The ARChive of Contemporary Music in New York City is home to probably the biggest collection of popular music recordings in the world. ARC, as it is known, has a mission that goes well beyond collection and preservation. It engages in global outreach, seeking to be both a repository for music, and a wide open resource for researchers, fans and programmers everywhere. In 2011, ARC begins a novel method of outreach known as a “world music day,” a combination crash course and virtual town hall meeting. The first edition, Muslim World Music Day, takes place on April 12, 2011. Afropop was curious to find out about world music days, and especially the kickoff event. Banning Eyre visited ARC founder and director Bob George at the archive headquarters in lower Manhattan, and the conversation turned into a dedicated edition of Afropop Worldwide. Here’s their complete conversation.
Banning Eyre: For starters, Bob, why don’t you introduce yourself?
Bob George: My name is Bob George. I am the director of the ARChive of Contemporary Music. We are a collection of all forms of popular music located in lower Manhattan. This is our 25th year. We began in 1985. Does that make it 25? Maybe it’s a little older. We have over 2-million sound recordings. We are probably the largest popular music collection in the world, and one of our specialties, and one of my great interests is world music, and I have collected over 60,000 discs with that strange, amorphous rubric.
B.E.: Wow. Let’s cut to the chase for Afropop fans. Tell us about some of your African holdings.
B.G.: Well, maybe I should start with how I got interested. I originally went to Tangier to record a writer named Paul Bowles, and have him read some of his stories. And that started around 1981. First of all, it was eight dollars to go from Spain to Tangier by boat, and that was an incredible thing. So you realize, you went from Europe to Africa for practically nothing, and that was so exciting. And then, Paul Bowles was so gracious. I went back three years in a row and recorded stories, and I just fell in love with the feeling at the end of the day, and the muezzin’s calls going on throughout the city. It’s 100°, and the sounds are echoing out all over, and I came across some cassettes that I just fell in love with, and one of them of course was “Ween Habibi Ween.” And I played that incessantly and I got involved in it to such a degree that pretty soon I was traveling to other places in Africa. So 83, that was my biggest trip, and I spent three months throughout West Africa, and did one of the great, crazy things of my life, which was I spent four days at Fela Kuti’s house. And so, sleeping on the floor with all of his wives–not with his wives, but near his wives. You know, I had to go and fetch water, and the new version of the Shrine was opening up, and so we would go from like 11 o’clock at night until seven o’clock in the morning, listening to music for sort of three or four days in a row at the Shrine.
I visited EMI Studios in Nigeria, and just started collecting records. I saw piles of vinyl just being left in the sun and deteriorating because there were no sales for it and they didn’t know what to do. But it was a very exciting time, because Bobby Benson had just died, and he was a trumpet player and there were a lot of tributes going on. I traveled with Ebenezer Obey up to an installation of the chief’s house in Ondo, up in the northern part of Nigeria. That was great, three days of dancing and everybody with matching outfits and Frisbees with the King’s image on it, and cloth. It was a remarkable scene, and again, I heard wonderful, wonderful music in situ, where it was being performed by people for specific honorific purpose.
And of course, I was trying to carry back as much music as I could. I was a DJ that was working quite a bit in Europe at the time and America, doing radio shows. So, little by little, I collected as much as I could and met as many people as I could, and slowly the collection has just accumulated to the 60,000 discs that we have here now.
B.E.: Did you already think you were building an archive, or did that idea come later?
B.G.: It happened around 1985 that I first had 50,000 records, and we tried to give them away, and tried to find libraries that were interested, and nobody was. Because what I had were three major kinds of music that I had collected. Reggae–I had a big collection because I’d spent a lot of time in Jamaica– hip-hop, and punk. And everybody said, “This isn’t music. This isn’t what a library collects. We are going to start collecting jazz. We think that that is maybe important American music, but everything else is just junk and we don’t want it.” So, with a couple of friends and a few very well-known rock musicians, we got together in 85 and started the ARChive of Contemporary Music, and it has grown since then.
B.E.: It certainly has. We’re surrounded by this incredible wealth of music, and you can just feel the bulk of it.
B.G.: Not to mention the weight of it!
B.E.: Indeed. Talk a little bit about the challenges of keeping an archive like this healthy, and ensuring that it is preserved.
