THE GRAMOPHONE GOES EAST
For six months I worked voluntarily for the NSA International Music Collection (IMC), helping to transfer the card-based catlogue on to computer. Scattered among the 10,000 or so 78rpm discs held by the IMC, I discovered 46 ten inch records which have come to hold a particular fascination for me. Each was recorded and released prior to the First World War, some in the Caucasus and some in Russian Turkestan (now known as Central Asia), by the Gramophone Company"s regional office in Tiflis (now Tbilisi). The company began operations there in 1901, continuing until the war forced their departure in May 1918, a departure made permanent by the spread of the Russian Revolution. Each record stands as a tantalising artefact in its own right, and when considered together, they help consnruct a cultural picture of the region during its final pre-Soviet years.
As they were sold originally in their "home" region, if s no longer known how most of them came to be in the IMC. We do know that ten were donated by the daughter of M Philips Price, an economist, traveller and journalist who based his 1912 book Siberia on his trip across that land, through what is now Tuva, and into Mongolia. He accompanied Douglas Carruthers, who went on to write the defmtive early account of the region, Unknown Mongolia (1913). Ifs quite likely that Price picked his records up on this trip. With one exception from 1907, the remaining 36 discs all feature at least one side recorded in 1909 and none were recorded later, suggesting that they were purchased within a relatively narrow timespan, possibly by only one or two collectors.
Thanks to the systematic approach of the Gramophone Company, the matrix numbers stamped into the run-off grooves on each side tell us in coded form, who recorded the song, approximately when, and in what, order. We know therefore that one of the sides was recorded by the American W Sinkler Darby in 1901 (the qear ten inch records first appeared), three were recorded by Franz Hampe from Berlin in 1903-4, thirteen by his brather Max in 1907, 75 by Franz Hampe in 1909 and two by the Englishman Edmund Pearse in 1911.
By arranging the 75 recordings made in 1909 in chronological order, the locations stated on the labels show us the route taken by Hampe: starting in the northern Caucasus, then to Tiflis in Georgia, down to Alexandropol (Gyumri) in Armenia, through Azerbaijan and across the Caspian Sea to Merv (Mary) in Turkestan, heading East to the border with ChineseTurkestan (Xinjiang) via Bukhara (at that point still the capital of a nominally independent emirate), Samarkand, Tashkent, and various other smaller towns. The precise route through Turkestan seems somewhat haphazard, until considered on a contemporary map, where we can see that he was following the only extant railway in the region.
Having arrived in Tiflis for the beginning of his expedition, Hampe faced a round trip of over 3,000 miles with extremely delicate equipment, through difficult and no doubt sometives daygerous circumstamces. Tj Theobald Noble, who recorded for the Pathy company in the same region, described in a contemporary account travelling for eight hours on horseback through the Caucasus mountains to audition a single choir, only to be ambushed and robbed by bandits on the return journey.
Although towns along the railway route through Turkestan were their main market there, the company were keen to expand. A letter from Fred Tyler, the manager in Tiflis, to the London Head Office in 1911, explains that an employee was being sent to the more remote regions, taking horses and donkeys loaded up with gramophones and records. He was instructed to travel from town to town, giving demonstrations and making sales where possible.
The labels of the discs also state the culture group to which each sobg belongs. From the northern Caucasus for example, the IMC holds recordings of Chechen, Ingush, Kumyk, Kabardin and Ossetian music, as well as Georgian, Armenian and Persian-Tartar (Azeri) recordings. All of the major Central Asian cultural groups are represented, as well as musicians from Afghanistan who were recorded in Merv, and from Chinese Turkestan, recorded in Margelan.
Hampe"s route in 1909 was typical of that taken by the other recordists, and he recorded several musicians who had been recorded before and would be again. Bagrat Bagramov, a singer from Tiflis for example, had already proved himself popular through records made on previous trips, and so in 1909 recorded 30 titles, significantky more than most other musicians. Accompanied by two duduk players and known simply as Bagrat, he recorded four instrumentals, with himself playing hand-drum, and 26 songs; nine are sung in Armenian, seven in Georgian and ten are Persian-Tartar. Tiflis was known as a particularly cosmopolitan city at this time, and the collection bears this out. Armenian and Georgian musicians were willing and dble to play Armenian, Georgian or Azeri music, as musicians such as Bagrat demonstrate. Azeri musicians on the other hand, such as the incredible singer Dzhabbar Kariagdiev, apparently concentrated on Azeri music. Like Bagrat, Kariagdiev was obviously highly regarded by the Gramophone Company, recording 25 titles in May 1909, twelve of which had appeared on record by October of that year, according to a contemporary catalogue. The IMC holds six recordings of Bagrat, and two of Dzhabbar Kariagdiev. Altogether, Hampe recorded 60 hours" worth of music in the region between April and September of that year, over 55 hours of which were released on ten and twelve inch 78rpm discs. Solo male vocalists with instrumental accompaniment proved to be most popular in the Caucasus and Russian Turkestan, followed by choirs in the former and vocal duets and trios in the latter. The recordists were aware that the acoustic technology of the time could pick up and reproduce strong voices much more effectively than it could most musical instruments, and so relatively few instrumental titles were recorded. The relative lack of female vocal recordings, at least in Turkestan, may be partly illuminated by the following excerpt from Fred Tyler"s memoirs: "To obtain women"s voices it was sometimes necessary to make records in their own quarters, as, being Mohammedans, they could not visit a public caravanserai with propriety. In order, therefore, to avoid scandal, we sometimes packed all our equipment on a cart and set out after dark to set up our studio in the woman"s house".