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The Primer: Field Recordings

June 2008

An occasional series in which we offer a beginner’s guide to the must-have recordings of some of our favourite musicians (and music). This month, Richard Henderson enters the preternatural realm of field recordings. This article originally appeared in The Wire 168 (February 1998).

“Pictures of a gone world”. The expression, coined by curator Pat Conte to describe the transcriptions of ethnic music from 78rpm discs which comprise his Secret Museum Of Mankind series on the Shanachie label, neatly summarises the appeal of the field recording.

‘Gone’, of course, a haunting reference to attrition, as indigenous cultures around the world are surrounded, absorbed and nullified by the amoeba that is 20th century mass media. But ‘gone’, also, to describe musicians unconstrained by notions of professionalism or competitiveness, performing as though possessed, for an audience of neighbours seeking transport to another state of consciousness.

“Music, like drugs, alters the fabric of time”, a credo familiar to followers of Nottingham’s Time Recordings, applies equally well to the acoustic gems brought home to the armchair traveller via field recordings.

Since the dawn of phonography, the recording industry has exhibited periodic bursts of enthusiasm for exotic sounds. Such interest has usually been tied to the need for additional product as new formats appeared. At the beginning of the century, owners of gramophones could magically reproduce the sounds of farflung locales on shellac discs in their front parlours, as recordists, motivated by the profit in marketing novelty items, lugged cumbersome equipment to Kazakhstan and Matabeleland in search of sonic obscurata (‘aural oddities’). Later, the advent of tape recordings and microgroove vinyl discs in the 1950s, and in America, the consumerist cult of Polynesian exotica, sparked another surge of interest in music from distant lands. The development of compact disc technology has triggered the most recent enlargement of the International bins in high-street megastores.

As often as not, the lion’s share of ethnology-on-disc emanated from countries with extensive colonial holdings. French record companies have always excelled in this regard, and in the last half-century, performances snared by French recordists for labels such as Vogue, Le Chant Du Monde, Philips, Tangent, Silex and Ocora have preserved music that might otherwise have evanesced like so much night air.

In particular, the Ocora label – the recording arm of Radio France – has produced dozens of what might be considered the Faberge eggs of ethnographic long players, with terrific mastering, detailed liner notes and superior graphics. The sonic safaris sponsored by Ocora enabled technicians such as Charles Duvelle and Pierre Toureille to make incredible, three-dimensional recordings; their patience, diplomacy and stamina helped them to tough out inhospitable environments, and their discerning ears located all that was astonishing and quicksilver in other people’s music.
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David Lewiston, whose expeditions yielded many of the best performances presented by the Nonesuch label’s Explorer series in the 60s and 70s, once told me that in some regions, “Musical treasures may seem thinner on the ground. You may have to spend the time and listen to everything that’s around, recording everything with little expectation. Only five per cent of the music may be glorious”. In the mid-60s, Lewiston was among the first musical prospectors to take stereo equipment into the field. Even with the period’s technological advances, he was far from travelling light. “I remember coming out of my hotel room in Delhi in 1972 and I had 13 pieces of baggage: two DAT machines, the microphones and 60 or 80 hours of tape.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that, as travel and technology have become more accommodating to those who seek to preserve what remains of music in the rough, recordists in the present day have become less selective and the performances that they retrieve are often mediocre at best. It is unfortunate, then, that many of the most astonishing titles recorded in the 50s, 60s and 80s remain to be issued on CD. My ethnomusical primer contains selections of a personal cast, unavoidable given that the field of choice is the globe itself. I’ve opted to recommend music which refuses curio status, that asserts itself and feels fresh and modern, however impoverished the means of its production. Music that packs a phantom punch. Music from a gone world.

Bahrein Et Shardja: Pecheurs De Perles Et Musiciens Du Golf Persique
(Ocora 558583 LP)

One half of this album, among the first 100 titles issued by Ocora, has achieved something like cult status in its own right. Pierre Toureille recorded the 18 minute performance stretching through side one, a khrob, or song sung while rowing by the pearl divers of Bahrain. The majority of the piece is rendered a cappella, with exceedingly low drone voices stretching in a slow distinct movement beneath a raw-throated lead singer whose exhortations are by turns poignant and blood-chilling. Occasionally, every voice in the room – the piece was recorded onshore – punctuates the end of a phrase with a single very loud note. Eventually, brittle metallic hand percussion enters to propel the vocalists with accelerando urgency towards the coda. As Iggy said of The Stooges’ Raw Power. When you put it on, it will knock you down.

