Sesalken Oentoeng by Miss Inah & The Sweet Malay Entertainers
Allow me to present to you to a type of music that has a special place in my heart: the Nasib, or “Song of Fate” from Indonesia and Malaysia…part of what once was the Dutch East Indies.
‘Nasib’ in Malay means ‘fate.’ The Nasib song is an aching, slow lament; a deeply melancholic popular song type which is built around the singer’s misfortune in life. On the surface, this description would make the Nasib similar to the fado, rebetika, or blues, but that would be a mischaraterization. The origins of the Nasib derive, in fact, from Indonesian/Malaysian stambul theater music. Stambul theater (also referred to as bangsawan) developed in the late 19th century and was an urban affair, where theatrical groups would perform musical dramas, many with stories which had origins in India or the Middle East. Stambul songs were most popular from 1920-1935.
The Nasib is sung by a singer who is in fact playing – or at the very least channeling – a character or situation from these classical stories, rather than singing her own blues. Interestingly, much of the stambul music that I’ve heard from that era is quite cultured – operatic, even. However, the Nasibs, although derived from stambul, are a different thing altogether. The operatic aspect has gone out the window, and what we have here is swooning sadness – the Nasib adopted to a bar band setting!
Today’s Nasib features Miss Inah singing “Sesalken Oentoeng” (a Dutch transliteration of the Malay “Sesalkan Untung”), which more or less means “I Regret My Luck.” She is accompanied by her smooth yet lurching Malay Entertainers on harmonium (another Indian connection), saxophone, bass, and percussion.
And what about this tantalizingly obscure and beautifully designed label “Extra” – of which this appears to be the sixth release? From the wonderful choice of typefaces, the baby blue color, the looming image of a mountain (Mount Kerinci, the highest peak in Sumatra, most likely), and the overlapping letters H, M, and V, in a skeleton font – the whole label reeks of mystery!
It turns out that the Extra label was based in Palembang, Indonesia, in the south of Sumatra, and was in operation during the early 1940s, before the Japanese occupation. Right off the bat, this clues us in to the fact that the record, despite the band’s name being the Malay Entertainers, is most likely from Indonesia as opposed to Malaysia (the ethnic Malay group is found in both countries). How many records did Extra make? Collectors have traced only nine releases. There may be more, though I’m betting the number is low. It’s also unclear the relationship between Extra and HMV. The matrix numbers on this record (the numbers separate from the catalog numbers on the record, indicating masters and often takes) are clearly HMV matrix numbers. But, we do not know if these songs were also released by HMV, or if Extra was the sole entity releasing these tracks.
Extra records were pressed in India. Which brings us to another issue: why in the hell does this record, which is in absolutely mint condition, sound so rough?
There are a couple of reasons, familiar to collectors but perhaps not to anyone else. One, the record could have been pressed using a worn stamper. The early recording process yielded negative masters. From a negative master, a positive, metal-coated ”mother” was created (these sound pristine). The metal mother was used to make a stamper – a negative version of the mother – and then your store-bought records were made from the stampers. When one stamper wore out, another stamper was made from the metal mother. Sometimes, however, companies let their stampers become wrecked before they replaced them. The result was, as you could imagine, a really crappy sounding record.
Another reason could be that there’s too much garbage in the shellac mix. Again, the bane of collectors, but bears ranting about even if you’re not ensconced in that kind of minutiae. So, those metal mothers I was talking about sounding pristine in the previous paragraph? Well, something else happens between the recording process and the resulting 78rpm record. Since 78rpm records were made to be played on acoustic, wind-up gramophone players, record companies were quite aware that the sharp steel needles used to play 78s wore down the records very quickly. So, they made better needles, right? Er, no. Instead, they added junk into their shellac mix – carborundum, cement, sand – which was supposed to wear down the gramophone needle as it moved through the grooves! This is the main reason why surface noise exists on clean 78s. When I look at this Extra record, I can actually SEE the junk in the shellac on the record’s surface. But, sometimes you gotta take what you can get!
Label: Extra Record
Issue Number: SE-6
Matrix Number: 0MG-6969-1
I am indebted to Philip Yampolsky for much of the information in this post. Mr. Yampolsky is a renowned expert in the music of the region, and the person behind the staggering 20-volume Music of Indonesia series for Smithsonian Folkways.