Opika Pende - Africa at 78 RPM. Dust Digital Records — Review For ARSC Journal (Journal of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections)

Opika Pende - Africa at 78 RPM.  Dust Digital Records

DTD-22 (4 CDs) 

The sheer immensity of Africa, a continent that could easily contain within its borders the United States, Western Europe, Argentina, China and India combined, was a geographic fact that took on new resonance for me as I began to review Opika Pende.  Surveying the folk music tradition captured on 78 RPM discs of a particular country, such as Albania, or even a state, such as Mississippi, can prove to be a daunting task, replete with omissions and unintended oversights if one is striving for completeness or attempting to defend a thesis.  Jonathan Ward's epic four CD box set, Opika Pende - Africa at 78 RPM, provides a thoroughly satisfying portrait of the African continent's music and gracefully acquits itself of the two aforesaid pitfalls.  He asserts in his introduction:

I have created this compilation with one simple goal in mind: to showcase a diverse amount of long-forgotten music from Africa that transports me as a listener.  It is one person's offering of music that is wholly unavailable except in its original elusive and fragile format.  While it is not definitive, nor am I attempting to construct or invent a narrative, there are important connections to be made.

By stating the intention to present a vast array of music captured on 78 RPM in Africa that moves him, Ward can now weave a tapestry of exotic voices and obscure instrumental styles that can lead the listener to unexpected and unfamiliar musical territory.

As Ward details in his introduction and throughout the annotations, the history of commercially recorded music in Africa started in Northern Africa, in Cairo, Egypt at the turn of the last century and, for the most part, remained in that general area for almost three decades.  It was not until the late 1920s that companies realized that they could record artists and groups from Sub-Saharan Africa and then sell machines and discs to this thriving population.  This activity of traveling to a given country and determining which artists and genres were popular enough to record was largely very selective, and entire countries, such as the Belgian Congo and Kenya, were not even visited by recording engineers until after World War II.  That so many different countries in Africa were even represented on 78 RPM is a minor miracle when one reflects on the time, expense, and resources that were necessary to capture these performances.  In many instances, these discs were pressed in quantities of one hundred or less and yet these largely European concerns saw a return on their money and labor.

Most of the major record labels to record in Africa were, at first, based in the original colonizer's country such as Pathé in France, Odeon and Polydor in Germany, and HMV in England, but over time local entrepreneurs saw the potential for profiting from sales to their local, and, regarding language and dialect, relatively minuscule populations.  This incentive to capture indigenous musics by natives for natives created a virtual explosion of regional and independent labels that sought out local talent in order to feed the growing demand for this modern luxury: the phonograph player and songs frozen in time.  Though the annotations do not specify, I suspect that close to half of the recordings presented in this collection were captured by small, local labels.

Besides the incredible number of individuals and companies involved in the "boom times" of capturing music on disc in Africa, one can stand awestruck at the bewildering diversity of styles, genres, and levels of musicianship demonstrated on the continent.  Songs based on hymns, both Protestant and Catholic, Islamic prayers and songs of devotion, funky big-bands, comic sketches, staid choirs, syncopated string bands, and otherworldly instrumental solos were all recorded in Africa, and this collection contains many other variations and examples.  Perhaps the fortunate (and unfortunate) conflux of colonial powers and immigration worked to create such unlikely and idiosyncratic sounds.  One such performance, Cuisine Roulante!, by Orchestra André Phillipe de St.-Pierre from the Island of Réunion (off the coast of Madagascar) is a perfect case in point.  Though this reviewer has been fortunate enough to hear eight sides recorded by Odeon in the early 1930s in Réunion, it nevertheless strikes me how much the music of this small island is reminiscent of string band tunes from the Southern United States as well as the jive bands of Haiti and the smaller jazz groups of New Orleans.  As Ward points out, this small island was a melting pot of French, Chinese, Indian and pan-African immigrants, all of whom contributed to its unique Creole culture. This lesson of immigration and assimilation is repeated throughout the collection.

Another track (among many) that captured my attention was the sole example of music from the nation of Ethiopia.  Having heard a few other 78s from this region originally captured on Odeon in the early 1930s and reissued on Decca, I had expected that the solo singing of Yetna Taddeghegn on spike fiddle [JHH: IS THIS RIGHT, SINGING ON A FIDDLE?  SHOULD IT BE SOLO SINGING WITH A SPIKE FIDDLE?], recorded in the 1950s, to sound more "modern," but I was pleasantly surprised by his unvarnished vocals.  Isolated areas, such as Ethiopia and Epirus (Northern Greece), seemingly demonstrate that certain folk sounds become immutable...changeless in their beauty and power.

In addition to documenting the regional variation of stylistic choices and repertoires, this collection also contains a wealth of obscure and rarely heard solo instrumental performances.  One would certainly expect to hear the mbira, or thumb-piano (there are at least four tracks containing this instrument), but Ward selects a host of percussion, reed, string, and wind instruments, some of which are uniquely African.  A goje fiddle (one string) solo from Niger, a pluriarc konou or bow lute from Guinea, and the ndingidi or one-string tube fiddle are among some of the most esoteric instruments heard in this box set.  However, an Arabic violin solo by the Egyptian master, Sami al-Shawwa is only slightly more familiar to the ear, as is a lively accordion solo by Salia Koroma of Sierra Leone and an anonymous musician’s flute solo from Madagascar.  A wealth of finger-picked guitar, both with solo singing and choral accompaniment, is also found in the set.

Ward's careful and diligent labor at researching and annotating this massive volume is highly laudable.  In fact, to describe his individual annotations for each and every track as a highly impressive discographic and ethnomusicological achievement would be a regrettable understatement.  In this reviewer's experience, discs such as those found on this anthology are exceedingly rare and information on the companies that produced them and the artists who made them is rarer still.  An astounding amount of footwork and patient canvassing of specialists must have gone into this project, and Ward thankfully provides a very thorough bibliography of works and persons consulted.  His blog, http://excavatedshellac.com, contains many postings of folk music from around the world, all originally issued on 78 RPM, and they are all diligently researched, similar to the tracks found in this collection.

As should be expected, there is a wide spectrum of sonic quality regarding the transfers in this set.  Most tracks sound quite clean and possess a depth of response with much detail and articulation of subtleties.  There are a few tracks that have apparent surface noise from having been played and abused by the ravages of time.  These, however, are not really a distraction. More common are the funky "studio" conditions where the performances were captured.  I say "studio" since it is likely that many of these 78 RPM sides were recorded in the field under less than ideal conditions and with less than perfect equipment.  Since many of these labels were privately funded and locally run, they likely used the more inexpensive instantaneous devices which were known for their difficult miking.  Be that as it may, for those who are familiar with field recording sessions and aural artifacts associated with 78 RPM playback, these flaws are not a concern with this box set.  The programming of the individual four discs is also exceptional and seemingly flows from one area of the continent to the next.

With Opika Pende Jonathan Ward has produced an unprecedented and monumental achievement in compiling, researching and annotating a largely undocumented discographic body of recordings.  A collection as lovingly and professionally produced as this is very rare.  The sheer attention to detail paid to each and every track is simply amazing.  I highly recommend this set to anyone who has an interest in the genuine, raw folk-music of Africa, and I hope to see Ward produce additional similar volumes.

Christopher C. King

ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303

“These reviews first appeared in the ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303, and they are reprinted with permission of the ARSC Journal.  For information about ARSC, see www.ARSC-audio.org.”