Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution

Michael Denning

The soundtrack to decolonization is heard in Havana’s son, Rio’s samba, New Orleans’ jazz, Buenos Aires’ tango, Seville’s flamenco, Cairo’s tarab, Johannesburg’s marabi, and more.

Excerpted from Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution by Michael Denning © 2015 (footnotes omitted), and reprinted by permission of Verso Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

Turnarounds: The Soundscape of Vernacular Phonograph Music, 1925–1930

In many modern vernacular phonograph musics, “turnarounds” are moments of transition, the place where the relentless rhythm section rests, “stops time,” and, in the “break,” a soloist improvises, leading back to the top of the tune (and then either hands off to another soloist or returns to the main theme). One might think of the apparently unrelated recording sessions between 1925 (when electrical recording was introduced) and 1930 as “turnarounds,” repeating—with a difference—the same theme, remaking the soundscape of the world’s music. Before looking in detail at the musical world of the port cities where these sessions took place (Chapter 2), or at the recording industry that organized the sessions (Chapter 3), I will outline the chronology and geography of these sessions. (For a playlist and discography of the tracks marked with an asterisk in this and subsequent chapters, see the Appendix.)

October 1925, Havana: In late October of 1925, in the Caribbean port city of Havana, the Victor Talking Machine Company used the new electrical process to record the Afro-Cuban son of the Sexteto Habanero, with its three string players—tres (the Cuban treble guitar), guitar, and bass—and three percussionists—bongó, clave, and maracas. Their first track, “Maldita timidez,” was, the novelist Alejo Carpentier later wrote, a “cornerstone of that repertoire, representative of that great era of the son, the decade of 1920–1930.” The following fall—September 1926—Sexteto Habanero traveled to New York to record another dozen tracks for Victor; about a month later, Columbia responded by recording the hastily assembled Sexteto Occidente, led by the popular Cuban singer María Teresa Vera and the composer and bassist Ignacio Piñeiro, who went on to lead the Sexteto Nacional. Within the next five years, hundreds of recordings of son sextetos and septetos appeared (the septeto added a trumpet, most famously Félix Chappottín of Septeto Habanero), as Afro-Cuban music remade the soundscape of Cuba in the midst of labor and student struggles against Machado’s dictatorship that led to the uprising of 1933. “Thanks to the son,” Alejo Carpentier wrote in his pioneering Music in Cuba, “Afro-Cuban percussion, confined to the slave barracks and the dilapidated rooming houses of the slums, revealed its marvelous expressive resources, achieving universal status.” Moreover, Afro-Cuban music echoed around the world under the name “rumba,” particularly with the huge success of “El Manisero” (The Peanut Vendor), recorded in 1927 and 1928; as Carpentier noted, “all of the dances introduced in recent years in Europe, the Americas, and Asia, under the euphonic rubric of rumbas, were really sones that were long known in Cuba.”

November 1925, New Orleans–Chicago: About two weeks after the Havana recordings of the Sexteto Habanero, OKeh Records—a US affiliate of the German recording multinational Carl Lindström— began recording, in Chicago, Louis Armstrong, a twenty-four-year-old trumpet player who had moved north from the Mississippi Delta city of New Orleans, together with his Hot Five, a jazz quintet of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, piano, and banjo. There had been a slightly earlier boom in recording by African-American musicians triggered by the 1920 OKeh recording of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”: Armstrong himself had cut tracks in 1923 and 1924 with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, with New Orleans reed player Sidney Bechet, and as an anonymous side man on Bessie Smith’s classic recording of “St. Louis Blues.” However, Armstrong’s “Heebie Jeebies,” recorded in February 1926, and the rest of the ninety or so “race records” made by Armstrong with his Hot Five and Hot Seven (which added tuba and drums) between 1925 and 1929 became, along with the September 1926 Victor recordings of Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, the embodiment of “hot jazz.” “Last spring, in the OKeh record laboratories,” Talking Machine World reported, “a record was made under the title ‘Heebie Jeebies,’ with a ‘skat’ [sic] chorus.” Though the report did not mention Armstrong by name—nor that “Heebie Jeebies” was a “race record”— it noted that “the recording proved to be a popular one, and was sold to dance lovers throughout the country,” triggering a dance craze. A young New Orleans musician, Danny Barker, later recalled that his “greatest inspiration was the regular flow of Armstrong records on OKeh … all the alert jazz musicians and local music lovers waited anxiously for each of Louis Armstrong’s latest releases.”

