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FEATURE: Digitizing vinyl to preserve history - the 78's project

Ron Mahonin working on removing cracks and noise from an imported vinyl recording; Photo, Mona Mattei

Technology has finally caught up with the dreams of some Doukhobor musicians to preserve their heritage in the 78’s project headed by Grand Forks local Ron Mahonin for the Doukhobor Discovery Centre in Castlegar. Traditionally Doukhobor songs are three different types: psalms, hymns, and folk songs. Over the years, many of these songs were recorded on vinyl records. Mahonin, songwriter, musician and music producer, has taken on the task of preserving the history inherent in these recordings by digitizing them and telling their story.

Last year Mahonin completed the Psalmist Project for the Doukhobor Discovery Centre in Castlegar which documented on video some of the history of the tradition of psalm singing and recorded many psalms. In another project funded through the B.C. Arts Council and the Discovery Centre Ron was able to digitize Doukhobor hymn songs from vinyl recordings and posted them to the web. These songs covered records from 1970 through 1990’s with about 480 songs in all. Most of these songs were done a cappella in the Doukhobor tradition.

In this new project, Mahonin decided to try and capture the folk songs that had been recorded by groups around the West Kootenay / Boundary prior to the 70’s. While every museum/arts centre is struggling because of the drastic cuts imposed by the B.C. government, Mahonin explained, many enterprising museum projects have gone by the wayside. To his credit, Larry Ewashin, the curator of the Centre, went before the board and more or less insisted that this part of the project be done (with the hopes that funding could at sometime be secured) and so it has now been completed (at least, the 32 record sides restoration part of it). The next big challenge, said Mahonin, will be to put all the 53 records they collected, online in a comprehensive site.

These records were largely 78’s recorded in the 1940’s and 50’s. Mahonin says that this project was not just a job, but it’s been a trip back in time for him that has been historically revealing. While the Doukhobor tradition is to have songs as solely a cappella, many of these folk song recordings were made with instruments.

“These guys were recording and playing their instruments, but when Bubka would come by they’d put the instruments down and hide the guitar because this was taboo,” said Mahonin. “So when you look at that you realize that in 1954, when the majority of this started happening, this was still taboo. But these guys went ahead and they recorded.”

Some of the earliest records were done in Vancouver around 1947 and 1948 on the Aragon label (a predecessor to Mushroom Records) and others were recorded in Spokane around 1954 at a studio called Sound Recording Co. (SRC). Mahonin investigated why these companies were the ones that recorded the Doukhobors. It turns out that the owner of Aragon, Al Reusch, had been born in Saskatchewan and played in bands himself. Ron said that he can only guess that Reusch approached the Doukhobors and invited them to come down to record. Because the Aragon records were traditional songs without accompaniment there are many of them still around, but the SRC recordings had instruments and have been very hard to come by.

“You wonder why there’s a whole lot of Aragon records around but not very many of the SRC ones – the reason being is because a lot of Doukhobor families didn’t have them because they had musical instruments in them. As it turns out, a lot of families did buy them but wouldn’t profess to other families that they had them. Yet these guys forged ahead. You can imagine that even today to stray away from your original beliefs you’d be condemned for it. Back then it was even worse,” explained Mahonin.

Some of the artists that recorded on these collections are: Paul Chernoff, Frank and Ruby Konken, Peter Gritchen /Bill Khadikin, Frank Konken, Alex Konken and Fred Zibin. So far Mahonin has found about 18 records in good enough shape to work with and a total of 53. His ultimate goal is to complete a CD set to be available for sale, and post the recordings to the web with a history, interviews, and an online discography of the 78’s. While restoring the records, Mahonin was taken back to his youth remembering when these same artists played in his home and he was just a boy. In the time it was like these artists were rock stars and Ron says it had an effect on his own musical styles encouraging him to get into the music business. Re-producing these old songs has taken him full circle from his start in music to his work today.

“I remember as a little kid Bill Salikin coming over to the odd party that mom and dad had and he’d play accordion. And I’m restoring records that he played on now. It’s so ironic. I remember when he came over he was treated like Frank Sinatra. He was a rock star, and treated with such respect. All these guys had an effect musically on my own styles later on. It’s so ironic that it has come full circle, that I listened to these records as a young kid and here I am restoring them. It’s such a cool thing that the museum has done this,” reminisced Mahonin.

There are a number of steps to the process of restoring these old songs. First, Mahonin captures the recording from the vinyl record onto computer. In the first of many stages he takes time to remove crackle from the sound. Once the recording is smooth with no breaks, he is able to move the file onto his sound recording computer equipment where he works his final magic. Splitting the file into stereo (remember recordings back in those days were mono sound) and then working with each song to create “depth” – creating the high and low tones that people are so used to in the quality of recordings today.

In the end the music sounds like it was recorded yesterday with clear stereo sound and tonal depth. One can pick out the different instruments and vocals with each piece. Mahonin is using the technology of today to re-create yesterday’s music and preserve history.

“All of these projects end up giving you an insight into history that you never knew before. There’s a lot of accompanying history that goes along with it. It’s not just doing a project, and it’s not just making a record sound better,” said Mahonin. “This project will entail a history of what it was all about including interviews with the musicians. I’m quite excited about the historic part. I didn’t go searching to become a Doukhobor historian. To me it’s using the arts of yesterday and the artistic tools of today to bring something alive from yesterday.”

Links:

Doukhobor Music Site Online
Psalmist Project Online

Click on the audio clip below to hear a sample of a recording before and after restoration