from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (2: Jonathan Ward)

Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward

THE CRATE-DIGGERS’ SYMPOSIUM
Matthew Asprey

2. JONATHAN WARD

Jonathan Ward is the founder of the 78rpm website and resource Excavated Shellac. A compiler and collector based in Los Angeles, his releases include the 4-CD box set Opika Pende: Africa at 78rpm (Dust-to-Digital, 2011), a 2013 Grammy nominee for Best Historical Album, and the Excavated Shellac LP series (Parlortone). His writing can be found on his website, as well as in Cabinet, Perfect Sound Forever, and the ARSC Journal. He works for the Getty Research Institute.

ASPREY: When did you realise you were going to be a music anthologist? What compilations inspired you?

WARD: It’s interesting, because I’ve never considered myself an ‘anthologist’. Maybe by definition it’s true, but it’s hard for me to take that title too seriously. What I do is basically just compile and co-produce—music and research—and I’m perfectly happy with that mantle. My releases seem more like a natural byproduct of my personal collecting interests, a furthering of whatever explorations I’ve done with the Excavated Shellac website, and the desire to share music and contextual information that might be thought-provoking for readers. I’d always set out to do this for free, with Excavated Shellac. I’m lucky that a record company (Dust-to-Digital) has liked what I’ve had to offer, and wanted to release LPs and CDs. It’s an adjunct to my normal career and job, not a drive or necessity. I don’t think anyone would misconstrue my work with the work of an ethnomusicologist, or true scholarly work, and the site and releases were created with that middle ground in mind. I don’t have a release schedule and tend to go slowly. That said, I’ll be the first to admit that I can get pretty tenacious with all this collecting and searching for sounds. There’s a lot here that I’m dying to do something with, in time.

The main inspiration was the music on the records themselves, and sitting and listening to records at fellow collectors’ homes. But, compilations definitely inspired me, and they’re all pretty well known: The Secret Museum of Mankind series on Yazoo, the Times Ain’t What They Used to Be series also on Yazoo, Music of the World’s Peoples on Folkways, anything compiled by Richard Spottswood or Bruce Bastin, just to name a few. Equally as influential to me were articles and books on early non-Western recordings and the music industry by Paul Vernon, Rodney Gallop, Pekka Gronow, and Michael Kinnear.

ASPREY: How did you develop an interest in collecting African 78s?

WARD: Hearing Malagasy 78s for the first time in the 1990s made me utterly flabbergasted at their beauty and, I soon found out, their scarcity. At the same time I was also amazed at how little I knew about both that music and the record industry, and it opened my eyes to the sheer volume of material that was produced and released all over the world on the 78 format, as well as how little access I had to it. These were commercial recordings, not ethnographic recordings. I wanted to hear more, so I began to collect, read, learn, and most importantly, talk to other collector friends and musicians who knew a lot more than I and who were willing to share—they have always been one of the most significant influences for me. African 78s aren’t all that I collect by any stretch, but I seem to have specialized in them mainly because I love much of the music, and the vast majority of African 78s have never been restored and reissued ever, by anyone, so each box that arrives in the mail is a new experience. I’m still occasionally coming across entire labels that do not appear to have been documented in print or online before, not just individual releases.

ASPREY: Where in Africa (or elsewhere) have you searched for this music? What are a couple of the more interesting places you’ve found the records?

WARD: I get asked this all the time. I sometimes wonder if people have this idea that 78 collectors are white-robed saviors, scouring the earth in Land Rovers like post-colonial Indiana Joneses, pilfering 78s from the hands of starving people of color in order to haughtily bequeath them to their audience, treating them like starving children. Maybe the (entirely true) stories of blues collectors knocking on doors in poor neighborhoods in the American south has helped to prop up this myth. But Pat Conte, the curator of the Secret Museum CD series and owner of the one of the most unparalleled collections of historic global music on the planet, admitted in print that he’d never ventured outside the United States. Although it’s true that some collectors, especially 45 collectors, extensively travel, even they, too, have ‘finders’. I think all of this unfortunately props up the myth of the record collector as some kind of modern day sage, which I don’t espouse, and takes us all away from the real focus, which is the music. Beyond developing a core body of arcane knowledge, I’m not sure if it takes any talent whatsoever to be a record collector—just a bank account, patience, and some competitive edge. It should just be fun.

