‘Longing for the Past’: When the Voices of the Dead Finally Reach Us

While listening to "The Dance and Song of Laos" (1906) a haunting voice, both enticing and archaic, mingles with the crepitating noise of the antique shellac.
various; compiled by David Murray
Longing for the Past: The 78rpm Era in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is a funny place in that it doesn’t exist. It’s a convenient phrase to denote a region that has historically acted as a trading fulcrum between South Asia (the Indian Subcontinent) and East Asia (China, Korea, Japan). To borrow a phrase, it’s nothing more than a conspiracy of cartographers.

More than 600 million people live here. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a trading block formed in 1967, currently consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam (tiny East Timor is not included). These nations run the political gamut from the monarchy of Thailand to the modern Communism of Vietnam to the fledgling democracy of Indonesia. Burma is ruled by a military junta that is now warming to capitalism; Brunei has a sultan; the same family has ruled Singapore for 50 years with an army of technocrats.

The region has experienced peaceful trade as well as invasions from every direction (China last invaded Vietnam in 1979) that have brought with them varied musical cultures and religions. Riding atop the local animist traditions, which remain strong, is Hinduism, which came first, then the various forms of Buddhism and Taoism. Islam arrived with Gujarati traders from the West and got as far as the Pacific Ocean to the East. With European colonialism came Catholicism, then Protestantism in its many guises.

The sounds of the region mirror this mélange of spiritualities. Bass fiddles glide over brass gongs; violins are tuned to sound like Chinese erhus; pianos are pounded like pitched drums; ancient songs are performed on electric guitars. For sheer variety of sound, of musical expression, Southeast Asia offers a stunningly eclectic mix. Choosing and selecting which of the music from this vast, multicultural repository to capture and sell requires constraints.

One way is to focus on a particular country, like the Smithsonian Folkways encyclopedic 20-CD release Music of Indonesia, compiled by ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky from 1991 to 1999. Another is by recording technology, such as 78rpm records, like cartoonist R. Crumb’s 2003 compilation Hot Women Singers from the Torrid Regions of the World, Taken from Old 78rpm Records.

Or both constraints can be used, such as the Sublime Frequencies 2013 release The Crying Princess: 78rpm Records from Burma, compiled by Alan Bishop and Robert Millis. Now, in the era of blogging and youtube, when the constraints are off, every record collector can be a curator, and the profusion has become daunting.

A blog like Excavated Shellac offers more at the press of a button than you could buy in an entire record store ten years ago. The curator of the box-set under review also has a blog, Haji Maji, which, like Excavated Shellac, offers detailed descriptions of the songs, with assiduous research into the sound: the musical traditions, the composers, the performers, the instruments, the record labels.

There are other blogs that go into less scholarly detail and cross into the 33 1/3 rpm and cassette era but still present a vault of material, such as Madrotter Treasure Hunt, and countless more. And for those people who don’t want to read, there’s YouTube, which offers a seemingly infinite quantity of traditional music, often with little or no commentary, but which listeners can treat like a jukebox of, say, 78rpm recordings of Indonesian gamelan.

Never before has so much rare music from such a wide variety of sources been available so easily. Yet this rapidly proliferating abundance is creating a surfeit of choice, and making sense of it all can be overwhelming.


Into this morass comes Longing for the Past, The 78rpm Era in Southeast Asia, a lavish four CD box-set covering recordings from 1905 to 1966, with an accompanying 267 page book, released on the Atlanta-based boutique label Dust-to-Digital. It won the 2014 Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research, in the category Best Historical Research in Recorded Folk or World Music.

In recent years, Dust-to-Digital has created a name for itself, if not an entire niche market, with high quality box-sets that, as the website explains, “combine rare, essential recordings with historical images and descriptive texts to create high-quality, cultural artifacts.”

