Music re-edition, between exoticism and salvage
Music re-edition, between exoticism and salvage
Towards the end of last August, a remarkable retrospective was published on the Iranian singer Kourosh Yaghmaei. He was an erudite precursor, in the 1970s, of what would have been psychedelic rock in his country, had the Islamic revolution not wiped out an entire generation of musicians in full flight. The music is remarkable, full of character and melodies on which hover a disturbing nostalgia of the epoch. But the manner in which the compilation was made deserves a closer look.
It is the work of Egon Alapatt, who co-founded the Stones Throw hip-hop label before escaping that to create Now-Again, which is largely dedicated to the re-edition of a non-Western musical heritage hidden away under the dust. A compulsive scavenger of vinyl bins, he is already known for several exploits. Egon Alapatt discovered Kourosh Yaghmaei via one of his precious online contacts.
Slowly going up the trail, he found that Kourosh's son Kaveh was presently living in exile in Canada and that his father had been able to hide the masters of his first pieces from government censorship all these years. Two years later, the box set includes these cleaned masters, sleeve notes written by Kourosh with photos of the period… without Egon and the singer having ever met. Despite everything, a solid link was forged between Teheran and Los Angeles, precise and rigorous discussions fostering an ultramodern method of traveling, of making the music travel and finally also the listener.
This capacity of being able to easily circulate, via the internet and to the enlightened public at large, music which till date had remained confined to a few limited cultural spheres (a country, a closed group of fans, academics...) has created, over a decade or so, a discographic genre which is clearly identified and abundant: the re-edition. And also a magazine which is more than just its oldies column, returning again and again to the re-release, with more or less rare and necessary bonuses and novelties – from Gainsbourg's Melody Nelson on the occasion of his fortieth anniversary, or from the disk of an exceptionally gifted American who ran out of luck before abandoning music to become a mason. Even Dominique A re-edits her disks, with the double intention of reviving them commercially and of having them re-evaluated artistically.
Thus, gradually, a new geography of the music world came to be drawn, a geography we find to be much vaster than what we had imagined during the last decades of the 20th century which was too limited to a world music which struggled to step out of folklore. One could attribute the movement's paternity to Ethiopiques, which has been compiled by Francis Falceto since 1998. Some thirty volumes have already appeared, documenting equally well the heyday of the Swinging Addis, around the stars Mahmoud Ahmed and Tlahoun Gèssèssè, as the sweet unknown pianist Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Gebrou.
It is a remarkable work, informative and intense, which has served as a model for the creation of a whole series of labels (Soundway, Finders Keepers, Sublime Frequencies…) which have launched themselves in its wake, often in Africa. Thus, over the past decade, we have been able to discover – or "re-discover" in good sound conditions, for the more learned – the early beginnings of Ghanaian highlife, the delicate Congolese rumba, the golden age of Ivorian and Senegalese grand orchestras.
The diggers, taciturn adventurers relayed by on-the-spot informers, have informally divided the continent among themselves, clearly concentrating their work in West Africa. Miles Cleret is the highlife man, while Frank Gossner concentrates on Nigerian funk. We can also mention Awesome Tapes from Africa and Benn Loxo du Taccu, who play the double role of sound hunters for internet users and as artistic lookouts for labels. We shall get back to them in another report.
These vinyl adventurers, who travel with bag on back and portable turntable over shoulder, have unearthed tons of abandoned 45 rpms from EMI and national vinyl houses such as Syliphone – abandoned the day music stopped being publicly administered in West Africa and private firms were driven out by the conflicts. A small but hectic vinyl economy sprang up in these countries, informers financing other informers in order to search every village, knock on every door where a 45 rpm by Grand Kallé might be lying forgotten at the bottom of some cupboard.
By unearthing a heritage which, locally, had no more than an artistic value, the curious Westerners have discovered fabulous songs while some Nigerians and Ivorians have found themselves a new profession. But in the streets of Lagos or Accra, these compilations find few echoes among the public which is young and turned more towards the modern forms than those of these distant times.
Though it plays an important archival role, this uni-directional movement raises several questions: On the parallel reconstruction of a disk industry in these countries which till date has not found a similar productive drive despite the creative frenzy. And next, on the expectations of Western listeners who are quick to hail the return of these long-lost disks more with nostalgic condescension than critical analysis.
Asia, a fragile Eldorado
It is these latter places which hold the most surprises currently. I talked about Kourosh Yaghmaei, the vanguard of an entire series of some rather successful Iranian releases, but which already seem to have reached their limits, explained by the short span of this golden age of pop which flourished from the mid-1960s until its violent (though progressive) end due to the revolution of 1979.
The exploration of a recent double compilation released by Vampisoul quickly shows that an entire section of this era, dripping with a syrupy meringue and of little interest, does not justify a re-edition. What remain are the passionate psychedelic fringes and the film scores, which still have some fine stuff to give.
Around Iran, we also discover Ahmad Zahir, the Afghan Elvis, where fortunately some sorting was done to separate his penchant for romantic trickles, the Egyptian Omar Khorshid's oriental surf guitar, and an entire world which is just opening up in India. More to the East, Cambodia of the sixties and Malaysia of the seventies have already delivered some of the obvious, we now await the surprises.
And after that? There will always be internationally unknown artists waiting to be discovered in Rwanda or Bhutan (in France and all across Europe too, by the way…), but there arises a recurring problem: why is it easier to listen to the entire Bembeya Jazz National orchestra from Ivory Coast than to have a clear and documented access to what is being currently heard in that country without having to be a member of the diaspora or frequenting some community stores in Paris? It is one of the paradoxes of this re-editing culture that, however artistically delightful, it ends up by hiding the artistic proliferation which is itself globalized.