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.
Rhythms and scales vary widely. Some songs have a palpable energy that transcend language barriers, sloppy recording techniques and the decay of time. The themes for many of the songs could come straight from Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta and include love, murder, liquor and homesickness. “Agin,” performed by Udi Hrant, is a song of longing for a town that was the site of a massacre of Armenians.
A dynamic genre of Greek music is sampled in Bed of Pain: Rembetika 1931-1955. Sometimes called “the Greek Blues,” Rembetika (also spelled Rebetika) itself has undergone a great many changes and revivals. It originated from a combination of Greek and Ottoman sources, and matured in the poor neighborhoods of large cities. The style was fueled by refugees deported from Asia Minor after the war with Turkey, when the Greek quarter of Smyrna was burned to the ground and massive population exchanges between Turkey and Greece took place. Songs focused on love, death, crime, and sometimes drugs. The bouzouki, a type of lute, became widely identified with this music (and later with Greek music in general).
The music was exported to and renovated by the Greek Diaspora in the United States. The bouzouki itself was popularized by a recording about a hash den by a Greek-American immigrant. While the bouzouki is a common element, a variety of rhythms and scales are used, ranging from Western minor and major keys to modifications of Middle Eastern modal scales.
The origins and fates of the singers vary widely. Some were able to find relative prosperity playing music. Kostas Skarvelis died of starvation during the Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II. The Jewish singer Stella Haskil survived the Holocaust, only to die of cancer in 1954. Bouzouki player Nikos Pourpourakis, according to the liner notes, is still active today.
As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, masses of immigrants came to the U.S. and settled in New York. Ethnic groups settled into their own enclaves and began recording in various classical and folk genres. Musicians of different cultures observed each other, and listened and incorporated elements into their own work. Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Assyrian, Arabic and Sephardic Jewish artists are represented in To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, which originally was released as three CDs (53 songs in total representing 34 artists).
It’s impossible, in a short review, to adequately summarize all the styles represented in this collection. Sometimes Middle Eastern instruments, such as oud, kemence, and ney are used. At other times the musicians favor Western instruments, such as cello, violin or clarinet. Sometimes the musicians use Western-style scales, and on other recordings the modal scales used in classical Arab and Ottoman music (the maqam and the makam) are employed.
The unknown Armenian artist D. Perperian plays a spirited clarinet in an ancient, 9/8 rhythm on “Tamzara.” Nechaat Bey, a classical Ottoman oudist, plays a series of improvisations on “Ouchak Taxim.” In “Ya Binti, Ya Bidha,” the great Arab classical musician Abdul Hai Hilmi improvises for several minutes on a line of text from a folk song. The original vocal recording of “Miserlou,” by Tetos Demetriades, is a medium-tempo tango, very different from the Dick Dale version.
Sometimes these musicians shared characteristics with present-day rock stars. Hilmi depended on cocaine, hashish and alcohol to give him inspiration, and died as a result of too much partying.
No doubt, this is a remarkable set of compilations. The sum total may be a bit intimidating to Western listeners. Unless you’re familiar with some of the specific musical types represented, I’d advise you to take it a bit slow. Of course, since recording quality and the state of the records vary widely, the listener needs to have patience dealing with the hisses, pops and degraded quality that comes with listening to early recordings. Unfortunately, digital buyers don’t have access to the album notes, which, though somewhat rambling, are very detailed and informative. (There are three tracks of brief Nagoski lectures on To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929).
Ian Nagoski’s passion and dedication to his research shines through these collections. They are impressive in their diversity and depth, and give a glimpse of the complexity and nuances within the cultures and musical modes represented.