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V/A - To Scratch Your Heart: Early Recordings From Istanbul

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Artist: V/A

Album: To Scratch Your Heart: Early Recordings From Istanbul

Label: Honest Jon's

Review date: Nov. 18, 2010

When the sounds on this set were first ensconced on shellac, marketplace margin was a mitigating force frequently eclipsing that of cultural preservation. Ethnomusicology was in its infancy as an academic discipline and practitioners commonly weren’t in positions to capitalize on corporate-funded itineraries or state-of-the-art recording technology. That prevailing disparity left the heavy-lifting of collecting and codifying to commercial entities like the Gramophone, Odeon and Pathe companies, whose principal directive was to gather as much raw material in as cost-effective and expeditious a fashion as possible.

The persisting philosophy wasn’t even a question of quantity over quality; many of those in the field doing the recording remained largely ignorant of the cultural subtleties and specifics that they were preserving for posterity. A bottom line swiftly coalesced into amassing a surplus to be pressed, circulated and sold domestically and abroad. This freebooter-style mentality is abhorrent in modern terms, but such a reaction ignores the resiliency of the music in transcending the arguably baser elements behind its early conservation. The imputation still finds purchase today, in the work of boutique labels like Sublime Frequencies where the crux appears more about getting material out to consumers through an emphasis on the rare and exotic than in fastidiously documenting the cultural context and history of the sounds presented.

Honest Jon’s achieves an enviable balance in this long-standing tug-of-war between scholarship and entertainment with To Scratch Your Heart. A thick cardstock gatefold case houses two discs and a 27-page booklet. Annotations are informative, but don’t get bogged down in minutiae, piquing interest but allowing the selections to speak for themselves. The notes cogently cover basic terminology and musical forms on the fly without resorting to a glossary. The singers and instrumentalists bring it all vividly to life with performances that range from the somber and mannered strains of Selanikli Apti Efendi’s “Sende Acep” to the vigorous solo virtuosity of Kanuni Artaki Efendi.

The 32 handsome examples of Ottoman Empire music lean to the folk end of the spectrum, with facets of classical Ottoman court music also strongly represented. Taksims (improvisations) and gazels (vocal-driven songs) dominate the program, with accompaniment that encompasses all of the major instruments of the region, including ud, rebab, zurna, kemence and kanun, as well as Western transplants like clarinet and violin. Along these lines, one of the most striking selections from a stylistic standpoint is “Hicaz Takism 1,” by one Kamil Efendi, who manages to translate the microtonal vocabulary of the piece through the unlikely vehicle of tempered European piano.

A third strain of traditional expression, religious music, falls outside the collection’s parameters, though a number of the musicians included were also operators in this framework. As with other sacred music like Jewish cantorials, resistance to recording these forms was frequent, and in some cases (cf. Tanburi Cemil Bey) led to existential crises on the part of the artists akin to certain contemporaneous African American bluesmen’s reluctance to record the spiritual sides of their repertoires.

Rounder Records covered similar ground with a series of beautifully-produced Turkish collections on its Traditional Crossroads imprint, released in intervals over the past two decades. While hardly matching the scope of that multi-volume endeavor, this set does it slightly better in presentation by including sepia portraits of nearly half the artists alongside brief biographical notes. Even more impressive is the comparative clarity of the recordings, many of which belie the age-weathered conditions of their source materials by minimizing surface static and hiss while retaining detail and depth.

Motivations girding early recording practices can easily seem suspect when scrutinized under the modern lens of cultural relativism and conservation. The consistency of the selections on this set make the arguments largely moot; the music still opens an invaluable aural aperture into a now departed time independent of the intelligibility of song lyrics or structures. Further, five decades later, sides like these would serve as an indigenous creative reservoir for bands like Mogollar and Dostlar in flowering of the Anatolian rock scene.

By Derek Taylor

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