B.G.: Well, preserving an archive is something that we’re both very concerned with. Right? How do you keep this going, and how do you do it without major support? And it is very difficult. I’m not sure if I have ever solved it, or if anybody really has solved it so you can make that combination of making things readily available, and at the same time keeping them in the best possible condition, and access is instantaneous. We are having a big problem with trying to let people know what we have in our collection, at the same time, how can we actually let them hear it? So that’s one of the challenges. I used to say “problems;” now you have to say “challenges.” But basically, it’s also the funding. We have a great deal of space, and in Manhattan, that is a problem. So you have to have the funding to keep it going. You have to have people to manage and maintain it.
So all of these things, and then the biggest problem is that nobody knows what an archive is. We’re used to libraries. But the idea of something that is for preservation primarily, and then for future use, is a little bit foreign to people. And more foreign is the fact that this is an archive that preserves commercially released material. Now, it may be commercially released in New Zealand, or Tanganyika, and so very difficult for anyone to find out about, but still, it is commercially released material. We really go after that. That is our mandate. And it is everything except classical music, issued since the advent of micro-groove recording, and that means basically 45s and LPs. Now, since a lot of the artists predate that, we accidentally have about 12,000 78s. Now 78s aren’t something we actively go after, but we aren’t going to refuse a Bill Haley 78 just because it’s on that format.
But I think the main thing is trying to understand because, again, when we go for any kind of funding, they say, “It’s commercially released and we are an arts funding organization, and we don’t do any entertainment. We don’t do any presentations. We don’t do anything except preserve.” So it’s a hard thing for people to decide exactly where we fit. Are we something that’s more involved in the humanities? Or are we something that’s more involved in the arts?
And then the other problem is the reticence that the music industry has had throughout its history of preserving its own past. So they are often very good at preserving the master tapes, not so good perhaps at preserving, or knowing who owns the rights, or all the paperwork, or the covers where the artwork, or the rights to the artwork, the photographs of the artist, and the artists histories. There are some obvious attempts at changing that and doing a better job with the Rock and Role Hall of Fame archive that’s starting up, and the Grammy Hall of Fame. So there are those kinds of things, but they are always going to concentrate on the major artists. And we collect everything. We always say we’re like Molly Bloom, we say, “Yes, yes, yes.” Whatever comes in, that is fabulous.
B.E.: It’s interesting about the record companies preserving the Masters, but not the information, so you end up with all this music that you can’t release or present to the public. But you don’t worry about that. You’re concerned first and foremost with preserving.
B.G.: We will take the sleeve. We have a lot of placeholders here, with just the album cover because the recording is so trashed or it didn’t come with it. But that sleeve holds a great deal of information. Especially since we do a lot of research about who owns the rights to things, so everybody who was on the sound recording, the producers and all that kind of information really helps you do that kind of basic research, which is called due diligence. We’re trying to find out who owns something, who deserves to get paid, or who is the correct author of something. So due diligence is very important. And that information can only come from liner notes. So that’s how important my notes are. And a lot of people are realizing now that they can get a high percentage of things downloaded from the computer, but they really aren’t getting a lot of the background information that goes with that sound recording, or did go with that sound recording at one-time, if it’s a reissue, and they certainly aren’t getting the kind of information that’s just ancillary, inserts and stickers and those kinds of things that often make it interesting.
B.E.: Bob, tell us what a “world music day” is?
B.G.: Well, basically, we found that people need focus in order to build a collection, to help us build the collection, or for us to let people know about a particular kind of music. We came up with this idea that’s kind of like a crash course. This is something I went through in the 60s in college where basically everything at the university would stop, and everybody would focus on one thing. Of course, at that time, it was like, “Should 18-year-olds be allowed to vote?” These teaching days would happen throughout a lot of universities. So I figured that’s a great idea. Maybe we can just suspend everything and focus on one kind of music. So I picked one of the most difficult, because it’s so amorphous, which was Muslim music, Islamic music, and said that, Okay, on this day we will try to get as many universities, libraries, archives, artists, venues, managers, record companies, anybody who has something to do with that kind of music would contribute something.
We didn’t want anybody to do too much. If you did too much, then it would cost money and there would be a tendency not to do it. We had a budget of about nothing, and we used it well. And we tried to reach out to as many contacts as we knew around the world, and we said, “Hey, send us the discography. Send us the information. Do you know these artists? What about this?. And little by little, it’s been accumulating. We’ve got quite a good group of people who are either going to do a performance on that day, who have sent essays on a particular kind of music. These are sometimes dissertations that have been buried, but some of them are really quite interesting.
