10:35 AM GMT 25/04/2013
Magical “ethnic” recordings discovered in label’s ancient archive. Damon Albarn rejoices! Guy Hands unavailable.
LIVING IS HARD, the latest release on the Honest Jons label, is the first to draw from “The Hayes Archive” – a treasure trove of recordings, owned by EMI, of performances dating back to the 19th Century.
Trancey Albanian folk, mind-expanding Georgian organ rounds and the Japanese Emperor’s ceremonial band share shelfspace in the suburban Middlesex storage facility with Elgar and The Beatles – all recorded by EMI and its forerunners.
“It’s a magical place,” says Honest Jons’ Mark Ainley. “You couldn’t kick a football to the other end of it. You turn these huge wheels to move the shelves about. They could crush you – it’s like something out of Batman.”
Ainley’s special interest – which he shares with Honest Jons patron and EMI artist Damon Albarn – is in the archive’s mind-boggling cornucopia of international music, most of it unheard since its release, some of it never released at all.
“You go in there and there’s, like 1500 Turkish 78s in a row, in catalogue number order. Did I have a guide? No, you just have to go in and literally get your hands dirty. These are ancient paper sleeves that just crumble to dust in your hands.”
Till now better known to classical scholars researching Dame Nellie Melba or Sir Thomas Beacham, the archive also features the field recordings of American Fred Gaisberg, the Emile Berliner protégé sent to Britain in 1898 to market Berliner’s newfangled flat-disc records who became the first man to record Caruso. In 1902-03, fired with zeal to open up new markets to the stripling gramophone, Gaisberg visited Persia, Russia and Japan loaded down with metal master discs and returned with hundreds of recordings of “ethnic” music. [Pictured: a Gaisberg recording made in Singapore, Malaysia in 1903. Enjoy more of the same at excavatedshellac.]
Living Is Hard, subtitled “West African Music In Britain 1927-1929” is the first of “ten or so” compilations that will eventually profit from Mark Ainley’s archival burrowings. Although the majority of its artists were resident in Britain at the time of recording, many of them sporting Anglicised handles like Ben Simmons or James Thomas, their raw, powerful performances in a multiplicity of West African languages fed “home” markets pump-primed by The Gramophone Company’s distribution of 78rpm record players. It’s a fascinating collection of postcards home, encrypted (as the excellent liner notes would have it) with poignant messages about the early black British experience.
The next Hayes-related release on Honest Jons will be a compilation of Iraqi music, followed by a more wide-ranging sampler, followed by music from Iran, Greece, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The future of the Hayes Archive itself, however, is less predictable. EMI’s new owners, venture capitalists Terra Firma, have slashed the company’s workforce, and were grumbling last week about the “hidden” costs threatening to derail their plans for the label.
In such an environment, one hopes that Ainley’s project can prove the archive’s worth – not just culturally, but commercially too.
Living Is Hard: West African Music In Britain 1927-1929 (Honest Jons) is released in May.
Posted by Danny_Eccleston at 5:54 PM GMT 03/03/2008