Music Of The Rain Forest Pygmies
(Lyrichord LYRCD7157 CD).

Aka Pygmy Music
(Unesco/Auvidis D8054 CD)

The Lyrichord recording was made by Colin Turnbull, who wrote The Forest People, an enduring intro-to-anthropology text. To hear the Mbuti pygmies’elephant-killing song is to believe that these small people can take down a dangerous mammal many times their size. The most rudimentary percussion – clacking sticks and handclaps – underscores monophonic vocal lines sung in a hocketing style, with each member of the group assigned a note. At one point Turnbull asked these inhabitants of the Zaїrean rain forest to sing an older song, something of religious import. The Mbuti conferred for a moment, then sang a song in their own tongue to the melody of “O My Darling Clementine.” As surprised as Turnbull must have been by that – the piece never loses its shock value however often it’s placed – he couldn’t have guessed that some 20 years later Marvin Gaye would base “Got To Give It Up (Part 1)” on a pygmy stick rhythm as heard here.

The recordings of the Aka tribe were made in the Central African Republic by Simha Arom. The original album, containing adult and children’s vocal selections as well as ritual songs, dances and games, had been out of print for decades. Though the CD reissue adds no new material, this collection features gorgeous examples of contrapuntal singing, and yodel-like alternations of head and chest sounds. What Steve Reich accomplished with elliptical tape loops in concurrent motion on pieces like “It’s Gonna Rain”, the singers of the Aka manage to do while walking to work in the morning.
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Indiens d’Amazonie: Ethnologie Vivante
(Le Chant Du Monde LDX74501 LP)

Music Of The Turkano And Cuna Peoples Of Columbia
(Rogue Records FMS/NSA002 CD)

Six different tribes contribute to Le Chant Du Monde’s study of Indians living at the Columbian headwaters of the Amazon. The disc contains mostly vocal pieces, with the periodic accompaniment of an end-blown flute, the latter’s timbre resembling an unnaturally melodic soda bottle. A selection from the Tatuyo sounds as though each member of the tribe was singing a different melody simultaneously. A flattened affect to many of the vocals suggest a trance state, possibly assisted by the use of ayhuasca, a shamanic admixture of hallucinogenic plant matter found in the region. One entire track is devoted to jungle noises, representing in this case a palpable ambience, thick enough to cut with a machete.

The Rogue album, issued in conjunction with the British Library’s National Sound Archive, was also recorded in Columbia, also at the beginning of the 60s by Donald Taylor and Brian Moser. The linernotes take pains to detail the extent and nature of the encroachments upon the Indians’ lifestyles by cocaine, gold and timber interests, speculating that the music found here is most probably no longer played. More’s the pity, as the sound of two hundred people at an all-night ceremony, each of the participants wearing ankle rattles dancing to the beat of wooden staves while chanting, is a sound for the ages. A limited but expressive range of instrumentation is featured: snail-shell and deer bone flutes, panpipes (weirdly organ-like) and gourd rattles. Bird calls at dawn open the album, yucca plants are washed and sieved during the day, and lullabies are sung in the evening. This combined with a compliment of lustily droning bugs, imparts the feeling that an average day is passing before your ears.

The Living, The Dead And The Dying: Music Of The New Guinea Wape
(Folkways FE4269 LP)

Kaluli Weeping And Song: Papua Nuigini
(Barenreiter Musicaphon BM30SL2702 LP)

If the title of William E Mitchell’s recordings of the Wape people, released on Moses Asch’s legendary Folkways label, didn’t invite sufficient curiosity, the notes tell us that “The Wape landscape is a hauntingly musical one”, going on to cite the presence of log drums, bird calls, “a woman’s warm laughter, and through it all the cicadas sing on and on”. (Given your preference, the insects which often sing along on these albums are either maddeningly intrusive, or a ticket to musique concréte heaven).

A limited tonal scale crates a soothingly hypnotic quality that permeates all of the Wape’s music, extending even to the various demon chants sung by wildly costumed tribe members. Interspersed with the musical selections are unusual sonic artefacts: a bamboo grove burns down to explosive effect; two sisters walk through a village, waiting in response to their brother’s death; and a series of laments is catalogued, each one proprietary design for use by a different member of local society.