Over the next four years, a second, larger, wave of “race records” boomed as recording engineers traveled across the US South recording the new “blues” and “gospel” music of songsters and street evangelists from Atlanta to Dallas, among them Blind Lemon Jefferson, Rabbit Brown, and Blind Willie Johnson. “Blues that are of the deepest indigo, jazz that stresses rhythm to an extraordinary degree, congregational singing that preserves all the atmosphere and sincerity out of which the spirituals were born, are to be found in some of the more recent recordings by nationally famous Race musicians,” Dave Peyton wrote in his music column in Chicago’s African-American newspaper.These “race records” were central to the emerging popular culture of African-American migrants who had left the Jim Crow sharecropping South for new urban black communities like Chicago’s Bronzeville and New York’s Harlem.

March 1926, Buenos Aires: At the beginning of March 1926, Victor made the first electrical recordings in Argentina, recording the young tango singer Rosita Quiroga, accompanied by two guitarists, singing “La Musa Mistonga” (The Muse of the Poor) by the Afro-Argentine tango lyricist Celedonio Flores. Quiroga was the first of the great women tango singers, having been signed by Victor in 1923, and she became the voice of the working-class arrabales of Buenos Aires where she had been raised by her seamstress mother. Tango—which had been an international dance craze on the eve of World War I—had a somewhat different recording history, thanks to the pioneering work of Max Glücksmann’s Discos Nacional in Argentina: the landmark recordings are usually taken to be Roberto Firpo’s 1916 recording of “La Cumparsita” and Carlos Gardel’s 1917 recording of the tango song, “Mi noche triste.” However, tango—which accounted for 90 percent of the records sold in Argentina in 1925—boomed in the electric era: in November 1926, Odeon made its first electrical recordings of Gardel, recently returned from Paris, and of Firpo’s pioneering orquesta típica (two bandoneons, two violins, piano, and bass). By the time Gardel died in a plane crash during a 1935 tour of the Caribbean and Latin America, the tango had gone, as the actor and playwright Florencio Chiarello put it in 1929, “from slum to skyscraper … from tenement to palace.”

May 1926, Cairo: That spring, a young ṭarab singer from another cotton-growing Delta, that of the Nile, Umm Kulthūm recorded ten double-sided 78s for the Gramophone Company’s traveling engineer, S. H. Sheard, in Cairo. Though she may have recorded a few tracks for Odeon earlier, the Gramophone recordings of 1926 accompanied a key turning point in her career, marked by her new takht, an ensemble of qānūn (a plucked zither), violin, ‘ūd (a plucked lute), and riqq (a small tambourine), and her new repertoire based on the colloquial poetry of Ahmad Rāmī (including her enduringly popular “Akhadt Sootak min Ruuhi”).1 “Now every home and every family listens to Umm Kulthūm’s magic voice,” the Cairo theater review al-Masrah wrote in 1926. Born about 1904, Kulthūm had grown up in a poor family in a small rural village; her father was an imam in a mosque; after earning a reputation singing at weddings and religious festivals, she moved to Cairo at the time of the 1919 Wafd uprising against British rule. Over the next decade, Kulthūm’s recordings made her the most popular singer in the Arabic world—“In Kunt Asaamih” (If I Were to Forgive), probably released in 1928, “sold unprecedented numbers of copies”—and her monthly live broadcast concerts on Egyptian Radio, which began in May 1934, made her a voice of Egyptian nationalism and became a central part of the popular culture of the Middle East and North Africa.

