Secret Museum of Mankind Discography

Music Features
Secret Museum of Mankind Discography
Feb 8, 2006, 21:34

Volume 1 CD

It's poetically perfect that the lead track of the series' first official installment be one dominated by the oldest instrument of all: the human voice. “Jubilee Anthem,” a 1930 recording by Nigeria's Eleja Choir, features traditional percussion instruments and pump organ as the backdrop to a mesh of rising, childlike voices that is truly extraterrestrial—yet undeniably soothing. A fine example of the roots of juju, modern Central Africa's indigenous pop music, it serves well as both a magical invocation and a heartfelt invitation. From there, we discover the 1920s Japanese “high art music” of the Imperial Household Orchestra; 1940s proto-ska by Kingston Calypso singer Lord Composer; the sustained, percolating launeddas (an ancient triple pipe) played by Sardinian native Effisio Melis; and the Moroccan piece by Raoul Journo that inspired the opening scene of this article. Also here is the shimmering keyed fiddle of Swedish virtuoso Eric Sahlstrom (used as the theme to the now-defunct “Secret Museum of the Air” radio show). The shores of home are fading, and there's no turning back. But be bold, dear crew: infinite riches and the Great Journey await…

Volume 2 CD

On the second leg of our voyage, we encounter more wishes of welcome—this time from an anonymous men's choir in 1930s New Caldonia, along with the lilting Anglo-derived music of Nova Scotia fiddler Angus Chisolm, the high-squealing reed pipes of 20s French folk players, and a deeply moving and hypnotic devotional piece from India, sung by the enigmatic Professor Narayanro Vyas to the accompaniment of tablas, harmonium, and tambour, a kind of long-necked lute found in much of the Middle East. Worth the fare alone are two stunning cuts of classic rembetika, the Greek “blues” of the 20s and 30s; one of these, a dark, sinuous lament by the great Rita Abatzi, easily approaches The Doors in their most sinister, bacchanalian moments. There's an amazing cut by Zulu guitarist/vocalist John Bhengu; the rhythm and melody are completely unlike anything natural to Western ears, yet I find myself humming it for days. Bet you will, too.

Volume 3 CD

As is consistently the case, this next chest is so overflowing with treasure that the task of picking out the brightest jewels is a considerable struggle. Taken to task, my selected highlights include the forlorn, somber solo on qin (seven-stringed zither) made in Western China in 1939; a field recording of “Night Chants” by Navajo Elders in Arizona, circa 1940; a 1927 piece featuring the soaring ululation's of Spanish singer “Cuhichi” Menendez with boxwood bagpipe complement; and Turkish diva Hamiyet YÇ–ceses' update of a traditional gazel, or love poem, to a more modern, 40s style. Or maybe I prefer the sound of an 18-pipe mouth organ collected in Laos in the late-1920s but deemed unacceptable for release due to the on-mic intrusion of a passing steamship(!) Or perhaps the mind-twisting example of diphonic singing (more than one octave, simultaneously) by a Mongolian xhöömeiji vocalist. Ask me next week and my hit list will be all-new. (And check the inflated cheeks of the 1920s Sudanese musician on the cover, who beats out Dizzy Gillespie by almost two decades.)

Volume 4 CD

As with each disc in the series, there's no shortage of discovery and majesty to be blown away by on Volume 4. But both seasoned travelers and neophytes will likely bow to the infectious, uplifting joy of Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds' 1939 a capella reading of “Mbube,” known to us today as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Originally a traditional wedding song of his native Natal region in South Africa, Linda rewrote the lyrics to immortalize a lion cub he killed as a boy. Brilliant, beautiful and I'd say the CD was worth it for this track alone—but oh there's so much more. Like the mad, careening duo of lyra (small, upright fiddle) and lauto (deep-toned lute) on “Black Jim,” a dance tune from the isle of Crete, Irish master William Mullaley's bubbly 1927 concertina solo, “Tory Island Reel” or the serpentine tsfititelli rhythm of Pakistani R. Singh Bikhul's hypnotic waxing of tabla and Scottish war pipes. How about a stop in Madagascar for a rare taste of valiha, the island nation's unique stringed instrument (previously out on Yazoo is The Musicof Madagascar, unofficially the very first SMM disc), or a 1935 recording of an authentic gypsy group, captured outdoors by a team of traveling folklorists? Also waiting to be unearthed is the ancient version of another standard, “La Bamba,” here recorded in Vera Cruz in 1929 by guitarist/vocalist El Jarocho.

