I suppose it’s part of being human to emphasize our small portion of our universe—including the musical universe—and de-emphasize the rest. We know that the bigger picture exists—it’s just difficult to maintain our sense of importance when we realize how huge the rest of the musical galaxy is. We forget how many cultures inhabit this universe, each with its own language, history, and instruments.
Musicologist Ian Nagoski doesn’t hesitate before plunging into this musical expanse. Actually, I don’t know if “musicologist” is the correct term for Nagoski. He just seems to have a greater breadth of knowledge about this universe than virtually anyone else. A couple of years ago the Washington Post did a profile on Nagoski. It provides a fascinating account of how a passion for music can propel someone’s life.
Nagoski’s drive to preserve and document world music has led him to compile multiple compilations of the work of pioneering artists in forgotten niches of music. Tompkins Square has released three of his compilations via digital service (they were previously released on CD). I’ve previously reviewed three other compilations.
Brass Pins & Pearls: International 78s is a collection of 25 songs of world music from the first half of the 20th century. It was originally released as two LPs (A String of Pearls in late 2009 and Brass Pins & Match Heads in early 2011). Song origins range from Vietnam to Lisbon, Iran to Jamaica. Artists include: Shalom Katz, a Jewish cantor who escaped the Holocaust; Pastora Pavon Cruz, a Spanish flamenco singer; George Stabler, a Native-American flute player from the Omaha tribe; and Nji Raden Hadji Djoehla, a classical Javanese court singer.
Some songs use Western scales, others use Middle- and Far-Eastern modes. There are several different traditions termed “classical” represented, including Javanese (see above), Turkish (tanbur player Refik Bey) and Vietnamese (singer Puong-Bich). Many vigorous genres of folk music are also showcased, including Jamaican calypso, Swiss yodeling, Serbian fiddling, and Indian women’s folk dancing. Each has its own traditions and standards that allow for innovations within a set of guidelines.
If Brass Pins & Pearls gives a sense of the breadth of world music, the next two collections give a sense of the depth. 1934-1935 contains the songs of a famous Hindustani singer of the early 20th century. Khansahib Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, born into a Muslim musical family, first trained as an instrumentalist before switching to voice. In 1894 he obtained a coveted engagement at the court of Baroda, but lost it a few years later when he eloped with the daughter of a Hindu nobleman. Economic circumstances forced him to deviate from the traditional ways of performing classical music. Instead of performing for small, closed groups of upper-class listeners, he toured and gave concerts to mass audiences. He also made several innovations in Indian classical music and is one of the founders of the Kirana Gharana school of music. In addition, he was one of the first classical singers to perform thumris (semi-erotic poems originally sung as accompaniment for female dancers).
Abdul Karim Khan was known for his sweet supple voice and perfect pitch. These recordings were made in Bombay a few years before his death in 1937 and represent a number of different styles and ragas. The Western listener can appreciate his tonal qualities and the way his accompanist follows his vocal improvisations. Indian classical music is very complicated in its structures and rules (as I’m finding out!) and it’s difficult for someone unfamiliar with it to obtain more than a surface understanding without a significant time investment.
Largely forgotten today, Marika Papagika was one of the most successful singers of Greek music in America. The Further the Flame, the Worse it Burns Me: Greek Folk Music in New York City, 1919-28 samples her work. She came to the U.S. in 1914 with her husband Costas, who served as business partner and her accompanist on cimbalom (a type of hammered dulcimer). The two also had a nightclub in New York during the ’20s, where Marika could showcase her talents. Unfortunately, her success and recording career ended with the Great Depression. Her nightclub closed in 1930, and she died in obscurity 13 years later.
Marika had a powerful, emotional soprano voice, which was more polished than those of her contemporaries. Because of her stature, many prominent Greek instrumentalists accompanied her on recordings. Various styles are represented in this collection, including: kleftiko, patriotic songs celebrating outlaws who fought against the Ottoman empire; amanedhes, songs with some vocal improvisation; zembekikos, dances originating from the outlaws of Anatolia; and tsamika, slow cross-step circle folk dances.
Compilations like these three present special challenges to listeners unfamiliar with the particular musical forms. Besides language barriers, it’s difficult to decipher the flow and emotions the musician is trying to convey. Unfamiliar modal forms add to the challenge. Finally, the listener must listen through the recording limitations and media decay inherent in older recordings
Digital buyers don’t have access to the album notes written by Nagoski. The notes for Brass Pins & Pearls and The Further the Flame are very useful. Those for 1934-1935 are less so, since they do not discuss the individual tracks. This is unfortunate, because the listener could really use a roadmap in processing the music. Those who have more than a superficial interest should be prepared to use the internet and other resources extensively.
Having said that, these compilations, like the others I’ve reviewed, are remarkable. Nagoski’s passion and intensity for his subject matter are clear, and for those who are open to it, infectious. The listener is left with an appreciation for the skill and artistry of the performers, along with enhanced respect for the traditions they represent.