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Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution

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.

A Hybrid and Multicultural Mix

November 1926, Mexico City: In the fall of 1926 in Mexico City, Victor made the first electrical recordings of the pioneering Mariachi Coculense Rodríguez of Cirilo Marmolejo; the mariachi music of the rural towns of Jalisco, played by string bands with one or more violins taking the melodic lead, and several guitars, vihuelas (a five-string high-pitched guitar), and guitarrón (a five-string bass guitar) playing the rhythm, had become popular in Mexico City in the years after the Mexican Revolution. In the wake of Victor’s trip, many Mexican artists traveled to the US to record popular corridos—topical ballads, often of revolutionary heroes and battles, sung as duets accompanied by guitar—among them Luis Hernández and Leonardo Sifuentes for Victor in El Paso, Los Hermanos Bañuelos for Brunswick in Los Angeles, and Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martínez for Columbia in Chicago. “This period from 1928 to the mid-1930s” is, record producer Chris Strachwitz notes, “the ‘Golden Era’ for the commercially recorded corrido.” Alongside these recordings of musics that had developed in rural Mexico came the earliest recordings of the urban boleros of Veracruz and Mexico City: in May 1928, Guty Cárdenas, the young troubadour from Yucatán who had stolen the show at the 1927 Concurso de Canciones Mexicanas in August 1927 with his boleros, went to New York to make the first of dozens of records for Columbia, including “Flor” and “Rayito de Sol.” He returned to Mexico City in 1930 where he had his own show on the new RCA Victor–funded station, XEW, before his untimely death in 1932. “Unfortunately,” a reviewer later wrote, “the best songs by Guty Cárdenas have never been recorded or even printed as sheet music. This young man from Yucatán was killed in a tavern brawl two or three years ago and left a number of songs which show a real gift for melody … Of his recorded songs, ‘Un Rayito de Sol’ is undoubtedly the best.”

November 1926, Jakarta/Batavia: In late 1926, Max Birckhahn of the German label Beka recorded the young Eurasian singer and dancer of Batavia’s stambul theater, Miss Riboet singing the popular kroncong tune “Krongtjong Moeritskoe,” accompanied by violin, flute, and piano. She became the “first major recording star” of the Dutch East Indies, two decades before the independence of the new nation of Indonesia. She was so successful that Beka issued a special series of Miss Riboet records featuring tunes like “Krontjong Dardanella,” probably recorded during Beka’s return trip in August 1928. “Her acting and singing are of a very high order and have made her name a household one in all Malay-speaking countries,” a reporter for The Lloyd Mail noted in 1933. “She has made a fortune from the royalties paid to her by Gramophone companies for her Krontjong and other song records,” he wrote: “every Gramophone dealer in the Netherlands East Indies … stock(s) Krontjong records … this bewitching song of Western and Eastern mixture.”

Miss Riboet’s records were a common enough part of urban daily life to be noted in a 1930 novel by the Indonesian-Chinese novelist Liem Liang Hoo: “Every afternoon without stopping I will play records, His Master’s Voice, Miss Riboet, and Odeon while my wife sits in the corner sewing or reading the paper.” But the anthropologist D. J. H. Nyèssen also described the reception given to Miss Riboet’s records in an isolated part of South Priangan where he was working in 1928: “As many people had to wait a long time before being examined, the time was filled in by them listening to native songs on our portable gramophone. Especially the vocal successes of Miss Riboet were much liked. As the majority had never before seen a gramophone, this already drew big audiences.”

By the 1930s, radio broadcasts of kroncong music made it an emblem of Indonesian nationalism, particularly in the large cities of Batavia and Surabaya. Indeed, a kroncong tribute to the Solo River, “Bengawan Solo,” written in 1940 by the Javanese singer and composer Gesang Martohartono in the new national language, Bahasa Indonesia, became the national song. “The first widely popular song by an Indonesian composer,” ethnomusicologist Margaret Kartomi noted, it “assumed legendary status, conjuring up images of Indonesian revolutionary fighters to whom homage must be given.”

