Six years ago, record producer Julian Futter was given a pile of old 78s. He knew nothing about them apart from the fact that they included music derived from the Jews of Iraq.
These songs were later released in a celebrated CD called Shbahoth. However, included in the pile were a few records from Mumbai — fascinating to listen to, says Futter, but not enough in themselves to make an album.
“There was nothing much we could do about it,” he recalls. “But then, over a six-year period we began to track down the odd 78 here and another there until we had almost enough for a CD of music recorded in India in the 1930s.”
Vital to this process was the work of ethno-musicologist Sara Manasseh, a performer and researcher in Jewish musical traditions. She travelled to India in an attempt to discover more. Not only did she identify the performers but she received an unexpected gift. “I was presented with two old 78s by a singer called Zaki Solomon Isaac — they were wrapped in old newspaper. It turned out they were in perfect condition, and even had a shofar blast at the end.” These were the extra tracks they needed to complete a CD which they called Shir Hodu (Songs of India).
She says: “Many of these were Hebrew songs which my family, from Iraq, and I had sung when I was a child — the difference was to hear them accompanied by instruments, with extra introductions. Some of the tracks really conjure up India — they are serious, classical pieces of music.” However, there was work to be done before the CD could be released. Futter says: “The re-mastering presented all sorts of problems and challenges. The quality of some of the records was terrible and needed a lot of work to make them sound good”.
However there was also a balance to be struck. “You can over-transfer — if you get rid of all the background crackle, all you are left with is a mush of a sound, which is horrid. The thing is to reduce it enough so as to hear exactly what these guys sounded like originally.”
The results are impressive, claims Futter. “We all know that Jews lived in India but it’s an amazing feeling to hear people from another era sounding like they could be standing next to you. It’s almost like finding a golem and bringing him back to life again.”