Record collector Ian Nagoski has been buying up cheap 78 rpm discs for over a decade. The 36-year-old music junkie and record store owner always had one rule: “My policy was to buy anything in a language other than English,” he said in an interview with the Armenian Weekly. In June 2011, Nagoski, in collaboration with Tompkins Square Records, released the three-disc album set “To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929,” which features polished tracks from Armenian, Greek, and Turkish records, etched mostly in New York.
Nagoski became fascinated not only by the music of these immigrant artists, but also by their identities. “The question became: Who are these people?” he said. And that question persisted, leading him on a quest to pull those musicians from the smudged pages of history and obscurity.
Nagoski soon discovered that there was once a vibrant musical scene among these immigrant communities in New York. Greek, Armenian, Arab, and Turkish musicians often crossed paths, and even collaborated. Rumors were many, and evidence scarce. “I made it my mission to tell the story of who these people were, where they came from, and how they made these wonderful records,” he said.
A certain quality in the voices trapped in those old 78s captivated him. He heard “very personal lonesome expressions, and a deep—digging into yourself and pulling out—sound,” he explained. What irked him was the decades-long neglect. “Those records had been systematically ignored— almost with willful ignorance, and one feels almost a disdain—for generations, and written out of the story of America, American culture, and American music.”
Nagoski felt it his duty to “rebalance” the wrong, to revive that part of American culture and history, and to offer a “better understanding of who we are, and the complexity of where we are from.”
Having stumbled on these jewels, Nagoski educated himself on the history and cultures of the Near East. There was the language barrier, but the sounds emanating from his record player transcended the spoken word. The music was rife with soul-piercing emotion that deeply resonated with him.
Nagoski, who was raised in Wilmington, Del., was drawn to his local record store from a young age. He later entered the world of experimental electronic music, and finally found his calling in salvaging old records. In 2007, Nagoski released a compilation of his finds, “Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Music,” which was followed by “A String of Pearls,” a collection of Greek urban folk music called Rebetika, in 2009.
Marika Papagika, a Greek singer born in 1890, captured Nagoski’s imagination first. There was very little information about her. “It’s almost impossible to know her. But, because she was so central to her place and scene, by looking at the background, her face almost emerges from the noise and landscape behind her,” he explained. “So that’s how ‘To What Strange Place’ really took shape, by trying to find the context for Marika.”
Nagoski then realized that in the “New World,” musicians from different ethnic backgrounds played together just as they had done in the Ottoman Empire. “Just as Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians had interacted in the ‘Old World,’ they found each other in New York, played for each other, played with each other, went to each other’s shows, coffeehouses, and clubs, drank together, and mixed it up,” he said.
What they continued to create in these venues would later influence jazz musicians, he explained. “Some of the music of New York coming from the Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian immigrants was influential on great jazz performers who attended night clubs around Eight Avenue, where [Marko] Melkon, [Kanuni] Garbis [Bakirgian], and [George] Katsaros were playing.”
Some of the Armenian musicians featured in the set produced records before and during the genocide. A few recorded in Sofia, Bulgaria, between 1909-12; others in 1916 in New York. One of Nagoski’s favorite records on the
set is a track called “Eghin,” by Kemani Minas, which is “really old folk music from southeastern Anatolia…[that] refers directly to a massacre of the last decade of the 19th century.” According to Nagoski, Minas began recording in 1912, before the genocide began.
Another song, “Keriyin Yerke,” performed by Karekin Proodian, is about Arshak Gafavian (referred to in the booklet as Kaftar Arshak Gafayan), popularly known as “Keri,” who was a member of the Armenian Revolutionary
Federation (ARF) and commanded the 4th Armenian volunteer battalion against Ottoman forces.
Another noteworthy and famous voice on the albums is that of Armenag Shah-Mouradian (1878-1939), who had studied under Komitas, and was known for his masterful interpretation of his teacher’s songs, and who came to be known as the Daroni Sokhag (Nightingale of Daron). Nagoski includes a brief biography of Shah-Mouradian, along with a verse from William Saroyan’s poem “To the Voice of Shah-Mouradian,” and the opening stanza of the track “Andouni,” included on the album.
Nagoski’s hunt for answers also led him to a weekend of toil at the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Watertown, where he looked through catalogues and old directories. It drove him to place numerous—mostly unreturned and “desperate”—calls to various households, in the hope of finding living relatives of the long-deceased musicians. He also wrote on message boards and consulted public records—draft registration cards, Ellis Island records, the New York Times archives. A musicologist in the Boston area, 92-year-old Leo Sarkisian, was an instrumental resource to Nagoski. Sarkisian, whose father arrived in Boston in 1897, was familiar with the Ottoman music scene, and shared his knowledge with Nagoski.
