Ozzy Osbourne fails to recall a rather hazy period of his life -- the '90s. -
- Posted on Aug 10th 2010 1:30PM by Steve Hochman
Fairfield is a Los Angeles-based musician and record collector. In both cases, his leanings tend to what he calls "pre-urban" music, playing banjo and fiddle on old-timey American tunes and collecting old 78 phonograph discs of items from all over the globe. It's the latter he focused on when Josh Rosenthal, proprietor of the archivist Tomkins Square label, asked him to put together a CD – 'Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts' – drawn from said collection.
Once he made the selections, he set about gathering info for the liner notes. For some that was fairly straightforward – the 1916 recording of Scottish bagpipe tunes by Pipe-Major Forsyth and Drums that opens the album, the 1929 'Poor Convict Blues,' by Slim Barton and James Moore, the popular Appalachian fiddle effects showcase 'Fox Chase' in a little-known version by Charlie Bowman and Al Hopkins, an authentic pre-rock version of the Veracruzian folk song 'La Bamba,' by Hermanos Huesca, for example. Info was relatively easy to come by. But others posed a challenge to say anything specific about the artist, recording or even the label of origin. One of those was 'Pius Ogola,' a rather latter-day shellac 78 from the '60s featuring the eight-stringed lyre called the nyatiti, played by Akumu Odhiambo.
Akumu Odhiambo, 'Pius Ogola'
Fairfield got the 78 from fellow collector-archivist Michael Kieffer, who did the detailed digital transferring of the recordings for the album. As far as they know, in addition to the copy Kieffer gave and a second one he kept, there's only one other copy of the recording out there. So "obscure" and "rare" would seem fitting terms, and information proved just about as scarce. We'll let Fairfield tell the story:
"It was so exciting to find something from a little tiny record shop's label in Kenya that no one knew about," he says on the phone from his own touring. "I wanted to sue this on the collection, so was looking for something to say. Happened to look around on YouTube to see if I found anyone playing this instrument, just randomly. Don't know if you want to call it 'research' but just to get more familiar with the instrument. And I see this clip of this young man, Ulawi Otieno, who was playing it. And I was taken by it, seeing this young man playing this instrument and saying nobody plays that anymore, not even the old people. And I thought it was so beautiful – here's another young many on the other side of the world connecting to what I call the people's music, the real music. That's what I and friends of mine are doing over here, playing fiddles and banjos and playing old songs and trying to connect back to this chain that's gotten broken off somewhere."
You can watch the four-part video here and see for yourself. And you can compare the Kenyan's joy and dedication to that of Fairfield, seen in this video.
At the end of the video, Fairfield saw an e-mail address for the TV show for which the video of Otiena playing, singing and talking about the music was shot. And through that he was able to contact the musician directly.
"I was very excited to write him and said I'd found this record and if he knew anything about it ... There was a little language barrier, but his English is quite good. He told me, 'Oh, yeah, Akumu Odhiambo! He was a neighbor of mine. He passed away a long time ago.' I couldn't get any information from him about the record label, which might have been the only independent label in Kenya back then in the '60s. He's around my age, just 23, I think. So that was a really neat thing, helped me get insight into the record. I've corresponded with him for a while now and we've become e-mail pen pals."
The encounter – which he notes was a bit labored with the language difficulties and Otieno's seemingly limited Internet access – but was not just rewarding but also provided a currency to the exercise of putting together the global range of the 'Unheard Ofs' album. He admits upfront that there's no thematic or musical thread to the selections. Even drawing on the most obscure, defunct labels was a matter of economics more than anything else, as those don't raise licensing issues. He did arrange some of the tracks to show at least a surface sense of continuity, following 'Sondiata,' a 1949 recording of a wandering musician trio in French Guinea featuring the harp-like kora, with the version of 'La Bamba,' which is anchored by a Veracruzian harp.
Sudanese Wandering Minstrels, 'Sondiata'
Hermanos Huesca, 'La Bamba'
But there is an aesthetic to this – Frank Fairfield's aesthetic.
"I don't see much difference between what's on the album and my music," he says. "With this stuff, whatever you call it – vernacular, ethnic or I usually like to refer to it as pre-urbanized or non-urbanized. The way I see it there are three musics and I compare it to food, since music is just as necessary as food. There's the fruit of the tree, and that's the ethnographic music, the Native American chant of African-American chant and that kind of thing. Then there's the cooking – a slice of this and a bit of that, and you mix it and let it cook. That's the fiddle music and blues and that, and there's the gourmet side of that. And then there's the music of today, the lymph nodes wrapped up and served. It's a food substitute. And I consider a lot of the music today to be a music substitute that can be marketed."
Now, don't get him wrong. He likes a lot of contemporary music, too, and respects many people making music today, not just the traditionalists. "I just like this thing called music," he says. But finding a kindred spirit in a young man who lives along the shores of Lake Victoria was a real boost for him. And he hopes that there will be more contact that will go beyond the immediate benefits of this.
"I felt bad that I was just using this guy for answers and translations, but I was really excited to make contact," he says. "Would be neat if someone in the US happened to write something about him."