At one point the Turkish Ottoman Empire stretched from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and on into Northern Africa. While it had long ago lost its toehold in Western Europe in Spain, the rest of the Empire lasted until the end of World War l. Allied with the Germans during that conflict, they not only found themselves on the losing side in the war, great swathes of the territory they had previously occupied were lost during the war. By 1918 it had shrunk back to pretty much present day Turkey’s borders. Needless to say these defeats were the cause of fairly intense internal strife and political upheaval in the time following the war. As a result, large numbers of Turks of all backgrounds—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—sought refuge in other countries and a great many settled in the United States, specifically New York City.
There they joined the already sizeable group of ethnic Armenians who had fled persecution in the Empire. The rounding up and arresting of Armenians in Turkey has never been officially recognized by even present day Turkish governments, but it is thought close to a million ethnic Armenians died between 1915 and 1923 during mass forced marches from their homes in Turkey to Syria. However, a number managed to escape the roundups and immigrated to the United States. No matter what their ethnic background one thing all of these refugees had in common was their love for the culture and music of their homeland.
In the liner notes to the triple CD set To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, now also available as a digital download from the Tompkins Square Label, it’s explained how during the period covered by the disc there was a great outpouring of recording and performing of this music. While the onset of the depression brought an end to this and countless other activities, the recordings made during these 13 years were by musicians of all stripes. From those whose careers had included being members of the court of the last Sultan to performers of Jewish, Greek, and Armenian folk music.
Instead of dividing the three discs up by ethnicity, the compilers of this collection have found a much more interesting and novel approach. Each of the discs contains music fitting a specific theme that the producers have identified as the three major reasons for the music’s creation in the first place. So disc one is subtitled “Naughty Girl – Dances & Joys”, the spirited music played by the refugee musicians in order to forget their troubles, disc two, “I Wish I Never Came: Nostalgia, Yearning & Pride”, for the songs they played when they were missing what they left behind, and disc three, “Notes From Home: US Releases For Ottoman Emigres”, is songs taken from recordings made in the Ottoman Empire and imported to the United States.
As a result, this compilation is able to give listeners an incredibly accurate view of the diversity of sound that was being made by the refugees in New York City during this period. For on each disc you’ll find Islamic, Armenian, Greek, and Jewish music rubbing shoulders with each other as they offer up their interpretations of the theme in question. Since many of the recordings were originally recorded at 78rpm, and some even are from wax cylinders made in the 19th century, their quality ranges all over the place. However there’s something about being able to actually hear the needle moving over the surface of an LP that actually augments rather than detracts from the sound. For along with the slightly tinny quality, which isn’t unique to these recordings but something I’ve noticed all songs remastered from this time period seem to have in common, the surface noises which come through help to set a mood of time and place.