Rural International: Excavated Shellac

Felix Sunzu’s Vejika 78 rpm record; Excavated Shellac

[Editor’s Note: I am working for the next few days on a borrowed PC, as the AOTR Macbook is currently under repair at a local shop. The style changes to these posts will be corrected when I am reunited with this laptop and its editing software. Thanks for your patience!]
As folks who check in to our Facebook page may have already noticed, Excavated Shellac – an excellent online site for international vernacular music – has posted a series of thanksgiving videos from across the globe. Here’s some gorgeous polyphonic singing from the village of Politsani in Albania:
The work of Excavated Shellac unites both our concerns on the rural – urban dialogue as well as the dynamics of international rural experience; Jonathan Ward’s efforts to bring 78 rpm recordings to the digital realm have also expanded to include a few releases with the outstanding vernacular record label Dust-to-Digital. Last year’s global review of sting music from the 1920’s to 1950’s in Excavated Shellac: Strings is joined this year by Opika Pende: Africa at 78rpm, a large and gorgeously presented collection of music from the continent, presented across 4 CDs and a 112 page book. This music has never been issued on CD, until now.
Here’s Mr. Ward, in an excerpt from his introduction, followed by “Tu Nja Tengene Elie” by Mbongue Diboue Et Son Ensemble:
It is truly astonishing to consider the tremendous variety of music that was pressed to shellac discs on the continent of Africa. Popular songs, topical songs, work songs, comic songs, songs of worship, ritual, dance, and praise—the sheer range of musical styles resists any easy categorization. Further, African geography itself resists boundaries. The boundaries of cultures and languages are often far more complex than political boundaries. Complicating things further, entire countries seem to have been skipped over by both commercial 78 rpm record companies and ethnographers during the 78 rpm era. No doubt it was the same with many cultures. But that doesn’t mean that 78s weren’t everywhere, even in remote parts of the continent. By the mid-1960s, 78s were still a popular if not preferred medium in much of Africa, as a significant amount of the population still used wind-up gramophone players.

“Tu Nja Tengene Elie” by Mbongue Diboue Et Son Ensemble by dusttodigital

Alongside these releases, I would highly recommend paying a visit to the Excavated Shellac site and then also linking to their Facebook feed, which will offer, quite literally, a whole world of music to explore. What’s so striking about meandering through this online archive is the immediacy and intimacy of the experience; like the song of family and friends gathered around a table in Albania, we find ourselves in the midst of a communal experience.
Ultimately, we also find ourselves far from the soft-focus rhetoric of “world music” as it was previously marketed – or at least as how I understood the genre as a young person. While part of the aim of those earlier releases were to suggest that we were living in a global artistic marketplace, there was also a bit of a “It Takes a Village To Raise A Child” sheen to it. Too easily, it became background music, or a soundtrack for a very different kind of film.
Exploring the work of these musicians on the Excavated Shellac site, we’re faced with music and performances that ask for a deeper connection – a credit to the work Mr. Ward has done as a collector, audio archivist and curator. He describes this sense best himself, in his introduction:
It’s been my philosophy that good music is best when it is shared. Of course, nothing beats that feeling, say, when you alone break open that box from Turkey or Indonesia, place the fragile platter on the turntable, only to feel your hair stand on end when the music begins. The feeling that you’ve never heard anything like this before in your life; it transports you to a place where words are irrelevant. But part of that feeling is thinking how you’d want to share that with others, to have them feel exactly the same way. This music – old music – never sounds “old” to me, personally. In fact, I believe that it is music of THE FUTURE. Our future.