Music 'archaeologists' recover gem recordings
From Israel to France, old songs unearthed sound new again.
On April 9, 1860, Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville recorded an anonymous woman singing the French folksong “Au Clair de la Lune.” The performance, transcribed as squiggly lines on smoke-blackened paper by Martinville’s patented ‘phonautograph,’ may be history’s first music recording. Since then there’s been one hundred and fifty-five years of recorded sound and, despite the already common feeling that the Internet has just too much music for any one human to hear, much of it doesn’t exist in the digital realm at all.
There are thousands upon thousands of LPs and tapes and even phonograph cylinders archived in private collections, uncatalogued library archives, and sometimes just sitting in a music shop located on the boulevard off a Mediterranean market. That last part is where crate diggers like Fortuna Records comes in. Alongside more famous reissue labels like Smithsonian’s Folkways label, Australia’s Finders Keepers, and the new Canary Records of Baltimore, Fortuna Records hunts for rare records lost to time – releases that have never been hosted on Spotify, or sold on iTunes. Specifically, the Tel Aviv-based label specializes in forgotten psychedelic gems from Israel and around the Mediterranean.
Perhaps no album characterizes Fortuna’s aesthetic interests more than their 2013 reissue of a now-forgotten debut from a young Israeli teen star in from the city of Jaffa in the 1970’s. Quickly dismissed and forgotten after its release, Grazia has a sound way ahead of its time. The self-titled album mixes Turkish wedding music with disco grooves and Moog synth sounds. Listeners in the '70s might not have known what to make of it, but when Fortuna found it they immediately knew they had a gem.
“It was the sound of Jaffa in the late '60s and early '70s,” Fortuna explains. “Lots of taverns, restaurants and bars were playing live music. The sea trade was a lot more active at the time, so there was a real Mediterranean vibe back then. Greek and Turkish sounds were very strong.”
Zack Bar, founder of Fortuna, explained what he looks for and and how he finds it. “We are archaeologists. We dig not only the sounds but the whole story around it,” he told From The Grapevine. “Spending days at shops, markets, record dealers.”
Fortuna aren’t the only reissue labels on the hunt for rare and exotic older albums with neat stories. Here are four other recent reissues from this year alone that highlight the range of styles to be excavated from history and rediscovered.
Francis the Great - Ravissante Baby
This unique release came out of the French Cameroonian community of 1977. Recorded in Paris, it features the vocal stylings of the eponymous seven-year-old boy, Francis. This funky soukous and psych LP was produced by his father and contains some of '70s Paris’ wildest artists including synths by Michel Morose and Toto Guillaume on guitar. “Ravissante Baby” is a hypnotic blast from history packed with groovy tropical beats and the inimitable lyrics and vocals of seven-year-old Francis.
E.T. Mensah & the Tempos - King of Highlife: Anthology
The Tempos were originally formed in 1946 in Accra, Ghana to play army dances for European soldiers stationed in West Africa. In 1947 E.T. Mensah joined them and turned them into the African powerhouse band playing a mixture of the bluesy highlife popular in Ghana and Nigeria at the time (most famously popularized by Fela Kuti), big band club horns and rhythms, and the beautiful acoustic folk sounds of palm wine. Primarily known to Western audiences through other regional and genre compilations, this 69 (!) track anthology puts together the world’s most extensive Mensah collection. The operative question becomes, do you really need this bounty of E.T. Mensah recordings? The best of these tracks, like “The Tree and the Monkey,” and “Daavi Loloto” appear on other collections, but for sheer breadth you can’t do better than this artifact that highlights a prolific but relatively unknown band.
And Two Partridges: From the Earliest Commercial Turkish-Language American Recordings, Sept. 1912- Feb. 1916
Canary Records is, like Fortuna, a newcomer to the reissued vinyl scene but they’ve already put out a number of excellent unearthed gems including this collection of Turkish-language tracks from the early 20th century. This collection brings together one fourth of Columbia Records’ Turkish recordings. If rock fans know Turkish music at all, it’s generally in the form of excellent Anatolian psych guitar rock, but this cryptic pop from the Ottoman diaspora awash in unusual vocal polyrhythms and distilled through the staticky sound of the oldest recordings is a treat.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll
The soundtrack of a film by the same name, "Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten" documents an innovative and eclectic Cambodian musical scene of the 1960s that is unknown to almost all Western music fans. Under the regime of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodian musicians drew together a variety of styles like go-go bands, bubble-gum pop, funk and psychedelica alongside traditional Khmer folk music. What remains is a timeless document of youth and longing that feels entirely tragic today knowing what we do about the political history of Cambodia. That contingency makes this lovely pop scene feel fragile and transient.
Mordechai Shinefield has been writing about music for over a decade for a variety of periodicals including Rolling Stone, Spin Magazine and the Village Voice. His tastes in music run the gamut; Malian desert blues and palm wine music from Sierra Leone, leftfield electronica, Middle Eastern folk metal, sun-soaked psychedelic folk, avant garde free jazz, vaporwave, and even some top 40.
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