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Music Review: Various Artists – To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916 -1919

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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 backgroundsChristians, Muslims, and Jewssought 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.

Obviously most of us are going to know little or nothing about the types of music represented on these discs or the musicians playing the individual songs. Thankfully along with the three disc set you can also download a PDF of the original booklet that accompanied the hard copy. Not only does it provide the historical context necessary for the listener to understand its significance in the history of American music, almost every song is accompanied by a blurb giving the history of the performer and the song. Some of the many fascinating characters you’ll be introduced to on this set include Abudul Hal Hilmi (1857-1912), who is still considered one of the greats in Arab classical music. “Ya Binit, Ya Bidha (Pt.1)” is half of a nine-minute composition in which he improvised on a single line of text from an Arabic folk song.

As the recording was made in 1909, the quality is not very good. However, in spite of the muddy sound you can still tell there was something remarkable about this man and his vocal abilities. Contemporary descriptions of his performances have described him as transporting his audiences. Music historian Ahmad Al-Jundi is quoted in the booklet describing Hilmi’s voice, “When he starts, with the first breath, he initiates in you a sense of a enchantment and ecstasy”. Unfortunately, he also made heavy use of drugs (hashish, opium, and cocaine) and alcohol in order to access the feelings necessary to create that type of reaction among his audiences and died after an excessive night of partying. While he never recorded in America, this track was taken from a Lebanese recording imported into the U.S. There were others, equally fascinating characters, recording in the States.

Garbis Bakirgian had been a court musician playing classical Turkish music for the Sultan in his native Constantinople (Istanbul). He travelled extensively throughout the empire and lived in Alexandria, Cairo, and Jerusalem before moving to the States in the early 1920s at the urging of musician friends. When none of the major labels proved interested in recording Turkish music he founded his own label, Stamboul records, and released seven albums. While he may not have had the same sort of ecstatic impact on his listeners as Hilmi, his career lasted well into the the 1950s. He even recorded a session with Atlantic Records in 1948, founded by fellow Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun, but it was never released.

While I’ve mentioned two male vocalists, the material covered on this three disc set is by no means limited to men or vocals. Unfortunately, the instrumental pieces are the ones which are the least well-preserved and the hardest to listen to. One of the reasons is the pitch the instruments were played in originally was very high and the distortion caused by the disintegration of quality over the years has not been kind. The result is a sound which might have been delicate when first recorded, but is now so high-pitched as to be uncomfortable on the ears. However, there are enough pieces where the sound has survived relatively intact to give you a good indication of the talent of those involved in these recordings.

Aside from the music the last three tracks on disc three are recordings by Ian Nagoski, the person primarily responsible for its existence. Not only did he compile the collection, he also did the research and the sound restoration. On these tracks he provides you with more details about the history of Ottoman music in America in general and elaborates on the background set out in the booklet. Think of them as being like the bonus features on a DVD, a sort of making of and behind-the-scenes look at the CD.

It’s amazing to think there was this an entire subculture of music being recorded and played in New York City in the early part of the 20th century. While most of us were aware of the diversity of immigration to North America, I don’t think I had any idea there was such a thriving community of Turkish immigrants. Depending on the timing of their arrival in the U.S., a good many of them had left the country under duress because of the roundup, deportation, and murder of Armenians that occurred during and after World War l. However it wasn’t just Armenians who left the Ottoman Empire, and many were renowned musicians. So here in the new world it was as if they had turned back the clock to a time when Christians, Muslims, and Jews were able to find common ground through music in the Ottoman Empire. These recordings provide listeners with a sampling of the music they all played and loved no matter what their background. While they may not be of the finest quality, they still make for fascinating listening.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.