ALBUM (2004)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 February, 2011, 12:00am

Shanghai Lounge Divas
Various Artists

The story goes that EMI was about to demolish a storage room in its Mumbai offices in 2003 when someone happened upon something a little out of the ordinary. Inside an old trunk covered in Chinese characters was a treasure trove - a collection of recordings made by singers on the Pathe label who had helped the Shanghai nightlife scene sizzle through the 1920s and onwards. Most of the work it was assumed had been lost.

And so, ever the optimists, the record label looked around to see who might want to work with what they had found. Enter the Hong Kong-based production team of Ian Widgery and Morton Wilson and, they would recall later, just one listen revealed what marvels they had at their fingertips.

Originally, there were more than 500 tracks on which to work, many of them scratchy remnants of old 78 RPM records, filled with breathy vocals and ancient recording studio echoes. Reworked, remastered, remixed, these sweet, sometimes sorrowful tunes from a distant time have since struck a chord around the world - the package has gone an astonishing five times platinum in sales and inspired an entire new genre of music.

The cliche, of course, was that in those distant times Shanghai was the 'Paris of the Orient' but that phrase belittles, to some degree, just how unique were the sounds of the city's live music scene and the sights being shot in its films. In musical terms it was swing turning into soul, and much of this movement was captured on soundtracks to the films being produced by local studios at an astonishing rate.

What adds to the charm among the final selection here are the characters involved in the songs themselves - their lives feature in potted histories as part of the compilation, as too are the original recordings on a separate disc, if modern-day technical wizardry and back-beats don't really float your boat on the remixes.

And so when you hear Bai Kwong open up on Waiting 4 You, Autumn Evening and The Pretender, you'll realise that she was a massive star, fuelling her reputation as a temptress with any number of affairs until she fell foul of the rising tide of communism and escaped south to the relative safety of Hong Kong.

Li Xianglan, meanwhile, gives on Plum Blossom a taste of the vocal range that made her one of China's great pre-war stars until her Japanese heritage (and, again, some questionable friendships) cast her out of the country and into, of all things, life as a politician in the country of her parents.

The Divas collection gives us a little taste of the romance that was and, in some respects, still is, Shanghai and a window into a time when the city was the envy of the world for all the right reasons.