The Secret Museum of Music
By Harvey Pekar
JULY 13, 1998: Despite the fact that the last several months have seen Shanachie Records, a New York-based independent label, release new albums by Sara Hickman and Sue Foley (as well as Kris McKay's The Things That Show two years ago), plus Uprooted, a roots country compilation featuring a half-dozen local acts, and the soundtrack to Deep in the Heart of Texas, with music by Lyle Lovett, Lou Ann Barton, Marcia Ball, Jimmie Vaughan, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Willie Nelson, Texas isn't the only territory Shanachie covers. Besides producing original sessions and putting out major folk and pop albums from around the world, the label's catalog indicates Shanachie has released just about every form of music aside from Western classical. A look at their world music selections, for example, shows they've issued discs containing the music of a number of European, African, and Asian regions - even Polynesia - although they don't own much Latin American material. Shanachie also offers a substantial amount of reggae/ska recordings and traditional American music of all sorts: blues, country, Western, Cajun, gospel, and some fine early jazz reissues. Speaking of... Shanachie is no stranger to fine reissues.
Take, for instance, two recent releases on Shanachie subsidiary Yazoo that are devoted to early African-American piano playing. They're a wonderfully varied pair, on which you can hear ragtime, boogie woogie, and barrelhouse work, plus some styles that are transitional or created from a synthesis of elements. The albums, Mama Don't Allow No Easy Riders Here and Shake Your Wicked Knees, contain solos by acknowledged greats - Jimmy Yancy, Meade Lux Lewis, and superb but virtually unknown artists. They're lovingly produced, with informed and detailed liner notes. Happily this is a typical Shanachie reissue.
The two men who founded Shanachie in 1975, Richard Nevins and Dan Collins, had no idea that the label would grow into one of the largest independents in the world. Initially, they only wanted to issue some Irish fiddle music. Their first LP, by Kathleen Collins, led to a series of Irish releases by Planxty, Clannad, the Chieftains, and others, which were well received, and fortunately for Nevins and Collins, came out at a time when young people were becoming increasingly involved with traditional music, not only from Ireland but around the globe.
Consequently Shanachie's albums sold well, and within a few years the label had developed a large, popular Irish catalog, which they marketed internationally. As they expanded, Shanachie began to exchange albums with European labels, receiving reggae LPs in return. According to Randall Grass, Shanachie's general manager, "We found that there was a demand for this music that was not being satisfied."
The company's officials also became enthusiastic about the music and began issuing their own reggae releases, beginning with one by Augustus Pablo, who now has five Shanachie CDs in print. The disc that really put the label on the reggae map, however, was one by Max Romeo, on which Rolling Stone Keith Richards appeared. It was promoted on rock radio and sold very well. From that point on, the company has developed its catalog to the point where it's one of the world's best, and includes work by Culture, Rita Marley, Mutabaruka, Bunny Wailer, Yellowman, Alpha Blondy of Ivory Coast, and Lucky Dube of South Africa.
Grass joined Shanachie partly because of his involvement with reggae. "I came to the label because I had a reggae radio show and I felt that a body of music was being created comparable to New Orleans jazz, Motown, and other landmark genres."
Headlining Shanachie's ska CDs are the internationally acclaimed Skatalites, who were among the form's founders. According to Grass, "After we signed the Skatalites, we saw that the third ska wave was still vital and so we decided to get involved with it."
In the early Eighties, the term "World Beat" began being used to describe traditional music influenced by forms of popular Western music. Shanachie's officials, who had cut their teeth on folk music of various kinds, naturally had an attraction to world beat or world music, and began producing albums by an enormously diverse group of artists, some strongly marked by pop tendencies, others virtually untouched by them.
Today, Shanachie offers a good selection of African music, presenting artists from such culturally diverse regions as Arab Algeria, Nubia, Ethiopia, and Kenya in East Africa; Muslim and non-Muslim West Africa; Zaire and Uganda in Central and South Africa. Shanachie was the first American label to produce recordings by the noted South African a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Several Shanachie CDs are devoted to the music of Madagascar, whose people have synthesized Indonesian and African mainland cultures.