August 1927, Port of Spain–New York: In the middle of the summer of 1927, the Trinidadian calypsonian Wilmoth Houdini recorded three paseos with a New York–based Trinidadian creole string band— guitar, piano, violin, and cuatro—for Victor, including “Caroline.” Houdini was a seaman who had played in Port of Spain’s calypso tents in the years after World War I before migrating to New York in the mid-1920s. He was the first of the postwar calypsonians to record, and would eventually become the “most recorded calypsonian of his generation.” One of his first Victor recordings—“Day by Day”—was a version of the popular “Young Girls Break Away” by Atilla the Hun (Raymond Quevedo), the leading figure of the calypso tents of the 1920s and 1930s. By 1934, a Port of Spain merchant, Eduardo Sa Gomes, would sense a local market for calypso recordings and send Atilla the Hun to New York to record, thereby inaugurating large-scale calypso recording.

August 1927, Bristol, Tennessee: In the first week of August 1927, the Victor recording scout Ralph Peer set up a temporary recording studio in the Piedmont mill town of Bristol, Tennessee to record local singers of “old-time” music (Peer had named it “hillbilly” music in 1925), which had enjoyed unexpected success after the 1923 New York recording of the Atlanta fiddle-contest champion, Fiddlin’ John Carson. In what has been called the “big bang of country music,” Peer made the earliest recordings of the first great stars of US country music: the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The Carter Family featured Sara Doughtery Carter, the daughter of a sawmill worker in a Virginia coalmining camp, singing and playing the autoharp, and her cousin Maybelle, whose famous “Carter lick”—playing the melody on bass strings with her thumb while brushing the chords on the treble strings—was a simple but revolutionary part of the transformation of the guitar from a rhythm to a lead instrument. They recorded only a half-dozen numbers those first two days, but one of them, a brief but eloquent narrative of the economy of gender, took off when it was released in 1928 and made their initial reputation: “Single Girl, Married Girl.”

If the Carter Family captured one half of the ideological doubleness of country music—a vision of rural family music-making, closely tied to hymns and religious music—Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, captured the other half: country music as a road music of lone male singers on the rails. The son of a Mississippi railroad worker, he had toiled for years as a brakeman and flagman, before joining medicine shows as a blackface entertainer. After the Bristol session, Rodgers was brought to Victor’s Camden, New Jersey, studio in November 1927 where he recorded “his engaging, melodious and bloodthirsty ‘Blue Yodel,’” a “white man singing black songs,” as a 1928 reviewer described him. The success of the records of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers not only established a regional “country music” industry in Atlanta and Nashville, but circulated its sound to Africa, India, and Australia.

1927, Barcelona: In August 1927, Regal, the Spanish label owned by the British company Columbia recorded the greatest flamenco singer of the era, Pastora Pavón, known as “La Niña de los Peines” (The Girl of the Combs), with the young flamenco guitarist Niño Ricardo. In contrast to many of the other musics recorded in these years, the flamenco of Andalusia had been recorded on acoustic discs and cylinders since the early years of the century; Pavón herself had had a half-dozen recording sessions between 1909 and 1917. However, though she had taken part in the legendary Concurso de Cante Jondo, the 1922 attempt by the poet Federico García Lorca and the composer Manuel de Falla to revive the “authentic” cante jondo, she had not recorded commercially for a decade before the 1927 Regal session. The Concurso proved less successful in reviving the classic cante jondo, “deep song,” than the new electrical recording. “Perhaps the present revival of interest in cante flamenco is due in part to the phonograph,” the British aficionado Irving Brown suggested in 1929, in the midst of an explosion of classic recordings: in 1928, the great singer Antonio Chacón, who had not recorded since 1913, was recorded electrically by both Gramófono and Odeon; and in 1929, the German Polydor company brought together a number of major voices—Pavón, Aurelio de Cádiz, Niño de Cabra—all accompanied by the guitarist Ramón Montoya in what has been called “the Bristol Sessions of flamenco.” Though Pavón had been celebrated in print by poets like Lorca and Langston Hughes, the recordings distributed the sound of flamenco around the world. “This music is perhaps rather an acquired taste,” the British record reviewer Rodney Gallop wrote of several 1928 Gramófono records on which Montoya accompanied singers. “The effect of the somewhat nasal voices and infectious dance rhythms is predominantly oriental, and the music is said to be a blend of three influences, the modes of the Byzantine liturgy, Arab and Berber rhythms from North Africa, and gypsy tricks of singing.”

