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What Was Left Behind: Music of the Ottoman Empire

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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.

“To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929” 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

Record collector Ian Nagoski

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!’”

Antranig Kzirian

“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.”

18 Comments on What Was Left Behind: Music of the Ottoman Empire

  1. avatar RoseMarie Smith // October 21, 2011 at 12:53 am // Reply

    I have in my possesion numerous Armenian records.  Some still in excellent condition and a few that are broken but still loved.   I had no idea that others shared my enthusiasm regarding Armenian music.   Thank you for the article regarding Mr. Nagoski.  
    Sincerely,
    R.E. Smith

  2. The Armenian Library and Museum of America holds a superlative collection of donated 78 rpm discs. I would encourage anyone of Armenian heritage who may wonder what to do with their family’s holdings of sound recordings to consider donating them to ALMA, whose holdings are possibly the best in the world and will become the foundation for researchers for generations to come. I would also recommend donations or membership to ALMA as they are woefully understaffed and their holdings, while accessible and well-preserved, are not well-cataloged. They do important work. 
    Ian Nagoski 

  3. avatar Random Armenian // October 23, 2011 at 11:15 am // Reply

    Nanore, thank you for a very interesting article.

  4. avatar Greg Zeibari // October 25, 2011 at 5:37 pm // Reply

    It’s great to hear that this music has been rediscovered – but how does one go about obtaining/purchasing digital copies to listen to this music? I know my father and his brothers & sisters would love to hear these songs again.

    Is there also an effort at the ALMA to make available (digitally of course!) the songs they have in their archive? Selling them online would help them generate revenue to maintain the library. I would buy!

    Thanks in advance for your constructive reply,
    Greg

  5. Appropriately, Ottoman music was the music of the empire and mult-ethnic.  Some of the greatest Turkish (“classic”) music composers were Jewish, Greek and Armenians of the land.  These can be found in specifically collected albums which I had seen in stores many years ago.  I would not say non-Muslim or non-Turkish “besteci” were marginilized.  One can say the classic (palace) Turkish music is edged out by popular music and fashion though.

  6. avatar Dora Kalajian Tevanian // October 25, 2011 at 10:39 pm // Reply

    As a second generation Kharpetzi from the Boston area,I have been LIVING this Anatolian music soul experience my entire life. As a young girl, I may not have been permitted to be in the Kef Bands, go into my Grampa’s Armenian coffeehouse in Lowell, or enter the Jumbo Lounge a few steps from my childhood home in Somerville,  but know that I memorized the song lyrics of every 16, 78, and 33 rpm record I cam across, tape recorded my uncle, sang and sat in on the dumbeg or def at  our summer picnics, came of age and danced my feet off with Artie, Roger,Chicky,Harry, Richard,…, identified the same tune across scores of cultures of Rom, Assyri, Afghan,.. of my Chelsea Public Schools’ music students, adopted by Assyris in Belgium exiled in the 80’s from Southeastern Turkey who share many of the songs, albeit with different words and meanings, and with whom I can STEP BACK IN TIME…, stood up for the TRUTH-that this soul music is our ancestral legacy and NO ONE, not even my fellow Armenians can ever steal that from me, Dora Diroohee Kalajian Tevanian, #1 Kefgee Forever. KEFGEE BLOG:doratevan@ethnicartscenter.org     

  7. Yes, this is great music.  However, many of us have lived with and listened to this amazing music all our lives.  This guy is a total newcomer…acting like he’s discovered something….and doesn’t even know what any of the words actually say or why.  Oddly, some of the greatest Ottoman Armenian musicians are overlooked and not included in this compiliation: Tateos Effendi, Kermani Garbis, Udi Hrant or Marko Melkon.  Their 78s were constantly being played in grandma’s house.  I wonder why Nagoski couldn’t find them?  Harold Hagopian was able to. Maybe he didn’t want to repeat what Traditional Crossroads had already done?  

  8. Exactly. I don’t know if the guy is humble or not. A lot of anthropological research and artifact acquisition is being turned on its head, literally returned to its rightful creators-incl Margaret Mead, largest museums,…  One point, I guarantee the Armenian Weekly would never have published this 5 years ago, no matter who wrote it. Actually, it’s somewhat safer, even today, to have an Odar write this up.  Haha   Also-remember the gun stand-off at the Mt Auburn Lounge, in Watertown, in the early 80’s. If the musicians were going to continue singing the Turkish lyrics (to our ancient music), they would be SHOT!! The severity of the “politically correct” has reduced the number of true Kefs around here to almost nothing. Liken  any Interloper to the Protestant missionaries coming to  our homes in the late 1800’s, when us Armenians (as a nation) and Assyrians (as a people) were the first Christians!  Dora frustrated   

  9. Dear Karekin,Nagorsky is not a newcomer,he`s been doing his thing for decades now,while haidarag `hai` “armenian patriots blabber with their heads deep in their behinds.The guy has made commercially available the remnants of a culture very few armenians care about-and the pundits are ready with their criticism.A great part of the Armenian cultural heritage was lost because the common armenian and the professional `patriots` care only for their inflated bigger than life egos.The greek urban music the author refers to as Rebetica is called Rembetica and was and is played in sailors`bordellas`-just like the blues it was considered dirty music for whore houses and was not preserved properly.Amot!!!

  10. Haik…from what I know, Harold Hagopian has done it quite a bit longer and alot better, with a more comprehensive scope. Plus, I think Harold has an innate feel for the music, since he grew up with it, as did many of us.  Yes, odars can respond to the music, but to them it’s something ‘exotic’…it’s just not a part of their DNA.  It makes a difference. Of course, I’m glad he appreciates the sounds, but to say that Armenians don’t is a bit unfair. I know that among newcomers from Hayastan and Beirut, there is a definite bias against it, but it’s hard to imagine a kef, a wedding or a party without it…including Turkish lyrics.    

