This week I review a new release by the eclectic label Dust to Digital.
"Longing for the Past - 78 RPM in SouthEast Asia"
Dust to Digital is one of many small boutique labels specializing in finding, documenting and releasing long forgotten music from a variety of sources, usually 78 RPM records.
While many such labels go for the easier stuff to find, Dust to Digital searches the world for extremely rare 78s and assembles them in exquisite packaging that usually includes a book with photos and essays on the music.
Much of the music stems all the way back to the early 1900s, when music labels recorded everything to see what would sell for Victrola record players.
Once companies discovered a market for the cheap record players, it didn't take companies long to figure out people wanted music they liked to play on the crude machines. It's amazing the diversity of music early record companies recorded for the hand-cranked Victrolas, mainly because they had no idea what would sell and what wouldn't.
Victrola record players back in the early 1900s were very much like the Model T motor vehicle made by Henry Ford - they were affordable, and everyone could own one, even in faraway countries and cultures that many in America had no idea even existed.
It's even more amazing how many of these 78s have survived through war, famine, dustbowls, floods, monsoon rains and other disasters, natural and manmade.
"Longing for the Past" specializes in music that is very difficult to find, let alone document - the indigenous music of countries in Southeast Asia, including China, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
This was during the colonial age, when Europeans swooped down and basically conquered these countries for their own economic gain. The only really good thing to come out of the colonial era was the recording of the music of different cultures with strange, exotic instruments and singing. The result is music you couldn't have thought of in your wildest dreams.
The folk music in these countries has been "polluted" with Western influence today, and much of this is music no one knows how to play anymore, which is a real tragedy. Even many of the instruments are unknown today, and the only reason we know they existed is because of vintage photos and sound recordings.
Much of the music emphasizes rhythm, usually in complex time signatures, while many instruments, including vocals, sound virtually atonal to Western ears. The truth is Southeast Asian musical systems are similar to that of India and the Middle East, where they have a 24-note system rather than the Western 12-tone systems.
What really comes through is the soulfulness of these performances, the utter "go-for-broke" dedication of the musicians, all sung in tongues beyond foreign to these ears. But the humanity, the need to express oneself through music, comes through, proving that music truly is universal and in the "ear of the behearer."
The four-disc set also comes with a spectacular, 200-plus page hardback book that describes the music, its history and notes about the artists, when known. The book also contains fabulous color and black-and-white, photos of musicians from the time period.
While those with purely "Westernized" ears or vanilla tastes are going to hate this, those who are adventurous and intrigued by the exotic are going to discover a treasure trove. The history alone of the folk art is fascinating and worth the bucks. The package is more than reasonably priced at $60 on Amazon.com. Very highly recommended for the curious.