Notes on a Few Americans Finding Musical Jewels in International Waters
by Ian Nagoski
from Arthur Magazine No. 32 (Dec 2008)
Record players are altars. The listener first goes through a repertoire of ritual gestures, removing the black spiral-inscribed disc from the sleeve, holding it by the edge and label and placing its center through the spindle before lifting the tone arm and placing it at the edge of the spinning disc. The air in the room begins to move, and the memory held by the disc of a performance by some living, breathing person is reiterated, separated from its image and corporeality in an angelically invisible space. Some part of the listener enters into that space and goes into communion with the unseen force of the sound.
It is magical and mysterious stuff, this impulse for sound-play that is universal among human beings through all times and places on earth.
As a teenager, I listened to records to escape a world I found intolerable and evaluated them based on their ability to take me elsewhere. Some of the most powerful performances came with good stories (I’m thinking of the literature surrounding the Beatles, for instance, or Lester Bangs’ writing on the zonked ESP-Disk house band, the Godz) and some came with built-in social ties that identified me with some “outside” group (the bohemia of the Velvet Underground or the rural world of the Carter Family). Gradually, I noticed that the stories, mostly written by average people, were sometimes only half-true, making them no better than the world I already knew. In my day-to-day life the “outsiders” were everywhere, with simple needs for money, food and love. The amounts of money and the flavors of the food vary from place to place, but the qualities of love remain consistent.
To find music for oneself, rather than accepting the sounds being distributed from on high like rations of cultural identity, seemed to me to be a way out from the handed-down myths of an unacceptable status quo. The world I lived in needs its plot rewritten, and the easiest way forward, I thought, was to listen to its smallest voices. Those voices, it turned out, are often the ones that don’t speak English. So, arriving late to the understanding that music’s pleasures are in its ability to manifest aspects of the unknowable internal worlds of its creators and that those creators are scattered equally over the earth and throughout time, my music education began in adulthood and with it, my education in the larger scope of humanity, culture and history than the American rock-soul-country-blues-jazz-gospel canon can offer.
The process was simple: buy a box of records I’d never seen before that no one else seems to want, cheap, and listen to them. Several things became immediately apparent:
- Most records are bad. Generally speaking, the vast majority of the music issued over the century that sound recording has been popular home entertainment was made to make a buck and represents a pale merry-go-round of glib amusements, cute enough to dazzle the public for a minute (and fleece them of a fraction of their salaries) but not nourishing or ostentatious enough to stand up to repeated listenings. And worse, most of them are rehashings of other performances that were well-liked. The majority of them were made in the big cities where, as in the courts of the old world, the way to make money as an artist is to play the kind of music the rich folks like, which is a recipe for a particularly insidious kind of equally disposable, if fancier, bad music.
- There are too many records. Some quick guesswork: if there have been, let’s say, 500 million households in the U.S. during the 20th century—the century that produced vinyl records—and each household had maybe 25 records, that’s twelve billion records. And that doesn’t count the crazy record collectors who have thousands of discs, or the warehouses full of unsold or unwanted stock. So, there are maybe 20 billion records just in this country, and most of them are boring. This is what capitalism hath wrought on music.
- Finding good music is the easiest thing in the world, as long as you understand that it happens only very rarely and only with bloody-minded and ferocious persistence. For me, two in every hundred records is a real triumph, a pearl. How do I know it’s a pearl? Because it seems to fulfill some confluence of memories and wishes inside myself. Every person will hear it differently depending on their own memories and wishes, their own knowledge of pearls and understanding of the ocean of music. The pearl explains the ocean, and the ocean explains the pearl, but never completely.
So: finding good records is a private process, one that requires thousands of hours by the shrine of the record player in search of a feeling. And I am lucky to have been able to share part of what I’ve found, via an extraordinary record label in Atlanta, Georgia called Dust-to-Digital, which recently released Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics 1918 – 1954, a CD compiling music from some of the old records that have excited me most in recent years. Before Black Mirror, I had already formed the sense of a tradition, both academic and decidedly not-academic, of people who had discovered some remarkable things from records. But putting together Black Mirror brought me closer to some of the amazing self-starter Americans who are actively pursuing that magic two percent of all industrial output that has enduring value, and then finding ways to share these pearls while respecting their mysteries. The following owner-operated record labels are special: they’re not simply shoving music down the cultural gullet, but putting it on the menu and hoping other seekers will find it, and start asking questions.
