And here we go with another mysterious African test pressing. The last test pressing, although not yet officially identified, brought about some thoughtful conversation in the comments section, especially from well-known author and scholar Professor John Collins, who graciously found time to stop by. This time, we’re moving to another part of the continent.
One listen to this wonderfully easygoing track with its marabi feel, its percussion, piano, and concertina accompaniment, and it is clear that we’re in Southern Africa. However, as with the last test pressing, we’re left with very little to identify the record. Yet, I believe we can get very close to this one – it may all come down to that terribly arcane study of the matrix number.
Think of the matrix number as the “unique identifier” for each side of a record, stamped in the dead wax of the 78. As I described in the last post, each matrix number generally refers back to a one-sided master recording – or at least, a stamper. As you can see from the photo, the matrix number of this record also happens to be written in pen on the blank label: ABC10319. There’s one major African record company that used the “ABC” prefix on an abundance of their recordings and that was Gallotone (and its subsidiary label, Trek), the most well-known African independent label, which was based in Johannesburg and founded by Eric Gallo.
What’s also interesting is that the “ABC” number series was frequently used by famed African ethnomusicologist and recordist Hugh Tracey – a name that pops up frequently on Excavated Shellac – when recording artists for Gallotone/Trek. Thankfully, both Tracey’s International Library of African Music (ILAM), as well as the South African Music Archive Project are both online, and one can search matrix numbers – even those matrices that were not issued on commercial recordings (as far as I can tell). Unfortunately, this matrix is NOT found in either place. What is tantalizing, however, is that in the ILAM you can find matrix numbers that are very close in range to this one, and they appear to indeed be Hugh Tracey masters, possibly unissued. For instance, ABC10316 is a recording by legendary Zimbabwean guitarist George Sibanda. ABC10323 is by Mozambican guitarist Feliciano Gomes. And ABC10320 – just one number above this record – is an untitled piece simply credited to “Zulu Men.”
Could this record be from the same session? Was it ever issued? Of course, it’s important to remember that these questions should have no bearing on our enjoyment of the music. In fact, perhaps they even bog us down. Perhaps they say more about our need for mystery than anything else, or our need to compartmentalize various musical styles. Or, our need to equate a recording with a price tag on the open market, enabling future collectors to fetishize it. Part of what I enjoy about these anonymous (for now) recordings, is that they have the potential to challenge our assumptions about their origins, language, style, and worth. It’s a flat disc with a scribbled number on it – and yet it can be so much more.