Obsessive record collectors—the kind who love to unearth lost or forgotten artists, not the kind who own every last Nirvana bootleg—tend to take a dim view of the canonical history of recorded music. The “great works” that make up that history have been enshrined by a mutually reinforcing network of critics, scholars, and labels (it’s almost always major labels, since they tend to own the rights to the music), and there’s nothing like that kind of consensus to provoke contrarians. Columbia Records transformed Robert Johnson into the greatest of all Delta bluesmen 23 years after his death by reissuing his music on a 1961 LP that sparked the public’s imagination, but call him that in company and somebody’s bound to pipe up for Charley Patton.
A canonical history certainly makes it easier for nonspecialists to grasp the evolution of music, but the negative side effects include more than just arguments about who deserves to be known as the best such-and-such of all time. Simplifying that evolution’s knotty, forking paths sells short or outright excludes artists who deviate too far from well-traveled routes, who commit only isolated acts of genius, or who just fail to be in the right place at the right time—and it’s those artists who give a genre much of its richness and depth.
Two new multidisc compilations, each assembled by an obsessive record collector and pressed by a label that exists happily on the fringes of the biz, consist of little more than those deviations and bits of isolated genius. Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM was released by Dust-to-Digital and compiled by Jonathan Ward of the amazing blog Excavated Shellac, which posts obscure 78s of international music in digital versions. Its four CDs contain 100 tracks of music from across Africa, all of it originally released on 78 RPM vinyl. This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45 RPM 1957-1982 was released by Tompkins Square and compiled by Mike McGonigal, a music writer who put together the imprint’s excellent gospel comp Fire in My Bones two years ago; its three discs collect African-American gospel songs released as singles by independent labels.
The material on Opika Pende covers a vast range, unsurprising given that it draws from an entire continent and more than half a century, from 1909 through 1967. There are ethnographic and commercial recordings (some made in Europe) as well as rural and urban styles. There’s proto-rai from Algeria, early highlife from Ghana, Shona music from Zimbabwe, Congolese rumba, and more. Though some of the field recordings have a well-known pedigree (they’re the work of English ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey) and a few of the artists are influential (among them Congolese singer Joseph Kabasele Tshamala, aka “Le Grand Kalle,” and Tunisian Arab-Jewish vocalist Cheikh El-Afrit), most of this stuff is all but lost to history.
As far as most Americans are concerned, the canon of African music starts late and contains only a handful of artists—many who were superstars at home remain obscure here. Well into the 60s, African music was either ignored or treated as exotica in the U.S., so in a sense nearly every track on Opika Pende might as well be one of those deviations or bits of isolated genius. European labels recognized the potential of the 78 market in densely populated parts of Africa not long after the record business established itself, but it wasn’t till the late 60s that they tried to sell African music to anyone but Africans—and even then, the artists these multinational companies pushed globally (Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade) could hardly be expected to represent all of Africa.
In recent years labels such as Sterns, Soundway, Analog Africa, and Popular African Music have been slowly but steadily filling in the history behind those big names, but Ward digs further back than most—particularly into the era when colonization was the norm, before the 1960s. The four discs here aren’t organized chronologically, regionally, or stylistically—instead he provides a sprawling cornucopia, animated by lots of enthusiasm but not much obvious logic. Ward has annotated each track to the best of his ability, and sometimes that means hardly at all: “Next to nothing is known about this uncredited mbira solo,” he writes in one case, “except that it is a field recording made in Yaoundé, Cameroon in 1950 by the French.”
Nearly all the 72 tracks on This May Be My Last Time Singing hail from the margins of African-American gospel, if not further out. In his liner notes McGonigal says he focused on 45s “because of their democratic/DIY nature; almost anyone could raise enough money to release a seven-inch single.” If a curator’s aim is inclusive, it behooves him to look for artists who might’ve managed one great song but not an entire album (or career) full of them. Many of the tracks here bear the stamp of the dominant black artists of the day, whether secular or sanctified: James Brown, Sam Cooke, the Staple Singers, James Cleveland. But the best songs transcend their influences, either with the power of the performance or with outright weirdness. The 1977 cut “Jesus Been Good” by Georgia’s Fantastic Angels is prepubescent gospel (a la the Jackson Five), but the reverb-drenched guitar licks sound like they could’ve come from blues and soul ax man Robert Ward, right down to the Magnatone vibrato.
Some of the records are so odd, inept, or fucked-up that they defy comparison. “I Got to Move to a Better Home” by the Reverend George Oliver is poorly recorded and the vinyl itself is heavily scuffed, but the preacher’s hectoring voice pushes through what might be a strummed guitar—the playing is so rudimentary and the fidelity is so bad that it sounds like a ride cymbal. “This May Be My Last Time” (credited to Brother Will Hairston, “the Hurricane of the Motor City,” with the Greater Love Tabernacle Congregation, C.O.G.I.C.) is one of the most bizarre entries. Though it’s a thoroughly average song-sermon, with choir interjections, piano accompaniment, hand claps, and tambourine rattles, two minutes into this live recording one the congregants “falls out,” and to judge by her blood-curdling shrieks her religious ecstasy was painfully violent.
The very next cut is a beautifully serene, almost otherworldly tune by LA evangelist Reverend Lonnie Farris, a remarkable pedal-steel player and singer whose self-released “Peace in the Valley” attempts a mix of post-Sam Cooke soul and Hawaiian-flavored guitar that consigns it to the fringes of gospel. But this song, like so much of the material on both of these beautiful sets, is brilliant music—in terms of history, it’s been left out in the cold, and it’s about time somebody let it in.