I had been buying Moroccan records from a dealer in France for awhile when he casually mentioned that he had a few Southeast Asian records.
He said he had three Cambodian records and when I asked what label they were on he replied “Pyral.” Since Cambodian 78s are exceedingly rare, I thought, “ok, but what the hell is Pyral???”
Pyral was a company that, starting in 1934, made a type of transcription disc which could be recorded and played back immediately. These were originally used to record for radio. The discs were made of aluminum coated in acetate that was thick enough to cut a groove into. Of course I was interested and soon had the discs in my hand, surviving an intercontinental trip despite their famous fragility. The labels were all handwritten, and to my surprise one of the three records was marked as Lao khene music. That’s something you don’t stumble on everyday. Fortunately, one side listed as a khene solo also included the name Thao Phet. I recognized this name from the “Music of Laos” album in the Musical Anthology of the Orient series (1968) recorded by Alain Daniélou, the intrepid French musicologist. Thao Phet was a well known musician in Laos who played on Radio Vientiane.
The Pyral disc seems to have been dubbed from the lp or perhaps the original master tapes. It’s a bit odd that somebody would bother to dub a track from an lp to a 78 rpm Pyral disc in 1968, when the Anthology was first published. The second side of the Thao Phet Pyral record, presented here, is a khene ensemble, likely from northern Laos, playing an unidentified classical piece. It’s not clear if this is also Thao Phet. This recording is not on my edition of the Music of Laos. Maybe it’s one of the recordings that did not make it on to the final collection? Or maybe it comes from a different source entirely?
The labels of the other two Pyral records had no clues as to their origins. They were merely numbered. Again, I have not been able to determine if these are from Daniélou’s Cambodian recordings or if they come from another source. On the side labeled “Cambodge 5” the instruments heard are flute (khloy), then xylophone (roneat), then floor zither (krapeu).
One of the most compelling aspects of collecting world music 78s is the experience of dropping the needle and being surprised at what comes out of the speakers. I often have a pretty good idea of what to expect, but it’s the mysteries and surprises that keep me inspired! Here’s one that’s mysterious on several fronts.
As you can see, one side has a label with a picture of two monks and six characters written in Burmese across the top. The reverse side of the record is a white test pressing label. I bought the record thinking it would be Burmese Buddhist chanting. I’ve come across examples of Buddhist chants on 78 from other parts of Southeast Asia, but I was completely knocked out when I heard the music. It’s definitely not Burmese. After passing it around to a few ethnomusicolgists we quickly ruled out Burmese, Thai, Cambodian, Lao and Nepalese. The reverse side is completely different sounding, some kind of pop or Bollywood song, begging the question of why these two disparate tracks were coupled.
The only numbers on the record are in the dead wax, OMC 18780-TI on one side and OJE 27007-TI on the other. These numbers reveal the record was pressed by HMV, either as part of an HMV series or subsidiary, or possibly even a small independent label that used HMV simply as a pressing service, a common practice across Asia. One discographer thought the numbers dated it to about 1945, but further research suggests that may be incorrect.
I began to think that the monk label and the music were unrelated. Maybe the label was a mistake or added later. But when my friend Suwai translated the Burmese writing as “Sixth Buddhist Convention” I began to change my mind. The Sixth Buddhist Convention was a massive Buddhist gathering held in Burma in 1954, to mark the “completion of 2500 years of the Buddhist era (Buddha Jayanti).” Lasting 2 years, 2500 monks came from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos as well as other Buddhist countries of Asia to preserve and collect the teachings of Buddha in a specially built cave at the Kaba Aye Pagoda in Rangoon. Of course, I began to wonder, could this music have been recorded at the Convention, perhaps by a visiting delegation? I have yet to find any mention of musical recordings in connection with the Convention. Then again, maybe it really was recorded in 1945 and released for the Convention? Or maybe this was a test and the series was never actually produced?
I wondered who are the monks pictured on the label? Surely they must be well-known. Reading further about the event provided the answer. The Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw, famous for his work spreading the meditation practice Vipassana, was one of the main editors and organizers of the Convention. With a bit of googling I was able to find the very picture that was reproduced for the label.
I still have not determined what language is spoken in the short introduction to this record, despite help from the language hounds over at the Omniglot blog. It would be interesting to know what is being said. Maybe it would give us our final clue to determining where the music comes from?
Let’s see if some good ol’ internet crowd sourcing can answer any of these questions…readers?
Well, that didn’t take too long!
A special thank you to the wonderful Tibetan musician Techung for confirming my suspicion that this is Tibetan music.
“Yes, indeed. this an old recording from Lhasa, Tibet. The instruments are Dramyen, the long neck lute and Piwang, Tibetan fiddle. The song is titled “Soong la Emo Ri”. In fact I am starting to work on a recording of these types of songs in my next project. I will update on my website in the next few days.”
Check his site soon to hear his version.
How this recording is connected to the Sixth Buddhist Convention remains a mystery.
