‘Don’t divide music into the serious and frivolous.
Music can only be good or bad.
You can compose a magnificent simple song and trashy opera.’
— Naum Shafer
There is a city located in the centre of Eurasia, on the territory of Kazakhstan. The city is named Pavlodar. It was founded in 1721 in the epoch of the Russian Empire as an outpost for the protection of salt-mining industries. The city became the centre of the region with highly developed industry and cultural life in the Soviet period. These days the world’s largest collection of gramophone records (not to be confused with vinyl ones) is situated in this city. The collection consists of more than 14,000 discs. Some of them exist as the only saved copy in the whole world. This collection was put together by a professor, musicologist, literary critic, writer, composer Naum Grigorievich Shafer.
This story began even before the birth of Naum Grigorievich, in 1930, when a gramophone and 30 records were presented to his parents as a gift for their wedding. That time the family have been living in Bessarabia occupied by Romania (today Chisinau, Moldova). Already since his earliest years, little Naum showed much more interest for the gramophone and the records than for the toys. In 1940, Soviet troops entered Bessarabia. In 1941, 8 days before the war against fascist Germany, the Shafers were deported to Kazakhstan together with many people of various nationalities. Representatives of the new government allowed each family to take no more than 100 kilograms of luggage.
The gramophone and the discs were included in the load of the Shafers. The NKVD employees (NKVD means Committee of internal affairs – the name of KGB in the early years of the Soviet Union) who came to evict the family tried to forbid them to take this property away with them. Apparently, they very much liked ‘miracle of technology’ (rare for that time). Little Naum who was in love with music, realised already in his childhood he could eventually find the same gramophone, but perhaps he would never find the same records. And he used the most powerful children’s weapon — crying and tearful requests to allow him to save his favourite things. Seeing this, one of the police officers urged his colleagues to follow the instructions and to allow the Shafers to take 100 kilograms of any luggage. Naum Grigorievich is still grateful to this man today. So, in June 1941, the Shafers family arrived in Kazakhstan with their gramophone and 30 records. They were settled in a village near Akmola (now Astana). Those 30 records became the basis of the collection of Naum Shafer. As it turned out, Shafers and other deportees were very lucky with this deportation, because when Bessarabia passed to the Germans, many local residents, mostly Jewish, were killed. Including the relatives of the Shafers who stayed in the place where they lived before the war.
Naum Shafer graduated from school in his new motherland and enrolled in the Faculty of Phylology of the Kazakh State University in Almaty. He continued to collect gramophone records. He also discovered the talent of the composer inside himself. He performed his work ‘Evening Waltz’ at an amateur art contest during his student years. The awards jury was attended by the famous Soviet Russian composer, Yevgeniy Brusilovskiy, who worked in Kazakhstan at that time and was very fond of Kazakh music. Brusilovskiy became the founder of Kazakh professional music, the Kazakh national opera, and he was the composer of its best examples. He appreciated the abilities of Naum Shafer and began to teach him music individually for free. Brusilovskiy even advised Shafer to quit philology and to enter the music conservatory. Mr. Shafer (at that time — comrade) didn’t want to enter the music conservatory, but he continued to create as a composer, taking the pseudonym Nami Gitin.
When Brusilovsky found out that Naum Shafer collected gramophone records, he was delighted, saying ‘You have no idea what you are doing!’. Brusilovskiy repeatedly appealed to the USSR Ministry of Culture with the request to create music libraries all over the state in addition to many book libraries already created. The answer always followed — ‘Well, we print musical notes’. Yevgeniy Brusilovskiy tried to explain to the officials only the sounds of the recording could convey the style of performance. These arguments had no effect. Therefore, having learned about the enthusiasm of his student, Brusilovskiy instructed him to continue to update his collection of the records, assuring him that this this was a very important thing for the entire human civilisation.
So, Naum Shafer continued. He collected more than 14,000 gramophone records during 50 years. He bought them in stores, corresponded with collectors from many foreign countries and exchanged discs with them. Naum Shafer’s wife Natalia Mikhailovna Kapustina always provided tremendous support to her spouse. Naum Grigorievich calls her a heroic woman. The couple had agreed between them to spend Naum Grigoryevich’s salary for records and books while spending Natalya Mikhailovna’s salary for everything else. Nowadays the collection contains records issued on all the continents of the Earth (except Antarctica, of course) during the period from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. The music of almost all nations of the world is recorded on them — from folk music to classical symphonies.
The collection includes the archive of 1930’s Kazakh music recorded on gramophone discs, which is the largest in Kazakhstan. There are more than 10,000 vinyl records, more than 1,500 tape reels and compact cassettes in the collection. The owner of all this cultural treasure personally made more than half a million cards — each one for each song. It was made so as to be able to find a record easily. In 2002, with the help of local authorities, the Shafer house museum was opened in Pavlodar. The house-museum also has a library that consists of more than 17,000 books and more than 64,000 newspapers and magazines (since the 1930’s). Over 100 issues of Russian writers and poets, printed in the 19th century, are the most valuable among books. Naum Grigoryevich and Natalia Mikhailovna live literally behind the wall.