Volume 5 CD

From 1920s India comes youthful mandolin virtuoso Master Vyas, in duo with his brother, who plays jalatarang, or “water waves,” porcelain cups tuned with levels of water and struck with a small stick; a distantly dreamlike and haunting piece. Of further note are the sparse, World War II-era guitar ballad by Sardinian singer Ardino Marras and the cut by Martinque's Orchestra Du Bal Antillias, a fine example of biguine, the Creole parallel of early jazz that took Paris by storm at the dawn of the 30s. A northern Siamese tribal group, originally billed as “Singers of the Department of Fine Art,” may as well be from Mars, while Finland's Ulla Kantajavouri delivers a solo on the kantele (30-plus-stringed zither) that absolutely shimmers. There's even an actual U.S. record; Mississippian “Big Boy” Cleveland's pan pipe solo, “Quill Blues.” Another African choral piece, this time by the Aliwal North Sesuto Choir (1920s schoolchildren) is perhaps the happiest song ever recorded. But the real bombshell is the undeniably audible influence of imported American hillbilly records found on a 1940s South Rhodesian fiddle/guitar duet. Just goes to show; one nation's niche market of “yodelin' hicks” is often another's “mysterious exotica.”

Music of Central Asia CD

The first official disc of the SMM regional anthologies, Yazoo 7007 takes in the area where the Far East, Russia, and the Middle East converge. Here, in 26 scarce recordings from unassailable regions such as Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikstan, the Crimea and Turkestan, is a swirling, shifting brew; a storied, ancient stew that blends the unforgiving, guttural tones of the northern warrior tribes with the unraveled yearnings of the Mid-East and the stoic tones of the Orient, all laced with the impish playfulness of the Eastern European gypsy players who traversed and pollinated the region. We find cryptic Mongolian throat singers, along with the sprightly cabaret orchestra of Uzbeki diva A. Mirzaeva and the forlorn sound of a Kirghizian three-stringed komuz, which rivals anything ever played on an Appalachian banjo or steel-bodied Delta guitar for sheer loneliness. Let's stop right here in our tracks, for just a second, to take in the eternal, rugged grace of these age-old reverberations as they resound across the jagged scope of the landscape. Perfect. Now back to our vessel, to head south…

Music of North Africa CD

For such a seemingly desolate region, North Africa is the fertile home to many of the world's oldest musical traditions. Yes, the wide open flights of the taxims, populated by wailing santour and upright fiddle, are evocative of an endless, parched expanse, and the soaring, pleading vocals do reflect the highest heights and deepest depths of spirituality. But then there are the sensual, snakelike rhythms, driven by zils and dumbeks (finger cymbals; hand drums), which bring a highly addictive, earthy boudoir ambience to the package. And the occasional, spooky harmonium (an instrument most prevalent in the music of Southeast Asia), along with the menacing, call-and-response vocals on tracks like the 1930s Moroccan orchestra lead by Omar El Guizawi—ironically, a song whose ancient lyrics wish peace to all—are the very embodiment of mystery. Likewise ironic is the cut by Tunisian singer Louisa Tounsia, a rhumba-flavored tune exhibiting the reverse influence of pop music from the Moorish-colonized Andalusian area of Spain; much like the curious effect of American jazz and rhythm and blues would have on South African music. Music of North Africa is packed with impeccable, emotional exotica from Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, the Sudan—even Timbuktu. Already partial to the sounds of this neck of the world, this installment is my own favorite of the regional discs. But by no means is our journey over, as we sail yet deeper southward…

Music of East Africa CD

It goes without saying that this release contains the greatest concentration of the most primitive sounds in the entire series (thus far, at least; a forthcoming SMM volume covering The Congo is promised.) By and large, what we're dealing with here are weird, chanting voices, chanted in the disparate, tribal tongues of Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somaliland, and Zanzibar; languages like Kipsigis, Baktashi, Chaga, Swahili. We have wonderful examples of this, like the strange, circulating hypnosis of the opener by Wilson Laboso and His Kericho Girls and the celebratory, military-themed singing of Uganda's Private Christopher and group. But we also have records which feature indigenous stringed instruments, like the out-of-control ndongo (eight-string lyre) of Zakaria Kasasa, which conjures up a swarm of enraged mosquitoes with learned accuracy. (African guitar style, which eschews chords in favor of endlessly looped, single-string runs, is a genre unto itself; there are several prime samples here.) Still, the influence of records imported from the outside world does occasionally creep in, as shown by the North African taste evident on some of the Ethiopian and Sudanese sides. But nothing is weirder than hearing Kenyan Joseph H.M. Witts' American country-flavored banjo/vocal piece, sung in his native Luo language. Except, of course, for the Swahili appropriation of “My Darling Clementine” by a male chorus from Tanganyika. Yes, weird.

And now, weary sailors, our voyage over, let's adjourn to the library to recount our adventures over fine cigars and warmed cognac. And to rest up. For now.

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