For me, classical Arabic music from the first two decades of the 20th century is poetic and beautiful, besides being probably as close a chance we’re going to get to hearing what music may have sounded like in the Middle East in the 19th century. Powerful voices and performances abound,
although this is coming from an untrained ear, mind you! I just go by what moves me. There’s a lot out there.
Diehard collectors are all too familar with this, but listening might sometimes be a challenge for some when it comes to early international recordings, the main reason being that the music (up until 1925 for most labels) was recorded before the invention of electric microphone recording. Considerable surface noise was par for the course, no matter how perfect the record. Voices sound like they were recorded far away, through a tin can you might say - the result of singing into a recording horn. A few plays on a period phonograph player with a bad needle could cause instant distortion on an otherwise perfect playing surface. It made the fragile discs all the more ephemeral. Yet the musical (and historical) value of these early recordings far exceeds technology’s shortcomings.
Munira al-Mahdiyya (1884-1965) is among the earliest female recording artists of Egypt. She was a celebrity during her day and appeared in films, much like Umm Kulthum who, shortly after she began recording, eclipsed nearly all artists in Egypt in terms of popularity. I believe this recording was made ca. 1914. On violin and kanun are two accompanists, one of whom (I assume) joins Munira in singing the last third of the song. The title of the piece translates literally to “adversities tore me apart.” I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to take a little more liberty and say that it could also be “hard times tore me apart,” which sounds a lot like countless blues songs.
The Baidaphon label was an early independent label out of Beirut, Lebanon. Started before 1912 by several members of the Bayda family (including singer Farjallah Bayda, also a Baidaphon talent), the label recorded throughout the Middle East and North Africa, sending their masters to Germany to be manufactured. I’ve been lucky to find Baidaphons from Morocco to Central Asia. The label pictured here is their 1920s design. However, I believe the song is from an early session of al-Mahdiyya’s, so in effect this very well may be a 1920s re-release. Baidaphon, like Odeon and a few other companies, seemed to like the 10.5″ record, of which this is an example.
Thanks to Karim for help with translation!
Technical NotesLabel: Baidaphon Issue Number: 23045 Matrix Number: 2345
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