10 December, 2011

Review - "To What Strange Place" (Tompkins Square)

It's been months and months since I promised to post a review of To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diapora (1916-1929), and even more months since I first picked up this excellent set. I have delayed posting a review for a number of reasons, some of them personal. Mainly, however, I wanted to take the time to really absorb the music. The set consists of three discs: The first two feature music recorded in the United States (primarily in New York City) by immigrants from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. The third disc is largely made up of music recorded in the Old Country and imported to the United States.

Having a carnivorous musical curiosity, I am quite literally willing to listen to anything that comes my way. This blog is a testament to that fact. Raised primarily on Classic Rock and the Singer-Songwriters of the mid- to late-1970s (James Taylor, Carol King, Billy Joel), I was exposed to jazz and classical music through my paternal grandfather, the ineffable Harry Stern. His love of music and his passionate lust for life is the common thread that runs through the dozens of musical styles and genres I have explored over the years.

I mention this to say that I purchased To What Strange Place not out of a pre-existing familiarity with the music of this particular place and time, but out of that driving need to seek out beautiful music wherever it can be found. I freely admit that I know next to nothing about the Ottoman Empire other than the fact that it existed. I think it had something to do with the Crimean War, but I only know of that because of the Russian history I studied as an undergraduate. I know that the Ottoman Empire rose up after the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire, and I know that Vlad Tepes (the man who inspired the fictional Dracula) spent some time resisting the Ottomans. I know that the Ottoman Turks persecuted and exterminated some two million people in what has become known as the Armenian Genocide (although other ethnic groups, including Greeks and Turkish Christians, where targets as well), now considered to be the first modern act of "Ethnic Cleansing" and a dry run for the Nazi Holocaust of the 1940s (Hitler famously defended his Final Solution by rhetorically asking, "Who remembers the Armenians?"). In other words, I came into this set knowing very little about this part of the world and almost nothing of its music.

So when I first placed the CD into my player, I was immediately transported by the strange and haunting sounds that emanated from within. Strings, strummed, plucked and bowed; reed instruments that modulate into a plaintive cry; exotic rhythms beat on weathered skins; a melting pot of music from the East transported to the melting pot of the West; a monologue of exile; a dialogue of emigrants. It is impossible to distill the experience of listening to these tracks into a few words. It helps, certainly, to read curator Ian Nagoski's notes which identify artists and provide translation for some of the lyrical content. Helpful too are Nagoski's spoken notes at the end of the third disc which help to put these sounds into historical context. Nagoski's spoken words are poetic as well as educational and bear repeated listening. Nevertheless, all the context and detail is only window dressing. The listener need not concern him or herself with understanding. The sob in Marika Papagika's voice is all the context or translation that anyone really needs. This is "Soul Music" is the truest sense of the word. From out of a dusty, forgotten past, Nagoski has resurrected a voice that calls us all - Jew, Gentile, Muslim, Atheist, Believer, Westerner, Easterner - home. A voice that goes straight to the heart of what it is to be one human being among the faceless millions; to be young and looking ahead, and to be old and looking back. We are all strangers in a strange land. Once upon a time, Africans were brought to the Americas in chains. Irish, English, Scottish, French, Danish, Dutch and German boys and girls looked eastward across a vast water that separated both space and time. All of them could open their mouths and utter this same cry. In time, we Americans gave this cry a name: We called it "the Blues." What Nagoski has brought us is a Blues Record for the ages. We all hate to see that evening sun go down.

To What Strange Place is available from Tompkins Square Music and from fine on-line music retailers everywhere.

Here's the video preview for To What Strange Place.

Download and listen to Marika Papagika performing "Smyrneiko Minore."