THE WORLD AT 80 RPM
Paul Vernon looks at the early days of World Music recording
In November 1927 West Africa magazine reported the following; "The Governor-General of the French zone of Morocco has received from the Gramophone Co. the of offer of a Gramophone and 100 records towards the price demanded by Moroccan tribesmen for the release of Europeans held by them. The bandits stipulate that in addition to 12,000 they should receive a gramophone and a number of the latest records.
No reports of subsequent events appear to have survived, but if the tribesmen had their demands met they could have made their selections from the 'Disques Marocains' catalogue and enjoyed the music of Aicha Hertitia, Hadja El-Arjournia and Rais Mouhammed Oudran among others.
The 'World Music' recording industry we know today has a long and complex ancestry that dates back almost to the dawn of recording itself, when records often played at 80 rather than 78 rpm. C Certainly by the time the 20th Century had celebrated its first year, what we might term 'indigenous recording' was a reality that kept a surprisingly Large number of people hilly occupied.
The reason for this was simple and clear: the early companies wore first and foremost the manufacturers of the machines to play records on. ''Local' 'Native' records - as the companies frequently called them - were deemed necessary to maximise the worldwide sale of machines. They nurtured no altruistic visions. They were simply interested in selling large quantities of gramophones, and local' records were cheap, easy product with which to boost sales.
As early as 1902 anthropologist Carl Meinhof had taken a cylinder machine into East Africa to record tribal music, and was followed by a number of like-minded enthusiasts in usher parts of Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. These recordings, however, were never made public, and over the years many such collections have been lost to posterity. It was the commercial companies early involvement in minority group markets that allows us today to hear music that would otherwise have been lost.
By the first decade of the 20th Century there were two major concerns (Victor in America and the Gramophone Co. in England) dominating the market. Trailing slightly behind were British/American Columbia, German-owned Odeon, French Pathé and a host of smaller fry, who mostly perished or became absorbed by their larger competitors
Victor and The Gramophone Co. reached a tacit agreement on how the world should be divided; Victor would service the Americas, most of the Pacific Rim including Japan, the Caribbean and portions of the Far East. The Gramophone Company and its associate offices would cover Europe India, Africa, Australasia and share the Far East with Victor. They agreed not to invade each other's territory and furthermore entered into a limited exchange of material. One finds, for example, Portuguese Gramophone Co. recordings appearing on American Victor and Argentinian Victors in the Iberia HMV catalogues.
Bombay record store, circa 1930.
Outside of America, these fiercely competitive early companies trained recording engineers and supplied them with sufficient equipment, funds and autonomy to create such recordings as were deemed sufficient to satisfy the local markets.
The result of this strategy was that men such as Fred W. Gaisberg, Oscar Preuss, W. Sinkler Darby and others found themselves travelling the world in search of music to record. These pioneers were more than just recording engineers. They were required to find suitable artists, haggle over fees, make artistic and administrative decisions and only then actually conduct recording sessions. The companies relied upon their judgement absolutely and in most cases it was surprisingly sound. Listening today to pre-1914 Egyptian, Indian or Indonesian recordings, one is often aware of a purity of style and a consistently high quality of musicianship. As much as any other one factor, this is probably due to the lack of media- generated cross-cultural influence that we take for granted today. Also, there is historical evidence that most of these engineers coupled some degree of formal musical training with an ability to gauge potential appeal even if they disliked the style - for example, in Fred W. Gaisberg's Shanghai diary for March 18th 1903 we find the following entry;
"We made our first records. About fifteen Chinamen had come, including the accompanying band. As a Chinaman yells at the top of his power when he sings, he can only sing two songs an evening and then his throat becomes hoarse. Their idea of music is a tremendous clash and bang; with the assistance of a drum, three pairs of huge gongs, a pair of slappers, a sort of banjo, some reed instruments which sounded like bagpipes, and the yelling of the singer their so-called music was recorded on the gramophone."
"On the first day, after making ten records we had to stop. The din had so paralysed my wits that I could not think."
A classic example of culture-shock! Gaisburg however, despite his attitude, put commercial consideration before personal taste or prejudice. He recorded, among other things, street songs, 'Moon Guitar' solos and traditional Chinese opera - and he was the first to do so.
It is arguable that the first gramophones captured the public imagination world-wide. Lured by the carrot of enormous profits, the fledgling industry penetrated almost every country and, in doing so, preserved a huge and varied body of indigenous music at a key period in history. Key for two reasons. The First World War and its political and social ramifications were soon to alter the world map irrevocably, sweeping away much language, culture and social structure that had existed for centuries. The gramophone itself, by its very success, was also to alter the pattern of localised musics into other cultures. West Africa, for example, was first exposed not solely to the popular music of America and Britain, but also to that of India.
The Indian continent, colonised as it then was, had readily absorbed the new technology as early as 1900. Within five years a considerable catalogue of Indian music was being enthusiastically consumed. Significantly, Indian traders who operated throughout Africa often successfully offered their own musical taste to their new customers.
By the '20s, separate African markets had been established, principally by The Gramophone Company, Odeon, Pathé and later Decca, to sell what was uniformly referred to es 'Native Music'. However, these new African records often displayed elements of a syncretic rather than a traditional approach and a factor in this was the cross-fertilising influence of the gramophone itself Throughout the ''30s and '40s the widespread sale of HMV's Cuban and Latin-American 'GV' series was to exert further influence on the development of West African music. This historically important catalogue introduced the music of the Sexteto Habanero, Don Azpiazu, Trio Matamoros and others to a rising generation of African musicians who absorbed and remodelled it within their own environment.
