Tuned to Another Ear: The Field Recordings and Photographs of Charles Duvelle
by Ian Forsythe

Charles Duvelle, called a “free electron of ethnomusicology” and an “untamed” ethnomusicologist, more humbly refers to himself as a “westerner with a microphone.” The legendary French ethnomusicologist, known for his development and direction of Disques OCORA, one of the most important record labels of the 20th century, lived in Indochina until age nine. His father was a colonial governor who romanticized France, the French legacy, and its history, and did his best to impart this fondness to his son. But when Duvelle’s family moved back to Paris, Duvelle was disappointed. He thought of this cultural capital as a poor place—dirty, cold, and colorless—and Indochina as a colorful paradise. Duvelle’s youthful contempt for western culture and interest in something else, something more colorful, reflects the dimensionality and transparency he brings to his recordings and photographs.

Disques OCORA developed out of a French state-led effort to diffuse radio programs in Africa, Société de Radiodiffusion de la France d’Outre-mer (SORAFOM), later called the Office de Coopération Radiophonique (OCORA). Even though Disques OCORA produced and distributed LPs like any label, it operated as a tiny, conflicting branch under SORAFOM/OCORA. Its development coincided with a decolonizing Africa and the African radio boom in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. These French-led diffusion efforts were taking on different meanings and their functions were repurposed to favor neocolonialism, branded as something less overbearing. Note the clever use of cooperation in OCORA, a polished verbiage used to avoid any neocolonialist implications. Ninety-nine percent of this media outreach produced French material. Disques OCORA was the one percent responsible for material from Africa. The extensive recordings Duvelle was responsible for under Disques OCORA were some of the first ever in certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa. While Disques OCORA is often remembered as a label, these recordings were multifaceted and profoundly political; this landmark label disseminated unheard music to record shops, but it was also using these recordings to subtly and succinctly shrink France’s neocolonial efforts, creating African music recordings for African towns to use as their own. Duvelle rejected bulky and ambiguous neocolonial efforts, and effectively used a portion of the state's resources to instead empower African dialects and sprouting nations.

“While Disques OCORA is often remembered as a label, these recordings were multifaceted and profoundly political; this landmark label disseminated unheard music to record shops, but it was also using these recordings to subtly and succinctly shrink France’s neocolonial efforts”

Before the ‘50s, radio listening at home wasn’t affordable in Africa. The average home receiver cost £30-£40 and electricity wasn’t common at home. Radio was listened to in public spaces, around loudspeakers. Some West African coastal cities used radio diffusion systems with wired relays to fixed speakers which extended the distance of radio’s reach, but it was still dependent on people going to public places to listen to radio, following through the ambience of crowds. In 1948, Harry Franklin convinced the Ever Ready Company in Britain—with rallying support from the Central African Broadcasting Station (CABS) in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia—to develop a cheap, shortwave, dry-battery receiver, so Africans could listen to the radio in their homes. Franklin had some questionable motives, but Britain liked the idea, since it meant they could extend their government’s voice in Central Africa, and the CABS liked it since they were a broadcasting company. Ever Ready came up with the “Saucepan Special,” a four-tube tropicalized shortwave radio made from a handle-less saucepan. In a way, it was like the Volksempfänger. Painted blue—based on the idea that Africans didn’t associate this color with a superstition—they were covered with gauze to avoid haywire insects, but most importantly, they cut the cost of a home receiver from £30-£40 to £5 (with £1.50 for the batteries). This was somewhat of a breakthrough for the diffusion of radio listening, with Franklin distributing 50,000 sets, many of which made their way outside of Central Africa. But the cost was still high given the average income, and later, battery problems arose. The “Saucepan Special” might best be thought of as instigating the desire to have radio sets in African homes, matched by looming governments, colonizers, radio stations, and listeners alike. But it was ultimately a precursor to the transistor radio, which drastically increased the number of home radio sets: the number of radios in sub-Saharan Africa grew from 460,000 receivers in 1955 to 4.8 million in 1965, and 18.5 million in 1975. It goes without saying that the transition from the ‘50s into the ‘60s marked a radio boom in Africa. Considering dozens of countries’ newly gained independence, radio was of interest to nearly everyone, and for vastly different reasons.

