"After all, a great many things that are called modern are really things that are ancient, polished over cunningly." -Unknown, from an account of a "Negro rag" dance, Leavenworth Herald, Nov. 2, 1895
Morocco, 1932. A rare kind breeze blows through the coastal village as the sun scorches down, frying the roof of one of its few modern hotels.
Scurrying across the courtyard and into the sparse, bleach-walled lobby is a small band of musicians. With less than a day's notice, they have been summoned by the mysterious men in the white lab coats who have arrived from the West to make phonograph records. Wiping the sleep from their eyes and vainly trying to shake off the indulgences of the previous evening's café gig, they produce the tools of their trade—oud, tambour, and other stringed instruments; a few small hand drums—and begin to tune them. They play a few traditional songs, perhaps learned from their fathers or some of the other aging locals, followed by something they call a taksim—a longer, improvised piece using only a set of modes or scales as a guide. While they perform, the players wonder exactly how the strange, spinning and whirring device is able to capture their music as it cuts groove after groove into the hard-pressed beeswax discs.
Around the world at the same time (or perhaps one or two years prior; even as much as ten years later), similar scenes of primitive audio documentation are taking place. A haunting native choir is recorded in the wilds of Nigeria. Thousands of miles away, a jubilant gypsy cuartetto in rural Spain is preserved; the pastoral sound of a wooden flute high in the mountains of Tibet is likewise collected for the ages, as is the bacchanalian decadence of a hashish-smoking rembetika band in coastal Greece. And on the island of Fiji, a young songstress sings a tender lament of lost love for the curious horn of the recordists. After each of these sessions have been completed, the precious wax discs are packed up and shipped back to the United States, where they will be used to cast the metal stamping plates from which the commercially released shellac 78s will be made. The nascent record industry isn't quite sure what kinds of records Americans will buy, and it's hoping that consumers will desire the exotic. But, maybe more realistically, the handful of recording firms is also banking on the many recent U.S. immigrants who may miss the music of their homelands.
Decades pass. World War II occurs, and millions of these fragile records are discarded or destroyed, the metal and shellac used in their manufacture being so vital to the war effort. It seems this music, which lives on only in the hearts and memories of the very few surviving participants, will be lost forever.
Queens, New York, 1970. In a junk-piled antique store, Pat Conte, a record collector and esoterica fanatic, is getting his hands dirty. As part of his never-ending quest for hopelessly scarce, pre-war blues and country discs, he's flipping through a big, dusty box of old 78s. The label on one of the records catches his eye and he plucks the item out. Marveling at its unusually ornate design and odd-looking Arabic text, he notices one line, in English, at the bottom: "Recorded in Morocco." Intrigued, he purchases it, along with a few other finds, and heads home.
After gingerly removing nearly 50 years of dirt, he lays the enigmatic prize on the phonograph and lowers the needle. The spinning platter hums, a crackling warmth rises from the speakers. And then, from across half a century, the stark, distant sound of a group of young men playing very old music begins to fill the air. The villagers have returned.
"I started collecting records in the early ’60s, looking for jazz stuff," says Conte, curator and compiler of The Secret Museum of Mankind: Ethnic Music Classics, 1925-1948, the extraordinary nine-volume series of vintage world music on the Yazoo label (distributed by Shanachie). "I remember flipping through and pushing aside tons of ethnic records, digging for ’40s jazz. It was just the junk that was in the way. Then I got into country and blues, around the time of the folk revival."
At one time, New York was an affordable shopping Mecca for record collectors. Spots like Asch/Disc Records founder Mo Asch's shop, James McKune's tiny store, and Jake Schneider's converted uptown hotel housed a seemingly bottomless mine of treasures, the disparate, cast-off culture of the parents and grandparents of baby-boomers whose families had flocked to the city in search of a new life. Schneider's became the meeting place for a new generation of collector-musicologists like Max Vreede and Gene Earle and ethnic discographer Dick Spottswood, not to mention future label entrepreneurs like Yazoo founder Nick Perls, Origin Jazz Library's Pete Whelan and Bernard Klatzko, County's David Freeman, and Shanachie chief Richard Nevins. These pioneering archeologists were Conte's elders in the field, cultural student-teachers who were among the first to realize the importance of forgotten artists like Charley Patton and Charlie Poole and reissue their work.
"Schneider's thing was that he 'collected collections,' he bought people out," Conte says. "His place and McKune's were really the best places to look for stuff, especially pre-war country blues. But that was before my time. Though I did find a Bukka White record in a thrift store once. That was something—I took the rest of the afternoon off from work that day," he beams.
Conte's first exposure to ethnic music came, appropriately, from his grandmother's collection of Italian folk and opera records, which he initially wrote off as "goofy." But then, as he got deeper into American traditional music, something clicked. "It hit me: 'Hold on, that's not goofy, not at all.' I suddenly realized that other parts of the world had musical traditions just as deep or even more deeply rooted than ours."
So began the fervent, 10-year harvest of ethnic discs, leading first to a radio show (now defunct) co-hosted and engineered by fellow pundit Citizen Kafka, the CD series itself, and even a spot on TV's "CBS Sunday Morning." Inside the booklet of each Secret Museum disc (the concept's name comes from a popular 1920s ethnographic book) are superb historical photographs that blend perfectly with Conte's evocative, poetic notes to create a thrilling mood of enlightenment.
To many of us, the old music of America is odd enough. The rural blues and country artists we know from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music seem to have literally grown from out of the soil they tilled, to actually be made of the dust on the now-vanished roads they sing about. And the urban jazz and dance bands of the 1920s and early ’30s evoke an explosion of wild, syncopated abandon, defiant experimentation, and dreamlike parties thrown by stylish outlaws. The music on those records, ancient and exotic as it is to us now, still contains at least a glimmer of something we sort of understand. Something that conforms to the rules built upon all that has come since, something we vaguely recognize as our own. Simply put, it's strange because it's old but it's not that strange because we know what came next.