We have a guy in Germany who has developed a theory that “rag” comes from “raqs” [an Arabic word for music]. Because of all the different musicians that were playing with black musicians at the world Expo at the turn of the century. And he’s developed this quite well. It’s compelling. I’m not enough of a scholar to sit there and say what part of it isn’t true, but it will be out there now for perhaps the first time for a lot of people to see and judge, for that peer-review that’s really necessary. But it’s a very exciting kind of thing.
B.G.: Raqs just means music. Like “raqs sharki” [music of love, in Turkey]. You hear that term. I can’t remember which world fair. I think that was the Columbia exhibition. It might’ve been in Chicago. It was in the US. But it happens before the word rag appears on any sheet music. Yet the word raqs was everywhere. And it turns out [at this world Expo ] all the dark-skinned musicians were in one section. And that included the belly dancers, their players, and all the black “race” music players. So all these folk musicians were in one area sort of hanging out together. That’s where we have this for the first time. That’s also where Little Egypt appears for the first time. So you have this incredible mix, which is a lot of what we’re going to talk about with the music I brought to play [on the program]. These encounters that musicians have, and how things blossom, from my perspective, by encounters with other cultures, rather than this sort of idea of “fusion” that comes out of a lot of music where things are just sort of glommed onto each other. I am really interested in things that have a relationship that is inherent and intrinsic and can’t be overlooked, but that maybe somebody just all of a sudden noticed for the first time.
So Muslim music is both sacred and profane. We are interested in all kinds of things. For most Muslims, belly dance record covers aren’t good. They are very sexy. At the same time, I am an incredible devotee of the call to prayer. I could listen to it for a great many hours. So we’re going to have literally anybody who has anything to contribute. We welcome the controversy. If because of the insistence of some that religious music is only the voice, and others that all instruments are permitted, and all the various talks that have been given about whether it’s halal or haram, that whether it is forbidden or permitted. And I hope that creates a dialogue, and the focus is on music, and we hope this allows people to hear music that they’ve never heard before.
And one of them is a country and western singer, born and bred in Oklahoma, third-generation Muslim, who is fantastic. And we’ll be playing some of his videos on here. So I used these kinds of silly ideas, like a world music day, for me to learn things also, and to discover music that I could never possibly have come across otherwise.
B.E.: Wait. A Muslim country and western singer? From Oklahoma?
B.G.: One of our great discoveries is Kareem Salama. He is an absolutely fabulous country and western player who is out of Oklahoma, and makes these really sharp, funny, well done videos of his music. He has a voice that could easily put him in Nashville, equal to any other. And when you listen to the words and divorce it from his faith, it could be any faith. Close your eyes, and it could be any faith. Because it’s just the same kind of basic ideas and emotions that would come out of a song from a Christian about his God and his country, that comes out of Kareem.
B.E.: Let me just get you to elaborate a little bit more on why you started with Muslim world music.
It’s really quite interesting. Because the stupidity of all this is “Why are you calling at Muslim music? Is there such a thing as Christian music?” Well, maybe there is. There’s gospel music. There’s Christian rock. They’re all these other things. And maybe, being a Christian somehow informs this music. We understand that the idea of a Muslim World Music Day is somewhat ridiculous, but there is a way of working, and a flow that has come out of the Middle East, that has influenced a great many kinds of music, and thank God it has. It is absolutely wonderful because of that flow. And so that’s what we’re sort of looking for. That’s my justification.
But to give you a little background, I starrted with Muslim World Music Day because everybody always asked me this really stupid question. I have 2-million recordings here, and then they say, “What kind of music you listen to?” You realize that they want an answer, but on the other hand, I have no idea. I love the sound, the pace, the accelerando, the feeling of such a high percentage of music from North Africa and the Middle East. It is that simple. It absolutely touches me greatly. And also, it’s everywhere. This was really difficult. And it’s become more difficult considering all the unrest in parts of the world where this music is happening. But there is no other reason than that. It is my archive. I had the idea. Let’s go with Muslim world music.