Longing for the Past perfectly embodies this raison d’être. Compiled and edited by David Murray (not the jazz musician), the box-set presents an outstanding achievement in cultural recovery. There are over 250 vintage photographs, record labels and sleeves. In addition to Murray, a team of five ethnomusicologists wrote the track listings, and there are even more thanked for contributions. Specialists in their fields, the knowledge provided in the text could fill a year’s worth of graduate seminars.

In our era of high-speed MP3 downloads, when recorded sound is more ephemeral than ever, the Dust-to-Digital releases provide a context that turns these strange old sounds into music. The box-sets are big, slow, and require close attention to appreciate fully.

Longing for the Past provides meticulously researched introductions for the music of each country, as well as the history of the recording industry in the region. Continuities are highlighted: It’s pointed out that the khene, a bamboo mouthorgan that appears in a bas-relief of the ancient temple of Angkor Wat, is still used today in the popular music of the Isan region, on the borderlands of Thailand and Laos.

Murray is a musician and graphic designer by training, and this is evident in the attention to detail in the layout of the book. For example, there are different colors for the names of countries in track listings. High resolution copies of the record sleeves appear beside the track descriptions: it’s like sitting in Murray’s living room with his ethnomusicologist friends, listening to the music, handling the discs, overhearing the learned discussion.

You will notice, however, that this Southeast Asia differs from ASEAN. The region is divided roughly along the old colonial system, which makes sense, because the 78rpms were recorded during that time. So the kingdom of Siam and French Indochina and British Malaya are referred to as “mainland”, while the Indonesian Archipelago, the old Dutch East Indies, is referred to as “maritime” Southeast Asia. The Philippines are not represented at all.

Of the 90 songs in the box-set, nine are from Cambodia; 13 from Indonesia; 15 from Vietnam; 16 from Burma; and 17 from Thailand. There are 12 songs associated with Laos, but as the text points out, these were not recorded in Laos. In fact, the authors believe that 78rpm records were never made in Laos—representative sounds were recorded outside the country. Two songs are identified as coming from Malaysia, with an additional six from “Malaysia/Singapore” because the countries were part of the same colony at the time and it is nearly impossible to tell where the records were made.

The Collector-Curator

I was privileged to exchange several emails with David Murray and asked him what went into making Longing for the Past.

This is your third box set issued from Dust-to-Digital. Why do you do it? In other words, what to you is the value of issuing these sorts of box sets of old records?

I’ve always been a “compiler” type guy, even as a kid. I would design my own comic books and things like that. I’m a graphic designer by trade, so creating these reissue packages appeals to me on a design level, as well as a musical level. Also, as a musician, I’m interested in learning how different styles of music work, but since I don’t have the time or the ability to learn everything from Vietnamese dan trahn to Bahraini oud, creating these compilations is an alternate way to dig in and get my hands on the music. I’ll never break even on these projects, so it’s not for the money!

Why do you collect 78rpm music from Southeast Asia? What is special about that recording period? About music from that region?

I’d been listening to world music from the 78rpm era for quite awhile via CD reissues. Everything from American blues, hillbilly, and Cajun recordings to Irish, Ukrainian, Greek and more. These were mostly reissues on the Arhoolie label or the Secret Museum of Mankind series, which was just then being released. I was learning to play old banjo and fiddle music and soon got hooked on playing the Greek bouzouki in a style called Rebetika. Rebetika is famously known as the music of the Greek hashish dens, which is at least partially true.

Living in San Francisco (at that time) I began to wonder if there was a style of music associated with the city’s Chinese opium dens that had been widespread in the second half of the 1800s. Unfortunately, I could find no hint of a style of music tied to the opium dens, but in the process I heard old recordings of Chinese opera for the first time. Cantonese recordings had been made in San Francisco very early, 1898 or so. I was instantly obsessed with the sound of this music and spent the next several years amassing Chinese 78s. I followed the music of the Chinese diaspora, which led to Southeast Asia.

Like Chinese music, most Southeast Asian music is very unusual to Western ears. Some people find unusual sounds to be off-putting, by I guess I’m attracted to them!

How long did it take you to compile the music and images for Longing for the Past?