But besides being made by people who sing in entirely different tongues, the foreign counterparts to what we call "old-time" music feature instrumentation and systems of composition, notation, and rhythm entirely removed from what we are generally accustomed to. So they're not just "old-time" strange, they're otherworldly strange. Like the voicemail of alien visitors or the broadcasts of some highly evolved future society—despite the fact that they represent styles and traditions dating from much earlier than anything produced in the New World. If the stuff on the Anthology is, as Greil Marcus calls it, the Old, Weird America, then the music of The Secret Museum of Mankind series is its much older—and far weirder—grandparents.
"Of course I had the Anthology. The Secret Museum was definitely influenced by it. I guess my CDs must be the 'Old, Weird World,'" Conte muses. "It's funny, I was a big fan of The Fugs (Smith produced the irreverent folk/proto-punk act's first album), but I didn't make the connection at the time. I just assumed that Harry Smith was this crazy genius artist/filmmaker guy who was part of that whole scene. I didn't realize he was the same Harry Smith who put together the Anthology," he says, validating the whole "great-minds-think-alike" theorem.
"But I did want to make the ethnic equivalent of the Anthology, which, it turns out, (avant-garde composer) Henry Cowell had already sort of done, with his Music of the World series for Folkways. But it took me years to find those records. And by then I already had the concept in mind," Conte says, adding that some of his copies of the now out-of-print Folkways LPs appear to have belonged to Cowell himself.
"I tend to think of the first five (regular) volumes as the 'lobby' of the Museum," says Conte. "From there, listeners can go off into the regional discs, like the ones for East Africa or Central Asia, with a little bit of bearing as to how it all ties together."
The unofficial first volume of The Secret Museum series is Music of Madagascar, a set of 1930s recordings from the island nation that came out in 1992. Originally planned as one of the series' later regional installments, Shanachie chose to release it earlier to coincide with the buzz generated by World Out of Time, David Lindley's and Henry Kaiser's award-winning, three-volume collaboration with Malagasy musicians." Shanachie's Nevins felt it would give fans of the Lindley and Kaiser CDs more of a context of where that music came from," explains Conte. "He (Nevins) really does care more about music than sales. But it did seem like it might help sales, too." Though Music of Madagascar does not carry the SMM banner, it's right at home with the discs that do.
In his forward to Can't Be Satisfied, Robert Gordon's biography of Muddy Waters, no less than Keith Richards points out that the music of the blues is about a feeling. And, he says, although the blues have been around in name for about 100 years, feelings have been around for much longer. To realize this is to unlock the door. If we understand that every far-flung people of the earth has its own folk music, generally played by the common classes of whatever society and naturally based on the same human feelings we hear in the blues—heartbreak, joy, despair, lust, humor, all of it—then it all starts to make a lot more sense. The weird sounds and odd rhythms just make it more unusual and interesting, more challenging. But no mater how "exotic" it sounds to our ears, that broken heart or juke joint party is always there. It just plays a little differently in 1930s Uzbekistan than in 1930s Mississippi, that's all. "Salt of the Earth," indeed. (The Stones have actually been hip to this concept from way back, as Brian Jones' work with the Master Musicians of Jajouka so famously bears out.)
Now 47, Conte makes his home on Long Island, where his basement headquarters, the real Secret Museum, if you will, houses over 50,000 rare 78s. He also plays guitar in the old-timey Otis Brothers (CDs available online from Elderly Instruments) and contributes to other historical reissues, such as those by klezmer king Henry Kandel, string-band legends Gid Tanner and his Skillet-Lickers, and Yazoo's recent overview of gospel blues great Washington Phillips. Also in the can are the next two volumes in the Secret Museum saga, both comprised of early sacred music from all parts of the world.
The requirements, other than origin and era, for a record to be included on one of the Secret Museum discs? "Well, it doesn't have to be folk music, per se. Some of the songs on the CDs are closer to being hybrid styles than purely traditional folk music," Conte clarifies, bringing to mind tracks like one by a hillbilly-influenced African fiddle/guitar duo. "More than anything else, it has to be something that's moving. That's really what it's about."
"There's a tune on Volume 1 from Sardinia by a guy playing the Sardinian version of a pan flute ("Fiorassio" by launnedas soloist Effisio Melis). It sounds a lot like a bagpipe, actually," he says. "But the emotion, the power, that that guy plays with. It just goes right through you. I love country blues, too, but the deep feeling that that guy has—wow. That's what I want people to hear."
What's also vital to understanding the importance of the material featured on the Secret Museum discs is that these tracks were made during what has since become known as the golden age of the phonograph. The technology of the New World had met the antiquated traditions of the old, and the ancient art and customs of these remote cultures had not yet been altered by exposure to radio or other outside influences. Artists had, literally, only their next-door neighbors to copy. They played the songs they had learned from their great-grandfathers. The rare cuts on these magic discs are the final frozen fragments of a world long since gone. And they still sound like they came from the future. Perhaps they did.
After more than 100 years of its existence we take it for granted, but the invention of the phonograph is really something else. The raw sound of a man blowing poetically through a handmade tube, leaving the earnest imprint of his breath for us to find a century later, can still be powerfully moving long after every physical thing involved in the making of these recordings—instruments, recording equipment, the bones and bodies of those who played on them and engineered them, and before long the discs themselves—has literally turned to dust. But, thanks to a few bold explorers like Conte and the folks at Yazoo/Shanachie, these mysterious, irreplaceable tones are yet with us, reverberating down through the ages. For that, we should be eternally thankful.
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