In our resident crate digger’s latest “Sonic Reducer” column, he sings the praises of one of our premiere archival indie labels.
BY CARL HANNI
In their first decade + of existence, Dust-to-Digital Records from Atlanta (www.dust-digital.com) has quickly moved up to the increasingly crowded front of the reissue label pack based on the audaciousness and top-shelf quality of their archival releases. Their first release was a six CD set of rare gospel recordings, packaged in a pine box with a 200 page book. Since then they have released a steady stream of high quality, high volume releases of everything from rare Asian and Middle Eastern recordings to a massive John Fahey collection and obscurities from the outer reaches of the American musical vernacular, often in multiple CD sets with lavish, fully illustrated books serving as liner notes.
Even considering their high standards, Dust-to-Digital might have outdone themselves with their latest release, Longing For The Past: The 78 rpm Era in Southeast Asia, a four CD set of 90 78 rpm recordings released between 1905 and 1966. These recordings cover traditional musics from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Burma, Malasyia/Singapore and Indonesia. It comes with a 272 page book with hundreds of rare photos, and, astoundingly, notes on every single track, no matter how obscure, as well as several essays on the history of the industry that released them, and the countries that they were manufactured for. One can only imagine the archival research that went into such an undertaking; your typical major or indie label release looks like child’s play next to the stuff that the adults here are putting out.
To immerse yourself in the music on these four discs is to enter a lost world, and to come face to face (or ear to ear) with musical traditions and forms that have virtually nothing in common with the music of the West. Working with different tonal scales, instrumentation and vocal styles than we are used to in the Western world, an entire, largely hidden universe suddenly comes sharply, sometimes bewilderingly in focus. It’s a lot to take in, and is perhaps best done incrementally. I did one disc at a time, and even that is so fully loaded with otherworldly, complex and sometimes jarring sonic flavors that I pretty much had to clear my head after each one before listening to anything else.
The selections include pop songs of the day, traditional rural music, various strains of SE Asian court or classical music and numerous selections culled from various plays, film scores, stage productions, traditional storytelling and mythical dramas. Some of this – Gamelan music from Indonesia, Thai pop, Molam – will already be familiar to hardcore followers of music of the world, and Sublime Frequencies and Nonesuch have previous done limited releases that cover some of the same territory. But nothing that I’m aware of comes close to the vast scope and highly detailed notation on each track, as well as the essays, photos, etc.
One of my first impressions was; has Philip Glass or Terry Riley heard this stuff? While mad diversity abounds across the whole collection, the hypnotic rhythmic patterns of tracks like “Pleng Sen Lao Na 1” (“Offering of Alcohol to the Gods, Pt. 1”) by the Thewaprasit Ensemble (1950, Thailand), “Fawn Jao Sri Oi” by Kotsanabanthoeng Paired Piohat Ensemble (1950s Thailand again) or “Lom Phat Sai Khao” (“The Wind Blows Through The Mountains”) by the Ensemble of the Governor of Vientiane (1927, Laos) eerily resemble the work of Glass and other contemporary composers; if this isn’t the building blocks of modern minimalism, then what is?
Nor surprisingly, the more recent stuff is both a bit cleaner sonically and slightly more familiar to Western ears. Tracks like “Lam Toei Jep Saep” (“Stinging Pan”) by Molam Nuanchan and Amphon Sangachit (early 1960s, Thailand) and “Hnit Kan Pyaing Hpuza” (“Love’s Double Destiny”) by Mar Mar Aye and the Mandalay Myoma Ensemble (1964, Burma) are essentially pop songs. To go much further into individual tracks and artists is to enter a labyrinth of mind bending musical variety and historical complexity. This is SE Asia, of course: a largely rural and agrarian part of the world that flourished for a millennia before becoming the punching bag for imperialist conquests and proxy wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, culminating, in a way, with the Vietnam war and the appalling Khmer Rogue genocide in Cambodia.
The liner notes reveal that the world of archaic Asian music had it share of pop stars, court favorites, record moguls, major and smaller labels and the occasional scandal. Many of these artists were undoubtably well compensated and lived lives of relative ease; on the other hand, other photos from the era reveal destitute and miserable looking collections of musicians who were obviously living on the edge. Outside of the protection of various courts or wealthy patrons, musicians have historically/generally lived pretty marginal lives until the advent of recording technology turned the tide in their favor to some small degree in the last few decades. The photo record of musicians included in the book with Longing For The Past is almost as fascinating as the music itself.
Of course the packaging and book is the same top quality we’ve come to expect from Dust-to-Digital. And the audio quality of these recordings is, generally, remarkably high. Often working off of fragile, brittle 78 rpm discs that are 70 or 80 years old, the engineers employed by Dust-to-Digital have recaptured a level of sound clarity cleaner than we have have any reason to expect. The liner notes and essays by Jason Gibbs, David Harnish, Terry E. Miller, Sooi Beng Tan, Kit Young and co-producer (along with Steven Lance Ledbetter) David Murray (he also provided many of the recording and photos) are fascinating and put the wealth of music in several historical perspectives. Not the least of this is the tales of epic hardship that the original recording expeditions had to endure to secure some of the earliest recordings; imagine hauling bulky recording equipment up the Mekong River in crushing heat in war time to areas that have never seen a European before, and you get the idea.
So, Dust-to-Digital have presented us with a collection that will most likely stand as definitive for the foreseeable future. For the musically adventurous, Longing For The Past is one of the ultimate musical accompaniments for armchair traveling.
Carl Hanni is a music writer, music publicist, DJ, disc jockey, book hound and vinyl archivist living in Tucson, AZ. He hosts “The New World” program on KXCI (streamed live on Tuesday nights 10-12 pm at KXCI.org) and spins around Southern Arizona on a regular basis. He currently writes for Blurt and Tucson Weekly.