Despite the many disappointments and roadblocks along the way, Nagoski’s efforts were fruitful, evident in the extensive notes accompanying the three-disc, 52-track set.
“Armenian music has been massively politicized, to my thinking, since particularly the 20s and 30s, in the aftermath of the genocide,” said Nagoski.
The Ottoman music scene was neglected by the Armenian communities in the U.S., as it was seen by many as the cultural transplant of the Ottoman Empire. Central to that musical culture was one instrument; cherished by generations of musicians—across the Middle East, North Africa, Anatolia, and the Balkans—the oud took a prominent spot in the Ottoman music scene.
“It’s important, for instance, to think about the national instrument of Armenia, the duduk.”
There are no duduk performances on record from the turn of the last century, Nagoski pointed out. Today, the duduk is hailed as Armenia’s national instrument.
That, says Nagoski, is a “function of post-genocide nationalist consciousness.” The duduk’s galvanization was at the expense of the folk music played by the Armenian musicians before the genocide took place.
Nagoski is not the only one who sees the injustice in the treatment of this genre. Antranig Kzirian, best known for his oud playing in the L.A.-based rock-fusion band Viza, expressed a similar view in a recent interview with the Armenian Weekly.
“Today, people think [the duduk] is the pure Armenian instrument. But it is not. In fact, trying to identify anything as such, culturally and musically, is just not the right approach. It’s not the right way to analyze and understand how complex music is, and how it’s developed,” said Kzirian, who explored musicology while a law student at Columbia University.
Kzirian also performs in the Philidelphia-based “kef” band Aravod, and said that throughout his childhood he noticed how people would “frown” on that genre of music.
When Armenian refugees, the genocide survivors, were forced out of their historic homeland, they were able to carry with them nothing but their language and their music, he explained. The many refugees who came to the United States were no exception. And on the East coast, because there were no Armenian schools, the community relied heavily on their music as a staple of their identity.
However, a different scene unfolded in the Middle East, where most Armenian refugees initially settled. “In the Middle East, there was a whole new identity construct that was coerced on the communities for political reasons and that was brought over [to the U.S.] with the influx of immigrants in the 70s,” said Kzirian. “There was that disdainful perspective, when it came to the American-Armenians: ‘Oh, they don’t speak Armenian, they’re not Armenian anymore. They’re Americanized! Look at them playing these funny old instruments from the village!’”
“Kef” music soon became a taboo, and musicians faced condescension coupled with the trauma of their past. The music soon became haunted by a “concoction of dismissiveness, disdain, trivialization, and ridicule,” explained Kzirian. “I dealt with it all the time when I was a kid. People would ask, ‘Why are you playing this music?’”
A “secret underworld” developed, however, where East Coast Armenian Americans cherished, encouraged, and absorbed that music. “It was not really allowed to bubble to the surface for fear of being mocked,” Kzirian said. There was the fear of being labeled as someone who was not Hayaser (a compound word of “Armenian” and “love”).
At the same time, the Ottoman, and later “kef,” music plunged its musicians and audience into a paradox, explained Kzirian, where feelings of nostalgia for the homeland mixed with the traumatic and violent memories of the massacres and genocide. Yet, Armenians made up a large part of the Ottoman music scene, just as they had been central in its architectural scene. But Armenian, as well as other non-Turkic, contributions have been to a large extent commandeered, marginalized, or altogether ignored.
Figures like Hampartsoum Limondjian (1768-1839), also known as Baba Hampartsoum, were crucial to the development of what is today considered Ottoman music. Limondjian, a leading composer of his time, created the Hampartsoum notation system, which was used by Ottoman musicians—becoming the foundation for Ottoman classical Makam theory—and the Armenian Church. “It is what the Turkish music today is based on, which is pretty amazing,” said Kzirian. Limondjian was not an anomaly; there were others too.
That tradition reached the shores of America at the turn of the last century when Armenian immigrant refugees arrived. It was a natural continuation, despite the pain and the horrific experiences, because Armenians had been its partial owners and creators.
For Nagoski, the struggle to protect these old immigrant recordings is an act of respect. He does it for the musicians. “Somebody like Zabel Panossian, who made 10 or 11 records in one year when she was in her early 20s— just heart-stoppingly beautiful records—it’s for her,” he says, passion illuminating his face. “I think that she deserves, as a human being, not to be left behind and forgotten.”