x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Musical treasure chest from the Ottoman diaspora released as a boxed set

A determined researcher becomes obsessed with finding out about the Ottoman diaspora in America during the early years of the last century - and produces a three-CD boxed set of historic and sometimes trend-setting music.

The cover of the To What Strange Place boxed set.
The cover of the To What Strange Place boxed set.

When Quentin Tarantino opened his era-defining movie Pulp Fiction with the surf-guitar track Misirlou in 1994 it gave the long-forgotten single a new lease of life. Television shows and advertisements followed his lead, big sporting events blared it over Tannoys and the performer of that version, Dick Dale, enjoyed a major comeback.

What Misirlou's revival did not do was draw attention to the tune's origins, in the folk music of the long-dissolved Ottoman Empire and, more intriguingly, a vibrant enclave in early 20th-century Manhattan. The man now belatedly investigating this neglected facet of New York folk is a part-time ethnomusicologist from Baltimore called Ian Nagoski, and it has taken over his life. "I was vaguely aware that surf guitar was influenced by Lebanese and Armenian oud playing," he says, "but had no idea what I was getting into."

Five years on, Nagoski's exhaustive research has spawned To What Strange Place, a three-CD set of fascinating musical artefacts rescued from attics, junk shops and rubbish tips. These 53 recordings span the years 1916 to 1929 - from the middle of the First World War to the onset of the Great Depression - when diverse communities from Eastern Europe and western Asia lived a few blocks from one another, and forged an evocative musical stew.

An enthusiastic collector of neglected gramophone records, Nagoski had already come across American-made recordings in Turkish and Arabic but "had no idea they were part of an interconnected scene in New York". A picture gradually began to emerge, of Lower Manhattan's immigrant neighbourhoods Little Syria and Little Armenia, several nearby Greek communities and their intertwined soundtracks played on the oud, fiddle and kanun.

"The folks on To What Strange Place could walk easily from one neighbourhood to another," says Nagoski. "They had their own record shops or newsstands, or whatever, that also sold records, or could easily visit one another's homes and coffee houses, just as they might have in Constantinople or Smyrna or Aleppo or Alexandria."

If the music on these discs is revelatory, the fact that such records were ever cut is yet more surprising. According to Nagoski, record companies realised they could sell gramophones to immigrant communities "if only there was some music they could buy", hence a varied array of artists were captured for posterity.

To What Strange Place is divided into three distinct categories: up-tempo tracks for dancing, more reflective songs of love and loss, and a third disc of singles imported from abroad for this new US market.

Nagoski's obsession with rare old records was initially fired by a jazz-loving grandfather, but he went on to delve into the lesser-known aspects of America's musical heritage, chiefly because unwanted 78rpm discs were very cheap. From these mostly undistinguished piles of shellac an exotic treasure would occasionally emerge, sometimes in the homes of fellow collectors.

One of his favourite tracks, a riotous oud number called Armenian Girl, Naughty Girl by a mysterious figure called M Douzjian, was discovered deep in a record dealer's cabinet, along with several other Armenian gems. "She had been given [them] by this girl she knew in college," laughs Nagoski. "They were raw trash, picked off the street in Boston, sitting without sleeves under her TV."

As similar records emerged a weighty project began to take shape. "I was also reading the news and thinking that it was outrageous that so much of Middle Eastern culture had existed within the United States for so long without having been recognised or taught as part of our own culture," he explains. "I felt it was necessary to learn everything I could and then share it as loudly as possible. No one else seemed to be doing it."

Working independently and fully aware that the eventual release was unlikely to be a money-spinner, Nagoski researched these records with relentless zeal, despite struggling to make ends meet. He "gently but consistently harassed a granddaughter of [the Greek singer] Achilleas Poulos for information", for example, while the aforementioned Armenian oud player is now slightly less mysterious.

"I systematically contacted every single person in the United States with the last name Douzjian at one point, in hopes of finding out anything about 'M Douzjian.' Not a single one responded. I later found a few details on him, including his first name, Mugirdich, by cross-referencing misspelled but similar-sounding references in public records."

Some colourful characters materialised. Achilleas Poulos ran several speakeasies during America's prohibition era but numerous sources suggested that it was one of the songs on To What Strange Place, the mournful Why I Came to America, that supposedly got him into trouble. He was long thought to have been deported for "having made a song critical of life in America", explains Nagoski. "Finally it turned out to be untrue, as his place of burial turned out to be Connecticut."

Other songs retain their secrets. The compilation's two offerings from the Assyrian singer Kosroff Malool illustrate the cross-pollination of Middle Eastern influences rather well. Sirvani is an old folk dance still played in his birth city, Diyarbakir, while Kurd Havasi (Part 2) is presumably an original composition, as it also makes a lyrical reference to "Amerika". Nagoski is still trying to ascertain the context.

"No idea. I'm not even 100 per cent sure he's singing in Turkish since he also recorded in Kurdish and was himself Assyrian and might well have spoken Aramaic. I've not yet found someone who knows Turkish well enough to sit with these records and tell me what they hear. Dialects and slang have changed the language itself, so it's hard to know."

Many of these artists enjoyed brief, busy careers - the Armenian singer Zabelle Panosian recorded 11 songs in 10 months, then departed for Paris - while others had a more lasting impact. Tetos Demetriades, who performs Misirlou here (the spelling varies, but translates as Egyptian girl), became a major record label executive and almost single-handedly kept Greek music in the shops following the Depression. Misirlou proved particularly durable and versatile: it wound up on the soundtracks to the classic movies Never on Sunday and Zorba the Greek, was covered by the likes of Dale and the Beach Boys and eventually sampled by the Black Eyed Peas.

Elsewhere, it seems the recording of Middle Eastern music virtually ceased in the US after 1929. The Greek bouzouki replaced the oud as the instrument of choice, while significant upheavals back home affected that harmonious musical melting-pot. Nagoski is "expecting some flak" about the Turkish nature of the Armenian songs included in his collection, as relations between the two nations remain so strained that it "may be painful for some Armenians to have to face this Turkish-style music from their past". Modern Turks, on the other hand, are often fascinated by old Armenian music. "They're delighted that all this rural folk that didn't get recorded in Anatolia or Constantinople did get recorded in the US," he says.

To What Strange Place may not achieve Black Eyed Peas-like popularity but few albums provide such a potent cultural history, and its compiler is planning a mini tour of the US during which he'll spin some tracks and give talks about their origins. And then?

"This set is just the beginning," he concludes. "Much, much more work needs to be done. What I have are more questions than answers."

His Ottoman odyssey continues.