It's only been in the last twenty years or so that the world music genre has obtained a significant level of popularity among the general public. What had first been a sort of novelty in the 1980s is now just another one of the genres of music that we take for granted. Weekly, it seems that one label or another is releasing music from one part of the world or another. From the Middle East to the Amazon basin, from music as basic as tribal rhythms to stuff as sophisticated as the intricacies of classical Hindustan compositions, it seems like we've got the whole world at our fingertips.
Although no one says it, the implication is that all of this is happening for the first time and that if it weren't for certain intrepid individuals and labels we wouldn't be able to experience things like music from Nepal or Kenya. While it's true that these new labels are making more and more music from various parts of the world available to us, and in quantities that were perhaps unheard of before now, it would be wrong to think that music from these parts of the world had never made it to record or distributed before.
I'm not talking about music ethnologists who recorded for research purposes only and weren't making their recordings for popular consumption. Major record labels like EMI of England were making recordings of music from around the world as far back as 1903. One only needs to look at the latest collection of music from Honest Jon's Records, Sprigs Of Time: 78s From The EMI Archive, that's being released on October 14, '08 and you'll see recordings that date as far back as 1903 (The Imperial Palace Band of Japan playing a piece called "Seigaiha") and are as recent as Trinidad's The Mighty Sparrow singing "The Queen's Canary" in 1957.
There's something a little odd about a seemingly haphazard collection of music like this one. Thirty tracks have been culled from the archives of EMI's back catalogue of 78 records in Hayes Middlesex, restored at Abby Road Studios in London, and then dropped onto the CD in no particular order. At first there is something rather disconcerting about hearing voices and instruments that have nothing in common with each other. One moment you're listening to music from Iraq and the next the stages of Britain's music halls from between WW 1 and WW 2, but as the record progresses do you find yourself getting used to it, but it's never quite enjoyable.
One fascinating thing, for me anyway, about this collection was wondering about the provenance of some of the music. Why, for example, was a recording of Vengopal Chari of Madras laughing made in 1906? At first when I listened to it I thought whoever it was was crying, and then when I realized it was somebody laughing it became even more mystifying. First of all, it seems such a strange thing to record and secondly, there is something disturbingly manic about it. Whoever Vengopal is you wouldn't feel very comfortable being alone with him after listening to this recording – it would be the perfect laugh for the diabolical villain in some cheap horror movie.
While that piece is rather disconcerting, to say the least, the disc also contains examples of some of the more wonderful types of music that are out in the world just two tracks later. There's the wonderful guitar and trumpet duet of the flamenco song "Flor De Petenera" from Spain 1933, followed by the haunting voice of Fairuz of Beirut recorded in 1956 singing "Ya Honaina". Of course before you can get too carried away by the sublime moments offered by these two tracks, you go back in time to New York in 1926 to listen to Cliff Edwards performing " I Ain't Got Nobody" a sort of Dixieland jazz number played on banjo and song in the near falsetto that singers used to affect during the twenties.
I don't know if these moments are intentional or just the result of happenstance, but over and over again the recording brings you up cold with moments of the near ridiculous after items of some beauty. While I can't be sure of the motivations of the people responsible for compiling and arranging the material on the disc, it does appear like they don't want you to ever be in a particular mood for very long. Perhaps it's because they want you to appreciate the diversity of what was recorded and available on the old 78s they have taken the music from, but it seems just as likely to be sheer perversity on their part and a desire to keep us, the listener, on our toes.
However you want to look at it, and in the end it doesn't really matter, this collection of music is as esoteric and eccentric as the human race. Many of the tracks have the rawness of field recordings about them while others were made with the finest technology available at the time. Some of the songs are performed by people who are forgotten by history and there are those, like Mighty Sparrow, one of the first popular Calypso singers who brought the music of the Islands to the world, who have made significant contributions.
In the end, this disc serves as a good reminder that long before there were labels specializing in world music, there were recordings being made of music from all over the world. Unfortunately, I only received a promotional copy of Sprigs Of Time which came with almost no information about the songs or the performers involved. Hopefully when it's released to the public in October it will be accompanied by information that will explain a little of each track's history, as it would be nice to have some frame of reference for them. Otherwise it remains an interesting, but confusing, melange of sounds and music that has been arranged with apparently little rhyme or reason. While it has moments of enjoyment and fascination, it does get a little tedious by the end just listening to song piled on top of song in such a jarring fashion.