Jonathan Ward’s ‘Opika Pende’ box set resurrects the world of early African music — with a history lesson in the mix.
A bowed guitar player accompanying a Barbarba dance, TimbuKtu, Mali.
Imagine the sounds and melodies of Africa in the early 1900s. Then imagine them filling the speakers in your home – the familiar hiss and crackle of an old record, a female voice croons while a high-lonesome stringed instrument meanders along. It’s profoundly moving, resurrecting long-buried voices within its crackling grooves and haunting, soulful rhythms.
Now you can do more than just imagine – you can hear them in the flesh.
Compiled by folk music afficianado, Jonathan Ward, “Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM,” is a four-disc, 100-song collection and companion book of never before compiled regional African music from the early 1900s through the ’60s. Much of it is culled from fragile original shellac recordings that have miraculously survived a journey across space and times.
Jonathan Ward is collector of folkloric and vernacular music recordings of from around the world. In 2011, he created the ‘Africa at 78 RPM compilation with one simple goal in mind: to showcase a diverse amount of long-forgotten music from Africa that transports him as a listener. It is one person’s offering of music that is wholly unavailable except in its original elusive and fragile format.
‘While it is not definitive, nor am I attempting to construct or invent a narrative, there are important connections to be made.’ says Jonathan. ‘As a non-African, I offer this set as an example of the riches that lay in waiting when considering the tens of thousands of phenomenal African 78 rpm discs that were issued, played, dispersed, and in large part, forgotten.’
On the introduction to the box set, Jonathan says: ‘It is truly astonishing to consider the tremendous variety of music that was pressed to shellac discs on the continent of Africa. Popular songs, topical songs, work songs, comic songs, songs of worship, ritual, dance, and praise—the sheer range of musical styles resists any easy categorization. Further, African geography itself resists boundaries. The boundaries of cultures and languages are often far more complex than political boundaries. Complicating things further, entire countries seem to have been skipped over by both commercial 78 rpm record companies and ethnographers during the 78 rpm era. No doubt it was the same with many cultures. But that doesn’t mean that 78s weren’t everywhere, even in remote parts of the continent. By the mid-1960s, 78s were still a popular if not preferred medium in much of Africa, as a significant amount of the population still used wind-up gramophone players.’
Ward has helped spark interest in this and other early African music through his website, Excavated Shellac, which since 2007 has offered downloads of antiquated African music, some of the oldest ever captured, from throughout the continent.
His goal was to reveal information not only about the artists but the time period, combine it into a package that would perhaps “affect the way people listen to the music. There’s really a transporting effect when you hear them,” says Ward, whose day job is as researcher/editor at the Getty Research Center. “Not only are they musically captivating at their best, when you can really hear something that brings you to a jolt, but they’re so laden with history, both as a piece of music but also as an information carrier.
“I thought it would be interesting to finally have a box set that was truly pan-African, that actually combined North African music with East African, South African and Central, all in a mix, without necessarily calling them north, south, east and west.”
Ward has long been a collector. He started frequenting the Chelsea Market in New York while in college and had an epiphany when first confronted with the rows of old 78s: “I thought, ‘My god, all this talk about the world’s rarest records, and blues and country and jazz, and I didn’t know anything about it. It was like a whole world opened to me.”
It’s this world that Ward captures with the four compact discs of music released between 1909 and the mid-1960s, divided somewhat regionally, in “Opika Pende.” Ward calls his sequencing “loosely geographical, moving from north to south, but I play with that a lot, deliberately, because cultural language and musical boundaries are often very different than political boundaries, and I wanted to have that looseness portrayed in the box set without being overt about it.”
Just as impressive as the music, though, is Ward’s meticulously researched notes, which come in a well-packaged book typical of the record label/publisher that financed and released the set: Atlanta-based Dust-to-Digital Records. Over the course of the 14 months it took to produce the collection, Ward worked with linguists, researchers, scholars and native speakers to help him understand the lyrics and emotions within the sides. Each song is accompanied by as much detail as Ward could find on the circumstances of the recording, from the record label to the colonial interests that exported the music to the linguistic quirks of the lyrics. All this data offers a glimpse into history.
Some of the music from disc three, for example, was produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kinshasa starting in the 1940s in the wake of World War II. “That popular music of the Congo kind of ushered in Afropop, and later, that Latin-based Congolese pop,” says Ward. “And that all stemmed from independent 78 labels in Kinshasha in the ’40s, all Greek-owned. There were Greeks in Kinshasa, and they all started record labels, they all competed with each other, and it was just this little flourishing scene whereas previous to that, there was nothing.”
But Ward stresses that all the data, and the extraneous historical information, vanishes when a song comes back from the dead.
“At its best, it’s a spiritual connection to music. It’s your church. And a lot of people don’t have that with music.”
‘Opika Pende’ is a saying in the Congolese Lingala language that means “be strong” or “stand firm.
To view some of the featured players visit the album’s play;list on youtube – http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEF3DE761C0270300.
LA Times - http://www.latimes.com/
Dust to Digital - http://www.dust-digital.com/africa/
Excavated Shellac blog - http://excavatedshellac.com/