Of course, I’m not a stay-at-home, I love to travel internationally, and I look for records when I do. But 78s of all kinds were dispersed all over the world both because of the location of various cultural diasporas as well as the location of record pressing plants, and they turn up in random places (from junk shops to the bottoms of discarded gramophone players)—very often not at their points of sale—so most of my collecting consists of plain old international transactions with a coterie of friends, other collectors, and fast talking salesmen all over the globe, who know what I’m interested in. I’m an easy mark. But over time, honing and weeding, you can develop something unique.

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ASPREY: Can you tell me about the economics of the African recording industry in the period covered by Opika Pende? How were these 78rpm records produced? Where were they pressed? How were they distributed?

WARD: It’s a convoluted history. Commercial recording in Africa began in stages, beginning at about 1902 in Egypt. In the years before World War II, nearly all recording on the continent was controlled by a few European multinational corporations: The Gramophone Company and Columbia in England, Polyphon and the Lindstrom labels based in Germany (Odeon and Parlophon), and Pathé in France. After recording began in Egypt and a dependable, lucrative market developed there, companies moved slowly eastward to Algeria and Tunisia, recording every year or two in Algiers and Tunis especially, proving that there was indeed a burgeoning industry. Commercial recording did not begin in Morocco until about 1911, and few commercial Sub-Saharan discs were issued during this time (there are, as usual, a few errant exceptions). A couple of independent labels active in North Africa also began to appear at this time, too. Usually, sessions were organized by local agents who were familiar with the music and the musicians (sometimes they were shop owners, for example), and European engineers would travel from the home offices and record the musicians onto wax masters. Engineers would often be gone for months, sometimes years at a time. The masters were regularly shipped back to Europe to be pressed at company pressing plants, and then shipped back to Africa to be sold in all manner of shops. Recording was made acoustically by all companies until about the mid-1920s—that is, without microphones or electricity—therefore the recordings, while beautiful in their own right, have a very narrow acoustical range. Electric recording was introduced at various stages by various companies immediately after 1925-1926 or so.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, things happened very quickly from about 1927, as if all these companies woke up to the fact that there was a new music market to exploit. The Zonophone imprint of the Gramophone Company shipped West African musicians to London to record hundreds of tracks from about 1927 until the early 1930s. This was in essence the first serious attempt to extensively record the popular and vernacular music of Sub-Saharan Africa—decades after the first 78s were made in Egypt. The Gramophone Company then began recording East African artists in the late 1920s, then West African artists in the early 1930s, South African artists around the same time. Odeon and Parlophon recorded in East and West Africa ca. 1930. Pathé shipped Kenyan musicians to Marseilles to record in 1930. Singer (later known as Gallotone), the first Sub-Saharan independent label, began recording in the early 1930s. A lot was happening—then the bottom fell out of the recording industry due to the Great Depression (forcing many labels to merge or fold), and recording was much more sporadic in Sub-Saharan Africa (though it continued steadily in North Africa) until about 1937 where it picked up once again…only to grind to a halt once again with the advent of World War II.

Some collectors opine that the best traditional music in the United States was recorded pre-1930s, but you can’t say that about music in Africa. While it’s true that some (but not all) music of urban North Africa got more slick after 1930s, Sub-Saharan recording was really just beginning to launch after 1945. This is when the big multinationals, still licking their wounds from those financial setbacks, more or less sat back and watched smaller, independent 78 labels pick up the slack (and sometimes they licensed their recordings to get in on the action). This is when the amazing Congolese independent labels began issuing the first rumbas, labels like Fiesta began recording in areas of West Africa like Mali and Burkina, Hugh Tracey began making excursions all across Central, East, and Southern Africa and releasing both popular and traditional recordings on Gallotone and Trek labels, and all manner of rural and popular styles were captured by anyone vying for a spot in the industry. Newly available train transportation to locations previously difficult to access by earlier companies now created new markets. The widespread use of magnetic tape made entrepreneurs across Africa as indie 78 labels popped up, sometimes pressing 78s in amounts of 50. A pressing plant opened in Nairobi after WWII, another in Kampala, another in Zimbabwe.

