In the early 20th century, the Middle East and the Balkans comprised an assortment of ethnic groups coexisting in periods of relative calm, interrupted by horrific episodes of violence. World War I signaled the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Arab nationalism. Economic hardship, the Armenian massacres and a disastrous Greek-Turkish war in Anatolia created floods of refugees.
The music of the region reflected this complicated world. Musicians from different groups interacted with each other, used similar instruments, copied themes from one another, yet put their own unique stamp on songs. Refugees brought with them the rhythms and patterns from their homeland and merged them with those in their new country. In addition to the political changes, the rise of the recording industry presaged changes in listening patterns and increased interactions between musicians from different ethnic groups.
Sometimes fragments from this lost world reach us today. We hear a few notes from the Dick Dale version of the song “Miserlou” and immediately think of the movie Pulp Fiction. The song itself was originally recorded in Greek, lauding the attributes of an Egyptian Muslim girl. “Miserlou” has been recorded in Arabic, Turkish and Yiddish. Dale learned the song from his Lebanese father and uncles.
Musicologist Ian Nagoski has compiled music from this region and era, utilizing discarded and donated records, interviews and seemingly endless research. Tompkins Square has released these three compilations via digital service – they were previously released on CD on Nagoski’s Canary label.
What Remains of Eden: Anatolian & Levantine Musics, 1928-1952 is a collection of 15 tracks of Middle Eastern music, compiled from the collections of mostly Christian immigrants in America. The songs come from a variety of ethnic groups, including Arab, Armenian, Assyrian, Greek, Kurdish, Maronite, Roma, and Turkish. A variety of exotic-sounding instruments are introduced to the listener, including baglama (a Turkish-style lute), kemence (vertical three-string fiddle), nay (an end-blown flute) and oud. The musicians were often fluent in Western, Ottoman and Arab classical music, as well as various genres of folk music. Some of the musicians (Turkish singers Müzzeyen Senar and Hamiyet Yücese, Armenian oud master Udi Hrant) are still remembered in their home countries today. Some are mostly forgotten, and in one case, the singer is unknown.