The plan, though, is that every year we could go with a different either culture or country. So the two I’m considering next year would be Cuba, a place that not many people go. We want to kind of deal with the music as untouched as possible, and Cuba is unique in that it has stayed isolated for so long. Most people’s impressions of Cuba are pretty much nostalgic. You go to Cuba now, it’s all timba, this really fast dance music. So, yes, there is respect for the older musicians, but there is also a very current, lively musical evolution in jazz, and in dance music. So Cuba would be interesting, and the other possibility is either Brazil or China.
Brazil and China are both countries that really interest me. I know nothing about Chinese music whatsoever. I know a great deal about Brazilian music. So maybe my tendency is to do China first. We’ll see. But the idea is we will take the Muslim World Music site. Hopefully we will find somebody who can keep it going and to maintain it. We can do a little bit of that work. The site is quite remarkable. And then we will move on to do another kind of world music, and I figure this will give me something to do for 10 years. There’s stuff all over the world that’s great.
B.E.: Let’s talk about the music you’ve selected for us for this program. Why don’t you just kind of DJ your selections for us.
B.G.: Well, Banning, I looked on your site, and I look at things that Afropop has presented in the past, some of your very nice Islamic shows and focuses, and I tried to pick things that weren’t so obscure that we would look like snobs. These are things that I have played over and over again for a long period of time. So these are records that are really favorites of mine. I think that some of them might be familiar to people, but also I looked and saw that three of the four main choices are not on iTunes. So you can’t get them that way. Some of them you can buy a used record shops. We are going to play this old format called vinyl. Some of them are available on CD now, which is great. But this is more and more what we are noticing. Things that are quite valuable, quite wonderful, quite integral to cultures are becoming more and more difficult to find.
So I’m going to start with Ahmed Abdul Malik. He is a bass and oud player. He basically started as a bass player in jazz bands. He was born in Brooklyn of Sudanese descent, and he put out this record called Jazz Sahara, and it’s on Riverside Jazz. This was put out in 1958, so his interest was in seeing where jazz was going. Bebop was one direction, and he was noticing, or he thought it had gone as far as it could with chord progressions, and he wanted to find something in Africa or in the Middle East that he could work with, and bring jazz along in those lines. Again his background is Sudanese, and he had enlisted Johnny Griffin to play saxophone on this. And Johnny Griffin was an incredibly hard bop player, and he played in R&B bands, but he played also for the Jazz Messengers. And again, many people don’t know but those were originally the Jazz Messengers of God. So it was a group that most people at one time had to be Muslims to be a part of. So we’re not sure whether Johnny Griffin was a Muslim, but he was an incredible tenor saxophone player.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The vinyl Bob gave us for this track was in pretty rough shape, so we found a 1991 Riverside CD reissue of Jazz Sahara. But when we listened, we were shocked to discover that the track in question, “Ya Annas. Oh, People) had been sped up, raised a 1/2 step in pitch, and edited internally in strange ways that sometimes even broke the metric cycle of the piece. Not only was the work invasive but amateurish. Bob assures us that this is par for the course in CD reissues, a discouraging reality if true. In any case, we restored the speed and pitch of the original, and fixed one edit, so the extended excerpt you hear on our program has both the sonic advantages of the D remaster, and the original feeling of the vinyl. In short, it is something you will find nowhere else!]
B.E.: What about this Fuji music selection by Kollington?
B.G.: When I was in Nigeria, this was one kind of music that I encountered that I had no idea existed and it wasn’t in stores. Maybe you could find some in Sterns in London if you were lucky. But it was a thing called Fuji music. This is so improbably based on Mt. Fuji — no other connection whatsoever except they I guess liked the image of it, or the sound of it. And it started in the early 80s. It came after apala, which is another Muslim form in Nigeria. So Fuji and apala basically are associated with Muslims, where juju was associated with Christian musicians. We are all familiar with Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey. So this is Alhaji (Chief) Kollington Ayinla, or Kollington. So like Barrister was called Barrister. These are the two big names in Fuji music, Barrister and Kollington. What Kollington was doing was taking the praise singing that is common to a lot of Muslim West African music, and just trying to give it a more modern edge, and commenting on social problems, and so this record is dedicated to the upcoming Nigerian elections it is called Nigerian Elections 1983.
B.E.: I was waiting for that date. You got it in there right at the end.
B.G.: One thing about these records, if you ever heard or loved Fuji music, is this incessant agogo clanging bell sound and it just goes incessantly in the same pattern and these are the kind of things that you just want to sit for six hours and listen to.