1926, Istanbul: At the same time, in Ataturk’s new republic of Turkey, two companies—Odeon’s local agent Blumenthal Frères, and Gramophone’s label Sahabinin Sesi—began to record the fasil ensembles of ud, kanun, and kemence (the Turkish violin), which combined Ottoman court music, Anatolian folk songs (türkü), and urban secular music in the nightclubs—the gazino—of Istanbul. The Blumenthal brothers focused on more traditional music, like the gazels of the celebrated “hafiz,” singers trained in Qur’anic recitation: among their earliest recordings were Hafiz Sadettin Kaynak’s gazel “Nâr-i Hicrane Düşüp” and Hafiz Burhan Bey’s “Nitschun Guerdum” (Why Did I Set Eyes Upon You). Gramophone’s Sahabinin Sesi, directed by the Armenian kanun player and composer, Kanuni Artaki, recorded more modern singers, including the renowned classical singer, Münir Nurettin Selçuk, the earliest women singers like Safiye Ayla (who, according to legend, stood behind a curtain when she first sang for Ataturk), and the instrumentalists who pioneered modern virtuosic playing techniques, like the blind Armenian ud player Udi Hrant and the gypsy kanun virtuoso Ahmet Yatman. “What today has become a main stream in Turkish music, Arabesque,” record producer Harold Hagopian argues, “was born in this era.”

1926, Athens: Across the Aegean, in Athens, the violinist and recording director Dimítrios Sémsis, known as Salonikiós, recorded ten 78 rpm discs of the Anatolian singer Dalgás (Andónios Dhiamandídhis), one of the 1922 refugees from Smyrna (Izmir) following the war between Greece and Turkey. Accompanied by violin, santouri (a dulcimer), and laouto (the Greek long-necked lute), Dalgás’s songs—like “Melemenio,” a folk dance, the zeïbekika, sung in Greek and Turkish—were included in a Gramophone series that featured “Manedes, Rebetika, Mangika, Hasiklidika [hashish songs], Zeïbekika.” “The lowest class of the population,” a Gramophone agent wrote in 1930, “are interested in all Greek records, but popular titles, traditional or otherwise, are in greatest favour. Rebetika appeal to everybody; Kleftika, folk songs, and folk dances, mostly to country people; Manedes to northeastern people, to the refugees and generally to those who used to live in Turkish territory.” Dalgás would go on to record hundreds of songs between 1926 and 1934, and become one of the major voices of the emerging Greek popular music that came to be known as rebetika, described by the Gramophone agent as “light songs of the low class people, introduced in 1923 by the refugees from Asia Minor.”

If Dalgás represented one half of the fusion that created Greek rebetika—he was trained in the Ottoman café music, café aman, that was brought by the refugees from Smyrna to the post-1922 settlements of New Smyrna and New Ionia outside Athens—the other half was represented by the young slaughterhouse worker and self-taught bouzouki player, Márkos Vamvakáris, who recorded his first song, “Karadouzéni” (the name of a tuning on the bouzouki), with Parlophon in 1932. Vamvakáris began playing in the hashish tekédhes of the port of Piraeus, a masculine urban underworld: “I wasn’t only initiated into the hard life of a worker in Piraeus,” he later recalled, “but I married for the first time, became hooked on hashish, and most important of all, I was seduced by that instrument—the bouzouki … No one had given me lessons. My only school was the teké. I listened to the old timers and I played.”

