Songs of Asia Minor: early recordings

Greek Oriental CD

Roza Eskenazi with Demitris Semsis (violin) and Agapios Tomboulis (cümbüs),
Athens 1932.

Through the first half of the 20th century, the popular songs loosely grouped together as rebetika, performed by Greek, Turkish and other ethnic groups (Armenian, Jewish, Roma), thrived in the night-clubs and music halls of port cities like Istanbul, Smyrna/Izmir, and Athens, as well as in the diaspora, notably the USA (cf. Accordion crimes).

For “the birth of modern Istanbul”, I’ve already praised Charles King’s Midnight at the Pera Palace, which puts the popular music scene of the day in context. Despite its syncretic style, rebetika found itself on the faultlines of a period of convulsive change, with savage ethnic conflicts leading to the population exchanges of 1923. The rebetika ethos is commonly linked with other popular demi-monde styles like flamenco, fado, tango, blues, and so on. [1]

This was also a booming period for the commercial recording industry, and we have a wealth of reissues on CD (often with fine liner notes and translations), such as

  • Greek-Oriental rebetica: songs and dances in the Asia Minor style—the golden years, 1911–1937 (Arhoolie Folklyric, 1991)
  • Armenians, Jews, Turks and Gypsies: oldest known recordings (Collection Greek Archives, 1995)
  • Great voices of Constantinople 1927–1933 (Rounder, 1997)
  • To what strange place: the music of the Ottoman-American diaspora, 1916-1929 (Canary, 2001)
  • Women Of Rembetika 1908-1947 (JSP, 2012).
    .

Women CD

Left to right: Safiye Ayla, Necmiye Ararat Hanim, and Suzan Yakar Rutkay.

Prompted by the CD Women of Istanbul (Traditional Crossroads, 1998), I’ll feature YouTube playlists for some of the female singers who feature on such discs, as they achieved popularity from the 1920s alongside male performers. Their biographies only hint at the changing times. As Harold G. Hagopian observes in the liner notes, the gramophone

could effectively divide the public from the private, the voice from the body, screening women at least for a time from the very modern world they helped foster.

Left, Zehra Bilir; right, Roza Eskanazi.

Zehra Bilir (1913–2007), of Armenian descent (see e.g. here) (17 songs here, some duplicated):

I love her plaintive free-tempo songs, like this one punctuated by fiddle—reminiscent of a Uyghur muqaddime (and, more distantly, Irish sean-nós!):

Here she sings in an Armenian dialect quite remote from “standard” Turkish, with stock phrases borrowed from Anatolian folk türkü, rich in allusions. As my Istanbul friends tell me, the folk lyrics seem to have inspired a poem by Ali Kızıltuğ, in which a man professes his undying love.

This style is featured on the CD Amanedhes and taxims 1929–1937 (playlist):

Safiye Ayla (1907–98) (8 songs here):

The Jewish-Greek singer Roza Eskenazi (mid-1890s–1980), based in Athens—a playlist with 276 gorgeous tracks:

The list opens with Why I smoke cocaine—the Greek lyrics translated by Hagopian:

Where’s all my prettiness, where are those great looks of mine?
In all of Athens, no girl had my class.
I was really a doll, with money and all—
I’m not putting you on, I made the world go wild.
Then this tough guy, yeah, a number one Mr Cool,
Got me involved with him;
He took all I had and left me flat—
He took my heart, my. youth, and my money too,
And from the pain, I smoke cocaine.
(Oh damn you cocaine, you’ve wiped me out!)
Bigshots loved me, old guys, young guys, boys,
And all the fine dudes on the scene.
What great times I had, with wine and song;
Every day I partied it up and led the good life.
And now, poor me, I wander around and waste away,
‘Cause my hang-up for that tough guy won’t let me be.
That cokehead came and wrecked my brain,
So I myself now smoke cocaine.

Müzeyyen Senar (1918–2015) (25 songs):

Hamiyet Yüceses (1914–96) (99 songs):

Marika Papagika (1890–1943), Greek singer based in the USA (12 songs):

Other Greek singers include Rita Abadzi (c1914–69) (295 songs!):

and Marika Kanaropúlu (1914–90), who moved from Turkey to the USA via Greece—18 songs here:

Again, she was a fine exponent of soulful solo amanedhes:

And here she exemplifies the migrant experience with Neva hedzaz (“Like a dry and drifting leaf”):

* * *

All these singers were backed by a host of fine (male) instrumentalists. The CD Istanbul 1925 (Traditional Crossroads, 1994) also has many wonderful instrumental tracks, like this:

For a couple more examples of the free-tempo taxim preludial style which opened that song, here’s the blind Armenian oud-player Udi Hrant (1901–78):

as well as the wind-player Şükrü Tunar (1907–62):

And here’s a wonderful recent taxim on zurna:

For a change of tone, to follow this recording of Misirlou from 1927 New York, sung by Tetos Dimitriades,

Quentin Tarantino included a version on the brilliant soundtrack of Pulp fiction (cf. Dusty):

Rebetika makes another good illustration of Bruno Nettl’s parameters for musical change and adaptation—in scales, vocal style, heterophonic and harmonic accompaniment, instrumentation, context, and so on. For related themes, see e.g. Musics of Crete; Italian folk musicking, Accordion crimes, and Bernard Lortat-Jacob at 80

 

With many thanks to Hülya and Augusta!


 [1] The wider context is described in chapters 5 and 6 of Peter Manuel, Popular musics of the non-Western world (1988), and by Paul Vernon; see also The Rough Guide to world music (under both Greece and Turkey), and Songlines. Amidst a vast bibliography, note Alex Papadopoulos and Asli Duru (eds.), Landscapes of music in Istanbul: a cultural politics of place and exclusion (2017); see also e.g. two articles from greeksongstories.wordpress.com (here and here), with more under the rebetika tag there; and this article by Rod Conway-Morris. From the Greek perspective, Gail Holst, Road to rembetika (1975) remains a classic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s