Category: Recordings Collection (page 1 of 10)

Early Arabic Sound Recordings and the Public Domain

Happy Public Domain Day! Copyright has a limited duration, and it’s a moving wall – every January 1st, here in the United States, more items enter the public domain, meaning that they can be freely shared, reused, and remixed into new works by anyone. This year, books, musical compositions, and films from 1926 join the public domain.

A calendar display showing the last digit of 2021 rolling over to 2022, and the text "Public Domain Day".

Public Domain Day logo by wikipedia user Cienkamila, slightly modified by wikipedia user odder, CC BY-SA 3.0

And thanks to the Music Modernization Act (technically, one of its components, Title II, the Classic Protection and Access Act), sound recordings published prior to 1923 enter the public domain in the United States. This is a really big deal! Since pre-1972 sound recordings didn’t have federal copyright protection until the passage of the MMA, they’ve been languishing in copyright limbo for decades – in some cases, for well over a century – and there are a lot of them: by some estimates, over 400,000 early sound recordings are now part of the public domain. This change to the law dramatically expands our ability to share early 20th-century sound recordings from our collections for listening, research, and reuse.

The Arabic 78 Collection at the Loeb Music Library

The label of a record produced by Columbia Records, with a drawing of a woman in a headscarf and two solemn-faced children clutching her skirt. The woman is looking backwards, at a building being consumed by a raging fire.

Visit our new digital collection to listen to selections from the Arabic 78 Collection!

To celebrate, we’re releasing a small subset of our early 20th century Arabic 78 collection on our new Aviary site. Acquired over many years, the Arabic 78 Collection currently contains nearly 600 cataloged recordings of Arab and Arab-American music spanning the first half of the 20th century, from roughly 1903 through the 1950s, valuable not only for their musical content, but also as artifacts of the early sound recording industry. We’ve been working to digitize this collection over the past several years, and we’re excited to begin sharing it!

A blue paper record label in English and Arabic, reading "International Talking Machine Co. m.b.H. Odeon Record.

“Asl al-Gharam nazra,” recorded in 1905 on the German label Odeon. Loeb Music Library, AWM 78-101

Many of the earliest records date to the late Nahda era, a period of “renaissance” in Arab literature and culture. Among the renowned performers represented in the collection are Egyptian singers Yūsuf Al-Manyalāwī (1847-1911), Abd al-Ḥayy Ḥilmī (1857-1912), Salāmah Ḥijāzī (1852-1917), Sayyid Al- Ṣaftī (1875-1939), Munīrah Al-Mahdiyyah (1884-1965) and Sayyid Darwīsh (1892-1923), and instrumentalists such as Sāmī Al-Shawwā (violin, 1889-1965) and Naʻīm Karakand (violin, 1891-1973). Stars such as Umm Kulthūm (1904-1975), Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Wahhāb (1902-1991) and Asmahān (1912-1944) are also represented, alongside less well-known performers like Faraj Allāh Afandī Bayḍā, Aḥmad afandī Al-Mīr, and Zakiyyah Akūb, likely the first woman to record in Arabic in the US.

A record label with a drawing of a seated, mostly nude woman playing a lyre. The label reads "Opera Disc Company. Syrian Male Song."

This rendition of “Khallayānī bilawʻātī” was recorded in 1910 on a Gramophone Co. master. The pirate label Opera Disc operated in New York in the early 1920s; the original Gramophone matrix number, 11-12490, is barely visible underneath the right side of the paper label. AWM 78-232

The recordings were made by large multi-national American and European record companies such as Gramophone Company, Columbia, Victor and Odeon, but significant local companies such as Baidaphon (the first independent record label in the Arab world) and Fabrik Mechian are also included, as well as Maloof and Macksoud from the US. The collection even includes discs issued on early pirate labels like Opera Disc Company. Later Arab-American record labels such as Alamphon, Arabphon and Al-Chark are also to be found in the collection. Genres cover a wide range of Arab musical forms including al-mawwāl (vocal improvisation), qaṣīdah (sung poems), taqsīm (instrumental improvisation), film music, ṭaqṭūqah (pop songs) and Qur’anic recitations.

For more about the collection, see our 2017 post, Arabic 78 RPM Records Collection: A Newly-Catalogued Treasure by graduate student assistant Farah Zahra, who researched and catalogued many of the recordings.

