A look at the engineers who made history travelling the world recording its music.

by Paul Vernon

Most collectors recognise the pioneering work of Fred Gaisberg in recording early operatic vocals, and many are also aware of his contemporaries such as W. Sinkler Darby, the Hamp Brothers, Cleveland Walcutt and Arthur Clarke. Although much attention has been paid to the work these men did in capturing the artistry of giant figures like Caruso and Tamagno, little attention has been paid to either their early efforts in the field of 'ethnic' recording, or to the later endeavours of the travelling engineers who followed in the electric era.

In his recently published biography, Alan Lomax makes reference to early European record companies 'snobbishly' denying folk musicians access to recording opportunities, while American companies fully embraced them, thereby preserving for posterity the full gamut of American folk music. Whilst I am loath to find fault with someone of such stature as Lomax, his remarks are made in complete ignorance of historical fact.

The two major European - based companies of the acoustic era, The Gramophone Company and Odeon. were sending engineers into the field as early as 1898. Before the First World War, British, German and ex-patriot American recording specialists had travelled to almost every country in the world in an effort to capture local markets The reason was not so much to preserve great folk cultures as to sell as many gramophones and records as possible. Local or 'Native' recordings were considered necessary to build overseas markets for machines and they were relatively cheap to produce.

By 1910 there were significant catalogues of genuine ethnic recordings in India, Portugal. Spain, Egypt, Morocco, Austria, Poland, Russia, and Indonesia. By 1930 the industry had penetrated Africa and recordings were being made for the Gold coast, East and South Africa and Uganda.

One could also find genuine examples of traditional music from Greece, Turkey, Madagascar, Malta, Sardinia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and indeed, almost anywhere a folk culture was still prevalent.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this story, and perhaps the most singularly overlooked, has been that of the men who undertook the original recording work. Those technicians who spent the inter-war years travelling throughout Europe, Africa and the Far East with crates full of equipment, encountering extremes of temperature and culture shock. Men like Edward Fowler, C.C.Blyton, H.E.Davidson. S.E.Tunn and Harold Fleming. Men whose stories read, at this distance, like some Boys Own Paper adventure, but whose reality was very probably much grittier!

An example of the kind of pressure engineers were under may be found in a letter from Schor & Guessarian, the HMV agents in Istanbul: on January 12th 1933 they wrote to the Artists' Department at Hayes:

lt is useless to eulogise to you the art of your recorder C. W.Dilnutt. We cannot pass over in silence the effort and extraordinary endurance that Mr. Dilnutt and Mr. Cook have displayed in recording our 62 titles (two waxes for each title) in the space of three and a half days.

We give you below their hours of work:

Jan. 2nd. 09.30 to 17.30. Setting up apparatus
17.30 to 02.45 Recording (I hour break)
Jan. 3rd. 11.00 to 14.00 Recording
16.15 to 01.30 Recording (no break)
Jan.4th. 10.15 to 13.00 Recording
13.45 to 24 00 Recording (no break)
Jan. 5th. 10.00 to 14.45 Recording
16.00 to 19.00 Packing apparatus
21.00 Departure for London

You will see from this table the capacity and the will to work of Mr. Dilnutt and Mr. Cook. We must add that the work has been carried out with Mr. Dilnutt's accustomed smile. Please draw the forgoing to the notice of the head of your recording department and thank himfor having lent us the unrequitable assistance of Messrs Dilnutt and Cook.

Throughout the first period of electric recording (1925 - 39) recording engineers moved in complex patterns across Europe and Asia. Before the 1931 merger that created EMI, fierce competition existed between HMV, Columbia and Odeon After 1931, and some 'rationalisation' (i.e. firing) of the recording team, key recording centres like Paris, Milan, Barcelona and Berlin were furnished with permanent staff. In Milan, for example, Edward Fowler was the first resident engineer, later to be replaced by C.C.Blyton. Both Hayes-trained technicians, they undertook all manner of Italian recordings, from opera to speeches by Mussolini. They also captured the artistry of visiting folk musicians from Sardinia and Malta, making records for consumption on those islands. There is nothing ersatz or commercial about these recordings; they are genuine, archaic examples of traditional music sung in local dialect.

The musicians travelled from their island homes to Milan, made their recordings and returned, in much the same way that Charlie Patton or Charlie Poole would have done. Masters were then shipped to England for processing and manufacture, the finished records, ready for sale were then 'exported' back to the local agent. thus when one sees, for example, HMV HM-I by Emmanuelle Cillia, a Maltese balladeer, and notices that the record was made in England, it is only part of the story. The clue lies, as it often does, in the matrix number.

Each Gramophone Company engineer was allocated a specific series of alphabetical prefixes to identify his work. Edward Fowler's prefixes. for example, were BF and CF for 10" masters and BFR/CFR for 12". Any Gramophone Company or post-merger EMI record up to 1932 bearing those letters is a Fowler recording. 1.)