  11. Ditto on Karekin

     Haig, why do you have to blaspheme us when we only are presenting a discussion on the authenticity of native versus non-native afficianodos?  That’s what Hye sometimes do, put down each other!  Yes, there is room for us all, but those born outside of the experience (NO MATTER WHAT CULTURE FROM AROUND THE WORLD) must be humble, work alongside native informants, and see themselves as a  CONDUIT rather than the SOURCE!!!!

  12. Dear Dora & Karekin,do you know of any armenian who will travel a few thousand miles to search,buy and make commercially available the music of people with different DNAs from his???I`m not blaspheming anyone,but talking from my own experience in the country i live in-now its different in the USA,but some 40 years ago there were people who knew Komitas,but nobody cared to write down their memories or to look for any recordings he had possibly made during his stay here-and there we had the usual number of political parties and charities as well as individual patriots-nobody cared-it took a foreigner to come here from the other side of the world to do something the armenians should have done.And the other problem i see is making this music popular outside the community-now the turkeys have assembled a band from their cut-throat yanissaries & they come marching in to California,while very few outside the community know about armenian art,history or culture-just see how the turkeys use all this for propaganda and do it for our cause.Nagosky has received some coverage in local media here, I know of no armenian to have achieved that,locally ,of course that doesnt mean there arent others to have done more or better-you just got to go out in the world and tell about it.Vonts ek?

  13. Haik….yes, you may be right, but ….I’ve always heard it said, ‘Oor vor Hairenii erker guh lusveen, hon Hairenike voghch e’.  I doubt Nagosky would get the meaning of that phrase. Armenians love their music…whether it’s traditional, folk, classical, kef or even modern, because it evokes a somewhat distant past, or a warm and fuzzy set of traditions for us that have changed dramatically in the modern world.  A constant barrage of blue grass doesn’t do it, and neither does jazz.  We get to listen to rock every day on the radio…but, where’s the deep down thrill in that?  As for bringing our music to a larger audience, I agree…there could be more on display, but the old sounds are not really able to be duplicated. Yes, Richard Hagopian tries his best, but it’s not quite the same, even if it is excellent.  Yes, we should remember that there are millions of Americans who know about Khatchaturian, Hovaness, Yardumian for their symphonic creations with an Armenian twist.  Maybe it’s time for Serj Tankian to introduce the ud to his rock repertoire, along with some of the sounds of the past?  Who knows?  It’s all good. I love music because it can magically move me to a different time and place, unlike anything else. Amazing stuff.        

  14. @Greg To What Strange Place is available as mp3s through Amazon and iTunes at .99 a track. @Karekin Because I limited myself to the period between 1916 and 1929 (having to do mostly with factors within the record business, but coincident with larger historical moments), there were very few tracks by Garbis, Udi Hrant or Melkon to choose from. (They mostly recorded during the 40s-50s.) Even so, I did manage to get two tracks by Garbis on the set. And the set includes not only Armenian (not even a majority Armenian) music but also Greek, Turkish, Assyrian, Syrian (Catholic), Copt, Roma, Jewish, etc. Within the 9000 words of written notes and another 22 minutes of spoken notes, I attempt to explain the reasoning and limitations of my methods.

  15. “There are no duduk performances on record from the turn of the last century” (Nagoski) and “Today, people think [the duduk] is the pure Armenian instrument. But it is not” (Kzirian)
    Both these statements are untrue.
    Some of the first recordings of Armenian music in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s by the Gramaphone Company were of duduk music. (See “Before The Revolution: A 1909 Recording Expedition In The Caucasus & Central Asia By The Gramophone Company” a CD with selection of recordings made by Franz Hampe on behalf of the Gramophone Company, on his 1909 expedition throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia.).
    The duduk is a traditional woodwind instrument indigenous to Armenia. (Broughton, Simon et al (1999). “World music: the rough guide.”. books.google.co.uk. and Stokes, Jamie (2008). Peoples of Africa and the Middle East, Volume 1. ISBN 978-0816071586.)
    As to the relevance of kef music, see the October 2001 Armenian Weekly article “Pulling the Plug on Turkish Music” by Martin Haroutunian, http://www.hairenik.com/armenianweekly/october/culture003.html

  16. Thank you Nanore, this is a well written and researched article. As for Ian Nagoski’s work he’s opened up a door to treasures I did not know existed. I’m also grateful for the quality of the comments above.

  17. avatar ian nagoski // June 3, 2012 at 2:48 am // Reply

    @zurnachi thanks for the tip about the disc of 1909 recordings! I have ordered it and notice one performance with duduk as accompaniment. It is the first to have crossed my path, and I’m glad to know now.

  18. Dear Friends,
    All I want is an occassional anatolian kef, without censorship of my favorite songs-composed and created by Hye, performed by Hye, and now censored by Hye who cannot tolerate the fact they have Turkish lyrics.
    When I went to Europe a year ago, all the individual ethnic communities embrace each other’s music! The Kurds, the Turks, the Ermeni play ALL of the music at all of the hafles/kefs.
    Fellow Hye:
    Don’t rob me of my birthright fellow Armenians.
    Don’t rob me of what I grew up with.
    Don’t robe me of what my grandparents and parents shared with me in my growing up years.
    Don’t rob me of my soul!
    And of course I want genocide recognition and land retrieval!!
    Diroohee :'(

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