In the late 1920s, musicians from across Iraq were being recorded by a variety of companies: Baidaphon of Beirut, Polyphon of Germany, and HMV of England being the Big Three. As usual in those nascent markets, all were competing against each other for shelf space in the shops that sold gramophone records.
I chose an early piece from Iraq this week because of the appearance of a terrific Honest Jons release culled from original copies at the EMI Hayes Archive titled Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted - Baghdad, 1925-1929. Two lovely songs by Badria Anwar are included on Give Me Love, but today’s post is another of her long lost recordings, from ca. 1928-1929 or so. “Rah Wilfy” translates roughly to “My Lover Is Gone.” She is accompanied by oud, kanun, violin, and percussion. (Thanks to the Pictures Clerk for translation!)
While I generally refrain from deep ruminations on this website, I thought I’d just write about Give Me Love as well as some thoughts on current reissues of historic recordings. Nobody asked me, of course, but these issues actually mean a lot to me. (In hindsight, I see I may have gotten long-winded, but what the hell…)
First, I think Give Me Love is an important collection. There has not been, until now, any serious survey of Iraqi historical recordings released - certainly not one with such a wide variety of styles. Musically, it is superb in my opinion - the taksims are amazing, the songs beautiful, from Kurdish melodies to Iraqi Jewish songs. I’ve little to say in that arena, as I was simply very impressed with the selection. Because of Honest Jons’ access to the Hayes Archive they were able to use untouched file copies of these exceptionally rare recordings, or perhaps even the metal masters, for their transfers. (For those who are wondering, 78rpm masters have shockingly less surface noise than the final product, the mass-produced gramophone record copy of the master, which often contained loads of garbage, or filler, along with the shellac - Paramount Records used sand and cement in their mix, for instance, making virtually all of their records sound like crap.)
That does not happen often. Very few companies exist which still have accessible masters or clean file copies of their original 78s, much less are willing to work with a small label for a release. EMI and Hayes are the major exception. And, the transfers are alive: I’ve listened to Give Me Love a few times now and although I (and my ears) waver a bit on this thought - and I may change my mind still again - I have come to believe that we are finally getting to a point where, taking into account a number of factors, the majority of surface noise can be removed from a 78rpm recording to the actual BENEFIT of the recording itself. There are far too many CDs of historic international folk music (not to mention historic anything) which have been hampered by overzealous noise reduction in their transfers. Of course, on the flip side, some of these recordings are so rare (I’ve seen around 4 Iraqi records in the past 5 years, say), you have to take what you can get sometimes. In other words, I’d probably buy this if it was dubbed from an old Certron cassette tape. (And as if it even needs to be said, I clearly am in no way a professional engineer - I just do the best I can with what I present on Excavated Shellac. Better the stuff is out there than not, is my opinion. Just wanted to get that out of the way.)
On Give Me Love, it sounds like the musicians are next to you. Well, next to you in mono. As I mentioned, achieving this sonic quality depends on a host of important factors: condition of the original record, turntable, tonearm, a wide variety of specialized diamond cut needles of various sizes, analog noise reduction equipment, digital noise reduction equipment, equalization equipment and methods, and the most important factor, a finely tuned ear. It is expensive, time consuming, and surely a monetary loss in the short term. But, I think Honest Jons got it right. And that’s good for both music fans, and scholars of this music.
Another thing Honest Jons got right is the design. Because I still prefer the tactile sensation of an LP (a DJ at heart), I purchased their double-LP issue of Give Me Love. Graphically it is beautifully done - and the design is current. While this may seem secondary to many, I believe the presentation of historical music is absolutely vital to its survival. These releases cannot and should not appeal only to the converted, the record collectors, the ethnomusicologists. They have to break through to new audiences, new listeners, people willing to take a chance. Releases like this, if they are to continue, absolutely must at the very least attempt to appeal to younger generations by methods of marketing, distribution, sale, and especially presentation. If not, the consequence is that the releases, the listeners, and by proxy the music, will become even more elitist, more rarified, more segregated - precisely what shouldn’t happen. This doesn’t mean dumbing down these releases, it just means an overhaul. The design of Give Me Love is, well, pretty damn attractive. It makes one feel that this is an important record, filled with mysterious lost music that is different than what one has experienced.
With all that said, I’m not above some critique. While comparatively minor, I had a few related problems with Give Me Love - in particular, problems with the notes which accompany the LP.
Despite its savvy design, Give Me Love presents itself, rightly I think, as a historical document, and includes a short essay on the backstory behind these recording sessions, with information on some of the artists and quotes from correspondence between HMV employees in Iraq and the home office. Why is it then that there is no detailed recording information (dates, specifically) for any of the tracks? This information could be extremely helpful to those wishing to study further, it would be very brief in terms of space to annotate, and would almost certainly be accessible in the Hayes Archive, as HMV kept scrupulously detailed recording ledgers. Since Honest Jons had full access and permission from EMI, why not list the original record catalog numbers, too? I realize that including this information may go against the whole “reaching out to new audiences” idea I just mentioned (in other words, it might be useless to most consumers), but I think not including it and still attempting to be a historical document is disingenuous. This is new territory they’re working with, and why not go for broke - those adventurous enough to purchase the record may appreciate that detail somehow. Plus, it firmly places these works in a specific place, at a specific time.
The rest of my complaints are niggling and petty and I fear I’ve gone on too far as it is. If you’ve read this far, I appreciate your interest…the most important part of this post is of course way up above: the music.
Coupling Number: AX 568
Face Number: 7-213737
Matrix Number: BX4397