Ray Topping

Some of my favorite images come from inspired amateurs. Not because of the lack of pretense or because the work is somehow more pure than that of professionals, I think the ground is pretty level for most of us in that area, but the kind of care that amateurism often affords. In this case, I’m thinking specifically of the rare illustration work of Ray Topping, a British connoisseur of American roots music. And even more specifically, I’m thinking of this watercolor he did for a compilation of the music of Rakotozafy.

Topping was a consultant to Ace Records, working a job as a paper merchant and then in the telephone division of the post office full-time to support his love for the music. Early on Topping had talent as an artist, even attending the Slade School of Art for a couple of years. But eventually his passions as a recorded music collector won out and he began working with Ace, helping to unearth rare masters and connect them to obscure artists who he felt were deserving of a broader audience. And very occasionally, he painted album covers for Ace compilations.

In this case, his portrait was of Rakotozafy, a legendary, if somewhat shadowy, figure in the world of 20th century African music. Revered for his skill as a valiha player (a multi-stringed, boxlike instrument), he was a hero in his native Madagascar, making multiple recordings throughout the 1960′s. His status as a legend grew after allegedly killing his young son in a fit of rage and spending his remaining days in prison—dying there either of grief or starvation, depending.

- Eric Hurtgen