Book/Music Review: Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of the World's Music

Jonathan Ward, a historian of recorded sound, has some surprising news. Thousands of early 78rpm recordings were made not to preserve music but as disposable materials for selling gramophones. With manufacturers hoping to expand their sales globally, demo records featured regional music aimed at appealing to regional. On his blog Excavated Shellac—and now on a 100-track compilation, Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of the World's Music (1907–1967), curated and produced by Jonathan Ward and remastered by Michael Graves—Ward has lovingly plucked a selection of these artifacts from music history's rubbish heap and unearthed background information on each in a herculean feat of research. His work lays bare a rich, hidden world of recording.

This endlessly fascinating collection, which can be downloaded as 16/44.1 WAV, FLAC, or MP3 files plus a 186-page PDF book, has been nominated for a Grammy Award, an honor already bestowed on Ward's 2013 compilation, Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM. In Shellac's informative introductory essay, Ward explains that he decided to refer to this music collectively as "global" because both "ethnic" and "world" music historically imply nonwhite, non-Western repertoires. All these recordings, which the record companies thought of as disposable, are in fact invaluable.

Shellac, Ward explains, is a resin secreted from the lac beetle and dissolved in alcohol. 78's made of this substance are brittle (hence the switch to more pliable vinyl), making Ward's many discoveries even more remarkable. One of many surprising revelations is that some companies continued to press 78's in shellac into the 1960s in certain regions because there was no economic impetus to change.

The sound quality of these rare old records varies wildly. Graves, the engineer, has done amazing work preserving the tracks digitally. On some of them, such as the Saramacca Band recorded in Suriname in 1922, Graves seems to have pulled viable sound out of pure distortion. On the other hand, on Irish piper Liam Walsh's recording from 1925, the Gramophone Company had just started using microphones instead of sound-capturing horns; it has a depth and immediacy one does not associate with 1920s recordings.

The material is grouped into four parts of 25 tracks each but with no encompassing themes that I could discern. The PDF book supplies detailed notes on each track, information on the traditions, artists, and even the recording techniques when they're known: the equivalent of one of Ward's blog posts. The book's back matter includes a condensed track list, a discography of original labels and catalog numbers, and a vast bibliography of further reading on the traditions reflected in each recording.

The book is beautifully laid out by art designer Barbara Bersche, illustrated with hi-rez images of discs and labels, early 20th century ads, and artist-promo shots. Each vocal track is accompanied by lyrics in the original language, with translations, making music that may seem exotic understandable to all. But—incredibly—despite all this worthwhile content, the e-book does not have internal hyperlinks to the main entries from the table of contents or the track list, so you have to scroll through manually to reach what you need. That quickly becomes frustrating.

Ward introduces listeners to many artists who were famous in their time and place but unknown after and beyond. For example, the opening track is a choral song with ragtime-like piano accompaniment by Reuben Tholakele Caluza, "perhaps the most important South African musician and composer of his time," according to Ward. On the other hand, some tracks represent types of traditional music with no commercial prospects at the time they were recorded, like the "raw style" of Veracruz jarocho string band music played on a 1937 record by Trio Medellín.

The presence of female artists is disappointingly small, but blame does not rest with Ward. Between the traditions favoring male musicians and the preconceptions of early ethnomusicologists and recording companies, the great majority of artists recorded in those decades were men. The handful of tracks by women include Che Ta'seah, a Ronggeng singer from Malaysia, the Portuguese cantadeira called simply Margarida, and the Russian "white-voice" duet of Klaudiya Kotok and E. M. Shishova.

Among the intriguing bits of knowledge Ward imparts is the fact that Iran was one of the liveliest early markets for phonographs. Persian virtuoso Hosseingholi Tatayy seems to draw three instruments' worth of sounds from his violin on the melody "Shur." From neighboring Iraq, Ward offers a more politically weighted track: Kurdish bards like Kawîs Axa defiantly sang their traditional stories despite ruthless oppression.

Some tracks exist in spite of the phonograph industry rather than because of it. Mongolian throat singing was captured on disc in 1938 by pioneering Japanese ethno-musicologist Hisao Tanake. It's a very rare recording because Mongolian music was largely overlooked before the 1950s. That's partly, Ward explained, because the two main phonograph companies divvied up Asia in a way that excluded Mongolia from both markets. But Mongolia was not the most ignored region. "The music of the Sahara on 78 is nearly nonexistent," Ward writes. He's found some, of course: Adja Mint Aali's song "El Khar," recorded in Mauritania by French businessman Louis Fourment on his label N'dardisc.

A surprising number of European traditions were also considered disposable phonographic fodder, from Sweden's Hardanger fiddle music to Germany's beer garden songs. The Portuguese fado style of guitarra playing, a tourist draw nowadays, was an exotic rarity when Júlio Silva recorded his sensual "Fado Melancólico" in 1927.

Ward seems to view this project, and the ongoing work it's part of, as a civic duty. In his introduction, he writes, "It isn't enough to merely own rare music as a collector any longer without sharing it in some fashion, and learning more." If he keeps going like this, all the music traditions of the world will become widely available

funambulistic's picture

For those unfamiliar with googling (or duck-duck-going, etc.) and since no links were provided*


*Copy and paste into the search engine of your choice!

otaku's picture

To quote Alex van der Tuuk, 2012: "In 1916, no company was under any illusions about the disc record as a significant cultural vessel - records were as pure a form of ephemera as the Sunday comics".

Herb Reichert's picture

this is glorious and a bargain at $35

I bought it and am listening now

very pleased