Eventually, 45s began to take over. While 78s were still being pressed with abundance in South Africa until the very late 1960s, and in East Africa until the early to mid-1960s, West Africa gave way to the 45 quite a bit earlier, as did North Africa. After slowly disappearing over the previous decade, 78s appear to have completely vanished in Africa by 1970 or so. The likely reason they stuck around as long as they did probably had something to do with access to electricity and new equipment.

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ASPREY: You’ve said you were not trying to “construct or invent a narrative” with Opika Pende, but “there are important connections to be made.” Can you elaborate on that? What were the guidelines for inclusion and creating a structure to the presentation of the music? And has anybody written an adequate history of this diverse continent’s music?

WARD: Attempting to encapsulate the early music of Africa in 4 CDs is an impossible task—I never wanted to pass Opika Pende off as anything definitive in the slightest. Constructing a narrative under those circumstances could be considered hubris. Instead, my goal was just to present something to build upon, a collection that showcased diversity and rare recordings of lesser-known styles in the West, and one that sequentially moved, loosely and circuitously, from North to South, as the recording industry did, during those years. Ultimately, though, the sequencing was my own, and perhaps idiosyncratic. So, my guidelines for selection were simple: I had to like the music first, and second, it needed to add something to my general goal of showcasing a diverse array of styles and from as wide a geographic range as I could (and where recording was made…and from what I had available). As for the “important connections” statement, I hoped that people might hear continuity in styles and song types despite geographic and musical diversity.

There is no holistic history of early recording in Africa. In fact, there are very few histories of any non-Western country’s music that take into account the content and diversity of early commercial recordings, much less an entire continent’s. There are, however, some essential guides to African music from an ethnographic standpoint (the Garland Encyclopedia’s volume on African music, for example). Hopefully, these fields will overlap more.

ASPREY: Is the music featured on Opika Pende still performed and listened to in present-day Africa?

WARD: Absolutely, in some cases. Those particular recordings are probably not listened to that much or at all, mainly due to the unavailability or scarcity of the original records—though there are certainly circulating cassettes of older performers. But, many of the styles on Opika Pende are definitely still performed today, whether it’s praise singing on the one-string fiddles of Niger or Ethiopia, or the music of the Sheikhates in Morocco. A humbling experience when putting together Opika Pende was talking to native language speakers about certain songs, and even finding people who knew the performers personally. A type of music or a song that might seem incredibly obscure to people in the West is often considered commonplace by entire populations in other parts of the world—this was something I was constantly reminded of.

ASPREY: How did you become involved with Dust-to-Digital?

WARD: Dust-to-Digital contacted me a few months after I’d started Excavated Shellac, in late 2007. They enjoyed the site and the music and asked if I had any ideas for collections to release. I immediately pitched them Opika Pende, as I knew they loved to go all the way with design and quality transfers. Since that project would be huge and time-consuming, we also decided to start an Excavated Shellac LP series which would feature tracks around a given theme under the Excavated Shellac rubric (but hadn’t been featured on the website, or anywhere else, for that matter). Strings was the first. Excavated Shellac: Reeds will be the second in that series.

ASPREY: Opika Pende’s four CDs represent a tiny fraction of the African music you’ve rediscovered. Tell me about your other finds and what you are trying to achieve.

WARD: I’m really glad you used the term “rediscovered” rather than “discovered.” I’m always going down one musical rabbit-hole or another, but I keep my collection lean (well, for an obsessive collector type). Lately I’ve been really enjoying Caribbean jazz from Martinique recorded on French labels in Paris in the late 1920s-early 1930s, guitar players from Kenya and Tanzania on small, local labels like Mzuri and Rafiki, cumbias, string instrument soloists from India, and 78s from the Persian Gulf. Eventually, I hope to post more examples on the site, or use these records in projects. Most of what I listen to isn’t necessarily from the 78 rpm era, though. I mean, I like Black Sabbath and the Stooges, too.