Let's focus, for a moment, upon the career of Edward Fowler, for in many ways his story is archetypal. He joined the Gramophone Company in August 1924, and following two years at Hayes, Middlesex, he was sent on his first overseas expedition to Paris. A year later, he was there again, conducting remote recordings from the Playel Hall (including a remarkable session of traditional bagpipe playing) and then moved on, through April to September 1927 visiting Tunis, Athens, Cairo and Constantinople. In each of these cities he undertook a wide variety of recordings, including many genuine 'ethnic' performances. His efforts in capturing classic Greek Rebetika in Athens did not go unnoticed, for the following year, HMV's Greek agent wrote requesting Fowler's return to undertake the 1928 recordings. Probably because of this request, Fowler was to be found in Athens again in June 1928 and then, in the following few months, he revisited Constantinople and travelled on to Spezia and Milan.

For three months in the Spring of 1929 he was based in Cairo, where among others, he recorded the legendary Om Kalsoum. On April 15th he wrote to Hayes:

The session (will) last another twelve days, this is on account of Om Kalsoum with whom it appears very difficult to make any arrangements. On the night of the 10th she collapsed in the studio and a doctor was sent for; we have since had a night's recording with her and she has apparently recovered. Mr. Kissopoulos (the Athens agent) wired me asking when we were to be expected in Athens. I replied saying it was uncertain.

Due to the difficulties Fowler expenenced in Cairo, he was unable to visit Athens that year, and on April 16th Hayes wired Fowler:

Return Hayes after Cairo session. Send tool kit with Cottrell to Athens.

Fowler subsequently did return to Hayes and worked there until December 1929. In January 1930 he was posted as the resident recording engineer to Paris, where he undertook all the recordings for La Voix Du Son Maitre. This would have included the artistry of cabaret singers, local jazz musicians, visiting Hawaiians, and a large selection of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian musicians, issued in the main French 'K' series, this body of work, which was to continue throughout the 1930's, represents perhaps the largest and most significant commercially recorded collection of early electric North African recordings.

On the move again in August 1930, Fowler visited Naples and was then posted to Milan as resident engineer. He stayed at that post for much of the next decade, alternating duties with C.C.Blyton, and was then put in charge of Turkish recordings and processing throughout the Second World War. By this time EMI had established a number of factories in key areas of the world, capable of undertaking the whole process of recording, processing and pressing. Fowler remained in this position until about 1944, when he returned to England to work at Abbey Road studios, a position he held until his retirement in the 1960's. Now ask yourself, wouldn't you have relished a job like that?

Before your hand shoots up too eagerly however, consider the lot of R.E.Beckett on his three month sojourn in India and the Far East. In a report dated June 14th 1929 he wrote:

The apparatus and personal baggage weighed approx. one and a half tons. Considerable weight could be reduced by establishing suitable centres for storing spares, i.e. Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore. It takes 14 days to get spares from Calcutta to Java by the quickest route.

Steps were taken to reduce weight, by having machine stands for each recording centre. Therefore I suggest (the) same could be done with regard to the wax cupboards and other heavy accessories at present being transported. The apparatus continually arrives at its destination in a damaged condition, although every care was taken with the packing. It took several days during the Bangkok session to repair broken parts.

Blanks were usually despatched to the Far East in common wooden packing cases, containing 30 to 50 blanks, these cases were nailed down, and a considerable time was spent by the recorder every morning, in opening them, and again each evening in packing the scrap and originals From 30 to 50 originals and appx. 15 scrap were made each day.

Every morning, before recording, thefloor was swept by the engineer to prevent the excessive dust from getting on the surface of the waxes. A man could be employed at each centre, for the packing of blanks, cleaning the studio and helping with the heavy work generally.

The representatives in Rangoon, Calcutta, Bombay and Lucknow complained of the number of records that they were expected to make, and in the case of the Lucknow records, the agent said that out of the 800 made, only about 250 were anticipated to be good sellers.

Very little attention could be made to individual records, owing to the large number made per day, therefore, no extra time was possible on the more important singers. With regard to one operator doing the Eastern recordings, and in view of the present amount of records required by the Calcutta branch, I consider this to be unadvisable. During my stay in India, the electrical engineer marked the blanks, and did most of the booking that was necessary. He also had to spend a considerable amount of time attending to batteries before and after the session. If this work becomes part of the recorder's duty it would mean less time for actual recording.

