New Compilation Of Old Tunes Is 'An Alternate History Of The World's Music' NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Jonathan Ward on his new 100-track compilation of early recordings from around the world called Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of the World's Music.

New Compilation Of Old Tunes Is 'An Alternate History Of The World's Music'

New Compilation Of Old Tunes Is 'An Alternate History Of The World's Music'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Jonathan Ward on his new 100-track compilation of early recordings from around the world called Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of the World's Music.

BraunS/Getty Images
A person begins to play a vinyl record.
BraunS/Getty Images


Many histories of early recorded music focus on stuff like this...


MAMIE SMITH AND HER JAZZ HOUNDS: (Singing) Now I've got the crazy blues since my baby went away.

SHAPIRO: ...Or this.


SHAPIRO: But at the same time record labels were pressing Mamie Smith and George Gershwin's music, they were doing the same thing all over the world, like in Nigeria.


TUNDE KING: (Singing in Yoruba).

JONATHAN WARD: What most people probably don't know is that the recording industry existed everywhere, and it was huge and massive. An extraordinary amount of music was recorded around the world, and almost none of it is available.

SHAPIRO: Many of these fragile discs have been broken or lost over the years, and amateur music historian Jonathan Ward has been carefully assembling a collection of them. He's now released a hundred tracks with histories of each song and performer. He calls the collection "Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History Of The World's Music." And we started by talking about a recording from Panama with a sharp political message.


GRUPO ISTMENO: (Singing in Spanish).

WARD: There were very few recordings made in Panama prior to the 1950s - about a grand total of 22, actually - mostly captured by American recording engineers who probably were en route to somewhere else. This piece is by the Grupo Istmeno. What is interesting about this track is that it is a protest song.


GRUPO ISTMENO: (Singing in Spanish).

WARD: The lyrics are stridently anti-U.S. and against the depopulation of Indigenous people in the Canal Zone when the canal was being built about 15 years prior to when the recording was made.

SHAPIRO: And it was made in 1928, right?

WARD: That's right. And I'm sure the engineers had no idea what they were recording.

SHAPIRO: But the lyrics are, like, if we don't leave, they will kick us out, those sons of Uncle Sam.

WARD: Yeah, exactly. They want to take it all. And the natives of Panama, we cannot even breathe like the free for freedom.


GRUPO ISTMENO: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: The title of this collection, "Excavated Shellac," refers to the kind of material that was used to make these old discs. Can you tell us about the physical process of creating these recordings?

WARD: Sure. The entire process back then was both crude and ingenious. You had these beeswax masters that, if you were recording in the tropics, you had to ship back to Europe to get them metal-plated, and then the masters were destroyed. And then all the copies of records were then shipped all the way back to the point of sale, which sometimes could be Africa or Southeast Asia or Brazil or who knows where.

SHAPIRO: So these record labels would actually send engineers on ships to port cities and say, record what you find there. And just to give an example, like, we've got one track here from Zanzibar in 1930.


SHAPIRO: Tell us about that.

WARD: The East African recording market really exploded in the late 1920s, and the music that was captured was largely a style called taarab. It's a music that's very much influenced by music of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. And this piece was actually recorded on Zanzibar in 1930 - first time anyone had made commercial recordings there - and features Subeit bin Ambar playing an improvisation on a localized version of the oud.


SHAPIRO: As you know, there is a long, unhelpful history of white people presenting, quote-unquote, "ethnic music" or "world music" to Western audiences. And I know you're aware of this colonialist cliche, but how do you think about your role in presenting music from other cultures from other parts of the world?

WARD: You know, I thought about this throughout the entire process. And practicing cultural sensitivity as best as I knew how, really, was paramount for me. And that means you might own the records, but you don't own the music. So I did my best in this project to remove any strain of romanticism from the text. I reached out to as many people who knew a lot more than me around the world. I looked at as much scholarship as I could find. And yet I still feel like projects like this are forever unfinished. You know, I would be embarrassed if this was canonized in a way. It's meant to be a building block.

SHAPIRO: Does the project risk falling into these same familiar colonialist tropes? - because, you know, what does the track from Panama have in common with the track from Zanzibar other than they are made by non-white, non-Global-North performers singing in a language that's not English?

WARD: That's absolutely a good question. The linchpin is the recording industry and how it worked. When engineers were in Panama, they were also in Zanzibar. They were also in Czechoslovakia. That is the umbrella with which this project can be viewed. But I also believe that listening to music from different cultures can provide a serendipity. You didn't realize that you wanted to explore a certain type of music further until it was presented to you in that way. I have no real problem with a variety, so long as it's not exoticized.


SHAPIRO: Once you have found one of these recordings, how difficult is it to find the story behind the musicians?

WARD: Extremely difficult sometimes - you know, sometimes, you can't find anything at all. And sometimes, it's very difficult to get lyrics translated. For example, I was looking hard for a translation in a Filipino language, Ilocano.


VALENTIN EUGENIO: (Singing in Ilocano).

WARD: And I ended up getting a translation from the man who wrote the Ilocano-to-English dictionary, and even he had trouble understanding most of it. Some of the words were so old-fashioned. He said, I really don't know. You know, this is extremely difficult.

SHAPIRO: And what are these lyrics that you had to work so hard to translate into English?

WARD: It is actually kind of a naughty love song. He says things like, you call me a cat with my long mustache. You call me a bukto (ph) fish and a water buffalo butting his horns. There's all this sort of vague sexual innuendo throughout a quarreling husband and wife.


EUGENIO: (Singing in Ilocano).

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's go out on a song. Can you give us a deep cut within this collection of deep cuts?

WARD: Sure. Well, there's a lot to say about the famous music of Portugal called Fado. This man, Julio Silva, he was pretty influential during the early 20th century but sort of unhappy with his recording career, switched to become a painter. And unfortunately, he died destitute. But in 1927, he gave us this.


SHAPIRO: Jonathan Ward - the new collection of early recorded music from around the world is called "Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History Of The World's Music."

Thank you so much.

WARD: Thank you so much.


Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.