Naum Shafer has always been an admirer of Isaac Dunaevsky’s work (the famous Soviet composer). In 1988 he officially published a unique compilation named ‘Isaac Dunaevsky visiting Mikhail Bulgakov’. The compilation was issued on vinyl at the Soviet label ‘Melody’. It includes works that Dunaevskiy has been performing at his friend Mikhail Bulgakov’s home (another famous Russian Soviet writer, author of “The Master and Margarita’), and which were not published during the composer’s life. Naum Shafer has been collecting these records for 15 years. Dunaevsky’s son, Yevgeniy, was so shaken up by this act that he gave to Naum Grigorievich a few dozen gramophone records from his father’s personal collection. There are the rarest copies among them which were secretly brought to Isaac Dunaevskiy from abroad by his friends among diplomats (many kinds of foreign music were forbidden in the Soviet Union that time).
In 1995, Naum Shafer published a compilation named ‘Little bricks’ on vinyl too. This is an anthology of urban Russian songs over 100 years (between the 1850s – 1950s). The songs were performed by talented Pavlodar musicians working in Russia and the USA. It was the last vinyl record published under the label ‘Melody’.
In 2008, Paul Brummel, the British Ambassador to Kazakhstan, visited the Shafer House Museum. Mr. Brummel was pleasantly surprised by the presence of English records in the collection of Naum Grigorievich, which he had never seen in his life even in the United Kingdom. He listened with pleasure the songs on the gramophone that his grandmother sang him in his childhood. At the initiative of Paul Brummell, the British Council in Kazakhstan published a booklet about the Shafer House Museum in English.
In 2010 the museum was visited by the Greek ambassador Evangelos Denaksas. The wife of Mr. Denaksas is a musicologist. Mr. Denaksas was so impressed by the fact that any Greek song he called immediately materialized as a record on a gramophone disk. After that, the museum staff began to joke: they have everything – like in Greece (a popular Soviet joke at the times of commodity deficits).
In 2016, another citizen of the British Crown, a former DJ, and now an engineer, Nicholas Brigham, who has been working in Kazakhstan, was granted a visit to the Shafer House Museum. Nicholas, like his compatriot Mr. Brummell, also enjoyed listening to English gramophone records of the songs that were well-known to him from childhood. He presented a 1963 vinyl record of The Beatles to Naum Grigorievich. Naum Grigorievich presented his vinyl compilation ‘Little Bricks’ and a compilation of the songs by jazz singer Bing Crosby to Nicholas.
The Shafer House museum is very popular among guests from abroad. Naum Grigoryevich is always glad to receive every guest who is in love with music. He is ready to personally conduct a tour of his museum and play the records that his visitors have interest in. This is despite the fact that he is already 88 years old and has almost lost his eyesight. The gramophone stylus is designed to play only three records. After this the stylus must be changed. When the gramophone styluses in the Shafer’s house-museum were almost all used, Kazakhstan’s famous journalist and writer, Yury Pominov, with his son Dmitry, made a gift to Naum Grigorievich. According to their order, 700 styluses were made at a plant in Azerbaijan using preserved old patterns.
The museum also has a concert hall. Weekly, on Fridays, literary and musical evenings, presentations of museum projects, meetings with poets, composers, musicians, and artists take place in this concert hall. There is also a unique object that makes an appearance — a rare gramophone, which is more than 120 years old. The museum’s attendees listen to gramophone records on it. This is great opportunity to hear the echoes of the history.
Collectors from around the world have repeatedly appealed to Naum Shafer asking him to sell his collection, offering a lot of money for it. Each of them is ready to allocate a large building to moving the museum of records, and to make it the pearl of the cultural life of their city. But Naum Grigoryevich loves Pavlodar, and still wants to save his entire collection in this city for the next generations.
Sadly relations with the authorities are not always so good, however. Recently, Naum Shafer had to appeal to the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, Bakhytzhan Sagintayev, with a request to save the museum from another so-called “optimization” (a word popular among Kazakhstani officials to explain the liquidation of an enterprise). Bakhytzhan Sagintayev, when he was governor of Pavlodar region, always appreciated the work of Naum Grigorievich, and now he has helped the museum to preserve its status. But, as mentioned above, professor Shafer almost completely lost his eyesight which he believes are due to the nervous experiences related to the protection of the house-museum from the attacks of local officials.
These days the heads of Pavlodar region have set themselves the task of developing tourism in the region and attracting foreign tourists in particular. Hopefully the officials will understand the significance of Naum Shafers’s unique collection and will do everything possible to help the museum, because this is the only collection of its kind in the world. Indeed, perhaps it can help make Pavlodar the centre of attraction for true connoisseurs of music from around the world.
Text by Vladislav Yermachenko
Photos: Vladislav Yermachenko, Nicholas Brigham and from the archive of the Shafer’s house-museum