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'Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM' resurrects a continent's music

December 6, 2011 |  6:03 am

Jonathan Ward's ‘Opika Pende' box set resurrects the world of early African music — with a history lesson in the mix.

'Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM' resurrects a continent's music

Jonathan Ward's music room in his second-floor Angeleno Heights walk-up is a tight, comfortable space with three walls full of records and itsy speakers hung high on the walls in acoustically precise intervals. The 39-year-old writer, archivist, collector and perhaps most important, listener, has just received his copy of a project that has consumed him for the last 14 months. “Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM,” is a four-disc, 100-song collection and companion book of never before compiled regional African music from the early 1900s through the '60s. Much of it is culled from fragile original shellac recordings that have miraculously survived a journey across space and time to land on Ward's shelves.

He pulls out a recent acquisition: a Mauritanian record that he places on the turntable. The speakers fill the room with hiss and crackle, and a female voice moans while a high-lonesome stringed instrument meanders along. It's profoundly moving and resurrects long-buried voices within its crackling grooves.

Ward has helped spark interest in this and other early African music through his website, Excavated Shellac, which since 2007 has offered downloads of antiquated African music, some of the oldest ever captured, from throughout the continent. “Opika Pende,” a saying in the Lingala language that means “be strong” or “stand firm,” features music from the site and recordings gathered elsewhere. 

His goal was to reveal information not only about the artists but the time period, combine it into a package that would perhaps “affect the way people listen to the music. There's really a transporting effect when you hear them,” says Ward, whose day job is as researcher/editor at the Getty Research Center. “Not only are they musically captivating at their best, when you can really hear something that brings you to a jolt, but they're so laden with history, both as a piece of music but also as an information carrier.

“I thought it would be interesting to finally have a box set that was truly pan-African, that actually combined North African music with East African, South African and Central, all in a mix, without necessarily calling them north, south, east and west.” 

Ward has long been a collector. He recalls buying Captain Beefheart's “Trout Mask Replica” when he was in fifth grade (he liked the cover, loved Frank Zappa, “but I'm not saying I understood it until much later”), and checked out Karlheinz Stockhausen and Emerson, Lake and Palmer records from the library with equanimity. He started frequenting the Chelsea Market in New York while in college and had an epiphany when first confronted with the rows of old 78s: “I thought, ‘My god, all this talk about the world's rarest records, and blues and country and jazz, and I didn't know anything about it. It was like a whole world opened to me.” 

It's this world that Ward captures with the four compact discs of music released between 1909 and the mid-1960s, divided somewhat regionally, in “Opika Pende.” Ward calls his sequencing “loosely geographical, moving from north to south, but I play with that a lot, deliberately, because cultural language and musical boundaries are often very different than political boundaries, and I wanted to have that looseness portrayed in the box set without being overt about it.”

Just as impressive as the music, though, is Ward's meticulously researched notes, which come in a well-packaged book typical of the record label/publisher that financed and released the set: Atlanta-based Dust-to-Digital Records. Over the course of the 14 months it took to produce the collection, Ward worked with linguists, researchers, scholars and native speakers to help him understand the lyrics and emotions within the sides. Each song is accompanied by as much detail as Ward could find on the circumstances of the recording, from the record label to the colonial interests that exported the music to the linguistic quirks of the lyrics. All this data offers a glimpse into history.

Some of the music from disc three, for example, was produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Kinshasa starting in the 1940s in the wake of World War II. “That popular music of the Congo kind of ushered in Afropop, and later, that Latin-based Congolese pop,” says Ward. “And that all stemmed from independent 78 labels in Kinshasha in the '40s, all Greek-owned. There were Greeks in Kinshasa, and they all started record labels, they all competed with each other, and it was just this little flourishing scene whereas previous to that, there was nothing.”

But Ward stresses that all the data, and the extraneous historical information, vanishes when a song comes back from the dead. 

“At its best, it's a spiritual connection to music. It's your church. And a lot of people don't have that with music.”

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-- Randall Roberts

UPLIFTED: “There’s really a transporting effect when you hear them,” says Jonathan Ward of the early African music he’s compiled on his website, Excavated Shellac, and in the new box set “Opika Pende.” Credit: Gary Friedman

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