September 1927, Hanoi: In the fall of 1927, Victor made more than 100 recordings in French Indochina, traveling from Hanoi to Hue to Saigon with electrical equipment, capturing among other artists the popular Vietnamese actress Dào Nha singing “Tả cảnh cô đầu thua bạc” (The Scene of a Songstress Losing at Gambling). Over the next several years, a variety of Vietnamese musics were released on discs, but “the dominant genre of the 78 rpm format” was the modern “reformed” musical theater, cai luong, songs like Van Thanh Ban’s “Khổng Minh—Mẫu Tầm Tử” (Kong Minh—Mother Searches for her Child) played by an ensemble of two-stringed lute, two-stringed fiddle, bamboo flute, and bell, recorded by the German label Beka in 1929. Cai luong became a “popular fixture” on Vietnamese radio; indeed, as one historian notes, “radio, along with the gramophone, played no small part in the popularization of cai luong during the 1930s in the south.” In 1931, one of the first cai luong actresses to record, Nam Phi, performed outside Paris at the Colonial Exposition; moreover, cai luong’s setting of Vietnamese words to Western melodies, such as the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” or popular songs of the Great War like “La Madelon,” provoked controversy among Vietnamese writers: “How can I defend this … Saigon piece called ‘La Marseillaise’ that our two-stringed fiddle renders so heroically,” Ung Qua asked in the constitutionalist newspaper La Tribune Indochinoise in 1932.

December 1927, Honolulu–New York: In the fall of 1927 in New York, OKeh recorded Kalama’s Quartet, a vocal quartet accompanying themselves on ‘ukulele, guitar, steel guitar, and harp-guitar from the US’s Pacific colony of Hawaii. They sang a series of Hawaiian-language hula ku‘i, the modern hula songs that had taken shape in the wake of the nationalist revival of hula in the late nineteenth century, including “Inikiniki Malie” (Gentle Pinches of the Wind) and “He Manao Healoha” (Thoughts of Love).78 “Crave you Hawaiian singing, try ‘He Manao Healoha,’ or words to that effect by Kalama’s Quartet,” the young record reviewer Abbe Niles wrote in The Bookman. Though the international popularity of Hawaiian music had been triggered a decade earlier by worldwide touring of musicians like George E. K. Awai’s Royal Hawaiian Quartet at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, much of what was heard as “Hawaiian” music was simply Tin Pan Alley tunes with mock Hawaiian lyrics. The New York recordings of Kalama’s Quartet, featuring steel guitarist and falsetto singer Mike Hanapi, together with Columbia’s recordings of Hawaiian songs by steel guitar virtuoso Sol Ho‘opi‘i in Los Angeles in October, led to the international circulation of recordings by Hawaiian artists, as each recording company marketed a Hawaiian quartet.

A few months later, in the spring of 1928, recording companies arrived in Honolulu. “It was the first time in the history of the territory,” the Honolulu Advertiser announced, “that an electrical recording apparatus has come to Hawaii to make phonograph records … [and] the first time that any apparatus of any kind has been here within the last eighteen years.” Brunswick’s sessions in March were arranged by the well-known bandleader Johnny Noble, and included the first recordings by steel guitarists David Napihi Burrows and M. K. Moke as well as by Lena Machado and Ray Kinney, who were to emerge as the leading Hawaiian singers of the 1930s. The joint Columbia– OKeh sessions in May marked the only studio appearance for many of the musicians—like slack key guitarist William Ewaliko—but they also featured the first recording of John K. Almeida, who was to become the major twentieth-century composer of hulas. The same year, the ‘ukulele virtuoso Ernest Kaai, who had toured Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, Java, Burma, and India from 1919 to 1923, went from Hawaii to Tokyo to record; by 1929, Hawaiian steel guitarist Joe Kaipo was backing hillbilly star Jimmie Rodgers.

December 1927, Belgrade: In December 1927, Gramophone’s veteran engineer George Dillnutt recorded the Roma tzigane violinist Steva Nikolić and his Gypsy Orchestra in Belgrade; at the same sessions or shortly thereafter, the celebrated Roma café singer Sofka Nikolić recorded several songs, including “Ali Pašina pesma” and “Tri put tičuknal.” “The tzigane singer Sofka … is magnificent,” Rodney Gallop wrote in his 1931 review of these recordings. “She vividly expresses the pent-up feelings of the Serbs through five centuries of foreign domination … There is an inevitability about the steady beat of Ali Pašina pesma and Tri put ti čuknal which is intensely impressive.” “Besides the singing,” he continues, “there is on the majority of these records that wonderful gypsy fiddling which is such a feature of folk-music from Vienna to Constantinople … It is the exclusive property of the gypsy of the Balkans, and since in these parts the gypsies constitute nine-tenths of the professional musicians it has become universal.”

