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Vol. 12 No. 2 (2023): Access to Waxes – The Collections from the Arab World of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Digitization and Open Access Publication

From Wax Cylinder to Metal Disc: Transplanting Robert Lachmann’s “Oriental Music” Project from Berlin to Jerusalem on the Eve of World War II

  • Ruth F. Davis


Of the multidisciplinary cohort of scholars associated with the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv in its formative decades, it is Robert Lachmann (1892–1939) who, in his approach to fieldwork and the importance he attached to it, comes closest to adopting the methods of classic ethnomusicology. In April 1935, having been dismissed from his post in the Prussian State Library under the Nazi racial laws, he took up a temporary appointment at the newly founded Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a mission to create an Archive of Oriental Music. He brought with him copies of his entire collection of some 500 wax cylinder recordings held in the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv. Between 1935 and 1938, Lachmann made 956 recordings on metal disc documenting musical traditions of different "Eastern" communities of Palestine. His writings from this period, however, relied predominantly on research carried over from his Berlin years. The most substantial, and the first to be completed, is his monograph Jewish Cantillation and Song in the Isle of Djerba (Gesänge der Juden auf der Insel Djerba) based on his fieldwork in Djerba in 1929. In this contribution, I argue that Lachmann's pioneering study of this Tunisian Jewish community provided the methodological blueprint for much of his work in Palestine. I focus on his series of 12 radio programs, entitled "Oriental Music," transmitted by the Palestine Broadcasting Service between November 1936 and April 1937. The programs, which feature different groups living in or around Jerusalem, were illustrated by live studio performances by local musicians and singers, simultaneously recorded onto metal disc. In successive lectures, Lachmann presents fundamental ideas about the nature and evolution of musical practices and systems that are explored more fully in his Djerba monograph.

Thwarted by inadequate finances and lack of institutional support, Lachmann's work was cut short by his premature death in May 1939 and it fell to his former student, Edith Gerson-Kiwi, to pick up the threads of his project. His collecting activities, together with the comparative vision that informed them, laid the foundations for the work of subsequent generations of ethnomusicologists.