B.E.: Now your third choice could not be more different. Tell us about Anouar Brahem.
B.G.: Anouar Brahem is probably — and this is going to get me in trouble — my favorite oud player in the world. He is Tunisian and has tried to stretch the boundaries of what’s acceptable in instrumental music. Instrumental music has a little bit of a rough time in many Muslim cultures because the words are so important. These are people of the book, who think and believe that the word and the word of God is very important and that vocalization should be the major form of praise and music. So often, the oud has been used–except perhaps in Iran and a little bit in Tunisia–as accompaniment to a singer. So in this record Anouar Brahem is trying to establish the preeminence of the oud for instrumental use. And it’s not an easy task. Basically, this is his first record in the West. He had done three cassettes earlier than this, and I believe this is 1991. And it’s done for ECM. And it is all done in one sitting, one session. And he uses some very, very good side people who are playing along with him, a violinist, Bashir Selmi and Lassad Hosni on percussion. And it is an incredibly tight ensemble. But I think we’re going to hear “La Nuit Des Yeux,” which is just oud instrumental, by itself. It’s so good. It just hurts.
B.E.: And then we have Juan Peña Lebrijano and the Andalusi Orchsetra of Tanger.
B.G.: It is hard to believe that we’re talking about things that are out of print, early Globe Style. I still see Ben [Mandelson, one of the founders of GlobeStyle Records] from time to time. This is when I started. This is 1985. Anyway, I have always been fascinated by the relationship between the old Andalusian Empire, Al Andalus, and North Africa. So I had been invited in 95 to the Reconquista, which is the oddly celebratory event in Seville that talked about how Spain recaptured the territory from the Muslims. And the government of Morocco got together and pulled together a group of very different tribes who had never met before, and flew them to Morocco to perform on Morocco’s national day, and it was unbelievably wonderful. So we had the chance to spend a couple of days in tents with these Bedouin peoples, and hear music that they played for themselves, and saw them try to work out how they could play together, when they really had very both similar and different cultures.
The same thing happens here with Juan Peña Lebrijano. Lebrijano is a flamenco singer. He has always been fascinated with Andalusian music, and he gets together with the Orchesta Andalusi de Tanger and I think this record is just one of his best and the very early one. It comes from 1985, and it is a fusion that works because these genres are already fused. These are cultures that have existed hand in hand next to each other for thousands of years. Seldom do you have that kind of guttural singing in North African music that flamenco brings to it, but the depth and that deep song that you hear really comes through and seems to bring these two things together. So here you have a very large orchestra, playing with a singer who usually plays only with a guitarist, so you have a whole different dynamic taking over, and I think they managed to do a really fabulous job.
B.E.: Great stuff. I can’t wait to dig in to these. Tell us more about some of the things that have come in for Muslim World Music Day.
B.G.: You know, we’ve been asking people to try to figure out something to do. Now this is very difficult to give such broad directions to people, so we listed on our website a whole bunch of ideas that people could draw off, and people have been very good. Probably the biggest and most incredible response has come through Salford University in Manchester. They have managed to program a whole day of music. Literally it begins at one o’clock in the afternoon and goes until 10 o’clock at night. It is unbelievable the amount of work they’ve put into it. They have a roundtable. They have a bag lunch. They have Senegalese musicians and dancers, a group called Sen Sagna. They have Bosnian folk music performer. They have Elad Al Rachidi, and Egyptian oud musician. And they have an Egyptian jazz band called the Nile Dance. So they’ve put together this whole incredible day of programming. Now we have yet to have an American University come together like that, but what can I say?
B.E.: There is still time.
B.G.: We are doing an incredible thing with Studio X at Columbia University. This is really quite good. We’re going to do the telephone game. So they have offices and studios. It is an architectural office, but their idea is to use the space for creative projects. So, we are going to have a song played in Jordan. They are going to perform it. And then, people in Beijing have two hours to make it their own, and do something to it. They’re going to get either a video or audio, probably an MP3, sent to them. And then they are going to sit there live and change it. Then it goes to Mumbai, and then they hear it and change it. Then it goes to Rio, where they have an office, where it will be listened to and changed, and that it will end up in New York and do a final change here. And we have no idea what we will end up with worth and if it becomes good music, but we’re working on getting very good local musicians in each place to try to improvise around and reformat and change it. Plus anybody can go back and look at any of the other ones and decide what to do. So we’ll see what happens. It will be a lot of fun. These are the kind of things that are so encouraging to me.