Indeed, across Europe, the music known in the 1920s as tzigane— the “verbunkos idiom” as Shay Loya calls it, “a highly hybrid and multicultural mix of Roma musical traditions, Magyar, Rumanian, and other folk musics, as well as Viennese urban music”—was played by Roma musicians in “gypsy orchestras,” featuring violins and the cimbalom, a concert hammered dulcimer that was played across Central Europe in the late nineteenth century. The most celebrated orchestras—those led by the Bulgarian Roma violinist Jean Gulesco, by the Romanian Georges Boulanger (born Ghita Bulencea), and by the Hungarians Magyari Imre and Bela Berkes (whose orchestra toured the US between 1927 and 1929)—played in the cabarets in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, mixing classical music, popular dances like fox-trots and tangos, and Russian and Eastern European folk musics; “the famous bands of Budapest,” The Times of London reported in 1933, “are known to English listeners through wireless and the gramophone.”

Out of this world of the tzigane orchestras in Paris music halls came the young Gypsy virtuoso Django Reinhardt, who was first recorded in June 1928 by the Compagnie Française du Gramophone in Paris’s Pigalle, playing banjo-guitar for Jean Vaissade’s accordion-fronted musette band. But Django had discovered jazz in 1926, when he heard the African-American musicians in Billy Arnold’s Novelty Jazz Band at a Pigalle restaurant, and the 1934 release of “Dinah” (by a small German label known for its tzigane discs) marked a powerful fusion of tzigane and jazz.

The Front Lines of the New Culture Movement

January 1928, Accra: The first major commercial series of West African records—the Zonophone EZ series—were released in the British colonial ports of the Gold Coast in early 1928.“We all know how many splendid West African records have been issued by Zonophone,” a correspondent for the London-based weekly West Africa wrote in 1929. “The number has become so great that the company has printed a catalogue which gives the fullest details of dialects, artistes, and types of music.” The series began with a London recording session in December 1927 and lasted until 1930, eventually including songs in more than a dozen West African languages, ranging from the Twi songs of Harry Eben Quashie to the Fante songs of guitarist George W. Aingo, who became the musical arranger for many of the sessions. Though most of the early Zonophone recordings were of West Africans living in England, in June 1928 they recorded a palm-wine guitar band, the Kumasi Trio, who, as West Africa reported, “came specially to London to record 36 double-sided records, mostly in Fanti, for Tarquah,” the largest department store in British West Africa. The Kumasi Trio was made up of a group of “young Fanti cocoa brokers working for a British trading firm that stationed them in the small inland Akan farming-town of Apedwua.” Their leader was the pioneering palm-wine guitar player, Kwame Asare, known also as Jacob Sam, the son of a Cape Coast storekeeper, who learned his trademark two-finger guitar style from a Kru sailor.

The first record issued by the Kumasi Trio, the double-sided “Amponsah,” was a version of “the best-known tune in the Gold Coast,” which had been collected and transcribed by William Ward, a British music teacher, in the Gold Coast Review a year earlier. “Originally Fanti, it has spread all over the country, being translated into various languages in the process.” Although it was considered “a vulgar street-song usually sung by drunkards, labourers, lorry drivers, and low-class people: a song never to be sung by a Christian or educated person” (in part because its lyrics—“Yaa Amponsah let’s be lovers/It is more romantic that way”—were considered indecent by respectable society), the Kumasi Trio’s 1928 recording was “an enormous hit in Ghana, especially with the rural communities and urban poor.” The song circulated throughout West Africa—Harry Quashie recorded a version in Twi and the Jolly Orchestra of Lagos in Yoruba—and reverberated across the black Atlantic: the Kumasi Trio’s records were noted by the African-American music critic Maude Cuney-Hare.

Though few of the artists Zonophone recorded in the late 1920s ever recorded again—it seems that only Kwame Asare of the Kumasi Trio and Harry Quashie recorded in the late 1930s and early 1940s— “Yaa Amponsah” became a standard of Ghanaian highlife in the late twentieth century, one of a pool of common palm-wine harmonic and rhythmic patterns named for the song they originally accompanied. In the 1990s, the song’s history and authorship was investigated by the Ghanaian government, as part of a controversy over the copyrighting

of folklore in the era of “world music.”