1926, Tunis: In 1926 in Tunis, the French recording company Pathé brought together a number of the major figures of the Arab-Andalusian music of the North African Maghreb for a historic session, including the celebrated singer and actress Habiba Messika, the singer and ‘ūd player Khemais Tarnan, and the singer Fritna Darmon, who recorded a two-part rast maqam, “Aroubi Rasd Eddil.” It was also the first recording of the young singer Cheikh El-Afrit (born Issim Israël Rozio) who, by the early 1930s, had become a major voice in Tunisian music, traveling to Paris, appearing on the radio, and recording dozens of discs with Gramophone. Moreover, the Pathé sessions of 1926 triggered a recording boom throughout the cities of France’s North African colonies in the wake of the Rif War of 1925 in Morocco: in early 1928, the Gramophone engineer Marcus Alexander made a recording trip from Casablanca to Algiers to Tunis. These sessions also led to the early recordings of chaâbi in Algiers, pioneered by El Hadj Mohamed El-Anka who first recorded in the late 1920s; as well as of the musics of Oran that were the roots of Algerian raï: the itinerant singers from the countryside known as cheikhs or cheikhas, accompanied by ensembles of bendir (large tambourines), gasbas (flutes), and guellals (drums), including Cheikh Hamada, whose “Adjouadi hadi ouadjba” was recorded in 1929.

August 1926, Lisbon: When the popular theater actress Adelina Fernandes recorded twenty-five songs for Columbia in August 1926 in the earliest electrical recordings in Portugal, her renditions of the fado of Lisbon made her the first star of the electric era. She later moved to Gramophone, recording songs like “Fado Penim,” accompanied by Portuguese guitarra (a round, double-course stringed instrument) and Spanish guitar (known in Portugal as the viola da França). Lisbon’s fado had emerged from the popular cafés of the working-class quarters, a “left-wing … socialist-oriented type of song”: as a 1931 reviewer noted, “in its first days (it) was the peculiar property of the lowest and most depraved classes of society.” The fado of Coimbra, on the other hand, was a more refined and stylized version, associated with the students of the university; in 1927 one of its founders, Antonio Menano, went to Paris to record for Odeon.

After the 1926 military coup, the new regime distrusted fado: “It was originally sung by people of ill-repute—prostitutes, thieves, and marginals—and that did not carry great prestige for a song of national identity,” fado historian Rui Vieira Nery noted. “In 1927, laws were introduced subjecting all lyrics to censorship. Songs that had not been approved could not be sung in public.” Despite the hostility of the regime, by the early 1930s fado was the sound of urban Portugal, sung in cafés and circulated on disc. “This is a living folk music, for the fado singers make up their own songs and adapt the airs, and they vary from the poetic and sentimental to the topical and satirical,” an English traveller to Lisbon in 1931 wrote. “It is beginning to pay them to do so now for they record for the gramophone companies and they are murmuring about their fees.”

1926, Bombay: In 1926 in Bombay, Gramophone recorded the young Marathi theater star Hirabai Barodekar singing several songs from the play Patwardhan. The daughter of a distinguished court musician, Abdul Karim Khan, Barodekar had first recorded devotional songs in classical ragas for Gramophone in 1923; however, to her father’s dismay, she began singing in the popular theaters. “Abdul Karim reviled music theater,” historian Janaki Bakhle writes, while “Hirabai was one of the first women to pick it up with tremendous enthusiasm and to great acclaim. For the former, music natak [drama] represented the betrayal of serious music; for the latter, it offered opportunities for respectable women.”Th e recordings of Barodekar were part of the “music boom” across India, as the price of gramophones, now assembled in India from imported Japanese parts, dropped by half. Singers of the popular urban vernacular theatre—the Marathi, Gujarati, and Parsi theater of Bombay (present-day Mumbai), the Bengali theater of Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), and the Tamil theater of Madras (present-day Chennai)—reprised their stage songs in recording studios, usually accompanied by harmonium and tabla, and became gramophone stars in port cities across the subcontinent: not only Hirabai Barodekar in western India, but Miss Indubala and the blind Bengali singer K. C. Bey, who recorded for Gramophone in Calcutta in eastern India, and the theatrical duo of S. G. Kittappa and K. B. Sundarambal, who recorded for Columbia in Madras in southern India.

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