I worked on the project for about seven years. After collecting those records for a year or two I lucked into a situation where I was offered a batch of 12 records of Lao and Vietnamese music from the ’20s. Because 78s from Laos are exceedingly rare I didn’t hesitate to acquire the records. In an attempt to research the Lao records, I contacted ethnomusicologist Terry E. Miller, a widely respected authority on Thai and Lao music. Terry had done fieldwork in Thailand and Laos since the ’60s. He had never seen or heard these records before, so of course he was intrigued. We decided to collaborate on a Lao reissue.

About the same time I was contacted by Dust-to-Digital through my friend Jonathan Ward (of the Excavated Shellac blog) about doing some projects. They were interested in the Lao project, but we soon expanded the project to cover all of Southeast Asia. There were just too many great records from countries other than Laos that I wanted to get out into the public realm. After all, many of these records may have not been heard by anyone for decades and there had never been a reissue that covered Southeast Asia.

With Terry’s help, we contacted some musicologists and researchers to work on the different regions. In the meantime, I was researching the discographical side of the story. So it was about five years from the time Terry and I agreed to do the Lao research until the set was released. The last year and a half was designing the book and packaging. I had been collecting the music and images all along.

What criteria did you use in choosing which songs to release?

My interest in these old recordings, at least partially, is that they hint at the way music sounded before the recording process was invented. Centuries of music have come and gone, unrecorded. Our whole recorded history is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s as if the only photo you had of your life was from yesterday. So, with that in mind, I was looking for music that had a connection to the past (hence the title). I purposely ignored music that was obviously influenced by Western music, although definitions can become very blurred the closer one investigates.

Was it a team process, did the collaborators have input into the selection process, or more of a one-man show?

For the most part, I selected the material, although there was some input from some of the authors. That said, the authors put in a tremendous amount of work on their own sections, translating, writing and researching. So in that sense, it was a team process. We all had roles to which we were suited and that’s what made the project a success.

Why did you not include any music from the Philippines in the release?

The only Filipino music I’ve heard from the 78rpm era has been too much in the popular vein for inclusion on Longing for the Past. It’s possible that more traditional folk music was recorded during that time, but I’ve simply never found any such records. I’ve heard many great field recordings from later and it would be amazing to hear some older versions if the 78rpms ever turn up.

The use of images seems at times quite deliberate, such as record labels, and at others almost random, such as the postcards: what criteria were used in the selection of images and their placement in the book?

At the first level, the images of the record labels are paired with the specific tracks. They’re interesting to look at and provide further information. The postcards aren’t random at all. Each chapter in the annotations section is related to a region, and the images in that chapter come from those regions. I tried to match up images with instruments or other aspects that were related to the tracks. Sometimes though, the images are just to provide atmosphere, to show the landscape or costumes related to the tracks discussed nearby.

You also run a blog, Haji Maji, about your music collection that in some ways overlaps with the box-sets. Can you comment on the relationship between the blog and the box-sets?

I started Haji Maji in 2007 when I was first interested in Chinese 78rpms. The blog was a way to share the music and also to try to make contact with folks who might know more about the music or history than I did, as there is very little information in English on the older Chinese music.

The blog is a bit looser than the box-set. I’m more willing to post a track that is in poor condition. With the set I was trying to use the best condition records I could find. Also, the set was meant to be a complete project. The track order was carefully planned, as was the variety of recordings. The blog is a bit more random.

As we move further into the future, away from the time when this music was recorded, what do you think the future of 78rpm music will be? How do your box-sets extend or alter that history?

I hope that more collectors will focus on world music. There are enough blues collectors already! I never understood why somebody would take the time and money to build a collection of blues and hillbilly records that already exist on CD reissues and have been thoroughly researched. For me, the thrill is finding great recordings that are truly on the verge of being lost. A Burmese record from 1911? Who’s going to hold onto that? And when it’s gone it may be gone for good.

The more of these records we can salvage the better our understanding of music and our history will be. There are a few younger collectors who are interested in world music, but not many. The goal of my projects is just to get the music out there. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen after that, but I’ve done my part.