While Schaeffer was with RTF, Jacques Soustelle, then governor of Algeria and soon to be Minister of Information under Charles de Gaulle, asked him to scramble the signals of radio programs coming from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, where Soviets were shooting off propaganda transmissions through Radio Cairo. Schaeffer, reportedly offered “so many millions” to scramble these signals, convinced Soustelle and the other determined officials to instead fund his more docile idea of developing local radio stations in Africa, alongside creating a program in Paris to help African locals write, design, and carry out programs for these new stations. The hope was that people would tune in to local stations rather than stations based in larger cities with a further reach, which also had a higher chance of being hijacked. And so, the Radiodiffusion de la France d’Outre-mer (RFOM), or “French Overseas Broadcasting,” was created in 1954 as part of the RTF, with Schaeffer acting as directeur général. He held that title through a name change—RFOM became the Société de Radiodiffusion de la France d’Outre-mer (SORAFOM) just a year later—and until 1957. SORAFOM was replaced by the Office de Coopération Radiophonique (OCORA) in 1962, with Robert Pontillon as the first directeur général.

While RFOM/SORAFOM was starting in the early-to-mid-50s, concurrent to Africa’s radio boom, Duvelle was finishing studies in music theory at the National Conservatory of Paris and started working as a composer. Duvelle, asked by a film director to create music inspired by Africa, realized that he didn’t really know what African music sounded like. This led him to the RFOM, a place near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris that kept a little collection of tapes with African music. Duvelle found that these tapes were poorly recorded, they weren’t classified, and they were not solely music—they contained a lot of speeches and interviews of presidents, ministers, and other African personalities. But they sparked an interest in what Duvelle calls the world’s contemporary music—Duvelle has a distinct contempt for so-called contemporary music, especially Boulez. As part of RFOM/SORAFOM’s mission, these tapes came from Africa and back to Paris to produce radio programs for French-speaking Africa. Toward the end of 1959, Duvelle convinced Pontillon to let him classify and organize these tapes, putting him in charge of the Phonothèque Centrale (sound archive) at SORAFOM. This eventually led him to organize the sound archives in the developing radio stations in Africa, where Duvelle also found tapes with poor sound quality, and a lack of classification and identification.

“Duvelle wanted these LPs to be played at home; he wanted this contemporary music to be sold and treated as a living music.”

Duvelle’s first experience recording in Africa was in Niger, in 1961. He was assisted by Garba Sidikou, a well-known host of Radio Niger. Sidikou’s presence provided a sense of trust in the villages they travelled to and assured the villagers that because of Duvelle’s recordings, their music would soon be broadcasted. Duvelle left a copy of the recordings at the radio station and took a copy back with him to Paris. Throughout his 15 years at OCORA, this was essentially Duvelle’s process. Duvelle slowly built relationships with Sub-Saharan radio hosts affiliated with SORAFOM/OCORA (maybe the most notable being Cameroonian musician Francis Bebey) and their communities. When traveling to unfamiliar regions, local radio hosts and musicians welcomed him to the community, assisted him, granted him access to ceremonies, and more practically, spoke the local languages.

Removed from the “field” and back in Paris, Duvelle would go over all this recorded material. The RFOM/SORAFOM budget allotted to Duvelle allowed him to make a few LPs for internal purposes. He produced three LPs of recordings from Niger, Upper Volta, and Ivory Coast, and, by his own means, he sold them direct and through a distribution company. When creating what would become his first LPs, Duvelle considered the audio quality, originality, duration of the music, and contrast between recordings, also keeping in mind what those recorded were most excited about and what a more abstract, international audience would be most intrigued by. The Upper Volta and Ivory Coast LPs won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1962, allowing him the financial means to expand the series. The first eight releases in the series were released under the catalog number SOR (for SORAFOM), Rythmes et chants du Niger, a 7” (SOR 4) being the first release under Duvelle’s direction. SOR 1/2 and 3 were created as gifts for political reasons—Duvelle refers to his boss as more of a politician who’d court foreign officials with recordings, rather than a real amateur of African music. The catalog numbers switched to OCR (once SORAFOM became OCORA), the first release with the OCR catalog number being the 7” Republique Centrafricaine (OCR 11).

