In summer 2014, four writers and one record collector were sitting in a room in Faber, Va. The record collector, an adept and passionate scholar, was Chris King. He had been playing 78s from his collection, which he keeps in plain brown sleeves that are not marked. They are organized by genre and region, and King not only knows which record is where, despite the lack of markings, but what the matrix number on the label is before he pulls it out of the sleeve.
On that July night, after a generous amount of bourbon and American blues, he played a song called “Kalamatianos.” The performers are listed as K. Bournelis, F. Tsilikos and Christos Kantilas, and the English translation of the title is “Dance of Kalamata.” It was originally issued in a 78 rpm format on CO-DG-195 with a control matrix of W.G.-308 and was recorded in Athens in 1932. The musicians were Greek, from the Peloponnese.
King sat back in his chair, behind his Technics turntable, acting as both radio DJ and preacher. He was wearing a sleeveless undershirt and tortoise-shell glasses. He put the needle down on the record and then laid several fragments of toothpicks on top of the headshell, to push the needle slightly deeper into the grooves and withdraw as much information as possible.
The song we heard is now the first track on “Why the Mountains Are Black,” a new compilation of Greek village music produced by King and released by Jack White’s label, Third Man Records.
What he played made two of us sit up straight. It was a crackly old record, and it sounded entirely un-Western, but something was familiar. One of the people in the room with me was the novelist Hari Kunzru. At the same time, we looked at each other and said, “Is that a 303?”
That’s the model number of a rudimentary bass synthesizer and sequencer made by Roland. We were, in fact, hearing a frame drum and the woodwind sound of two zournas being played in 1932, so, no, it wasn’t. But we weren’t entirely off. It wasn’t just how steady and metronomic the timekeeping was — the keening, instrumental song was pushing us into a state we already knew, for other reasons. READ MORE