1928, Zanzibar–Bombay: In early 1928, a singer from the British-controlled East African island port of Zanzibar, Siti binti Saad, traveled with her group to Bombay to make the first commercial recordings of Swahili taarab for Gramophone. Two years later, she was being recorded by Columbia in Zanzibar and by Odeon in Mombassa: an industry report noted that “the artist Siti Binti from Zanzibar was paid 20/per title plus travelling expenses from Zanzibar and 4/per day expenses for food … Ten records are being issued monthly and up to the present 108 have been issued.” Te records were popular along the Swahili coast, selling 71,000 copies by mid-1931; they made her the “most revered taarab performer” in East Africa. The daughter of rural slaves, Siti binti Saad had trained as a potter, migrated to the city, and learned to recite the Qur’an. Her given name, Mtumwa, translates literally as slave or servant; she was given the name Siti—lady—not unlike Billie Holiday’s Lady Day or the bai of Hirabai Barodekar, both honorific and stigmatizing—by a patron. Only a handful of her recordings remain in circulation—like “Wewe Paka” (You Cat), probably recorded in 1930, on which she is accompanied by violin, udi, and qanun—but ethnomusicologists found that her songs remained central to the taarab repertoire in postcolonial Tanzania at the end of the century.

January 1928, Rio de Janeiro: In 1928, Brazil’s pioneering recording company Casa Edison made their first electrical recordings of the popular crooner, Francisco Alves, singing the new sambas emerging from the Afro-Brazilian favela of Estácio, among them Ismael Silva’s “Me Faz Carinhos” and Alcebíades Barcelos’s “A Malandragem.” Silva and Barcelos (known as Bide) were among the handful of Afro-Brazilian songwriters who were to found, later that year, Deixa Falar (Let Them Talk), the first of Rio’s legendary samba schools.

The recording of the sambas by Alves, backed by a dance orchestra, gave little sonic sense either of the parading percussion orchestras of the samba schools with their bateria of surdos (bass drums), tamborins (sharp drums), and cuícas (friction drums), or of the “regional” ensembles that combined guitar and cavaquinho (the Brazilian treble guitar) with percussion to play samba songs. The first celebrated recording to include the sound of the batucada—the powerful drumming of the samba de morro—was the 1929 “Na Pavuna” by Almirante and the Bando de Tangaras, a group of young white samba aficionados. Most of the black pioneers of Carioca samba never made it to the recording studios; of the handful of recordings that were cut, the two Odeon 78s of 1931 by Estácio’s Ismael Silva—“Samba Raiado”/“Louca” and “Me Diga o Teu Nome”/“Me Deixa Sossegado”—stand as the earliest examples of the samba de morro that would come to define Brazilian modernity.

July 1929, Dublin: In July 1929, a Parlophone/Columbia unit made the first commercial recordings in Ireland at Jury’s Hotel in Dublin. Forty different artists were recorded; thirty-eight records were released, including the Halpin Trio’s “Rogha-An-Fhile” (Poet’s Choice) and “Over the Moor to Maggie.” The following year another fifty-eight discs were recorded. The Halpin Trio of Limerick was one of the céilí bands of fiddles, flute, and piano that emerged in the early years of the Irish Republic—the term seems to be first used by the Irish Radio Review in 1927—and that became emblems of Irish nationalism: the Dublin-based Siamsa Gaedheal Ceilidhe Band and Dick Smith’s Ceilidhe Trio, Batt Henry’s Traditional Quartet Orchestra of Sligo, and the Ballinakill Traditional Band of County Galway. Their music had been deeply influenced by the earlier New York recordings of reels, jigs, and hornpipes by the Sligo fiddle players James Morrison and Michael Coleman, which not only reshaped traditional fiddle styles in the newly independent Ireland, but circulated among Irish-Americans from Boston to Chicago.

1929, Shanghai: In 1929, the twenty-year-old silent film star, Li Minghui, recorded “Maomao yu” (Drizzle), written by her father, the pioneering songwriter Li Jinhui, for Pathé. Though the writer Lu Xun was said to have likened it to “a cat being strangled,” “Drizzle” was to become the first “standard” of huangse yinyue, the popular “yellow” or “blue” music of Shanghai’s cabarets in the late 1920s and 1930s in the wake of the May Fourth New Culture movement and the Shanghai uprising of 1927.128 “Dance madness,” one historian writes, “hit Shanghai like a tidal wave in December 1927 through the spring of 1928, coinciding … with the advent of the new Nationalist regime, leaving little doubt that the larger political forces that were swirling in and around the city deeply influenced this cultural sea-change.”