His expeditions went further than the Gulf of Guinea: he went to Chad, North Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Mauritania, Congo, Senegal, Papua New Guinea, Gabon, South Africa, and São Tomé and Príncipe, and later he went to Armenia, Iran, and India.

The dozens of LPs Duvelle created involved immersive photography and high-quality recordings, all packaged in clothbound covers with inset photographs and gold-leaf printing, similar to the Sublime Frequencies edition here. Wanting to attract a wide international audience, even the “refined” music snobs, and to best represent the people he recorded, Duvelle presented this music as if it were a part of the Deutsche Grammophon series. Duvelle was involved with every step of the LP-making process—from recording to marketing, from design to distribution. Duvelle wanted these LPs to be played at home; he wanted this contemporary music to be sold and treated as a living music.

Before Duvelle’s OCORA collections, non-western music LPs created by western collectors were filled with sweeping generalizations; regions were bundled up and labeled by continent (maybe with a “South” or “East” in front of it). The majority were made either through a sublabel of larger commercial labels—coming with the baggage of commercial appeal—or through academic institutions or museums—often turning into material for discussion in academic circles, which were then treated like artifacts and stowed away in libraries, never making it to a shelf in a record store.

“Duvelle’s bohemian-like approach side-stepped academic saturations and avoided commercial leanings. His stylistic nuance, from recording to packaging, was an exception in the field and it soon became the ideal. He let idioms be idioms, all while putting neocolonial efforts on their head.”

Compared to, for example, Alan Lomax’s World Library Of Folk And Primitive Music—with LP titles like Indonesia or Japan and something like 28 tracks to a side—Duvelle’s LPs were radical. His selections, composed of unheard instruments and unknown musical ideas sometimes lasting over 10 minutes, something unheard of outside of Indian or gamelan music at the time. Descriptions in “world” music recordings, if present, were theoretical, speculative, and evolutionist. These descriptions grew from academia’s want to compare non-western music to something more familiar, or to at least put it in a theoretical framework: leading variations stemmed from the likes of Carl Stumpf, Carl Sachs, and Alan Lomax, to name a few. To be a little more Franco-centric you could look to François-Joseph Fétis, Victor Mahillon, Andre Schaeffner, and Julien Tiersot as French musicologists who shaped the country’s history in the field, all of which were also system-obsessed, albeit with a keener focus on organology. Instead, Duvelle’s descriptions were modest and lightly anthropological; using adjectives over fractured academic terms, he elaborated on cultural environments rather than transposing it to a western scale. Not to downplay the importance of some of these recordings, but the majority were still working under this guise of exoticization or preservation, treating non-western musicians as subjects of fascination or science. Duvelle’s bohemian-like approach side-stepped academic saturations and avoided commercial leanings. His stylistic nuance, from recording to packaging, was an exception in the field and it soon became the ideal. He let idioms be idioms, all while putting neocolonial efforts on their head.

Duvelle left OCORA in 1974 once the ORTF fractured, leaving Disques OCORA under the umbrella of Radio France. He soon created INEDITS ORTF, a series of Western classical music devoted to unpublished French music from the Middle Ages to more recent times, in conjunction with Barclay Records. Later, he went back to composing and moved to the USA to work with different synthesizer manufacturers, including Sequential Circuits. After encouraging meetings with Jean-Philippe Allard, he started the PROPHET collection (named after the synthesizer) in 1998, under Philips. Reaching nearly 50 releases, a portion of those CDs were amended and extended recordings from his Disques OCORA tapes, along with newer recordings (a lot of which documented his travels to Asia).

