By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
With its four compact discs of material covering six decades of music, plus a 272-page book of liner notes, “Longing For The Past: The 78 RPM Era In Southeast Asia,” released by Dust-To-Digital, will probably remain the definitive word on that musical era, covering traditional and more modern music from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. The project’s curator, David Murray, who spent several years putting it together, took some questions via email.
NWAW: Where were you born and where did you grow up? What were your biggest musical and artistic influences, and how did they shape you?
Murray: I was born and raised in Michigan. I was very interested in various rock bands as a kid. During my teenage years I got turned on to reggae, punk rock, jazz and many other types of music. I started learning to play music in college, eventually performing in many local bands, from bossa nova to heavy metal.
After college, I relocated to San Francisco and was turned on to Appalachian fiddle and banjo music. I learned to play both fiddle and banjo, and became familiar with the vast amount of vernacular music that was recorded in America during the 78 rpm era; blues, string band, Cajun, as well as the music of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Ireland, etc. That’s when I became interested in early 78 rpm recordings from around the world.
NWAW: What experiences have you had as a musician? How did you start out in the field of motion graphics, and how have you made progress?
Murray: I’ve performed in bands for 25 years, since I was in college. I’ve played many different instruments and a wide variety of styles. I’ve been a filmmaker, photographer and designer for a long time. My film “Livermore” aired nationally on Independent Lens.
NWAW: How did you develop an interest in Asian 78s? Which were the first ones you heard, and how? What were your impressions musically? Did you benefit from the help of any collectors?
Murray: I was studying the early recordings of Greek music that originated in hashish dens in Athens in the 1920s and 30s. I started wondering if there was a style of music played in the Chinese opium dens found in San Francisco in those days. In the process I fell in love with old recordings of Cantonese opera music. I continued exploring Chinese music from the pre-WWII era, which led me to the music of Southeast Asia. I was immediately attracted to the unusual scales and other features.
NWAW: How does one go about collecting this music?
Murray: Some collect by traveling, but most of my records have come through eBay, online or mail-order auctions, or trading with other collectors.
NWAW: Which are the rarest records in your collection, and how did you come to acquire them?
Murray: Many of the records found on “Longing for the Past” are extremely rare. Unlike some other genres of old records, very little research has been done on Asian recordings, so it’s hard to know how many copies exist of some of the records.
NWAW: Which of the 78s on “Longing For The Past” are your personal favorites, and why?
Murray: I don’t have a favorite, but I love the sound of Vietnamese Vong Co, a style of song found in southern Vietnamese theater. Vong Co translates to “longing for the past,” so the set is named after that style. I also think the music from Cambodia is amazing, and due to the terrible reign of the Khmer Rouge, very few musicians survived to continue playing this music.
NWAW: The book enclosed with the set is a monumental labor unto itself. How did you go about putting it together? Which collaborators did you use, and why?
Murray: I wanted the book to be as compelling as the music. I designed the book myself, using images from my own collection of vintage postcards and other ephemera. The entire project took about five years to complete; about one year was spent on the book and package design.
NWAW: What are your plans for the future, musically, professionally, and as a music curator?
Murray: I’m currently playing in an Appalachian string band, a Greek rebetiko ensemble, and a hard rock trio. I have several other music projects I’m working on, but nothing that is ready to be announced yet! (end)
“Longing For The Past: The 78 RPM Era In Southeast Asia” is available at local record stores or online. David Murray may be reached through http://hajimaji.com.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.