As one of “the first women to break the Qing dynasty taboo against public performances by women in the mid-1920s,” Li Minghui was at “the front lines of the New Culture Movement,” according to her contemporary Wang Renmei: “the more they [conservative critics] loudly and cruelly cursed her [public appearances], the more youth who had been influenced by the New Culture Movement su pported her.” Li had received her musical training in her father’s song and dance troupe, the Mingyue (Bright Moon) Ensemble, which produced many of the stars that dominated Shanghai’s popular music, including Zhou Xuan, whose recordings and film performances—most notably her version of “The Wandering Sing-Song Girl” for the 1937 film Street Angel—would make her China’s most celebrated singer of the era.

1929, Fort de France–Paris: In October 1929, the Martiniquan dance band of Alexandre Stellio, having traveled from Fort de France to Paris the previous April, made their first recordings for Odeon, performing the American ragtime tune, “Sêpent Maigre,” in the rhythm of the beguine, with Stellio on clarinet, Ernest Léardée on violin, together with trombone, bass, and drums. Stellio’s band subsequently performed at the 1931 Colonial Exposition outside Paris, and, as the Martiniquan journalist Andrée Nardal wrote, “The Colonial Exhibition has introduced a new fad to the dancing public, a Creole folk-dance, called the biguine.” Beguine took over Parisian music halls like Stellio’s own Tagada Biguine and Le Train Bleu, where the African-American journalist J. A. Rogers reported that “the orchestra, all colored, is perhaps the chief attraction. When it strikes up the beguine it is difficult to remain in one’s seat, and whites and blacks of all social grades may be seen in close embrace on the tightly packed dance floor.”

“Odeon competes in this rush for the new music,” a record reviewer for La Revue Du Monde Noir wrote in 1932: “Stellio’s band takes once more advantage of the resources of its director’s supple and dextrous clarinet.” Moreover, Nardel argued that beguine would not have been a dance hall success without the records: “Because of the irregularity of the accented beats, transcription is very difficult, but fortunately, the phonograph is capable of a faithful reproduction.”

1929, Lagos: Zonophone’s West African recordings of 1928 had included the first commercial recordings of Yoruba urban popular music, made in London by the little-known singer and guitarist Domingo Justus. Sometime during the next two years, Odeon responded to Zonophone’s success by arranging recording sessions in Lagos, the port capital of the British colony of Nigeria. By August 1931, they had released a variety of discs in Yoruba: the drum-based aṣíkò music of A. B. O. Mabinuori, the guitar-based palm-wine music of Irewolede Denge, and the Muslim sákárà praise songs of Abibu Oluwa, including “Orin Herbert Macaulay,” which celebrated the leader of Nigeria’s anticolonial Nigerian National Democratic Party. However, the crisis in the recording industry led to the absorption of Odeon into the newly formed EMI in 1931, and recording in coastal West Africa ceased soon after it began.

It was not until 1936 that Odeon’s sister label, Parlophone, returned to Lagos to record nearly 150 discs including ones by the pioneering jùjú musician, Tunde King, and the popular palm-wine bar band, the Jolly Orchestra, whose “Abonsa” was a Yoruba version of the Gold Coast tune “Yaa Amponsah. Irewolede Denge did not return to the studio until 1937, when his “Orin Asape Eko” was one of the first releases in the new West African series that His Master’s Voice launched to compete with the PO (Parlophone Odeon) discs. Denge and Tunde King would continue to record in the decades after World War II, becoming pioneers in the development of Nigerian jùjú.

November 1929, Manila–New York: In the fall of 1929, Columbia, Victor, and Brunswick were recording dance bands and popular zar-zuela singers like Florentino Ballecer in Manila, the leading port city of the US colony of the Philippines. These followed several years of recording Filipino musicians in New York, ranging from the steel guitarist Urbano A. Zafra, who recorded “Danza Filipina” in the fall of 1929 for Columbia’s export series, and the baritone singer José Mossesgeld Santiago, who, beginning in June 1926, recorded dozens of kundiman, the Tagalog love songs that had emerged around the turn of the century and became associated with the liberation struggles against Spain, and subsequently the United States.

