PORTLAND PRODUCER/DJ CHRISTOPHER KIRKLEY has earned well-deserved praise for his work over the last decade or so, as he's scoured West Africa for unheralded musical talent like Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar and Malian hiphop duo Supreme Talent Show. Using a laptop or a digital recorder, Kirkley captures their singular sounds and shares them with the world through his label, Sahel Sounds.
This kind of curatorial process is becoming something of a lost art, as technology has allowed musicians the world over ways to cheaply make their own recordings and disseminate them online. But in the decades following the birth of the recording industry, it was up to savvy engineers and scholars traveling the world to capture vernacular music on shellac 78s for mass consumption. Cultural historian Michael Denning's latest book, Noise Uprising, takes us back to the beginnings of this practice.
This deeply researched and densely fascinating read concentrates on the '20s, when steamship travel and the allure of bustling port cities helped create polyglot musical languages like early New Orleans jazz and the palm-wine music of Africa's Gold Coast. Seeking new markets and sounds, the major record companies of the time sent dozens of ambassadors to these regions of the world to document the work of artists like Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and the Halpin Trio of Limerick, Ireland.
Denning does an impressive job harnessing the various threads of this story into an easily consumable whole, even if the writing runs a little dry at times. As an academic, his description of the music can be too technical, but he ably expounds on the effects of this short-lived boom time in transnational recording—how it shifted music fans from live performances toward home listening, and how the new 78s started to influence the sounds of other artists. Denning also remains clear-minded about how the Great Depression quickly swept aside these advances.
Noise Uprising can be a lot to take in, bouncing as it does between continents and genres. But the book is a necessary chronicle that, through Denning's impressive studies and keen perspective, promises to expand the worldview of music lovers and cultural curiosity seekers alike.