I do have a number of ideas I’m working with now, for potential release, and I’m trying to see what sticks. In the meantime, I enjoy collaborating or helping out on others’ projects. For example, I did the transfers for artist Steve Roden’s i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces, and contributed 10-12 discs as well as the 78 transfers for David Murray’s new Longing for the Past CD set of Southeast Asian 78s, both on Dust-to-Digital (and beautiful). Excavated Shellac is ultimately where I’ve unleashed the most music—something like 140+ tracks and counting, though I update it less than I used to. That’s about 7 CDs worth of diverse and sometimes extremely rare material right there, and I can freely get as long-winded, arcane, and as tangential as I want with the text. As long as it continues to be fun for me and people continue to enjoy it, I’ll keep going. I have no goals other than that—the site is entirely personal in that sense.

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from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (Introduction)

Fiddlers’ Convention at Blowing Rock, North Carolina, circa 1925. Photo by J. M. Bawgus. From the collection of Marshall Wyatt. Used by permission.

Fiddlers’ Convention at Blowing Rock, North Carolina, circa 1925. Photo by J. M. Bawgus. From the collection of Marshall Wyatt. Used by permission.

THE CRATE-DIGGERS’ SYMPOSIUM
Matthew Asprey

This week all four interviews from Matthew Asprey’s ‘Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’, which appeared in Contrappasso issue 4 (December, 2013), will be running at the Contrappasso website. Here’s Asprey’s introduction:

THE DIGITAL AGE has coincided with the widespread excavation of stunning sounds from the past. Just check out the compilations released by such labels as Tompkins Square, Dust-to-Digital, Old Hat Records, Soundways, Now-Again, Mississippi, Sublime Frequencies, Arhoolie, and the Numero Group. The cavalcade indicates the staggering diversity of cultural expression in the twentieth century.

The best of these archival compilations do more than simply make great music available again. Radio presenter (and sometime protest singer) Bob Dylan said of Marshall Wyatt’s Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937:

“I got nothing against downloads and MP3s, but getting this CD with all the pictures and liner notes, well, it’s not as good as having it on the big 12” record, but at least there’s a booklet there, and believe it or not, folks, you can even read it in a power failure—as long as it’s daytime.”

The art of the music anthologist involves the sequencing of tracks, extensive annotations, the inclusion of archival photographs and historical documentation. The final package can be myth-shattering. The most ambitious compilations upset the complacency that creeps into our historicisation of the musical and social past, our desire to lock in definitions and musical genealogies. Some provide an urgent counter-history by alerting us to an obscured genre or style or school of musicians; they can sometimes sketch in the till-now missing explanation for what came later. Others avoid definitive statements altogether, reminding us that the practice of music is too messy to be reduced to a dominant historical narrative, that music-making has always been a promiscuous activity, the fruit of numerous encounters and migrations, and as the decades pass it becomes more and more difficult to assess its true origins and connections.

The survival of music is largely a matter of chance. Of course only a small fraction of the music of the past hundred years was actually recorded; an even smaller fraction has survived to the present; even smaller still is the fraction that makes the leap to a digital format and an audience. We should be thankful for the reappearance of these beautiful ghostly sounds.

Music collectors are often called ‘crate-diggers’, which evokes a romantic image of dusty-thumbed record hunters in stifling basements and filthy flea markets and swap-meets, obsessed characters seeking the eureka moment when the impossible nugget is unearthed—even if these days the most valuable records are often found on eBay. Collector-anthologists are fascinating figures on the fringes of the contemporary music industry and deserve a little interrogation.

This symposium speaks at length to four of today’s most interesting anthologists of rare and otherwise forgotten music: Ian Nagoski, Jonathan Ward, Marshall Wyatt, and Mike McGonigal. Most of these guys work with 78rpm records, although Mike McGonigal’s recent compilation, This May Be My Last Time Singing, is compiled entirely from self-pressed 45rpm gospel records.

I wanted to know about the seeds of this passion for musical discovery, the process of crafting a collection, and the role a music compilation can play in challenging our understanding of the musical and social past.

These interviews were conducted by email in mid-2013.