October 1930, Johannesburg–London: In the fall of 1930, Reuben Tholakele Caluza and Griffiths Motsieloa arrived, separately, in London from South Africa to organize pioneering sessions of recordings of South African marabi and vaudeville tunes for the South African market. In October and November, Caluza’s Double Quartet recorded 150 songs that were released on Gramophone’s Zonophone label, beginning with the popular pairing of “uBangca” (on the elegant dandies of Durban wearing their zoot-like “Oxford Bags”) and “Ingoduso,” with its cautionary tale of the greenhorn migrant to Johannesburg framed for illegal liquor by rival gangs, both sung by a double quartet of male and female singers, accompanied by Caluza’s ragtime piano. At the same time, the actor and impresario Griffiths Motsieloa led a company of musicians in a series of London sessions for Brunswick’s South African representative Eric Gallo’s new Singer label. They included his vocal duet with Ignatius Monare, “Aubuti Nkikho” (Brother Nkikho) in Sesuto, with its yodels and Hawaiian steel guitar, “Ndhiya eBhai,” which has been called “the first Xhosa hit record,” as well as the ANC anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.” Motsieloa went on to become Gallo’s musical director, recording Peter Rezant’s Merry Blackbirds, a leading black dance band that played dances and fundraisers for the African National Congress and the black trade unions in the 1930s, and helped define the township jive of the black urban communities.

Though Caluza came out of the Natal Christian tradition of mission school choral singing, and Motsieloa out of the the vaudeville dance bands of Johannesburg’s African elite, both incorporated elements of the marabi played by itinerant pianists in slumyard shebeens that had emerged with the explosive growth of the mining metropolis of Johannesburg. Marabi was largely unrecorded: the first recordings to capture some of its sound—with piano and percussion—were the 1932 Johannesburg recordings of William Mseleku’s Amanzimtoti Players and Nimrod Makhanya’s Bantu Glee Singers (modeled on Caluza’s Double Quartet). However, both Caluza and Motsieloa recorded versions of a popular marabi number, “uTebetjana Ufana Ne’mfene” (Tebetjane Looks Like a Baboon), composed by (or in mocking tribute to) the famous but unrecorded marabi keyboardist, Tebetjane. These recordings were recalled by South African jazz composer Todd Matshikiza when he wrote the history of marabi in the pioneering black South African magazine, Drum, in 1951: “Looking back on the progress of Jazz Music among the African People of South Africa, I am reminded of my first little Decca model gramophone from which issued the strains of a two-step dance tune of those days—a tune with the strangely quaint title of U-Tebejana ufana ne-Mfene (Tebejana resembles a baboon). Tebejana is the name of the man who composed what was perhaps the very first African dance tune after the idiom of American Jazz.”

As Matshikiza later wrote, marabi did not just signify “the hot, highly rhythmic repetitious single-themed dance tunes of the later ’20s”: “marabi is also the name of an epoch.” One might say the same of the other musical idioms: son, rumba, jazz, blues, gospel, ṭarab, fasil, arabesque, rebetika, chaabi, raï, fado, mariachi, bolero, kroncong, tango, calypso, country, flamenco, cai luong, hula, tzigane, palm-wine, taarab, samba, choro, céilí, huangse yinyue, beguine, jùjú, kundiman, marabi were the names of the epoch. From 1925 to 1930, as they were etched on discs and circulated around the world, they inaugurated a musical revolution. No single book could tell the history of all of these musics. In what follows, I will explore the world they had in common: an archipelago of colonial ports (Chapter 2), a transnational recording industry and musical guild (Chapter 3), an emerging phonograph culture (Chapter 4), the birth of anticolonial movements (Chapter 5), and a sound that remade the musical ear (Chapter 6).

Michael Denning is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of American Studies at Yale University, and the co-director of Yale’s Initiative on Labor and Culture. He is the author of Culture in the Age of Three Worlds; The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century; Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America; and Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller. He coordinates the Working Group on Globalization and Culture, whose collective work includes “Going into Debt”, published online in Social Text’s Periscope, and “Spaces and Times of Occupation”, published in Transforming Anthropology. In 2014, he received the Bode-Pearson lifetime achievement award from the American Studies Association.

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