Review : Various Artists - To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929
ShortandsweetnycThis fascinating and entrancing 3-disk release is a boon to record collectors, musicologists, historians, and folk and world music lovers alike. Compiled by Ian Nagoski from a stack of staticky, ancient 78′s, To What Strange Place preserves not only the cultural milieu of Manhattan’s rich early 20th-century immigrant populations, but also connects it back to their native countries.
The first two discs capture ethnic music of staggering breadth, including performances from musicians of Greek, Turkish, Romani, Armenian, Egyptian and Arabic backgrounds. While the music on these discs is split between lighthearted “Dances & Joys” and the more poignant lament “I Wish I Never Came,” for the non-native speaker the pining, intertwining melodies of the latter songs are often indistinguishable from the meandering and mesmerizing jaunts of the former.
Of the many singers and musicians featured, most found a nurturing and nostalgic environment in a few specific neighborhoods in the 30′s, from Lexington Avenue all the way west to 8th Avenue. As Nagoski implies in his scholarly notes, the scene sounds eerily prescient of the cafe-to-club hopscotch played across Greenwich Village during the American folk revival three decades on. For the artists featured here, what they found were not only places to call home, but to help recall home, as well. Some would actually make a living playing music (such as the prolific Marika Papagika, who recorded 200+ songs and even opened her own club); others, like the horribly obscure Shmon Arslan, had only three sides to their names, though their scant output makes their music no less interesting or important. And despite some disparate cultural heritage, there’s a uniformity to the many different-but-similar ethnic modes that makes the case for the umbrella grouping of “Ottoman,” beyond simply the geographic boundaries....full text
AllmusicWith all the 20th century reissues of "lost," "undiscovered," and "private press" field recordings by obscure groups, outsider musicians, and songwriters are coming to light -- and market -- more than ever before. Tompkins Square's To What Strange Place: The Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, curated and compiled painstakingly by Ian Nagoski, may be one of these, but it is also a breed apart. Simply put. Nagoski's three-disc collection assembles recordings made mostly in New York City between 1916 (the year before the United States entered World War I, and the year after the Anatolian genocide that killed 2.5 million people) through the first year of the Great Depression. Geographically speaking, while situated in the ethnic neighborhoods and ghettos of New York, these artists are "off the boat" Armenians, Syrians, Greeks, and Sephardic Jews. They all came from lands contained within the Ottoman Empire which stretched from Persia to the tip...full text
PitchforkIn the summer of 1952, the filmmaker, collector, and noted weirdo Harry Smith-- then just 29-- squirreled himself away in a two-room office at 111 West 47th Street, chewing peyote buttons and digging through his massive collection of hard-sought 78rpm records, selecting the songs that would later comprise Folkways' Anthology of American Folk Music. Over the past half-century, the Anthology has become a neatly packaged stand-in for the whole of American folk music, despite its dubious legality (rights were finally cleared for the 1997 reissue) and hugely personal conception. The blues, country, and folk songs (most recorded in the 1920s and 30s) Smith chose to include range from the obscure (Uncle Eck Dunford) to the popular (the Carter Family), and are presented with an eye toward the metaphysical-- the so-called Celestial Monochord etched onto its cover is being tuned, after all, by the Hand of God.
The Anthology is a stunning thing, disorienting and funny and sad and transcendent, but it's also limited by design; the collection's supposed snapshot of the American folk canon is as much a self-portrait as anything else. Now, over a half-century later, To What Strange Place-- a 3xCD box set compiled by another 78 collector, Ian Nagoski-- feels like a long-lost companion piece. Rather than defining folk music as a rural, indigent practice, Nagoski goes broader, offering up the Ottoman immigrant songs that animated American cities in the first half of the 20th century for inclusion in the same canon.
To What Strange Place collects the work of musicians from Anatolia, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Levant who lived in the U.S. and recorded in New York City between World War I and the Depression (1916-1929), as culled from Nagoski's own collection (according to a recent Washington Post profile, he purchased most of the source records en masse, for $5, from some dudes paid to haul junk out of vacated row houses). None are sung exclusively in English, and nearly all nod to musical traditions likely unfamiliar to casual listeners. It's not particularly easy to absorb, at least at first-- the textures and instrumentation are foreign, the tempos are shifty, the voices often spastic. Ultimately, though, none of that matters: The immigrant experience, so rich with glee and terror and homesickness and hope, is expressed here in all its wild, universal glory, and if you listen hard enough, these songs start to sound as familiar-- and as American-- as "This Land Is Your Land...full text
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