B.E.: Now, there’s no requirement that all these musicians be Muslems.
B.G.: No. Not at all. We are starting with a song, or a melody that comes out of the tradition.
B.E.: You don’t know what it is.
B.G.: No. And I don’t even care.
B.E.: Who decides that?
B.G.: That’s going to be Studio X. And to the woman there, Mawini, is from Jordan originally, so I think it’s going to be quite a fun thing to try. We have Isabella Al Braonzio. She is working on a musical instrument database. She has her doctorate from the University of Rome. Stern’s Music in London is sending us the complete catalog of everything they have ever sold or distributed. So it’s like a discography of 10,000 records with all the details. So we can flow that into our database. We will sort out the Muslim ones and put them into the Muslim World Music database. So that’s the exciting kind of stuff, which if we didn’t have this focus, they would have never done for us. So again, having a focus or place where people can put things, really does help.
Jakarta. We’ve got a concert going on there, and a lecture. There’s this thing called Afropop, they’re going to do a show right before we get going. Now, one of the nicest things is from the Center for Swedish Folk Music. They have a Uyghur singer. His name is Kurash Sultan. He’s quite good. I’ve heard him before. And he is going to be doing a concert. We’ve found that were getting the most response from non-Muslim countries, where they are focusing on that interest. So again we have the Chinese University at Hong Kong is doing a concert.
The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall is doing a concert of a wonderful person Basam Saba, who is a flautist, a ney player– not a naysayer, a ney player– and his Orchestra. He is terrific, and they’re gonna do a concert. That’s going to be up at the Schomburg Center. They were great. They jumped right on the bandwagon. Wonderful things have come in. There is an archive in South Africa who said, “Oh, we have these early covers of Dollar Brand, Abdullah Ibrahim.” So a very well-known jazz pianist whose early recordings, recorded in South Africa, things I’ve never seen before. So they sent a batch for our graphics file, which will be building also. So that’s the kind of stuff that’s really amazing to us. The Al Andalus ensemble is going to do a concert in Portland, Oregon.
B.E.: Oh yes, we have had them on our program.
B.G.: So they are going to do a concert for us. So we’ve gotten really a wonderful group of things. The Conga Room, a club in Los Angeles, is going to do something. The band Slavic Soul Party is going to do a Bosnian only repertoire concert at Barbes in Brooklyn. They normally play every Tuesday night, so they’ll do something in honor of that, which will be great. So little by little, we’re trying to build it up. A guy came to us, George Muir, from CUNY. He has some of the most beautiful live performance film I’ve ever seen of just people dancing, and small ensembles throughout the Muslim world. So those will be exclusive on the site. Those will not be on YouTube. We also have pulled together over 2000 relevant videos that are on our YouTube channel. So you can go by country and see and hear music. To us, though the greatest find is this country singer from Oklahoma who I mentioned earlier, Kareem Salama.
B.E.: Why don’t you show us around the archive a little?
B.G.: Well, in the office we have a lot of things. Mainly now dominating, we have been trying to get together a show of records that are signed by the artist. So here we have a few of the over 2000 signed recordings. And some of the rarities are the first Rolling Stones record, signed by the whole band, in beautiful condition. We have a lobby card of the Jimi Hendrix band, so they have signed the back of it. This was one of their first appearances in America after starting in England. Normal people like Cream, The Police. We have a lot of movie stars who assigned. Jodie Foster, and Robert De Niro, my favorite, has signed Taxi Driver. You know, everyone should have one of those. And you know, he signed the whole front of the cover so none of the other artists wanted to sign it. That’s pretty good.
The collection is good not because we have so many rare things, but because we have so many things, such a complete catalog by every artist.
Over here, these are Vogue discs, that people may not know about. These were from 1946 to 1947. They are double sided picture discs that came out of Detroit. So right after the war, people had seen the picture discs that Adolf Hitler had made. Because he always thought, “If you heard my speeches, you have to see my face,” so this was very dynamic, interesting propaganda. So for a very short time, they managed to put out these discs. There are not many famous artists on them. Patsy Montana probably being the best known, but they are quite collectible now, and quite beautiful. They’re all 10-inch shellacs with the image laminated under the top layer.