Meanwhile, in America (principally between Victor and Columbia) a similar competitive aggression was creating markets in almost every immigrant group. The Voice Of Victor- a monthly trade journal for retail dealers - regularly exhorted its readers to service local immigrant communities, with articles such as 'How Do You Reach Your Foreign Trade?' and 'Information You Need To Sell Foreign Instrumental Records'. In April 1923 the magazine highlighted 'Music of the Far East' and boasted;
"Victor specialists have travelled to the lofty heights of the Andes, where the traditional music of the Incas has boon preserved for all time by Victor records. The weird music of the African jungle, as preserved by the negroes of the West Indies, has boon recorded. But by far the most important achievements have boon the successes of our specialists in penetrating the remote provinces of China, Japan and Korea."
At the time this less-than-enlightened article was written, Victor hold an active catalogue of over 1,200 Chinese and clove to 700 Japanese records. They were also pursuing all the other major immigrant groups' disposable income, and supplying Victor dealers with statistical information on immigrant demographics in over forty key American cities. Monthly supplements appeared listing new recordings by Albanian, Croatian, Danish, Finnish, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, Syrian and Turkish artists among others - many recorded within the U.S.A. They also maintained large catalogues of Jewish records - Cantorial, Klezmer and Popular - and the music of most Central and South American countries in an energetic effort to beat Columbia's similar output.
Despite publicity to the contrary, the record companies often had little idea of the historical or contextual importance of their activities. All they really cared about was continued and expanding sales. In this way they unwittingly captured for future generations seminal - and often unexpurgated - examples of the Tango, Rebetika, Fado, Jota Rhumba Son, Qassida, Tzigane and Beguine. They also recorded traditional Nigerian wrestling ballads, Maori choirs, Sardinian piping, Maltese ballads, Basque choral music and a host of other material that, in retrospect, is of vast historical importance.
Once in a while they fell foul of this approach. In April 1940 the Nairobi police informed East African Columbia that it was marketing a record, the subject matter of which "makes it entirely unsuitable for sale". Only then did the company obtain an English transcript of the offending lyrics to Bamuta by Arajabu and Party. Suitably aghast, they whitdrew the disc immediately and destroyed the master. What caused this official outrage? The surviving transcript allows us to make our own judgement;
"A prostitute coos not know her lover. She just goes where she is pushed like a cart. It took Bamuta nine buckets of water to wash away the signs of his rape. Somebody passing behind Bamuta's house found his trousers there, and my song is to tell you that they vent him away with his trousers a guilty man, and all his other women left him."
A few enlightened observers displayed more insight. Constant Lambert (author of the classic Music Ho!), J.B. Trend, presenter of a mid- '30s BBC radio series called Strange Music', Violet Alford the folk dance expert and Rodney Gallop, folklorist, author and broadcaster were among those who used gramophone records in an attempt to raise the level of awareness of the world's indigenous music.
For example, throughout the '30s Rodney Gallop wrote a number of articles for the monthly Gramophone magazine chronicling some of the latest releases in foreign catalogues and sharing his insightful views with the readers. He further recommended them to approach their local stockists who would be able to obtain both catalogues and discs upon request. As most of these records were actually manufactured in England and then exported to the relevant country, availability in Britain was surprisingly easy if one was actually made aware of it.
The countries that represented the 'First World' in forms of technology at roast, during this period, were principally America, Britain, France, Germany, India and Spain. There were no mastering or manufacturing facilities in the whole of the African continent. Greece, Italy, Portugal and many other countries then starved of technology rolled upon mainly British, French or German support for the recording, manufacture and supply of music. Recording sessions would routinely be conducted on location by visiting engineers who took the masters back with them for process and manufacture. The finished product, label, sleeve and all would then be 'exported' to the country of origin ready for sale.
The coming of the Second World War did not actually cause the cessation of indigenous recording, but it did severely curtail it. As with the 1914-18 war, the political and social consequences of the '40s radically altered the framework of the record industry, opened the way for now entrepreneurs to challenge the major companies and opened a new chapter in recording history.
During the half-century prior to World War Two the commercial record companies preserved a staggering quantity of indigenous music by the simple expedient of recording almost anything that came their way. The recovery, preservation and appreciation of this rich heritage is both historically important and immensely enjoyable. Now that specialist record companies are making well-researched and lovingly crafted reissues available, their work deserves the awareness and support of all who wish to understand and appreciate the historical underpinnings of current World Music.
Acknowledgements for assistance and information are due to; Bruce Bastin, The British Library, IJ.T. Cobley, John H. Cowley, Lucy Duran at the N.S.A., Ruth Edge, Nigel Gallop and Pekka Gronow
Published sources consulted; Sterns Guide to African Music; John Storm Roberts, Black Music Of Two Worlds; Peter Manuel, Popular Musics Of The Non Western World; Groove Dictionary Of Music & Musicians; Fred W. Gaisburg, Music On Record; Richard K. Spottswood, Ethnic Music on Record.
Top to bottom: from the early catalogues.
Egyptian circa 1904;
Pathé East African circa 1930;
Zonophone West African 1929;
The Bantu Glee Singers from HMV South Africa. 1934.
All illustrations courtesy EMI Photos.