Monday, September 12, 2011

Notes from a World Music Catalog, part 1

An occasional series about the heyday of World Music, analog recordings, John Storm Roberts and Original Music.

Part One, an introduction.

I don't have as many LPs as you think. I'm always saying that. It looks like a lot at first, but I've been plenty of places where people have had thousands of records. I am a piker compared to other collectors, in fact maybe I'm not a collector at all (hoarding is what the rest of the household calls it!)  However, most of my LPs come from a very particular time and place - when I worked for Original Music in Tivoli in the late 80's and early 90's. And so my collection is kaleidoscope of what once was called World Music.

I think Brian Eno said that there is no longer any such thing as World Music, and if I understand him correctly I agree, and applaud the fact.  It is very likely that World Music was (is?), like Orientalism, a fetishization of the exotic Other.  I know that there were certainly moments when I celebrated being first to champion (and offer for sale) a particularly out-of-the-way treasure.  Now that "first" is more commonly reserved for commenters on blogs (I'm waiting!), it is possible to wonder if what killed "World Music" isn't also what has made, for example, gay marriage more of a commonplace notion.  The world is a more intimate place now, and it seems ever so long ago that this all happened.  

The time I am writing about was before the explosion of the internet into our lives, and so selling exotic music from a barn in the middle of nowhere had a certain cachet that was almost completely outweighed by the inconvenience.  For the longest time, our local telephone exchange couldn't handle faxes; I had to dial (yes really) an 800 number and read credit card numbers to a person; in the winter the kerosene fumes gave us headaches as the wind whistled around our feet, and in the summer we baked.  We had an outhouse for a toilet.

Still, we had the music.  And what music!  John had a nose for music that was perhaps only equalled by his enthusiasm for it. We certainly tried to make money, and none of us would have been unhappy to become rich, but what really drove us was the joy of listening.  I well remember the first several years I worked there I walked around with catalogs in my pocket like an intinerant preacher, like the "grey beard loon" himself!  People at parties would make the mistake of asking what I did and then saying 'that's interesting'.  They soon edged away with a "wherefore stoppest thou me" look in their eyes, and I would be left clutching my tracts with the echoes of "1960's Ghanaian pop music" dying on my lips. 

We sold LPs we bought from England, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Greece and other places. Folk songs, pop music of yesteryear, new indigenous techno dance tracks, art music from the courts of Asian kingdoms, that sort of thing. Some people sent glossy catalogs with pictures of the album covers, some had great books with row upon row of titles to search through, and some LPs we found ourselves as we poked around music distributors in New York City. 

Our own label included "back porch" African acoustic guitarists, street musicians in Java, and golden oldies from Ghana and Nigeria that we licensed from a company called Afrodisia.  Sometimes we got what resembled master tapes and sometimes we had to re-master from rare LPs and singles.  Once I had one evening to choose as many 45 RPM pop singles from Ghana and Nigeria as I could carry from a garage full of 45's near the Whipsnade Zoo outside of London. I got on the plane staggering under the weight of a huge sack stuffed with vinyl, explaining earnestly to all the attendants how valuable it was.

John told me he started the catalog in order to sell the African Dances LP and Black Music of Two Worlds, his book on the musical currents between Africa and the New World. At one point we were up to six issues a year and I can't remember what the average was. The catalog had an introduction and commentary from John on the front page, and the rest was brief descriptions of recordings and books for sale, organized geographically according to source or subject matter.  Eventually I was allowed to write catalog entries myself, but I rarely approached John's genius for succinctness, a funny thing now that I think of it since he liked to talk so much!

To be continued.

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