Filed under: Announcements
I had the pleasure to design the new lp from Dust-to-Digital’s vinyl imprint Parlortone. The album was compiled by Chris Menist from his collection of Yemeni 45s. A follow-up to the LUK THUNG album that I put together for Parlortone, this is the 2nd release in a loose series of post-war traditional and traditional-oriented pop music from around the world, an often overlooked era that falls between the earlier 78s and the later (or in some cases, simultaneous) rock influenced recordings of the 60s and 70s. You can expect a few more cool projects along these lines in the not-too-distant future.
Qat, Coffee & Qambus is full of fantastic Yemeni oud music, get your copy HERE before it sells out!
Hear a sample right HERE.
Filed under: Laos
Laos was one of the least recorded countries in terms of 78s. In fact, it’s likely that there were NO 78s recorded in Laos itself. There was a batch made by visiting musicians at the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris (see Excavated Shellac for an example.) The only other Lao 78s I’m aware of were made in 1927 by Victor, seemingly in the Central Vietnamese city of Hue.
The development of the recording industry in Southeast Asia mirrors the region’s history in general, coastal cities were the center of trade and growth. Likewise, the early record companies traveled by ship from port to port, starting with Fred Gaisberg’s historic trip in 1902. But Laos is Southeast Asia’s only landlocked nation and is not easily accessible, being bordered by mountains and rivers. It’s no surprise that recording teams never made the arduous trip to Laos. What is surprising is that this handful of Lao recordings were made at all. I’ll be writing about this in more detail for an upcoming project about Southeast Asian 78s…
The khene (khaen in Thailand) is the iconic instrument of the Lao people, including those living in Isaan, the region of Northeast Thailand that formerly belonged to Laos . The khene is basically a bamboo harmonica, two rows of pipes connected in a raft-like form. The player breathes in and out, creating an insistent rhythmic groove. The singing, or lam, is often done by a male and female in a kind of teasing, yet playful repartee.
Here, the male, Mr. Thi, sings “please don’t desert me and make me a widower. If you have to ride on an elephant, don’t forget me.” The female makes a short response, and the male continues saying, “if you don’t love me, you have many ways to say it or to refuse what I offer.” She replies that she’s always ready to accept what he offers. Racy stuff, folks.
Thanks as always to Terry Miller for his help deciphering the music on these Lao and Thai records!
Filed under: Announcements
I’ll be working up some new posts in January as time allows. In the meantime, I want to give a shout out to Hinter records and collector/sound engineer Chris King for the great work on their new lp of Albanian 78s called Don’t Trust Your Neighbors. It’s been awhile since the fantastic Albanian Village Music cd was issued, and the selections on this record are just as amazing, with excellent sound quality. It’s nicely designed and you can’t argue with a cover by Crumb. I’m sure Haji Maji fans will love this record, and since there were only 1000 pressed you should grab it now!
Filed under: Announcements
***UPDATE – the show is no longer available online, but I will be posting some of the records from the radio show at ShellacHead.com***
I’ve always thought of Haji Maji as a sort of (extremely) slow motion radio show. Well, next sunday afternoon Haji Maji will hit the airwaves for real. My pal Tom Diamant, host of KPFA’s venerable Panhandle Country, has invited me to stop by and play some 78s from my collection. “String bands of the world” was mandated to me as a general theme and I’ve more or less stuck to it. We’ll leave the usual Haji Maji territory of the Far East and explore some recordings from the rest of the world; Greece, India, Turkey, Syria, Ukraine, Albania, Japan, Kenya, Bahrain, Persia, Afghanistan, Morocco, Egypt, Norway and probably more. As far as I know, none of these records have been reissued on cd. Yakking will be interspersed, facts dispensed, speculations proffered and one or two upcoming projects might be revealed.
You can listen via old fashioned radio waves or online at the url below. The archive of the show should be available for a limited time about a week after broadcast.
***UPDATE – the archive of the show is no longer available online.***
Sunday, October 30th
3-5pm (Pacific Time)
KPFA (94.1 FM, Berkeley)
In 1905, Beka made it’s first recordings in Indonesia, then called the Dutch East Indies. After first recording in Constantinople, Cairo, Calcutta and Rangoon, the team of Willy Bielefeld, Heinrich Blumb and William Hadert recorded examples of Javanese gamelan and the popular stamboul songs in the Dutch East Indies. Subsequent trips were made up until the outbreak of WWI. During the years before the war, both Beka and Odeon were acquired by the Carl Lindstroem company, with a few smaller labels as well, consolidating German recording activity under one company. Unfortunately, the war severely disrupted the German recording industry. But by the mid-1920s, things were going well and the Lindstroem lables began to recover. Beka had many hits with Miss Riboet and other stamboul stars, and they continued to record Gamelan music from Java as well. In 1928 they made their legendary trip to Bali, along with Odeon, making the only Balinese Gamelan recordings from the era, although the Balinese records were commercial failures at the time. Like all the Lindstroem labels, Beka was included in the mega-merger of 1931 that created EMI.
Max Birkhahn was one of the main recording engineers in Indonesia during this period, and in 1928 he recorded the record presented here. I don’t know much about the music contained herein, but maybe one of our enlightened Haji Maji readers can come to the rescue. The title refers to Indonesian coffee (kopi) made with condensed milk.