From the detailed summary of work Beckett included with this report, it is clear that during the four and a half month tour he worked an average of six days a week and was sick for three days with 'fever'. Working alone, Beckett had to arrange all shipping, undertake running repairs, find his own accommodation in each city, deal with Customs officers, sea captains, local traders, agents and artists, as well as the job of actually making recordings. Beckett had joined the Gramophone Company in 1919 as a mechanical draughtsman, left to work elsewhere then rejoined in 1922 as an engineer. He toured Europe and Africa, visited Egypt and Iraq as well as India and the Far East. He then spent 9 years resident in Berlin, leaving only upon the outbreak of war. Spending the war years as Joint Night Manager at Hayes, he re-transferred to the Recording Department in 1945.

On the Iberian Peninsula things were a little different. There for the latter half of the 1920's and the first half of the 1930's the bulk of Spanish and Portuguese recordings were carried out by H.E.Davidson and S.E.Tunn. Davidson, the senior engineer, was almost constantly on the move, shuttling back and forh between Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, as well as making recordings in smaller locations. To the exasperation of Head Office he frequently disappeared for periods of time, resurfacing to demand expenses and new equipment. For over eight years he was resident in Spain, spoke the language fluently and almost never came back to England. There was little that Hayes could do to clip his wings, however, since the Spanish market was a buoyant one and Davidson understood it well. Only the Civil War put paid to his exploits.

During their time in Spain, Davidson and Tunn recorded a vast selection of regional Spanish folk music. They toured extensively, visited the Ballearic Islands (where they captured some remarkable down-home fiddle playing), Andalusia, where a staggering number of Jotas were recorded, and perhaps most successfully of all, they convinced a group of genuine Flamenco gypsies to record for them in an Andalusian cave. These recordings, by 'Cuadro Flamenco Gitano' have a raw, echoing power that is almost without equal. It is also possible that Davidson made the first successful 'live street' recording. Apparently setting up his equipment in a bell-tower, he captured the traditional 'Saetas' of Seville on Good Friday, 1930. In the November 1930 issue of 'The Gramophone', Rodney Gallop, a folklorist and early enthusiast of the gramophone wrote:

It is the custom during the great Good Friday procession at Seville for persons in the crowd suddenly to break out into songs (called saetas), improvised on a verse of the Gospel. This record was made actually during the passage of the procession, and as it starts one hears the stir and chatter of the crowd. Suddenly quite near at hand a long high-pitched note is heard. The air which follows is quite original in character and full of twists and ornaments. It closes amid a burst of applause. Then far away in the distance a second saeta soars up into the air like an arrow (the literal meaning of the name). Presently the first singer starts again, and for a moment before the record closes the two are heard together mingling with the distant strains of a band and the siren of a steamer on the Guadalquivir (sic), an amazing example of gramophone realism.

Gallop's description of this remarkable recording is very accurate. Almost certainly the crowd were oblivious to the engineer perched several storeys above them, and now we are fortunate to be left the legacy of a genuine Spanish custom performed without any self-consciousness. The 1939-45 war did not completely curtail recording activity, but it severely cut into it. Neutral Portugal and Spain continued to have records made for them, and some African recordings were also made in 1942. When peace arrived in 1945, the engineers went back out once more, although the routes and patterns had altered somewhat. Most Western European countries now employed local engineers, leaving the journeymen recorders to cover Africa, parts of India and the Far East and smaller countries like Portugal, who had yet to take delivery of complete record manufacturing works.

During the first fifty years of this century a handful of men, less than 75 all told, were responsible for preserving what we may see now as an invaluable archive of diverse and rich ethnic folk-music that would otherwise have been lost. As dedicated record collectors, it falls upon us to preserve and appreciate this remarkable legacy.


1. After about the spring of 1932 prefix letters were allocated to locations rather than to engineers, and the specific identification of an individual engineer becomes less certain. Peter Copeland of the National sound Archive has published a remarkable series of tables on 'overseas' recordings made by the Gramophone Company/E.M I. engineers in 'Talking Machine Review'. From them, the collector can deduce when and where a recording was made. Anyone with the slightest interest in 78 rpm European and Asian recordings is urged to obtain these invaluable articles.


Thanks are due to The National Sound Archive, Ruth Edge of E.M.I., Bruce Bastin and Nigel Haslewood

This article was originally published in the journal Vintage Jazz Mart, and preceeded by the following amusing comment:

Some of the more conservative readers may wonder why we are running an article in VJM on the subject of recording ethnic music in Europe, the Middle East and Africa in the 1920's and 30's. Firstly, there is a growing interest in this area among jazz and blues collectors; for instance there are strong connections between white New York jazz of the early 1920's and jewish klezmer music. Secondly, the trials and tribulations of a field recording engineer working in lstanbul or Delhi were pretty much the same as one working in Charlotte, North Carolina, Memphis or Louisville. The light shed on their arduous work is perfectly valid irrespective of location or even continent, and we hope that readers will glean a useful insight into an area where the romance of the fictional image is somewhat at odds with hard facts.

- Mark Berresford

Originally published in: Vintage Jazz Mart No. 94 , 1994
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997