Albums from New Guinea seem charged with an emotional current that will not be denied. Steven Feld, whose New Guinea field tapes have been issued by Germany’s Barenreiter Musicaphon and Mickey Hart’s 360˚ imprint, subtitled one of his collections Weeping And Song. Issued as part of the Music of Oceana project this LP is a companion volume to Feld’s book Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics And Song In Kaluli Expression. The record’s first track features a séance, with a shamanic chant echoing around the Papuan Highlands, an effect creepy enough to have emanated from Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio, achieved here with natural acoustics. Elsewhere, slow motion choirs weep in varying configurations, soloists twang jaw harps, and drum duets thunder across the interior plateau. These albums also remind me of some that got away, namely the two volumes of New Guinea flute playing issued by David Toop’s Quartz label in the early 80s.

Music From The Shrines Of Ajmer & Mundra
(Topic TSCD911 CD)

The plaintive shenai, a double-reed chanter most closely resembling the Western oboe, was brought out of Indian temples by the legendary Bismillah Khan and introduced into the Hindustani classical canon. This album, recorded in North India by John Levy and initially issued by the French Tangent label, affords the curious glimpse of the instrument in its original context. Anyone who has attended a recital by Khan or Ali Ahmed Hussain knows that the shehnai projects as no other woodwind can.

Visiting the temples of Ajmer and Mundra one learns why: it was meant to be played in the open, in galleries above gateways or in courtyards. Much of this disc, now enhanced by CD mastering, contains what poultrymen might regard as free-range classical music. As a change of pace, a devotional song based on “Raga Darbari Kanada”, a late night raga, is offered with both dholak (spike fiddle) and shehnai accompaniment, a rare event in itself. The acoustic context is a fascinating sidebar to any field recording, especially so for this set, as the report of the taut-skinned tabal kettle drum skitters around the courtyard walls of the Ajmer temple.
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Burundi: Musiques Traditionelles
(Ocora HM83 CD)

Savannah Rhythms: Music Of Upper Volta
(Nonesuch H72087 LP)

Rhythms Of The Grasslands: Music Of Upper Volta Vol 2
(Nonesuch 72090 LP)

Among the first nation-in-review albums out by Ocora, which sought to represent a whole country’s musical bounty crammed onto a single disc, the Burundi recordings made by Michel Vuylsteke are hard to top for warmth, weirdness and high fidelity. The opening track, “Chant Avec Cithare”, allows listeners to spend over five minutes with a whispery, spectral vocalist who slaps what sounds like a steel-stringed wash-tub (actually, a trough zither) throughout his praise song. The CD reissue includes extra tracks by this extraordinary graveyard crooner, in addition to yielding a more profound transient response during the attack of the Royal Drummers of Burundi. The rippling polyphony exhibited during a duet between two young girls is almost sufficient to erase thoughts of famine and warfare in the region. Vuylsteke imparts a professional sheen to the proceedings, putting one in mind of Irving Penn’s photos of New Guinea mudmen, for which Penn and his crew toted a complete fashion photography studio into the interior.

As for Kathleen Johnson’s two sets of music from Upper Volta, both albums stand as a tribute to a resourceful people’s ability to construct rich and varied music from extremely limited resources in an unforgiving landscape. Wooden gourd drums, balaphones, a variant of the thumb piano, single-stringed fiddle and talking drums add up to a fantastically lively sound which goes a long way to mask the desolation of the (now) Burkina Faso environment. Savannah Rhythms weighs in with much tuned mallet percussion, while Rhythms Of The Grasslands offers vocal tracks, some with near-field intimacy and others with the widescreen aspect of a parade in progress. It also has a number of tough and energetic talking drum selections representing a shadow of the Hausa tribe’s nearby presence, immediately south of the Nigerian border.

Tibet 1
(Barenreiter Musicaphon BM30L2009 LP)

Tibetan Buddhism: Tantras Of Gyüto
(Nonesuch 979198 CD)

Peter Crossley-Holland was perhaps the first ethnographer to document the sacred chant and instrumental music of the Buddhist liturgy. He was well aware that, despite Tibet being situated at the confluence of three civilizations (Turko-Mongolian, Chinese, Indian), its culture had developed in a high isolation from the rest of the world, Crossley-Holland brought new timbres, rapturous and disquieting: the gyaling, a reed instrument whose piping tones shrilled like wind through high-tension wires; the kangling, a short horn distilled from human femur bones; pedal-tone trumpets of varying length whose blasts inspired bliss or panic by turns; and the preternatural sustain of the choir of lamas and monks, each producing a chord from his own voice with overtone control. This album, the first of three issued by Barenreiter in its Musical Anthology of the Orient series, describes the sounds one might expect to hear issuing from the many-armed deities and fanged canine demons pictured in a Tantric tanka painting.

