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V/A - To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916-1929

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Artist: V/A

Album: To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916-1929

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Aug. 5, 2011

A product of artistry both reflecting and outlasting tragedy, the music of To What Strange Place is an archetypal case of the most dire of historical circumstances, ironically precipitating cultural preservation and proliferation. Autodidact enthnomusicologist Ian Nagoski spent over three years devising and compiling the project and his devotion to the material manifests in nearly every detail. The set’s most obvious antecedent is the fourth episode of “Fontotopia,” a radio webcast he curated several years ago to highlight various facets of a vintage music education gleaned direct from 78s. While that episode focused on indigenous Ottoman sounds, this set concentrates mainly on the work of musicians once they reached stateside shores, in many cases after fleeing the genocidal policies instituted by their former rulers.

Two discs explore the work of musicians recorded in Manhattan studios, the first centering on dance and celebratory pieces while the second delves into songs with a more narrative folkloric cast. A third disc echoes Nagoski’s earlier radio show in its gathering of shellac sides of Ottoman masters the émigrés brought with them on their journeys to Ellis Island. Audio quality varies markedly, an expected outcome considering the source sides’ lengthy peregrinations into Nagoski’s hands. Some spent the bulk of their existence prior in the protective hands of collectors, others ended up in curbside trash heaps after years of disuse or neglect. All things considered, the restorative efforts accomplished by Nagoski are pretty remarkable.

Oud and kanun (zither) are common focal points on many of the pieces, carving out rhythms that often transcend the ethnic divides between the performers. Greek oudist Achilles Poulos performs the Turkish composition “Cefti Telli Gazel.” Violinist Athanasiou Makedonas blazes through a Turkish-style improvisation on the hauntingly morose “Taxim Ouchak,” exhortations by singer Marika Papagika punctuating his dizzyingly ornate passages. Both pieces illustrate the enduring resilience of musical traditions particularly when juxtaposed against the plague of ethnic strife that was decimating the musicians’ homeland. Other violin virtuosi like Kemany Minas and Naim Karakand are frequent among the selections, though Western instruments are otherwise comparatively few. The cello makes a couple of notable appearances, starting with “Bate Korisia Sto Horo,” the stirring opening track by Markos Sifnios. A rare taksim (improvisation) on the instrument by the legendary Cemil Bey graces the third disc.

With a set of this scope and antiquated provenance historical perspective is essential, and Nagoski doesn’t disappoint in that regard. A 20-page accompanying booklet includes annotations on every track along with period photos of numerous musicians. Degree of detail varies from piece to piece and Nagoski freely admits that due to the piecemeal way much of the information was gathered some of the specifics may be erroneous. He also includes a 24-minute spoken addendum on the third disc that provides a wealth of historical background for the music and complements the already thorough booklet. His candid monologue, at times undercut by song samples not included on the other discs, is thick with demography and statistics that sometimes cross the line into catalogued minutiae. Somewhat discursive in execution, the meticulous musings are at the same time invaluable in terms of the personal perspective and copious context they supply.

The collection’s title connotes a fascinating double entendre in its intimation of the subjective experiences of both the émigré musicians in their era and present-day listeners of their work. The ephemeral nature of that relative strangeness manifests upon repeat exposure to bridging humanity in sounds and points to a revelatory realization regarding the tragedies that tore apart their homelands. Despite all of the musical and cultural commonalities between these ethnicities, religious and political differences were still powerful enough to pit them against each other to the point of catastrophe. It’s a circumstance sadly repeated and a lesson repeatedly forgotten time and again.

By Derek Taylor

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