Get Him to the Greeks
Ian Nagoski excavates the music of the early 20th-century Ottoman diaspora
Published: June 29, 2011
Ian Nagoski once wandered the streets of East Baltimore’s Greektown with an old 78-rpm record in his hand.
It was a warm spring day in 2009, and Nagoski was following in the footsteps of legendary 78 collectors such as Robert Crumb and Joe Bussard and going door to door to ask if anyone had any old records they didn’t want. That’s how Crumb, Bussard, and others amassed the collections of once nearly forgotten early 20th-century blues and hillbilly recordings that formed the foundation of what now gets called roots music or Americana. But Nagoski was after something different, and more rare: 78s of music by Greeks, Turks, Armenians, and other ethnic groups from the swath of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea between what are now Italy and Israel.
“When Crumb and Bussard went canvassing, that was back in the [1960s] when those records were only 20, 30 years old,” Nagoski, 36, says. “Now it’s 80 years gone by and generations come and gone. The records aren’t really there anymore.”
Nagoski (an erstwhile City Paper contributor) struck out that day, but he kept looking, monitoring eBay auctions, haunting record stores, and reaching out to “every expert in the field, every collector, every archivist, every scholar who seemed like they might know anything about this stuff.” And now, five years after his search began in earnest, New York’s Tompkins Square Records is rolling out the fruit of Nagoski’s search: To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Disapora 1916-1929, a just-released three-CD collection of 56 tracks that do nothing less than resurrect a lost world of music and culture that nearly a century ago washed up on American shores.
Nagoski began snapping up 78s when he was a teenager in Wilmington, Del., but not the typical collector fodder. “Anything that was in a language other than English, my policy was buy it,” he says by phone from his home in Frostburg, where he moved from Baltimore last year. “There was no particular market for that stuff, so it was very cheap. And it became clear to me that there was stuff on those old records that was just as good as the country and blues Americana [stuff].” He went on to perform and record as an experimental electronic musician, first in Philadelphia, then Baltimore, where he moved in 2000, but he kept picking up 78s and started learning more about the cultures and people that produced them. In 2007, he turned his interest and growing expertise into Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics 1918-1955, a compilation on the esteemed Dust-to-Digital label of music from around the world recorded on 78. At around the same time, his longtime sideline acquired a particular focus.
He had come across some recordings of music in Greek, most especially a siren-like female singer named Marika Papagika, and “got fascinated by them.” They proved even more fascinating when he began to figure out that the people who made records he already owned in Arabic and Turkish “were in the same social circles as these performers on the Greek records and made [them] at the same recording studio in New York City at about the same time . . . that this was a group of interrelated material and that these people were a part of a scene together.”
Nagoski had stumbled across the disapora of To What Strange Place’s subtitle. The Ottoman Empire, at its peak, dominated an area that stretched from the Persian Gulf nearly to the gates of Vienna and along the North African coast, all controlled from Constantinople (now Istanbul) by the omnipotent sultan and his fellow ethnic Turks. But the empire also encompassed Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Kurds, and others. The region’s history is enormously complicated and fraught, but the simplest version is that, as the empire began to weaken and fall apart in the late 19th and early 20th century (to be replaced by the modern state of Turkey in 1923), ethnic divisions often turned into conflicts, some of them bloody. The genocide of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by the Turks during World War I remains a contentious international issue today.
Thousands from one ethnic group or another left the region behind and many joined the flood of immigrants entering Ellis Island. A significant portion of the Ottoman diaspora reunited in New York, where, despite their differences at home, they found themselves sharing the same streets. As the budding market for recorded music grew after the turn of the century, someone figured out that these homesick immigrants constituted a burgeoning niche, which led to Greeks, Turks, Armenians, and others sharing studios and musicians as well. Though these immigrants would eventually assimilate, for a time this tangle of the Old World was uprooted whole and plopped down in the New, and Victrola horns and, later, microphones were on-hand to capture the result.
“During the late ’10s and early ’20s, there were only a few dozen places on earth where you could make records, and maybe the most productive place on Earth for making records was New York,” Nagoski says. “It is kind of just dumb luck.”
What became Strange Place started out as two aborted LPs for Portland, Ore.-based vinyl-only label Mississippi Records; the label, via Nagoski’s own Canary imprint, did release a separate album of recordings by Papagika, The Further the Flame the Worse It Burns Me, in 2010. (This writer did a copy-edit pass on Nagoski’s liner notes for that release and received a free copy.) Nagoski might have moved on, but “I kept being able to connect with people who could tell me more, and I kept getting my hands on more and more really good records.” The project found a new home at neo-folk label Tompkins Square and “ballooned constantly,” he says. “There were so many avenues it could go down, and setting limits was a real problem. The original liner notes that I wrote were something like five or 10 times longer than what’s in the set.”
Nagoski’s notes (including spoken tracks on one disc) illuminate the performers and their world, but the power of the best of these tracks pierces the language barrier, the exotic scales and instrumentation, even the crackle and hiss of nearly century-old shellac platters. Discovering that M. Douzjian’s passionate oud-driven “High Aghchg, Tchar Aghchg” is an ode to an “Armenian Girl, Naughty Girl” comes as no surprise. Not only does To What Strange World feature the otherworldly emoting of Papagika, it also reintroduces Mme. Coula, another Greek diva, whose “Sabah Manes” enthralls with eerie drama. Violinist Harry Edwards (ne Hasekian) exhibits classical virtuosity in 10/8 and 6/4 on “Sadaraban,” while surf-music fans (or anyone who’s seen Pulp Fiction) will be startled at hearing Constantinople-born Greek Tetos Demetriades deliver “Miserlou,” the tune Lebanese-American guitarist Dick Dale adapted into a hit surf shredder. The sinuous, dramatic melody sounds like age-old traditional fare in this context, but it’s credited to Greek-American musician Nick Roubanis.
Such connections and hidden influences were behind Nagoski’s devotion to a project that wound up consuming five years, and not for simple musical reasons. “When this really began in earnest, our country was involved in wars in the Middle East,” Nagoski says. “And there was a lot of public discourse about Muslims versus Christians versus Jews, and it became clear that the Middle East and its current state of chaos, and our chaotic relationship with it, was very much a part of the story of the people who made these records.”
More importantly, the story of the Ottoman-American disapora isn’t just the story of Ottomans, but of Americans as a whole as well. “This was a whole world that had produced some very, very good music that had just been kind of neglected in American culture as a part of who we were and what we’ve done,” he says. “Our main cultural arbiters have never taken the interest in telling those stories and feeding us that broader sense of ourselves.”
Not that everyone needs convincing. While Nagoski didn’t turn up any records during his 2009 canvass of Greektown, he did discover that he wasn’t alone in his obsession. “There was one great old Greek fella sitting on his lawn in a chair,” Nagoski recalls. “I had this record in my hand, and I said, ‘Do you have any old records like this?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, lots of them—they’ll be buried with me.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll pay you for them if they’re the kind of thing I’m looking for.’ He’s like, ‘Not in a million years—good luck.’”
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