Music from a variety of Asian lands has appeared on Shanachie as well, including tiny Tuva, with its throat singers Huun Huur Tu, who had a mutual admiration society going with Frank Zappa, Pakistan, India, China, Burma, Uzbekistan, and Israel. In addition to Ireland, Shanachie has released recordings from several European nations: Scotland, Greece, Sweden, and Norway.
And let's not forget important reissues of traditional music on Yazoo, particularly the anthology series The Secret Museum of Mankind: Ethnic Music Classics 1925-48. What's so significant about this type of reissue series is that Shanachie is giving listeners a chance to hear real, as opposed to quasi-folk music. Listeners often don't know the difference, but there is one. Folk music is music that's characteristic of a particular ethnic group or region. The fact that Pete Seeger sings folk songs from around the world doesn't make him a folk singer, especially since he uses the same style in which to sing them all. Regardless of his political courage, which causes him to be thought of as a man of the people, he's a pop singer, not a folk singer - even when he wears overalls and a red bandana.
Speaking about favorable reaction to their world music albums, Grass notes, "The Eighties seemed like a very fertile time for innovative and substantial recording by artists around the world. Richard Nevins and I tried to put out the best things that we heard from this incredible torrent of music that was becoming available."
Grass cites the case of Ofra Haza as an example of how Shanachie officials kept their eyes and ears open.
"Ofra Haza, a Yemenite Israeli, was an Israeli pop star. She recorded an album of Yemenite songs as a gift to her parents. To her surprise, it became a sensation. The album was sampled onto rap and dance records. When we saw the interest it was creating, we thought it would be great to put it out, and licensed it."
In 1989, Shanachie acquired the Yazoo label from Nick Perls, who was then extremely ill and trusted Nevins and his associates to handle his material in a manner he would approve of. This brought Shanachie some top traditional jazz and blues albums on which Twenties and Thirties immortals including Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Tampa Red appeared. Yazoo has continued to exist under Shanachie as a reissue label on which CDs including Jazz the World Forgot (volumes 1 & 2) and Dave Tarras: Yiddish American Klezmer 1925-1956 appeared.
The label has a small but interesting Klezmer/Jewish section as well. In addition to the Tarras recording, Yazoo has also issued an excellent collection of cantorial albums, Mysteries of the Sabbath. Andy Statman, a top klezmer clarinetist who is interested in doing something creative rather than imitating earlier klezmorim, also records for Shanachie and has issued an album for them on which a couple of excellent jazzmen, pianist Kenny Werner and bassist Harvie Shwartz appear, Between Heaven and Earth. On it, they synthesize Hassidic and modal jazz music.
Shanachie's video department is headed by Sherwin Dunner, who notes, "We cover a lot of roots-type music - jazz, blues, Celtic - the same kind we put out on CD, plus comedy and American historical documentaries. We've issued a lot [of videos] that were PBS American Experience projects. Among our most popular videos are Out of Ireland, a history of Irish immigration to the U.S., High Lonesome, the definitive history of bluegrass music, and all the Abbott and Costello TV shows from the early Fifties."
Shanachie also has in their catalog videos of Steve Allen's Jazz Scene U.S.A., which feature artists including Cannonball Adderley, Stan Kenton, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Frank Rosolino, Jimmy Smith, and others. It's among the finest series of its kind ever produced. And they've just released a new video biography about Charles Mingus, Triumph of the Underdog.
The aesthetic quality and significance of Shanachie's material far surpasses that of most record companies, although I don't want anyone to get the idea that everything they do is top-notch. I'm certainly not thrilled about their smooth or lite or new age (or whatever you want to call it) jazz program, and I doubt if some of their people are either, although Tom Grant, Fatburger, and Chuck Loeb may help pay the bills. Also, not all acoustic or folk or traditionally influenced music is significant; some is done by people who, though they may be technically accomplished, aren't very creative and may be mere popularizers - like Stefan Grossman. Then there are Shanachie's New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, the klezmer equivalent of Dixieland revivalists. Not everything out of New Orleans is the real deal. But, hey, who bats 1000?
Looking at Shanachie's release schedule down the road, some interesting projects pop up. A fine acid jazz group, Groove Collective, debuts with the label. Mutabaruka's Gathering of the Spirits, containing reggae all-star sessions, is set for June, while August finds a Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith disc scheduled for release. So Shanachie, though growing, is still willing to take chances - and is still run by guys who view music as an art rather than a commodity. Let's hope things stay that way.
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