This is one of the few rare things that we have. This is Robert Johnson, “Me and the Devil Blues.” It is one of perhaps 10 or 11, 12 copies known in the world. And Keith Richards endows the blues collection here at the library. So every once in awhile, something comes up that’s really important, and we say we need to get it. And he has always been very generous in making sure that we have it here at the library. So we figured we needed one really rare record. But, that’s enough.
B.E.: I bet you have a few more.
B.G.: Well, again, when we talk about the purpose of an archive, people have to realize that since the beginning of 78s, and those “race records” and the early blues records in the 1930s. Until the 1960s, until the reissues came out on LP, there were not any Robert Johnson records pressed in America. That’s 30 years. So there’s your advantage and reason to have an archive, so that those things are available. It’s almost impossible for us to understand now that such important material to the history of later music was completely abandoned and not kept in print for over 30 years.
B.G.: So what else? This is my only claim to fame that on the Black Album by Prince, there’s a song called “Bob George.”
B.E.: Is that just coincidence?
B.G.: Well, we’re not sure. We asked him for money, and he has this fascination with names. And I have one of the blandest names on earth. Here’s another favorite section. This is Ventriloquists and Dummies. Now, you’ve got to admit, that one of the dumbest things you could ever put out a record about is how to become a ventriloquist. “Watch my lips move on this record.”
B.E.: And how many records fall into that category?
B.G.: I think there’s about 12 or 15. And then there’s this ancillary category, records that are blank. The most famous of course is The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan. But there are great many. There were a lot of ventriloquists, these are comedy records. Then there’s The Best of Marcel Marceau. It’s a comedy record. And then you have the opposite. There’s a record called Harpo Speaks, you know, people who are known to be silent actually say something.
These are some of the blues recordings, and some of the better ones. We try to keep two copies of every recording released in every version of the recording, so we have a lot of these old blues records also as CDs, or whatever format it comes out on in the future. What’s great about blues records is, again, there’s a lot of the sociology of what it means at the time, so you have a lot of these things in the 50s where some artists are trying to market themselves as pulling a plow, and some are driving a Cadillac. So you have that kind of: where is the blues at the time we’re going into R&B? What is the authentic? Is it urban, or is it rural? It makes for a nice understanding of all the things that are going on just by looking at the covers. And again, there’s the Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues, which, again, that’s the first time that people are going to hear his music on LP after almost 30 years.
B.E.: And that was what year?
B.G.: Roughly 1960. At the top, above the arch, the actual ARC, this is half-a-million LPs, but across the top we have 45 Tune Totes. I don’t know if people remember these. In the same way that people use to bring iPods to parties, now they just bring their phone I think. And you were judged by the quality of songs on your iPod. In the past, you had to have a little carrying case to keep your 45s in, and people would go through your 45s and decide whether you are worth staying at the party. And that’s not a joke.
These are the first 12 LPs put out by Sun Records. Some of them are pretty rare. And we have a lot of them signed, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash came through and signed about 20 things for us each at one time. Over here, we have some of the Muslim records that we’re working with now, and also the Fela Kuti records underneath. We had worked on the Fela reissues with Knitting Factory Records. A lot of the covers were scanned because the ones they were getting from EMI and London were photos of photos of photos, and had gotten pretty deteriorated. So we had a lot of them in really good shape. We have 217 Fela records here at the library, so it’s quite an impressive collection I think. And also some of the sound recordings from the vinyl were used to re-create missing pieces of the recordings, or damaged tape. So that is one of the ways that the archive is used, helping to reconstruct re-issue materials. So indirectly, we serve the public in that way.
I’ll show you one more thing. So, again, right around 1982, 83, I was going back and forth to Jamaica a lot, and managed to live in Halfway Tree, in the center of Kingston. We didn’t go to any place nice the entire time — not that Kingston isn’t nice, but we didn’t go to the resort areas. We managed to get a lot of really nice, early sound recordings on small labels, so there are about 10,000 Jamaican 45s here at the library now. Some of them are great like the Spiderman label, and early Studio One’s, and Photographer in Treasure Isle. Just wonderful graphics. Prince Buster’s own label. It’s very nice to see that sort of stuff too. So we are always aware of the graphic component of the collection also.
B.E.: Fantastic, Bob. Thanks for the tunes and the tour, and best of luck with Muslim World Music Day.