Over the last decade, the Dust to Digital label has released a number of compilations of global sounds from the 78 PRM era by scholar and record collector Jonathan Ward, known for his endlessly educational Excavated Shellac website, a place where he has been offering free mp3 downloads of records from his own collection since 2007. Aside from a recent digital-only release as well as a 4 disc-and-booklet set of sounds from all over the African continent, the Atlanta-based label released two vinyl-only records focusing on single instrument types, reeds and strings. Of course Ward has long acknowledged being influenced by Pat Conte’s Secret Museum of Mankind, an 8 volume series of expertly curated 78-era sounds from around the planet released on the Yazoo label. At the time these CDs appeared in the mid-1990s, the internet was in its infancy and the music collected on the discs seemed almost otherworldly to western ears. (I bought the first two volumes without having a clue what they might contain and had my life forever altered).
Before the brilliant, generous work Ward and others such as Ian Nagoski and Robert Millis have done in re-contextualizing the sonic past for a 21st century audience, Conte spent a decade and half on New York airwaves, spinning records from his own vast collection on a show titled "The Secret Museum of the Air." It was only after that show ran its course that he began releasing commercially available collections of what he’d been playing on the air since the early 1980s. Arguably, as crucial as his Yazoo releases still are, one might have assumed he’d passed the baton to others as technology as well as a host of indie labels opened the flood gates for larger- but certainly not better- collections of music showcasing then-recent US immigrants, Burmese harpists, Ugandan endingidi masters, or Andean charango experts.
Thankfully, Red Hook, Brooklyn-based performance space and label Jalopy have helped keep Conte’s work available. Aside from releasing an album of Conte’s own music in 2010, they have brought us the first SMM collection in 23 years. Not surprisingly, it is well worth the wait. Here, we get exquisite flamenco, Greek solo bouzouki, Ghanaian highlife, Hindustani steel guitar and much more. Like many of the original volumes in the series, the music hops the globe; yet, because of the focus on guitar and guitar-adjacent instruments, the sounds here feel more homogenous than some of his other collections.
A Paraguayan guitarist apparently playing “taps” doesn’t seem all that far off from the playful whines coaxed from South African spoon guitarist Moses Zwe Zwe. In fact, you might be excused for thinking his music is Hawaiian. Elsewhere, there’s a Canadian proto-rock and roll guitar duet and Italian Greek guitar rebetika mastery.
Thanks to the sheer availability of such music, this collection won’t have the impact of Conte’s 90s-era releases. However, it’s delight to have him back; in fact, he ends his always informative liner notes with an announcement of more to come. Here’s hoping he keeps that promise.
Find out more about The Jalopy Theater
More to read and hear:
Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of the World's Music
The Secret Musuem of Mankind
Makgona Tsohle Reggi
Aboriginal Folk Songs Of Taiwan
Meet Pat Conte in this 2000 interview on CBS Sunday Morning
And here's a taste of Pat Conte's own music.