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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Ethnic Records
By David Owens, 1977

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Ruth and David Owens 2010


Information: This started out to be an article on what to look for in reviewing ethnic records – or in deciding what to buy (or sell, in the case of record dealers). I have realized, however, that it could also be useful to anyone planning to produce a small, independent record.

My experience has come from producing several NAMA records, as well as from buying and evaluating lots of other records – foreign, national, and local. Looking at these records critically can show you some good things to do and lots of things not to do.

I have arranged my guidelines into five categories:

  1. Entertainment
  2. Authenticity
  3. Aesthetic
  4. Academic
  5. Miscellaneous

These guidelines are somewhat slanted towards ethnic folk dance records, but many of then can apply to other kinds. Keep in mind, however, that on any particular record, some of them may be much more relevant than others. For example, a primitive field recording may not be very entertaining to a general audience, but it should be authentic and have academic value. A "pop" record may be just the opposite. It is a good idea (for both the producer and the reviewer) to decide what is supposed to be important on each record.


  1. Does it entertain you? For most records, this is probably the most important consideration. It can also be highly subjective, particularly regarding choice of material. I may enjoy something that you find dull. Nonetheless, there are qualities tht distinguish good performances from bad: steady rhythm, good musicianship, "togetherness," plus a feeling of vitality or soul in the performers. Variety in the material is often desirable too, but not to where the record becomes a hodgepodge.

  2. High quality recordings. This depends on many factors: studio room acoustics, microphones, balancing, recording equipment, tape, master discs, pressing plates, and vinyl quality. (During petroleum shortages, 100% virgin vinyl is harder to get. Cheaper mixtures, such as with old frisbees thrown in, don't sound as good or last as long.) To adequately determine the final sound quality, I believe it is important to hear the record at least once, loud, on a good sound system – to see how "live," clean, and well balanced it sounds.


This is a category that applies mainly to groups doing folk material from another culture. Groups in Yugoslavia, for example, can (and sometimes do) record their own music in untraditional ways, but that's by choice, not by lack of knowledge of ability. No American group is likely to attain perfection in recreating the music of another country, but there is a wide range of success in approximating it. By the same token, it is hard to be competent to judge on authenticity in very many areas. If you haven't studied them, you probably have to call on an expert who has.

Keep in mind too, that some groups specifically do not try to be authentic: they present material in whatever style appeals to them. There's nothing wrong with this, as long as it's understood.

Some of the points to consider in authenticity are:

  1. Using the proper instruments for traditional music. Some of the modern instruments are now fairly universal (like violin and guitar), but there is only a certain range of instruments used in any area. For example, Hungarians don't use bouzoukis and Croatians don't use tûpans.

  2. Proper styling on the instruments. A Norwegian doesn't play his violin the way a Serbian does. Differences in such areas as ornamentation, attack, staccato vs. lagato, and harmony go a long way toward giving music its regional sound.

  3. Vocal styles also differ significantly from place to place. It can take lots of training to sing the way other people do, with the appropriate tightness in the throat, nasalicity, glottal stops, sound coming from the chest or throat, etc.

  4. The right words, in the right accent. Pronunciation of a foreign language also takes training. In addition, obtaining the correct words can be difficult even for a native speaker, due to colloquial slang, regional accents, and indistinct lyrics. Imagine (never having heard them before) trying to write down the words to "Mairzy Doats," "Waltzing Matilda," or Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lot of Shakin'"!

  5. Origin of music and dances. You have to be careful what you call "ethnic, folk," things are not always what they seem. For example, most of our popular "Irish" songs (such as "When Irish Eyes are Smiling") are not Irish at all. They were written here and intended to sound Irish. The same is true of a large percentage of the international folk dances done in this country.


Records have come a long way. Long play (LP) album covers are now often works of art in their own right, and much thought goes into their design – with reason, when you consider that records often have to sell on their appearance; record stores no longer let you listen to them. This is another area that depends upon subjective taste, but there are some things to look for. These can also apply to the record labels, and to any notes included as inserts.

  1. An attractive layout, not too cluttered or unbalanced. Photographs or drawings that are clear and interesting.

  2. Easily readable type, clean typesetting. Letters not to small, tilted, out of place, smudged, or too lightly printed. Accurate placement of lines of type (not at angles). Not too many wildly divergent type styles.

  3. Freedom from typographical errors. Incorrect spelling and grammar usually result from insufficient proofreading, and they detract from a professional image. You'd be surprised how many records say "accordian."


  1. With material from an unfamiliar folklore, there is an opportunity for people to learn something, so some background information is helpful. This can include: areas of origin, titles of tunes and their meanings, words to songs and their translations, descriptions of unusual instruments or rhythms, historical significance of the music or dance, cultural traditions, etc. Records range from saying virtually nothing up to including separate booklets on the subject.

  2. Whatever is said, it should be correct. This takes some study to avoid perpetuating old misinformation. A pet peeve of mine is the lack of correct spelling of foreign words, either in the original alphabet or in a consistent Latin transliteration. For example, the "a" in "Râčenica" and the "u" in "Trite Pûti" are both spelled and pronounced the same in Bulgarian, so they should for consistency be written with the same Latin letter, when they appear in the same source.

  3. Credit to composers, publishers, musicians, etc. Not all "folk" songs are anonymous. Some, like many Israeli dance songs, are copyrighted and controlled by an agency in New York, and it is legally required to give propler credit (and pay royalties). In any case, it's courteous and informative to acknowledge the people who created the songs. Also, when arrangements are copied almost directly from previous recordings, it's nice to credit the musicians or arrangers.

  4. Date of publication. For future reference, all published materials (records, notes, etc.) should be dated.


  1. ALL LPs are not the same length. Many consumers are unaware of the wide divergence in how much music they get for their money. I have some records that run thirty-five minutes per side. I have at least one (by a California folk group) that's just over eleven minutes per side. You cannot tell by looking – they space the grooves further apart apart. Thus, for truth-in-labeling, as well as for general interest, records should list the times on their pieces.

  2. Ironically, folk dance records impose restraints of their own, some of which fly in the face of trying to put a lot on them. These recordings must be played (often on poor-quality phonographs) in rooms where people are jumping up and down. If the grooves are too narrow, the needle may skip, or you may get a "pre-echo" (hearing the next groove over). In addition, folk dance records are usually played one selection at a time. This means that the bands between pieces should be fairly wide, which further restricts playing time. The limit is not well defined, but we estimate it at about tewenty munutes per side.

  3. Since individual selections have to be found on folk dance records, sometimes in rooms with low lighting, the label titles should be printed large and in strongly contrasting colors.

This list is probably not complete. We keep learning new things about music [such as using compact discs (CDs) and computers]. But, even though most people will never produce or review a record, I think that raising these points may increase the general awareness of what goes into making a good record.

David Owens was the director of the very fine instrumental and singing group, NAMA, of Southern California's most polished and professional folk orchestras dedicated to, but not limited to, the folk music of the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Near-East.

By the way, David recommends that you remove the plastic outer covering after you open the jacket. This covering is sometimes called a "shrink-wrap" because it is put on and shrinks tightly around the record jackets. This is fine as long as it presses evenly on all four sides, but after one side is cut open, the pressure is uneven on the other three sides and it may cause the jacket to bow or warp!

David and his wife, Ruth, live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, November 1977.

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