Longing for the Past

The Gong-Banging, Pitch-Bending Sound of Early Southeast Asia

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 03.24.14 in Features

Steven Lance Ledbetter’s Dust-to-Digital label specializes in reissued music from the 78-rpm era of recorded artifacts — a time when, if you couldn’t say it in three minutes and change, you didn’t say it at all. Ledbetter’s first release, Goodbye Babylon, consisted of five CDs’ worth of country roots 78s, along with a 200-page book of assiduous annotations, packed in a wooden box along with some with raw cotton. It was full of the real deal, and Bob Dylan liked it enough to gift his old pal Neil Young with a copy. Since its 2004 release, Ledbetter has returned to the big audio well for similarly lavish and lovingly curated packages such as Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt From the 1920s and 1930s, John Fahey: Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You (1958-1965), and Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM (Recordings From 1909-1960s), among other less fulsome if no less fascinating items.

None of these, however, will prepare you for the gong-banging, pitch-bending, xylophone-shredding and nasal-voiced delights of Longing for the Past: The 78 RPM Era in Southeast Asia. No music, arguably, sounds more “other” to Western ears than that of Southeast Asia — which, for the purposes of compiler-editor David Murray and his expert annotators, comprises Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The set borrows its title from Vietnam’s important vong co (“longing for the past”) song style. Which makes sense: Modern reissues are often elaborate reflections of nostalgic pining for a lost golden age.

Containing 90 tracks spread over four discs, and accompanied by a gloriously illustrated 272-page book detailing most every moment, Longing for the Past is as much a meditation on its medium — scratchy vinyl pancakes of diverse provenance — as anything resembling a comprehensive anthology of Southeast Asian music. The colorful reproduced labels — from large companies, such as Columbia and Victor, as well as the many small local labels that followed, once record-pressing facilities were built and magnetic tape supplanted wax disks — hint at natural and cultural wonders from long ago in places far away. But that’s merely how we perceive these tracks. Recorded in order to create a desire for pricey Victor Talking Machines and other gramophones, their intended audience was local rather than international.

The sequencing of these tracks, which were recorded between 1905 and 1966, leaps between countries and eras in a way that keeps it all strange and fresh, yet connected intuitively. (The focus shifts gradually from Indochina, to Thailand, to the island nations of Indonesia and Malaysia.) There’s a certain perverse genius to these recording crews’ ability to distill extended works into three-minute spurts, and Longing begins with a bang. “Ton Tan Gia Dien” (Sun Bin Feigns Madness), from around 1946, features vong co star Ut Tra On accompanied by a fretless guitar and violin whose embellishments hint at a ghostly blues. From there it’s a quick hop to Cambodia for 1930′s spritely, string-propelled “Phleng Boarn” (Old Song) by the Sak Som Peo Ensemble; then back to Vietnam for more vong co, a 1924 male-female duet translated as “Sentencing Precious Consort Pang”; and soon we’re in Laos for “Nang Nak” (Lady Snake), a 1927 Thai tune about a serpentine Hindu deity. Only six songs into the first disc, and we’ve already traversed classical, theatrical, popular, folk, mythological and geographic realms. And so it goes.

Longing for the Past

Rhythms are often cyclical, especially in Indonesia, with Indian echoes. Thailand offers bracing, gradually accelerating phleng naphat, or “action” tunes, performed by piphat ensembles, as on “Pleng Sen Lao” (Offering of Alcohol to the Gods) Where Thai percussionists maintain an even rhythm, Cambodian ranet ek xylophone players, as on “Promenade en Foret” (Walking in the Forest), favor a more swinging style. And a Balinese gender wayang quartet of metallaphones may wait 512 beats between low gong strokes. Here lie the roots of American minimalism, and Philip Glass should only be so emotive as the group that recorded “Angkat Angatan” (To Depart) in 1928.

Track after gorgeous track leaves me wondering what the musicians themselves must have made of these men with their odd recording devices. Why did they need to capture it? (The Burmese market apparently suffered because there was so much great live music to enjoy.) But I’m so damn happy they did. Where else would I have ever heard sisters Plah and Raslah croon “Lagu Daerah Sumatera” (Sumatran Song: The One Who Sits Has an Impeded Voice), or Upit Sarimanah sing “Ka Abdi” (To Me) with the Javanese Gamelan Sunda “Pusaka”? And I surely can’t be the only one yearning for an entire compilation’s worth of old Burmese piano music after hearing Sandaya Maung Kyaw, the remarkable woman who translated the sound of pat waing pitched drums to solo piano in 1933. And if any label could do it, Dust-to-Digital should.