How We Dated These Recordings

Resources for dating the early discs in this collection are limited. In only a few cases has data come down to us from original company records, as is true with the multinationals Victor, Columbia, and the Gramophone Company. In those cases, a wealth of metadata was painstakingly researched by early discographers and has now made its way into database form for use in determining recording dates. Two examples are the Discography of American Historical Recordings and the Kelly On-line Database (Gramophone Company). But in some cases, ethnic or foreign series are missing or incomplete in these resources, which means we rely on the work of discographers who have focused on ethnic recordings. In the case of Arab-American recordings, we have used Dick Spottswood’s Ethnic music on records: a discography of ethnic recordings produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942 (University of Illinois, 1990) and his online Columbia Records E Series, 1908-1923 discography.

It is important to note that U.S. copyright law, including the new Music Modernization Act (MMA) that has now taken effect (as of January 1, 2022), is based on publication/release date rather than recording date. Precise data about release dates is even more scarce, though we do have information about U.S. Columbia releases. In theory, we can also use dated record company catalogs and supplements to help confirm release or publication date, but these are rare for ethnic/foreign releases. Although it cannot be taken as definitive, or as universal practice for the period, it seems an average of 8 to 10 weeks passed between recording and release date for early popular artists on Columbia (according to Allan Sutton’s Columbia Record Recording and Release Dates (1896-1934), p.6). But this timeframe could be rushed or held up based on the artist or demand.

We have made our copyright assessment based on all available data and specifically for use in the U.S. with regard to the new MMA laws. When we’ve made a reasonable determination that release dates occurred before December 31, 1922, the recording will be available to the public (and downloadable). For all others, users can request permission to hear the recording for a limited period (no download).

How to Listen

To share them, we’re using Aviary, a system that gives us a user-friendly way to create themed collections and add supplemental material, like high-quality images of the disc labels and matrix numbers (important sources for discographers and other researchers). As more recordings enter the public domain and we evaluate the copyright status of the discs in our collections, we plan to continue adding 78s to the collection. Many of the recordings on the site now are available for streaming and download; some are restricted. To request temporary listening access to those recordings, you’ll be prompted to register for a free Aviary account.

We hope you’ll enjoy this peek into the collections, and we look forward to sharing more!

Explore Further

-Kerry Masteller and Peter Laurence

Meet the Problem Solvers: Peter Laurence, Sound Recording Librarian

What does a Sound Recording Librarian do?

I oversee our library’s sound and visual media collections, which range from early disc recordings over a century old, to newly released digital AV content. My work includes selecting new recordings that support our music department and students, setting priorities for preserving and digitizing our older recordings, answering research questions, and teaching and outreach. I especially enjoy the outreach part, and right now I’m very focused on new ways of making our collections accessible for research.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time in the Music Library?

Having 9th Wonder post photos of our Classic Crates hip hop collection to his Instagram account. We talk a lot about discoverability in libraries these days. That was it!

What project are you most proud of that you’ve worked on in the Music Library?

Our library has a large collection of early Arab and Arab-American 78rpm shellac disc records that was undiscoverable for many years. As of last year, we have catalogued around 550 of these in detail (in Arabic) in our HOLLIS catalog. It was a great collaborative project that succeeded due to the efforts of many others besides me, including three grad students (Farah Zahra, Farah El-Sharif and Faris Casewit) and and their language work over several years, a Middle East colleague in Widener Library (Nada Hussein) who did the initial training, and our own music cataloger (Anne Adams) who prepared the data for the catalog.

What’s your favorite library-related moment in a movie, novel or TV show?

I think I have to pick a song on this one. “Faster Pussycat To The Library!” by Sam Phillips: “If you don’t know what to do, I’ll look it up for you.”

Where do you find comfort and strength in a scary and unknown time?

Harvard offered a wonderful mindfulness and compassion meditation class this summer for library staff called Skills for Inner and Outer Belonging. It made a big difference for me, and I’ve continued this practice for at least 15 minutes in the mornings before work.

Is there a collection at Harvard Library that you’d like to see digitized and made freely available to the world?

It’s tempting to pick one archival collection, but I would have to choose all the rare and still digitally unavailable “commercial” recordings that we have in our recordings collections, especially our Archive of World Music.

Elisha Jewell is seated and holding a recording device. She is facing Peter Laurence, who is also seated. They are both holding vinyl records. There is an open archival box behind them.

Preservation Services intern Elisha Jewell interviews Sound Recording Librarian Peter Laurence about the Classic Crates collection, 2019. Photograph: Catherine Badot-Costello, Book Conservator for Special Collections

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