David Lewiston spent his life in pursuit of extra-European music, inspired largely by Crossley-Holland’s example. Lewiston also visited the Tantric monasteries of the Himalayas; the relationships which he developed there over two decades enabled him access to rituals never before witnessed by outsiders. In the years following the monks’ expulsion from their homeland by Chinese invaders, Lewiston taped their chants, the fiery clashing of rolmo cymbals and the blasts from six-foot radong trumpets during ceremonies that lasted 12 hours and more. Vinyl mastering techniques were usually insufficient to contain the heavenly fury of these performances, another reason to welcome the CD reissue of Lewiston’s field work.

Music From The Morning Of The World: Balinese Gamelan
(Nonesuch 979196 CD)

Among the best known of the Nonesuch Explorer series, this album recorded in Bali introduced to the world at large the magnificent machine-gun ferocity of the Ramayana Monkey Chant of the Ketjak Dance, a piece which has found its way into car adverts and Kenneth Anger films alike, and which may have become the Pachelbel’s Canon In D of World Music. Compared with the original vinyl pressings, the CD reissues of Explorer titles allow for vastly improved tone colour and imaging (the gamelan orchestras featured here were among David Lewiston’s first stereo recordings) Music From The Morning Of The World samples several formats and tunings of gamelan playing; Balinese gamelan, compared to its more sedate and meditative form in neighbouring Java, jumps like Duke Ellington. While on the island, Lewiston ferreted out a rarely heard Angklung (bamboo tube, as opposed to the better known metallophone) gamelan, also included here. The recordist acknowledged that this collection, the first as an Explorer set devoted to Balinese culture, has become a cult favourite over the years. “Having the recordings be as good as the music makes all the difference.”
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Music In The World Of Islam: The Human Voice/Flutes
(Topic TSC901 CD)

Music In The World Of Islam: Strings, Flutes & Trumpets
(Topic TSCD902 CD)

Music In The World Of Islam: Reeds & Bagpipes/Drums & Rhythms
(Topic TSCD903 CD)

Originally released on six LPs, the fruits of Jean Jenkins’s and Poul Rovsing Olsen’s mid-70s wanderings throughout the Islamic realm were released on Tangent in France prior to their release on CD compressed into the contents of the originals were field recordings made over a huge area, “tens of thousands of miles of Africa parts of Europe and Asia which are today, or have been in the past, Islamic”. Extra texture came from the fact that the recordings were made over a 15 year period, on equipment of varying standards by this ultra-peripatetic team.

When these records were first released in 1976, the Horniman Museum in London mounted an exhibition entitled “Music And Musical Instruments In The World Of Islam." The show’s catalogue was written by Jenkins and Rovsing, and the bibliography alone contained some 700 references. The exhibition, and more importantly, the albums that inspired it, brought home the extent to which the rest of the world was indebted musically to the region traversed by the recording duo. Many of the instruments found in India and South East Asia, not to mention China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, have as progenitors instruments long in use by Islamic players. The debt is larger still in the orchestral palette of Europe’s classical music. Folk music drew from Islamic vocal styles. The bounty of Islam’s achievement is spread
evenly across the three Topic discs.

The coruscating tones of the Persian ney flute are given much disc space, as are examples of various forms of spike fiddle (rabab, rubab, rebaba, etc). Nigerian nafir trumpets of limited range, but enormously powerful, are heard at a wedding in Marrakesh. A procession of ivory trumpets of various sizes stream through a Ugandan outdoor festival, set to a rhythm where the downbeat is in continual flux; the sound of heavenly chaos, no less.

Half of one disc is devoted to “Drums And Rhythms”. The Indian tabla, the Iranian zarb (for which a player is said to require “a hand or iron”), the Moroccan bender and the Afgani zerbaghali are showcased in settings ranging from processionals of high ceremony to solo recitals.

Music In The World Of Islam, in a development that could not have been foreseen by its recordists, has since taken on a life of its own beyond the confines of academia, providing the spur to a new realm of musical endeavour. The recording of the Lebanese vocalist Dunya Yunis provided the footing for two song collages on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s 1980 collaboration My Life In The Bush of Ghosts. The original recording, keening and pure, is one of 14 examples contained in the volume devoted to the human voice.

Just as music continues to evolve in the world of Islam – the New Zealand ethnographer David Parsons’s 15 disc update of music from the diaspora is due for imminent release on Celestial Harmonies – so has the final chapter yet to be written for Jenkins and Rovsing’s splendid anthology. The shadow cast by this collection lengthens ever toward the horizon.

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