Debuting in 2003 with Goodbye, Babylon, a six-CD collection of sacred folk music and sermons from the American South dating from the first half of the twentieth century, all packed in a cedar box with raw cotton and a book of notes designed like a 19th century hymnal, Lance Ledbetter’s Dust-to-Digital has been issuing a steady stream of staggeringly lush packages of extraordinary old music. Lovingly assembled, Dust-to-Digital releases are epic tales tales told by monumental collections of music housed within an array of texts, images and textures, drawing equally from a concern for aesthetics and a wealth of research, often mining the knowledge of the previous generations of collectors, musicologists and afficionados like Dick Spottswood (an under sung hero of musicological research, credited by John Fahey in his book How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life as the man who first played him the blues that proved the seminal musical experience of his early life, whose 15-LP series for the Library of Congress, Folk Music in America, should have long ago received the kind of treatment Harry Smith’s Anthology has gotten, and whose seven volume Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942 is an utterly flabbergasting and indispensable investigation into the true depths of this country’s musical past), Joe Bussard (the legendary and irascible so-called “King of Record Collectors” and subject of the engaging documentary Desperate Man Blues, available on DVD from D-t-D) and most recently Art Rosenbaum, Georgia-based artist and music documentarian.
Art of Field Recording, Volume 1: 50 Years of Traditional American Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum, a four-CD set of folk music performances taped on Rosenbaum’s travels around the U.S. was issued last year with a 96-page book and over a hundred illustrations to near-unanimous five-star reviews. The New York Times called it “an ark.” The sheer depth of Rosenbaum’s work documenting the still-flaming embers of Source Americana has necessitated two more volumes of equal scope, one to be issued this year and another in 2009.
In addition to preparing the loamy sounds of Rosenbaum’s material for commercial release, Dust-to-Digital also recently issued a disc of 1970s recordings of Tuvan throat-singing, the unearthly cowboy music of North-Central Asia, the aforementioned Black Mirror, and Victrola Favorites, a two-CD set embedded in a thick, lavish cloth-bound book of imagery exposing the gorgeous, cross-cultural remnants from the era of the mechanical windup gramophone. Comprised of forgotten material from America, Asia, Africa, and Europe, Victrola Favorites is more humorous, anti-academic, nostalgic and tweaked than any other entry in the early-recording reissue genre. Its creators, Rob Millis and Jeffrey Taylor of Seattle, have been working as sound artists under the Climax Golden Twins moniker for more than a decade. And they’ve been attached to a loose collective of explorers of sounds from afar called…
Over the past five years, Sublime Frequencies have issued 44 CDs, DVDs and LPs of music and sounds from cultures in Southeast and Central Asia, North and Saharan Africa and Central and South America that have been largely ignored by American record companies. Princess Nicotine: Folk & Pop Music of Myanmar, still one of the label’s highlights and one of the most exciting recordings I’ve ever heard, was originally issued as an LP on the Majora label in 1994. The cover was a black-and-white collage of what turned out to be Burmese folks. Instead of credits or any information, the rear panel had only a prose-poem which began, “Princess Nicotine, you got Coca Cola fucked in the wind of 37 names…” I do not remember whether it was my roommate or I who could afford to buy it at the time or which of us had something to smoke on hand at that particular moment of youthful indiscretions. I do remember the overwhelming bafflement as we sat listening to it that first time. Was the record running at the right speed? Was it supposed to sound like this? Was it possible that human beings could make this music—at once so outrageously fast and seeming to float on top of Time, so cheap and shitty and distorted and blown-out and so clearly refined and gorgeous? Once we decided that the record was not simply fucking with us, I remember we looked at each other and laughed out loud with joy.
