against them. When the Allied powers won the war, Russia punished the Crimean Tatars collectively, and systematically banished over 230,000 Crimean Tatars to Central Asia and to forced labor camps, an ethnic cleansing that researchers suggest claimed 46% of their population. The fate of the group here is unknown. The only credited musician on the disc, the violinist Ziyadin Memish from Bakhchysarai, ended up in Bekabod, Uzbekistan, along with many other Crimean Tatar musicians of the day. While Near Eastern instruments such as the zurna (double reed) and santur (zither) are common in Crimean Tatar folk ensembles, there is also a strong Eastern European connection. This piece emphasizes both quite clearly: a taksim (improvisation) played on violin leads into a peşrev, a Turkish instrumental piece that here sounds closely related to brass band music from Bulgaria.
Monks Of The Maru Monastery At Lhasa | Tse-Chu Cho-Pa (The Offering on the Tenth) | Tibet, China • 1944. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
Monks Of The Maru Monastery At Lhasa | Tse-Chu Cho-Pa (The Offering on the Tenth) | Tibet, China • 1944. Photo: Dust-to-Digital

Monks Of The Maru Monastery At Lhasa | Tse-Chu Cho-Pa (The Offering on the Tenth) | Tibet, China • 1944

The Muru Nyingba Monastery is easily eclipsed by the much larger Jokhang Monastery, both of which are located in the bustling and ancient Barkhor area of old Lhasa. Founded in the 9th century then destroyed and rebuilt some 150 years later, in the 17th century this smaller monastery became the Lhasa residence of the Nechung Oracle—an important religious position considered to be a divine protector of Tibet, its government, and the Dalai Lama. During the Cultural Revolution, the monks were removed and the monastery turned into stables and residences. While it became a working monastery once again in 1980, it was in disrepair until extensive restoration in 1999. Tibet’s remoteness was a primary factor in the pitifully small number of commercial Tibetan records produced in the 78 rpm era. That’s not to say attempts weren’t made.

In 1905, a total of 18 Tibetan performances were recorded in Calcutta by Gramophone Company engineers. It wasn’t until late 1913 that another smattering were issued. That minuscule batch remained in print until 1927, when six more were released. Through the fuzz of barely functioning electrical equipment comes an uncommon sound for 1944—the sound of a real field recording, issued commercially. Information is scant, but it seems this recording of the tenth day (ts’echu) rites performed by monks at Muru Nyingba (listed as “Maru” on the disc) was made under the auspices of the British mission at Lhasa. The Brits had a vested, strategic interest in Tibet. They invaded the region in 1903, killing thousands, after conquering Burma and the Kingdom of Sikkim at Tibet’s border. This eventually lead to a treaty between Britain and Qing Dynasty China—which, however, was soon overthrown. That, plus impending war and the Russian Revolution, limited Britain’s colonial presence until 1937, when the mission was established. Its head was Sir Basil “B.J.” Gould. Gould was both typical and unusual as a British civil servant. He was a career diplomat, having served in rugged and remote Afghanistan, Balochistan, and Waziristan. He was committed to British power and control in Tibet. Yet he also had a keen interest in Tibetan culture; he learned the language and script, and published numerous books on them. Gould’s last visit to Tibet seems to have been in 1944 (he died in 1956), when this performance was documented. The circumstances, however, are cloudy. Gould apparently made this and a number of secular recordings of female and male singers (issued separately on another series) using a wire recorder. The resulting 78 was filled with overpowering electric hum, digitally removed here for a more palatable listen. It’s a raw, early recording of Tibetan Buddhist, multiphonic throat chanting, along with the ritual long and short horns (dung-chen and gya-ling), and percussion. None of these recordings have been made available on CD until now.
Margareta Rădulescu | Mamă! Tata Când Mai Vine | Romania • 1926. Photo: Dust-to-Digital
Margareta Rădulescu | Mamă! Tata Când Mai Vine | Romania • 1926. Photo: Dust-to-Digital

Margareta Rădulescu | Mamă! Tata Când Mai Vine | Romania • 1926

The lăutarii in Romania are Roma musicians, and a class in and of themselves. Some play a more rural peasant music, and some, like the sadly almost unknown Margareta Rădulescu, play a type of suburban folk music from outside of Bucharest known as muzică de mahala. Margareta recorded briefly for both Columbia and for the German Odeon/Parlophon imprints, then seems to have vanished. While uncredited, her husband Costică likely accompanies her on accordion. They would have had to travel to record—their Columbia sessions were made in Vienna, on or near January 19th of 1926. Romanian music on disc, much like early Bulgarian recordings, rarely made it outside of the country in the early years—with the possible exception of the records by stars such as pan-pipe master Fănică Luca. It was an insular market—with local labels like Perfection Concert Record, Lifa, and the national label Electrecord creating inroads where the major labels would or could not.

About the Author

Garth Cartwright

New Zealand born, London based journalist, critic, DJ and music promoter. He is the author of several books including Princes Amongst Men, More Miles Than Money, and Going For A Song.

@garthcart1 garthcartwright.com
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