World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, Volume 4 - Alan Lomax Collection
If it's Madrid this must be Thursday. It should have been obvious from the inception of Rounder's mammoth re-issue programme, that The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music would emerge as the turkey in the woodpile. On paper, the project looked like the musical equivalent of El Dorado; it was as dazzling as it was unrealisable. That is because more than half the projected series never reached the record racks, and the ones which did were deleted and went underground long before this young gentleman could get his hands on them. This tray of gems therefore, did not merely whet the appetite, they left me feeling like an alcoholic outside a locked up liquor store. Why then am I not dancing a jig of delight now that Rounder have undertaken to issue the entire series, including all the ones Columbia never got round to? The problem, as anyone who has tasted the English, Scots and Irish discs in this series will realise, is that Columbia, courtesy of Alan Lomax, edited the original tracks so severely as to leave them devoid of meaning or context. Given the limitations of LP playing time, that was bad enough, although possibly understandable. However, now that they are in CD format, we might have expected Rounder to have restored them to something like playable length. They have not done so. In the case of the present volume, 35 musical fragments have been crammed onto a CD lasting 51 minutes and 13 seconds. That, by my calculation averages just under 1.5 minutes per track! I do not like edited recordings and regard them in much the same light as amputation of the testicles; all the more annoying when carried out unnecessarily. A dozen or so well chosen examples would have told us far more about the folk music of Spain than this madcap scamper ever could.
Enough of statistics. I should be able to recommend this disc on the grounds that it contains some of the strangest, most exotic, most beautiful and most moving music that you will find anywhere on the continent of Europe. I cannot. Let me say it loud and clear, there is not a duff track anywhere on this record. The music, from the opening bars of J M Rodriguez’s Chifre (pan pipe), to the closing notes of that patriotic Basque war cry, is mind-blowing. As an example, click your mouse on the sound clip button to the left of the screen. You will hear a staggering excerpt from the Easter procession at Seville. In this instance it has been shortened by the dictates of the Internet, rather than the Columbia Record Company. (sound clip). It features the tortured strains of an anonymous singer performing a saeta (arrow), to the statue of the virgin Mary and was perhaps the only song to have been included on this disc in its entirety. Saetas are performed periodically during the procession, to give the statue bearers a rest, and they are as brief as they are agonising. This one lasts for slightly less than two earth shattering minutes - the text is "Proud, proud and ignorant, Herod did not comprehend that he was in the presence of the son of God triumphant, and he mocked Jesus". When you have done blowing your mind, you may observe that the singer is wrongly identified as La Macarena. That designation refers not to the performer of the saeta, but to its object, the Madonna herself.
There are plenty of other wonderful and colourful examples on this disc. However, they are too cramped and crowded to convey anything more than a fleeting glimpse of what life must have felt like for a Galician muleteeer, or an Asturian vaqueiro, or a Catalan harvester, or any of the opulently exotic characters who poured their hearts and personas into Alan Lomax's microphone practically a half century ago. There is no time for Inés Muños, or Juan Pastor, or Carlos Fernândez to lift the hair off the back of my head, and there damned well should have been. The latter gentleman, by the way was a young Asturian mine worker, who sang in the full throated melismatic style, so typical of the Asturias and so rarely heard anywhere else. His Adios la mía Vaca Pinta alone would have been worth the asking price, if it hadn't been cut off after two verses. (sound clip)
Equally, I should be able to recommend this disc, on the grounds that every regional style of this most culturally varied of countries has been included. Again, I cannot. The music of Spain, or of anywhere else, cannot be absorbed in such a whistle stop fashion. For anyone still contemplating those fractions, an average of 3½ tracks has been allocated to each province, or slightly in excess of 5¼ minutes. Given the huge variety of forms we deal with, when we try to apprehend the music of Spain, that is ludicrous.
The whole affair reminds me of nothing so much as a coach party of camera clicking tourists, the sort who gawp and gaze and never see and never comprehend. I can almost hear the tour guide saying, "Everybody back on the coach. We've got to be in Bilbao in half an hour". The world owes a massive cultural debt to Alan Lomax and to the Rounder Collective. It is a debt which extends way beyond all the good things which have already emerged from this reissue programme. Nevertheless, I do not believe that either has served us at all well by putting out this series in its current state. With hindsight, it may have been beyond the capabilities of Rounder, or anyone else, to have defragmented most of the discs in the World Library. The majority of the volumes were compiled from material sent in by specialists, who were scattered to the four winds of the world, and many have since died. If so, then the fairest answer would have been to leave the material where it was. The Spanish discs, however, and for that matter the Italian ones, were taken from Lomax's own field recordings. I would have thought it a relatively simple matter for someone from Rounder to have gone to his home in Long Island, or wherever his sound archive is housed, to have taken the original recordings down off the shelf, and beefed up these tracks to something like bite sized portions.
Enough of putting the boot in. If you chose to buy this record without heeding the wise words of Musical Traditions, what might you get to justify your outlay? Well, there are some extremely penetrating photographs. They say a lot about cultural riches and about the proud poverty of a people ground under the repression of Franco’s fascism. The booklet notes are worth having also, even if they are a little on the brief side. They are reproduced from the original LPs, with supplementary comments by Spanish folklorist, Josep Martí y Perez. Given the conditions under which Lomax recorded this material - his relatively short time in Spain, his difficulties with the language, and his tangles with a resentful fascist bureaucracy - the notes contain a remarkable amount of detail. Here and there though, they show their age, and the pre-occupations of their author. For instance, few people would nowadays sustain much of a connection between the 'Celtic' dance music traditions of Galicia and those of Scotland and Ireland. In recent years, too much has been learnt about the music of these latter countries for notions of an ancient Celtic heritage to retain much credence. In any case, it would take a wild imagination to picture the highland fling being performed to any of the four Galician tracks on this disc. There is also a short article by the said Señor Perez, on Folk Music Studies in Spain Since the Fifties. It is very interesting and it will add to my store of knowledge about the world's vernacular music cultures. That makes three recommendable features. At current CD prices that works out at about £5.00 per good point and that is not good enough.
So far as I know, Columbia was the first record company to let Alan Lomax loose with an editing razor blade. Surprisingly enough, they were not the last. Several years after this debacle he produced an extended set of Spanish field recordings for ABC Paramount's Westminster label. They were drawn from the same field trip and some of the sounds on the present disc were reproduced in the Westminster anthology. In the fullness of time, Rounder will be re-issuing all eleven volumes. Track lengths are still a bit on the short side. However, they do give the listener a chance to spread out and take in some of the 'grave beauty', to use a Lomaxism, of this remarkable country. My advice to you is not to join the whistle-stop. Save your bus fare for the scenic route.
Fred McCormick - 27.7.99
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