The Found Music Review for September 2019

The Found Music Review for September 2019


A super-supercentenarian, a family band, and a post-Soviet McDonald’s—here’s the latest in music I’ve found online:

Antisa Khvichava serenaded on her 130th birthday

The Associated Press video archive has become an obsession of mine recently, and this find represents its bizarre charm. We enter the home of Antisa Khvichava in Sachino, Georgia on July 9, 2010. The occasion? Her supposed 130th birthday.

A quick search will tell you that no human has verifiably topped 122, but this shouldn’t stop us from celebrating Ms. Khvichava’s life. Even the AP was just curious enough to publish this video, but cautious enough to attach the simple caption: “Woman who claims to be 130 celebrates her birthday.” And just as you might expect from a 130-year-old, she lies in bed with a smile as cameras snap around her. Setting aside the specifics of her actual age, she is old. When seven women enter suddenly, cutting through the otherwise ambient silence of the AP video, they sing beautifully, accompanied by what looks like a panduri or a choghur. A shot I particularly love is the line made by the heads of Khvichava in bed, an old man sitting beside her, and the standing women. It feels as though the whole world came to her on that day.

Woman who claims to be 130 celebrates her birthday

From the perspective of an ethnomusicologist, her case is an interesting one because her birth predated the standardization of Georgian folk music. What she hears is, presumably, the end result of a long game of telephone. She recognizes the songs, which have remained, in one form or another, for all her life. They surely sound familiar, but if anyone could spot a bad historical recreation, it would be her.

Still, it’s best to just let the eccentricities of this encounter wash over you. There’s a push and pull between merely celebrating her life with pictures and interviews and using the occasion as a means of age verification. One option is to seethe with rage and claim she is being unfairly exploited for a news story, but the other is to combine both motives into a single, beautiful moment. She is remarkable because she attracted attention, and she hasn’t harmed anyone along the way. Generations of her family surround her in this strange spectacle that has me smiling and shaking my head too. Antisa Khvichava died two years later, bringing her final age to an impressive 132.

The gospel singing Schuyler family

There are hundreds of thousands of recordings like this one—a musician or group of musicians let an archivist into their home to get the scoop. I’m a fan of this series on the Library of Congress website that presents longform combinations of interview and performance of the singing Schuyler family from North Carolina. It comes a generation or two after the first round of this type of recording, and the 1978 recording quality is outstanding. It’s an immersive session with at least eight parts to it, and the musicians are quick to articulate not only their history, but their influences as well. An acute quietness surrounds them right up until they break out in song and use their years of experience to sing their favorites.

Give the World a Smile: the Schuyler Family Singers

What doesn’t stick out immediately (or ever, sometimes) on CD compilations or edits of these interviews are the curious minutiae that explain how and why folks got into a life of music. The interviewer and the Schuylers talk about shape note songbooks, their neighbor down the road, and their relationships with each other. As someone who has spent a lot of time transcribing unedited interviews, I can safely say that there is useful information hidden in the exchanges between interviewer and interviewee. What does the performer jump at the chance to talk about and what do they hold back? Where is the interviewer applying pressure, and is it working? I know I’m rooting for the Schuylers here, but of course the tape I hear is a product of Mr. Charles K. Wolfe.

That being said, very little of a typical archivist’s romanticism comes through here, which separates it from much of its surroundings. Wolfe does fact gathering, participates in shop talk, and the performers provide a few tunes for proof of concept. Whether you’re a new entrant into the world of the archive or a longtime fan, this series is worth a listen.


Honorable Mentions

“Minneapolis Tribune” and another song

Happy Jack Woodward performs for Alan Lomax in two scratchy recordings that I found while searching for something Minneapolis-related. The middle song recounts the tale of a girl named Mamie placing a personal ad in the Minneapolis Tribune asking her faraway father to come home because June, her mother and his wife, is in poor health. In a “mining camp unknown” in Alaska, the father reads it and comes home. Good old Star Trib.

Russian McDonald’s 20th anniversary celebration

Eerily similar to the 130th birthday party, this clip from the same year celebrates 20 years of McDonald’s in Russia. A folk dancing group in traditional dress stands in the middle of the restaurant as Canadian founder of McDonald’s in Russia, George Cohon, interviews. It’s surreal and worth a watch. I’ll defer to pensioner Alla Kogan, who said, “The entire mood, especially among old people, is negative because it is hard to live, I mean on the economic side.”

Crowd persuading Cyril to sing (and Cyril singing)

A delight from the British Library, this excerpt features a crowd egging on Cyril to sing. Of course, Cyril knows how to sing and knows everyone would love to hear it. But Cyril is sly, and brushes them off. A separate recording proves he can sing, but it remains unknown if the crowd persuaded him to sing that day.