That roommate, a wild cat named Jason Glover, moved to Seattle and now plays with the Sea Donkeys, a near-anonymous group of oddballs that includes Hisham Mayet, who has also been responsible for some of Sublime Frequencies’ most wonderful releases, including two documents of outrageously fiery guitar music from the Saharan bands Group Inerane and Group Doueh,as well as several films of narrationless North and West African musical performances. A rotating cast of purposeful journeymen including Victrola Favorites co-editor Rob Millis and Princess Nicotine compiler and musician Alan Bishop (best known as a third of the late, great Sun City Girls) contribute releases to a label which has evolved from a style of presentation that originally emphasized, like my own first hit of Burmese popular music, the catastrophic shock of confrontation with the music itself to objects that are saturated with a depth of knowledge and devotion to their subject matter.
Over the past 20 releases, SF has included studies of aspects of the recent musical cultures of supposed “enemies” of the American state, including Syria, North Korea and (of course) Iraq. It’s a humanistic response, one that points out the unifying essentials among people everywhere, regardless of their governments, even as it underlines the conspicuous absence of music (and thus: culture, understanding, etc.) from places America’s media yammers on about every day. It’s subtle stuff, conducted with a sense of respect and purpose, a slathering love of the excitement of great performances and a near-hermetic view of the Divine and the Profane which permeates music and its creators. They are records that are made to reveal and unveil, without pretending to tell the whole story any more than your radio already does.
If the word “radio” sounds weird in this context, there could be a couple reasons. One is that very little of this music is played on radio, which is what sends us down the rabbit-holes looking for it in the first place. When it is broadcast, it’s on those rare free-form, college or public radio stations that exist in big cities. But even then, it’s rare to hear music originating brought from afar in time or space. The other big reason is that we have arrived at a moment in the evolution of sound media when the most permanent format, the 78 rpm disc which is made of 70% ground stone and is, literally, a rock containing sound, has given way to ever more ephemeral media, arriving most recently at the mass popularity of the shittiest and most disposable format yet, the mp3. On the plus side, the ease of dissemination of digital files has meant that many people are able to hear a wider swath of human music-making at any time of day or night for free than they would be able to find in months of looking through and paying cash for records in person. Let’s hope there is some maniac out there with a great pair of ears and an array of hard-drives that copy each other twenty times a second (like they have at banks to keep track of financial transactions) who is busily archiving all of the amazing music that is being disseminated before it’s lost to the inevitable breakdown of the hardware.
My favorite steady source of digital revelations is Jonathan Ward’s “Excavated Shellac,” a blog of folkloric and vernacular music from around the world taken from Ward’s own dazzling collection of 78 rpm discs. Each Sunday night, he posts a side of a disc, digitally restored with much of the format’s inherent noise removed without compromising the sound of the performances, along with substantial discographical and musicological context and thoughts on the performance, which usually take the form of wonder and respect for the magic they contain, all made available as free downloads. Dozens of startling pieces, often from little-heard-from regions and obscure, little-studied styles, are available at any given time as gifts to the world. His site explains his motivations:
“The feeling that you’ve never heard anything like this before in your life; it transports you to a place where words are irrelevant. But part of that feeling is thinking how you’d want to share that with others, to have them feel exactly the same way. Record collectors are eccentric people. I don’t even like the term ‘record collector.’ They’ve been parodied far too many times. Accurately, I might add. But I could not live with myself as a ‘collector’ without at least one person I could share sounds with.”
The record itself is the subject and purpose of the Portland, Oregon label (and record store) Mississippi Records. Over the past few years, they have issued 20-odd collections on vinyl only (no CDs or MP3s), following a “good music is good music” ethos: new music by Tara Jane O’Neil and the Evolutionary Jazz Band, reissues by post-punks Dog Faced Hermans and Animals + Men, late-’60s jazz by Philip Cohran, as well as reissues of ’30s Delta blues icon Skip James, singular ’20s gospel songster Washington Phillips, ’70s Texan street musician Bongo Joe Coleman, a compilation of ferocious ’60s-’70s gospel rockers, two compilations of urban African folk and pop of the ’60s, miscellaneous ethnic masterpieces from the ’20s and ’30s. Each Mississippi release seems to ask, “Is this what you were looking for?” And the general consensus among record hounds: “Yep.”