In Hisham Mayet’s comprehensive interview of Duvelle, Mayet draws a comparison from Duvelle’s ethnomusicological efforts to his sort-of contemporary, cinema vérité pioneer Jean Rouch. Duvelle states they had a common idea of recording “things as they really are,” describing their purpose of “looking for authenticity.” Duvelle goes on to say that he approached his field recordings as a musician, not a witness, using his microphone like a musical instrument. His experience with recording in studios prior to his expeditions seems to have given him the upper hand, but when you consider the logistics of what Duvelle accomplished, it’s remarkable. He was equipped with a Nagra 3 tape recorder slung over his shoulder and a Sennheiser MD21 microphone in one hand with his other hand controlling the volume. He used a Rolleiflex camera for black-and-white photographs, and a Voigtländer camera for color photos. He tried using a Lévêque 8mm LD8 camera for filming, but soon ditched it to lighten his load. This is in addition to the fact that he had to be selective overall; film itself is an inherent limit that’s often forgotten about in the digital infinity that’s taken for granted today. Keeping in mind the composition of both his photographs and recordings, Duvelle captured unfamiliar vernaculars maybe not with complete objectivity, but truthfully.

Duvelle’s complete care, from liners to his selection of photographs and recordings, is prominently displayed in this Sublime Frequencies edition. Sifting the wide gamut of Duvelle’s archives, Mayet and Duvelle have surfaced 16 recordings, totaling just over two hours, that span a variation of regions, languages, and social registers. Not latched to a specific region, the collection drifts through Duvelle’s career, but the majority of the recordings are from the ‘70s, his OCORA period. There are over 200 photographs here, with an index to describe each one. Some recordings are previously unpublished while others have been amended and extended for this edition. Bookended by two shots of Duvelle recording in the “field,” with thumbnail galleries of both Disques OCORA and Collection PROPHET, the aforementioned comprehensive interview, and Duvelle’s own track notes, this edition might feel like a “greatest hits.” But while the material is essentially finely sliced cross-sections of Duvelle’s past and functions as a reflection on his career as an ethnomusicologist—something that hasn’t exactly been laid out anywhere else—it comes off as new and unending, and it feels like an extension of his catalog, not a summation.

The Photographs of Charles Duvelle is a colossal feat that rubs all the right pressure points. It not only speaks to the volumes of Duvelle’s recordings and photographs, it subtly elaborates on them through sequence and selection. ”

Some of the more sobering recordings are of sole instrumentalists who are not necessarily performing. The 11th track on disc one, titled “Bobal Solo,” captures a Peul shepherd, Moussa Sondé, (Peul being one of the larger Muslim ethnic groups in West Africa) playing the bobal, an instrument described in Duvelle’s track notes as “a kind of clarinet made of a single millet stem, part of which forms the vibrating reed.” The shepherd practices the bobal when looking after his flock and in this recording, he uses it to call his flock to drink. This doesn’t sound intimate, but it comes off as a near-melismatic confession exceeding virtuosity, equal parts splintering and bolstering, all afforded by a single millet stem. The context is happenstance and subtle; there isn’t a religious court or an audience of any sort, it’s in the middle of field. A recording from Papua New Guinea titled “Samy Faly” is of a young Huli “addressing the girl he wants to charm,” as Duvelle puts it. A coarse falsetto with interjections of a pili pe bamboo pipe starts and stops like the fidgets of a nervous lover, confident in emotion. “Laments,” a track from 1974, displays the “poignant polyphonic style” of two women expressing the regret of losing a loved one. It’s a condensed, contoured expression, and how each singer burrows in, then out of the other’s voice feels surgically tense.

Listening to these recordings is like having someone hold their thumbs down on your eyelids at midnight and letting them go at high noon; everything is bright and unimagined, supple and expanding. From the dulling draw of a godié or the rhythmic and melodic flexing of a marovany, to the more ambient noises—the vibrations of peanut seeds in metallic boxes, palms cupping rosewood bridges, metal wrist jingles droning, the hollowness of a calabash—all these sounds are captured as they are and in their own contexts: festivals, funerals, initiation ceremonies, homes. The selection of photographs and recordings lends itself to involved interpretations. You can imagine musical conversations relayed through generations of oral traditions in a family of griots, off-handedly improvised by a musician’s buoyant interpretation, or the setting of pig-killing festivities, growing then folding into nightfall. The Photographs of Charles Duvelle is a colossal feat that rubs all the right pressure points. It not only speaks to the volumes of Duvelle’s recordings and photographs, it subtly elaborates on them through sequence and selection. It takes the time to match Duvelle’s deftness in craft.

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