Any further projects on the horizon?

I have several projects in early stages, but it’s hard to say which will make it to the finish line. Kurdistan, North Africa, and the Persian/Arab Gulf are some areas I’ve been working on.

Noise and Relics of the Dead

There’s something inherently uncanny about listening to the voices of the dead as they carry over to us on recordings nearly a century old. Some of the music on these discs is no longer performed. The tradition that contained it has vanished. It only exists now in these scratchy recordings. This is the sound of ghosts.

It is frequently formed in odd time-scales on strange instruments. Here is music in anhemitonic pentatonic scales (five note scales with no semitones). Here is a khong wong yai, an instrument of 16 bronze gongs suspended in a circular frame; the performer sits cross-legged in the middle.

The 78rpm discs are revenants of possibilities, of what might have been. They show us potentials for experience that are rapidly becoming lost in a world that is tending toward homogeneity (languages are dying out quickly, too). What is lost when a language disappears or a musical tradition evaporates is something nearly ineffable, yet we value it as part of ourselves: that’s why we recorded it in the first place.

And why we photographed it. The images and music in Longing for the Past can interact strangely. Patterns emerge, faces are recognized, that rapidly absorb one another in a search for forgotten experience.

For example, there are three postcards of a Laos dance troupe with three women (pages 84, 97, 106). One woman appears in all three. In one image, she is bare breasted, staring with indifference at the viewer as she strikes a traditional dance pose, her arms extended in the curving liem position, her fingers turned elegantly in symbolic gesture. She is nude save for a pointed chada hat and a charabap, or sarong, about her waist. The image is reproduced elsewhere, in books of vintage erotica and studies of colonial exploitation.

In my research, I learned that the image was created by a French photographer named Alfred Raquez at the Colonial Exposition in Marseilles in 1906. He organized the Laos Pavilion and most likely brought in the dance troupe.

The images of the Laotian dancers in Longing for the Past are from a postcard set of 150 pictures of Laos, divided into six series of 25 cards each. Each postcard is clearly printed “Collection Raquez”. The three women feature prominently in several of them. They may also appear in a photo on page 118 of Raquez’s 1902 book Pages laotiennes. The photo is captioned “Le charme de la pagoda”, and was taken in 1900.

The historical sources refer to the bare-breasted woman as Sao Si, which means “Miss Colorful”, perhaps a stage name. The other two singers also were called “Sao”, the word having a connotation of young girls.

Sao Si was from Khong, in southern Laos, and in addition to the dance troupe photos, she also appears on page 73 of the box-set, performing in what appears to be a village square. This was probably shot by Raquez either in 1900 or on his last voyage to Laos in 1904, before she travelled to Marseilles. Raquez died there in 1907. After her appearance at the Colonial Exposition, Sao Si is lost to history.

The song she sang at the Laos Pavilion was most likely in the lam style, which is represented in track A9 of the box-set. Raquez printed the Lao song lyrics in French for an eight-page program, “The Dance and Song of Laos”, which he sold at the Colonial Exhibition; we know the words she sang if not the exact style. The opening line was:

Grand astre de la nuit, dis-moi pourquoi les étoiles brillent si fort ce soir, alors que mon cœur est plein de tristesse?” (“Big moon, tell me why the stars shine so bright tonight, while my heart is full of sadness?”)

While listening to the music on the CD, earbuds in, she floats through time, both enticing and archaic, a specter staring back from 1906, mingling with the crepitating noise of the antique shellac.

At least that’s the rabbit-hole I went down. There are plenty more in Longing for the Past, both in the music and images. The whimsically charming hand drawn artwork on the record sleeves offers another promising departure.

Ultimately, this box-set open our minds to the incredible music of this global cross-roads. If it does make us long for the past, that longing is for a time of greater variety, of larger potential. Whether or not it will guide us to the fragrant radiance of Southeast Asia is another question.

Chinese Victrola image from Haji Maji.com