The music is consistently elemental, subversive and wonderful, and the vinyl format lends itself to treatment as literature. After all, a record is listened to intentionally—you have to pick it up and put it on, rather than striking a button while doing something else. It asks to be considered, discussed and filed away for reference more than any other medium. It feels like part of the real world of lived experience, of face-to-face contact among people, something that has only recently receded from the dialog about music. It should come as no surprise that Mississippi has no web presence and that co-founder Eric Isaacson only recently got his first CD player for the sake of expedience in dealing with the CDRs he owns.
Almost ten years ago, teacher and drummer Jack Carneal was living in the small town of Bougouni in Southern Mali. He got heavily into the music scene as a listener, buying tapes of rural stuff not found outside the area and occasionally recording musicians himself. After returning to the U.S. and passing around the copies of the music he’d fallen in love with to friends, his passion for the music impelled him to release it more widely. His Yaala Yaala label has released four discs in the past year, manufactured and distributed by Drag City.
Packaged in Carneal’s own beautiful photographs, the music is hypnotic and appeals directly to the desire to hear something elaborately beautiful without being fancified by high-tech aesthetics or what the monied West is perceived to want to hear. The label’s most recent release is from the hunter-musician Yoro Sidibe, and it’s a killer. Over three long tracks, Sidibe sings epic stories to his own ngoni accompaniment with a patient urgency that is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.
Yaala Yaala feels like the kind of labor of love captured in Werner Herzog’s best documentaries. Carneal seems to have thrown himself passionately into the music and the lives of its creators (to the extent that it can be done from Maryland to Mali), amplifying its life in the retelling of it through the label. His zealous work is a real gift for us, an ocean away from its source.
It Just Keeps Going…
Of course all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. Important labels like Numero Group and Fat Possum have been getting down to the real human level of the documents of Americana of the past 40 years, and there are hundreds more people looking outside the readymade genres and handed-down cultural blinders of Americana for something else, something essential, about music and the wide world behind it.
Then there’s David Murray, who runs an email list dedicated to the study of rembetika, the Greek folk music of the urban hash dens that flowered in the ’30s, also runs a blog called “Haji Maji,” dedicated to recordings of Chinese opera from 78 rpm discs. A fellow named Brent Field in Lancaster, New Hampshire has pressed up a hundred copies of a 7-inch entitled “So That Beauty Shall Not Perish” to reissue six sides from his own ethnic 78 rpm record collection, including music from Kenya, Vietnam, Bhutan, India and Armenia. Honest Jon’s in England has been issuing great foreign-language stuff from the 20s and 30s from the EMI archives in Hayes, Middlesex.
Music—the finding of it, the sharing of it, the understanding of it, the simple hearing of it—has pleasures far greater than can be talked about sensibly. I think of Henri Michaux’s poem:
Music which leaves me suspended
which holds me in its snares.
The world turned soft
the whole becoming waves
It makes me want to put on a record.
Joe Bussard: fonotone.com
Excavated Shellac: excavatedshellac.wordpress.com
Haji Maji: hajimaji.wordpress.com
Mississippi Records: 4007 N Mississippi Ave Portland, OR 97227 / (503) 282-2990
Dick Spottswood: wamu.org/programs/ds/
Sublime Frequencies: http://www.sublimefrequencies.com/
So That Beauty Shall Not Perish: antireality.org/audio.html
Victrola Favorites: climaxgoldentwins.com/victrolafavorites/
Yaala Yaala: dragcity.com/catalog/catyaala.html
Ian Nagoski is a musician and music researcher in Baltimore, Maryland. He is currently researching music of the Eastern Mediterranean as it was recorded in New York in the 20s and making new music for voice and electronics.