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Of Cantonese Opera and Guatemalan Marimba

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Photo of Argentinian singers Alfredo and Mrs. Gobi.
Argentinian singers Alfredo and Mrs. Gobi. Talking Machine World 7/15/1909 p. 11

This week we will explore the wealth of ethnic recordings that are available in the Library’s National Jukebox and other online collections.  The Jukebox includes some 10,000 recordings of 78-rpm discs made before 1926. To browse these recordings, visit the site’s browse all recordings page and click the headings “language” and “target audience.”

Pictured at the right are Alfredo and Flora de Gobbi, a husband and wife singing team from Argentina who specialized in songs about the gaucho, or Argentinian cowboy, and who recorded many sides for Edison (officially, the National Phonograph Company) in 1909. By this time record companies had been making recordings of ethnic music for well over a decade. Early examples can be found listed in the catalogs of Berliner Gramophone, the company headed by Emile Berliner, inventor of the first flat disc recordings.  As early as 1894 the company recorded nine Native American songs performed by ethnographer James Mooney. By the time the company ceased operation in 1900, they had recorded material in German, Spanish, Greek, Italian, French, Polish and Chinese.   Berliner’s successor company, Victor Records, would continue and intensify the recording of ethnic music as would its main competitors Columbia and Edison.

While it is impossible to know how many records the earliest ethnic recordings sold, regular reports in the trade magazine The Talking Machine World indicate that  such records enjoyed healthy sales in areas with large immigrant populations. In a report on the sales picture in New York in 1906, the paper assured its readers, mostly salesmen, “The various nations which form our cosmopolitan population are insistent in their demand for songs in their native tongue, and whenever records are made in their language they meet with a ready sale.”

Victor advertisement, Voice of the Victor, May 1917 p. 90-91.
Victor advertisement, Voice of the Victor, May 1917 p. 90-91.

Even the relatively small Finnish immigrant population was well-represented on recordings in the first quarter of the decade. Although, as attested repeatedly in the record industry sales literature, this seeming over-representation can be explained by an interest in selling machines more than individual records. Particularly popular with Finnish immigrant communities were vocal music with band accompaniment and choral music.  The two selections below  proved popular with local Finnish American communities. Such choral music has remained popular to this day as demonstrated by  The Naselle Finn-Am Choir’s many performances at The Finnish American Folk Festival held in Naselle, Washington.


Victor 78 rpm disc label with Chinese characters
Label for Victor 7183D of possible Cantonese Opera Recording

Before being abruptly halted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigration to the U.S. had increased steadily since the mid-19th century. This wave of immigration was initially spurred by the need for labor for the service industries created by the Californian Gold Rush, but was later buoyed by the massive demand for labor to build the Transcontinental Railroad.  Though Chinese communities had barely grown by the early twentieth century, they became a marketing target for the record companies.  Disproportionately male, many of the Chinese immigrants came from rural districts, especially the Cantonese-speaking regions of southern Guangdong.  This was a region with a strong tradition of Cantonese opera and the style proved popular among immigrants in San Francisco and New York. By the 1880’s San Francisco could boast four Cantonese theaters. On March 26, 1893, New York’s first Chinese opera theater opened in Chinatown.

This recording in Cantonese is believed to be a very early recording of Cantonese opera. 

Perhaps one of the more popular series of ethnic recordings was made by The Hurtado Brothers Royal Marimba Band of Guatemala.  The group had a regular gig in the summer of 1915 at The Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.  Their recordings sold briskly and they continued their stay in the U.S. with a regular booking at the Cafe Rex on O’Farrell Street where their act filled the venue nightly.  In fact, they attracted so many fans to the cafe that the management ran an apology in The San Francisco Chronicle, assuring patrons “we have been obliged to provide extra tables on our mezzanine floor overlooking the main dining-room. With these additional seats we hope to take care of everybody.”

Although the record companies were motivated by profit, not the desire for ethnographic documentation, they nevertheless preserved an invaluable record of a wide variety of musical traditions from the American past.

To learn more about ethnic songs in American history visit The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America: Ethnic Song.

Comments (2)

  1. THANK YOU for the excellent examples of ethnic music recordings! Unfortunately the example for the Marimba Band stopped at around 2:13 and it should end at 3:05. How can one continue playing? Please advise.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      I did notice that our system was a bit sluggish. When I tried it a few minutes ago, the file played all the way through.

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