BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 01 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 143


From the Ottoman diaspora to the musical influence of the Eastern Mediterranean, the early days of the record industry in New York

BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 01 NOV 11

A photograph found by the author in Istanbul, date unknown

It’s mid-September and I’m in a second-hand bookshop on the Asian side of Istanbul, escaping the biennial crush across the Bosphorus. Rummaging through a shoebox of faded photographs, one of them – no bigger than a credit card – catches my eye. It’s overexposed and for a second I can’t make out what it shows. An image sharpens: a line of men dance on a smoky hillside, some caught mid-kick; one plays a drum, another a horn of some kind. The photo may have been taken in the 1930s. However improbable, the best recordings of the kind of music these men were probably playing were made a decade or so earlier than that. More unlikely still, the majority of them were made not in Turkey, but in a Manhattan studio.

In 1900, a total of three million records were sold in the US. Within 20 years, this figure had increased to 140 million. (A little context about the evaporation of the music industry in the 21st century: last year saw just 326 million CDs sold in the US, substantially fewer per capita than records sold in 1920, and annual sales are currently decreasing by around 20 percent, year on year.) During the first two decades of the 20th century, almost 15 percent of the US population had been born outside of America, while at the same time sales of phonographs were booming. It didn’t take a genius to work out that money could be made selling these immigrant communities the music they knew from home. As record companies vied for control of these new markets, an astonishingly wide-ranging series of recording expeditions commenced. As early as 1902, intrepid teams had been dispatched to Baku, Tbilisi and St Petersburg; by the middle of the decade, they had reached Tehran, Cairo and Constantinople. If these missions provided important ethnographic records of a musical world that lay beyond Western Europe, this was an accident. Because this wasn’t research, it was business.

A decade later, and the stream of immigrants coming through Ellis Island from the Eastern Mediterranean was increasing. The Ottoman Empire had sided with the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires in World War I, in the meantime exterminating the Christian minorities of Anatolia: between 1915 and 1917, 2.5 million Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians were killed in the name of national security. (The Turkish government continues to deny this: in 2005, novelist Orhan Pamuk was charged with ‘public denigration of Turkish identity’ for calling the genocide by its proper name.) From 1919–22, the Greco–Turkish War saw the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Greeks and the burning of Smyrna. By the 1920s, for many of these new arrivals in New York there was simply no home to which to return. Desperate for money, countless immigrants contributed to the thousands of foreign-language recordings being produced in the blocks around Manhattan’s Tin Pan Alley. This burgeoning economy didn’t last for more than a couple of decades: in September 1929, it was decimated by the Wall Street Crash.

Bookended by the genocide in Anatolia and the Great Depression, these are some of the transatlantic narratives traced by a new three-disc anthology, To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman–American Diaspora, 1916–1929, assembled by Baltimore-based record collector Ian Nagoski. (His 2007 compilation, Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics, is similarly superb.) Over the course of 53 tracks are songs by classical court musicians such as Kanuni Garbis, who played for the Empire’s sultan, Abdul Hamid II, at the end of the 19th century, and the extraordinary Kos-born café singer Marika Papagika, who opened a Greek speakeasy on 34th Street in 1925. (Nagoski describes her ‘Smyrneiko Minore’ as one of his favourite songs of all time, and I’ve got to say I agree.) Many of these recordings are so palpably old, and yet so jarringly clear, that they give you a vertiginous feel when you realize what it is that you’re hearing. While many of these songs are nostalgic, they are not sentimental for some lost Anatolian idyll. Much is music for bars and cafés, raucous and lascivious. Among the tales of drunken regret, there are songs titled ‘Ladies, Join the Dance Floor’, ‘Armenian Girl, Naughty Girl’, ‘Let Me Smell Your Hair’ and – my favourite – Goerge Katsaros’s ‘What a Bad Ass I Am’.

Some of the contributions remain well-known, but in other guises: Tetos Demetriades, a Constantinople-born mandolin player, is represented with an early rendition of ‘Misirlou’, later covered by The Beach Boys and, most famously, by ‘King of the Surf Guitar’ Dick Dale (his 1962 version was used as the theme for Pulp Fiction, 1994). Nagoski notes that 1960s surf rock marked ‘the first step towards the Americanization of Eastern Mediterranean musical culture, a process that extended through the belly dance fad of the ’50s, driven by Armenian– and Lebanese–American oudists’. This tendency has resurfaced today: the last decade has seen American indie music turn its gaze east of Europe. This can be heard in the polyrhythms and Balkan approximations of bands as different as Gang Gang Dance and Gogol Bordello, while others – such as Beirut and Rainbow Arabia – go so far as to signal their affiliation (or to arrogate a set of exotic associations) with their names.

To What Strange Place relies not on primary recordings made in the field but on scavenged commercial releases: most of the 78 rpm records that the collection is based on were donated, searched out or stumbled upon. According to a 2010 Washington Post profile of Nagoski, furniture removal companies tasked with clearing out the left-behind junk of the evicted or imprisoned citizens of Baltimore would often bring boxes of 78s to the record shop he used to run. His only rule was he would buy them if they weren’t in English. Nagoski calls these foreign-language songs ‘the discarded detritus of a musical culture that had become all but irrelevant to much of America’. While the Depression halted record companies’ nascent interest in folk music tradition outside of the US and Europe, there’s also a sense in which the current financial crisis is responsible for the rediscovery of these long-forgotten recordings. If the early 20th-century story is one of neglect, of ignoring the English-language traditions of rural areas in the US – the roots music, hillbilly or gospel that is now packaged as Americana – in favour of pursuing new markets, so is that of the second half of the century, when these early immigrant recordings were largely forgotten. To What Strange Place was made with no institutional support, so it is a considerably different project from recent collections such as Art Rosenbaum’s monumental Art of Field Recording (2007), some 50 years in the making, which comprises recordings of American folk music played by amateurs in their own homes rather than recording studios. It is also different in intention from father-and-son team John and Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress-backed recordings made in the 1930s and ’40s. The true precedent for Nagoski’s project – not to mention that of reissue labels like Analog Africa and Soundway Records, the London-based record shop/label Honest Jon’s, or MP3 blogs like Ghostcapital and Dalston Oxfam Shop – is filmmaker and DIY ethnomusicologist Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952 and based on a decade’s worth of collecting Depression-era 78s. As Robert Cantwell has noted, the Anthology ... is the ‘enabling document’ of the ’60s folk revival, the declaration – as Greil Marcus put it – of ‘a weird but clearly recognizable America’. Crucially,however, Smith’s notion of American folk music was based not on field recordings but on his personally sourced collection of commercial releases.

What connects Smith’s mid-century activities to something like Brian Shimkovitz’s blog/record label Awesome Tapes from Africa is that we are not hearing the music of amateurs in their own environment – the ‘authentic’ document that was the grail of the Lomaxes and earlier ethnographers. These are the sounds not only of other continents and of other times, but of other record industries. We are now, thankfully, well beyond the specious ‘World Music’ tag dreamt up by major label executives in the 1980s. These recent and historical examples of commercial logic provide us with alternative maps of diasporas and indices of taste amongst both immigrant and local communities.

Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK.