Longing For The Past: The 78 RPM era in Southeast Asia

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Various Artists
Longing For The Past: The 78 RPM era in Southeast Asia
4 CD X 271-page hardcover book
Dust to Digital DTD-28

This collection's liner note to a particular 50s-era Thai track titled “Mon Ap Son,” performed by the Yawt Silabin Troupe, describe this moody song as being recorded during a time when seated Thai musicians on traditional instruments were considered by various regimes to be “less than civilized.” As a result, players of the period, at least according to what was written about this performance, approached the new music with “a certain ambivalence.” No doubt this is true, but what the writing, perhaps intentionally, fails to mention is how wonderful, haunting and odd a track played by Thai musicians on vibraphone - along with what sounds like other classical Thai instrumentation - is. The results are otherworldly; the crossbreed, however forced, unknown before such rules were put in place. And fortunately, the “recording horn” was there to capture it. More fortunate still is the individual fanatical enough about music to scour record bins, travel to radically different cultures open minded enough to tune in to whatever sonic frequencies feed vague notions of that “something else” that drives the hardcore music lover and culture appreciator. Yet perhaps most fortunate is the person, or in this case, people, who get to hear it thanks to relentless ethnic record gobbler, musician and curator of the blogs Haji-Maji and Shellac Head, David Murray. His collaboration here with Dust to Digital, the label to top for making priceless audio and visual portraits of seemingly by-gone eras, shines on them a multicolored luster typically reserved for things not nearly as important, or as emotionally transportive.

With this collection the label has outdone itself. Tracks recorded over a 50-year period from Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore fill four full-length discs. So anyone who came into Javanese zither-driven lullabyes, Lao and Thai khen drones, Malaysian Gambus-picked celebration, Burmese piano-backed show pieces or the seemingly avant-garde twang of Vietnamese dan nguyet via select tracks on Yazoo's Secret Museum of Mankind series, Original Music's Street Music of Java LP or multiple collections released on Folkways, Sublime Frequencies or Nonesuch will bathe in what's available here. Then there is the book. Aside from multi-page historic overviews of each country with an emphasis on the music, record labels and how modernity, western influence and the recording process itself influenced it, there are extensive track-by-track notes written by Murray and others. Yet, what give this tome credit of alpine proportions are the historic photos, paintings and etchings of the musicians and the snapshots of the labels and sleeve cover art. One can read and find out approximate information about instrumentation, scales, time and place or reason for a certain performance, or one can stare into musicians' eyes, recognize the unquenchable dignity of the ensembles, and wonder.

The collection itself travels, disc-by-disc, farther south and East, meandering as it goes. Starting with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, adding Thailand by disc two, concentrating solely on Thai and Burmese performers by disc 3 and making its way to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore by the end of the collection. Within these countries, many musical sub-cultures and language-groups existed, and European influence varied in degree as well as region. Laos, being landlocked, appeared “slow to develop,” whatever that may mean. Yet it was the supplier of so much groove and drone based music many of us now know of as Northeast Thai molam. One Lao track, “Khap Slang,” is a solo piece for vocal and two-string coconut bodied fiddle, and while information on the key and scale are here, one need not understand any of that to connect this performance organically to such solo fiddle music from Rajasthan to Niger. Furthermore, that same Utah-sized country brings out recordings from the '20s of xylophone and gong duets, as well as the Khen-led ensemble performance, “Nang Nak.” Here, xylophone, flute, cymbals and the khen produce that seemingly endless swirl so gorgeously meditative and physically welcoming.

The solo Vietnamese dan bau is here too, the single-string twang that relies entirely on harmonics for its resonance. Also from Vietnam is more Chinese-influenced ensemble playing. Two string fiddles mesh with the dan nguyet- a two string circle-headed lute- and a bamboo flute for complex melodies that are often sped up toward the end of performance. Elsewhere the dan nguyet accompanies female vocalists in songs of spirit possession whose sense of liveliness and groove are infectious. In other words, what this collection does so effortlessly and enthusiastically is show off multiple styles from numerous regions of each country, sewing a patchwork of early 20th century Southeast Asian musical riches from centuries old traditions, sometimes unaltered by time.

The collection also envelops popular performers of the era in its metallic, percussion-fed musical circumlocutions and string instrument-fronted declarations. “Miss Whiskey” herself, Myat Lay, singer and silent film actor is here, as is Indonesia's Miss Riboet, a famous drama and stambul (opera) singer of her time. Yet, rarely do any two tracks on this collection repeat styles already heard without some kind of addition. Western Java's zither and flute driven poetry, with its spidery pluckings and tranquil, slightly mournful vocals collide with a Malay fiddle and gambus-driven love song snagged from a Middle Eastern play. In fact, thanks to both the world's largest Muslim population as well as a certain amount of Portuguese influence, the Malay/Indo region's people have played types of music radically unique and nearly disorienting to one coming into it for the first time. There are simply so many influences, both homegrown and otherwise, comprising various strains of this music that it becomes its own dust storm of sounds, spread over thousands of islands. But the orchestral gamelan, janger chants, horn and gong processions, fiddle and frame drum duets, overtly Middle-Eastern sorrow-driven songs featuring accordion, gambus and violin, and Chinese-influenced Gambang kromong are all to be found on disc 4, which takes listeners to the very edges of the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea.

This collection, never to be topped, is a 21st century reminder that our past is not only still with us, but also more complex and varied than we'd ever imagined. It's also yet another nod to the importance of musical expression that digs way beyond commercialization and the co-modification that came with it, all the while participating in the process. People senselessly murder each other; deny one another fair access to health care, education and decent pay. We wreck entire eco-systems legally with massive fishnets and choke ourselves to the point of bafflement on air and water polluted with a nastiness that all-but-defies scientific explanation. Yet we also make music, and we value it, need it, even demand it for certain rituals. Our ears delight in it; they perk up when we tune into frequencies we didn't heretofore know existed, and if we're open, we travel thanks to it. That's what this collection allows. Perhaps it's not really a past for which we long, but a future where these musical styles, all themselves hybrids, manage to continue, maybe due to this collection's very existence. - Bruce Miller

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