When you spend enough time listening to and discussing old records, sometimes it seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same. Let me explain. I recently had the pleasure of hosting a lovely couple named Olga and Raph and who had played at Beat Research under the name The Gypsy Sound System. Despite some of the commentary over at Wayne’s mega blog, I have to say I liked the set a lot. In addition to a tasteful selection of tunes, Olga sang mournful melodies over dub instrumentals and they generally played a tight, danceable (if perhaps a little ethnokitschy) set.
Not the make light of the serious issues (of which I am largely ignorant) around the gypsy term in their name, but the whole debate reminded of another Olga who was engaged in a complex re-presentation of Eastern European musical memes and modern dance trends. But this one fronted a band back in 1919. Now this is the kind of coincidence that can only occur if you have paid proper homage to the vinyl gods.
Olga Bibor and her Peasant Jazz Orchestra’s “Out My Album” was recorded in New York City in May 1919 by a Hungarian group led by a woman named Olga. It was also the subject of an old post of mine back in 2006 titled Olga Bibor’s Peasant Jazz Orchestra and the Proto-Jazz Melting Pot and was the most inexplicable record in Rob’s Collection. The post generated a little buzz among a handful of 78 collectors (scroll down), but never went viral. Until now. If you head over there, note that I was not the source of the “world’s first jazz record” question. But these folks do have some interesting notions about the global dance musical goulash represented here.
According to one commentator “like many such emigrant ensembles in New York during this period, their output included folk dance melodies (csardas, waltz, lander), as well as Tin Pan Alley tunes such as Silver Threads Among the Gold.” Rob Chalfen hears this song as blending the sounds of “circus, NY string bands, proto-jazz, klezmer & somehow St. Louis or Memphis-type (?) ragtime riffs in one enigmatic performance.” While others don’t hear as much nuance perhaps, they are similarly clear about the early jazz content. “The tune sounds to me like it’s based, at least partly, on Weary Blues, a jazz standard dating from 1915, by Artie Matthews (prolific African American songwriter and ragtime composer).” Apparently (and not surprisingly), the group also performed under the name Olga Bibor and her Gypsy Ensemble.
So, here we have a woman named Olga fronting an Eastern European band playing a combination of currently popular dance music with jazz in their name (a term which may have been added by recording executives who were trying to capture the exploding interest in this new beat heavy music). But remember folks, this was 1919, just two years after the earliest Original Dixieland Jazz Band releases. Back in the old days, people still managed to share their influences with no assistance from blogs, torrents or rapidshare sites. They traveled around buying records and playing them for (and with) other people. Listening, watching, learning, playing, and partying together as best they could given the social contexts they were coming from/into. In the process, things get creatively scrambled. Trust me. It happened just the other night.
The night Raph and Olga stayed over, I got to chat with them after the gig for a while. They didn’t strike me as boorish exploiters of others’ cultures. Rather, they seemed like kind, open-eared fellow travelers in the musical omniverse. Things got really interesting when Raph pulled out the accordian and I tried to accompany him on some trad sounding tunes. As an old rock guitarist from way back who has gradually lost his chops, I was having trouble finding the right strumming rhythm. After kindly suffering my rhythmic mutilations for a while, Raph finally turned to me and said, “its like ska, chak-chak-chak” as he mimed the guitar strum physically and sang it on the “ands” for me. Somehow, he must have known that a Specials reference would help this half Ukranian Boston PhDj former alterna-rocker learn how to muddle through Eastern European tunes he was still (re)learning himself.
Like I said, le plus ça change.