Turn-of-the-century recordings spark new field of inquiry: `phono-archaeology'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Through crackles of static emerge the heavy drumbeat and swaying rhythms of an Arabic ``salute to the bridegroom.'' Next, the penetrating lilt of an Islamic call to prayer. Then a town crier from the Red Sea port of Jiddah bellows ship destinations. Arresting sounds -- but doubly so because they were recorded on primitive wax cylinders -- precursors of the modern phonograph record -- in the first two decades of this century. These voices from the past, captured during the infancy of recording technology, are the raw materials for a new field of inquiry dubbed ``phono-archaeology'' by Carney Gavin, curator of Harvard University's Semitic Museum.

The selections played at a gathering last week at the museum were culled from more than 200 wax-cylinder recordings discovered recently in attics and other storage rooms of the Oriental Institute at Leiden in the Netherlands. They represent, said Dr. Gavin, the oldest known record of sounds and music from the Arabian peninsula. Most of the cylinders were cut in the Dutch legation at Jiddah between 1907 and 1920 (Edison had demonstrated the first crude phonograph 30 years before, in 1877). Their overall theme or context is the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of every faithful Muslim. Jiddah was a terminal point for pilgrims throughout the Islamic world.

So it's not just scholars of Arab culture and history who will be drawn to the recordings. The cylinders ``are likely to be the earliest recordings of Gajo and Sundanese,'' two Indonesian dialects, says Philip Yampolsky, a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. The 70- to 80-year-old audio materials should prove of great interest to colleagues in his field, he observed, as well as to historians and those interested in the literature of the various regions represented.

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Locating the old wax cylinders, originally produced by using the recording capabilities of antique Edison phonographs (the ones with the long, protruding horn), was not a matter of simply checking an inventory and then going to the right shelf or closet. Their existence had been forgotten -- until an old photograph dropped a clue. The 1909 photo, in the collection of the Oriental Institute, shows an Arabic musician strumming an oud, a stringed instrument similar to a lute. With him are three companions,

and in front of them stands an Edison machine with horn attuned to their playing.

That image caught the eye of a visiting team of researchers from the Semitic Museum. Spurred by this photo, they found that quite a number of old photographic portraits from the region included Edison phonographs, perhaps half-hidden behind a plant or curtain. If the recording machines were there, they reasoned, the recordings might exist. Hence the search that uncovered the cache of wax cylinders in Leiden.

But discovering the recordings didn't mean they could be listened to. Over the years, humidity and mold had taken their toll. To solve the problems presented by deterioration of the wax, experts from the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna were recruited. Dietrich Schuller, director of the archive, described the laborious process of gently brushing and wiping each cylinder and then re-recording its contents on tape. ``One minute of signal,'' he says, could take several hours to record. In general, however, the sounds coaxed from the old recordings are of ``very good quality,'' says Dr. Schuller. He emphasizes that those sounds are still at an early stage of analysis. ``We're just about to step into a method of cleaning the old historic records by digital enhancement,'' he explains.

One thing that struck the Austrian expert was the ``modern approach'' taken by the researchers, presumably Dutch, who made the original recordings. They tried to capture the ``environment'' of turn-of-the-century Jiddah -- everything from the calls to prayer, to garbage-collection procedures barked out, to the Muslim pilgrims.

That aspect of the old records has fasinated Ra'ad Siraj, a native of Jiddah and a computer science student at Harvard. He has logged dozens of hours re-recording the master tapes sent from Vienna and transcribing the songs, poetry, and public announcements into Arabic and English. ``I have trouble translating all the words, but they're still a door to my past,'' he says.

It's a door that Dr. Gavin hopes many scholars, from many disciplines, will step through. Toward that end, the Semitic Museum, the Oriental Institute in Leiden, and the Phonogrammarchiv in Vienna are making preliminary plans to produce a long-play record of selections from the old wax cylinders -- something that could make it possible for anyone to listen to what curator Gavin calls ``important messages deliberately sent forth into time and space.''

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