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If I Were a Nightingale: Turkish & Armenian Language Recordings in NYC, Dec. 1916 - June 1921

by Canary Records



"How wrong it is to take even an idle interest in the absurd and entirely fraudulent dead, named or not, known or not, honorable or not, or nothing or something or neither or both, how wrong it is to put into a fine long poem thoughts or intimations of something or other instead of getting along with it in the the clearly defined programs of being there, right, and right there, rather than so much as turning to look into the direction of no more, all done, all gone, which is the direction of down insofar as the earth is concerned , up insofar as the something more than earth and physicalness and body and reality are concerned, or to the right side insofar as right-sidedness is concerned or through and through insofar as through and through is concerned, or musical notes in humming language or machine roarings insofar as some kind of symphony of something is concerned, or around and around in and out of everything known or imagined and forgotten and misunderstood is concerned, good God, good God, why hast thou not not at least forsaken us so we might pick and choose who we are are and what happened and why something else else didn't happen and why we aren't something else or somebody far less than we are, which would perhaps give us more than half a chance to be independent of the nagging connections, what do we need with light light holy light everlasting, first in things of substance and ourselves of substance and then in things not of substance and ourselves also at last not of substance? What do we need with all that gathering and gathering of the irrelevant details of how it happened but didn't happen at all, and why it happened but actually didn't, at all, and the all the rest of the inaccurate but meticulously weighted out and measured and stupid stuff that really never was, all the while hanging in as if not only always was but would always be, always be, never never not always be?"
-William Saroyan, Obituaries (1979)

This collection is a direct extension of and fills a gap between several previous Canary collections, namely the two volumes of 1912-16 performances in Turkish, Armenian, and Kurdish (And Two Partridges), the collection of 1916-17 performances by Kemany Minas (When I See You), and it ties them together with the two volumes of 1920s independent Armenian-American label releases (O My Soul and Very Sweet). Taken together with this collection and performances several other collections (Why I Came to America, Two What Strange Place, and I Am Servant of Your Voice), we have been able to present about 150 performances of late-Ottoman folk music recorded in the United States before the Second World War, a significant percentage of what was produced and a reasonable cross-section for use by interested listeners or future researchers.

The peak of production of recordings by and for Anatolian immigrants, the vast majority of whom were Armenian and Greek, by the two major U.S. record companies, Victor and Columbia, coincided with WWI and its immediate aftermath and the massive, catastrophic, and genocidal loss of life in their communities and families and the widespread destruction of the homelands of the performers and their audiences. It is necessary to hear these performances in that context.

Karekin Proodian (b. 1884) was a seasoned veteran of the recording studio when he recorded the sides presented here, having having already recorded 14 songs in Turkish and Armenian for Columbia between December 1915 and June 1916 (half of them collected on the Canary album And Two Partridges Vol 2). These sides, four of the six he made for Victor, are especially notable for the inclusion of the great Kemany Minas as his violin accompanist. He recorded about a dozen more sides around 1921 for independent labels (half of those collected on the Canary album Oh My Soul).

Two apparent sessions in February 1917 yielded not only an extraordinary series of performances by Kemany Minas (see the Canary album When I See You) including his best-selling lament for the massacre at the village of Egin in eastern Turkey, but also a half-dozen recordings by his cohort including oudist and singer Garabet Merjanian (who went on to record again a decade later by which time he was working in the shirt collar factory in Troy, New York), the superb, classically-trained violinist Harry Hasekian (whose performances were issued not only anonymously but as having been "Recorded in Europe" on the disc's label - they were not), and the otherwise unrecorded Armenian clarinetist and oudist whose names were given respectively as Takis Zakas and Tambouri Looder.

A forthcoming project by our friend and colleague Harout Arakelian will present context and biographical details of the Armenian singer Helen Paul. Suffice it to say for now that she recorded only two sides, both patriotic and in support of Amenian revolutionaries. Her recordings were made for Columbia between the two session recorded by the great Armenian-American soprano and philanthropist Zabelle Panosian.

The oudist and singer Jemal Bey remains an obscure figure, having recorded only four sides, accompanied on violin by Avny Bey. Avny Bey we know was born Hassein Avny on August 24, 1896 in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), arrived at Ellis Island Aug. 11, 1914, trained as an electrician, and lived at 52 Rivington St., the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side. He recorded at sessions of one Sinem Effendi (maybe Sinem Hojaian who likely plays kanun on a Feb. 1917 session and Leadet Hanim, the first woman to have recorded in Turkish in the U.S. - see And Two Partridges Vol 2) in September 1915. He lived briefly in Pittsburgh in 1918 working as a porter, was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1920, and married Marion Meehan, an Irish Catholic, in June 1930 in NYC. The kanunist with whom he worked, T. Kappas, continued to record into the 40s with several of the Balkan/Me Re circle of performers including Marko Melkon and Nick Doneff.

Tom Stathis was born April 15, 1882. in present-day Kirklareli, Turkey (eastern Thrace, north of Istanbul). He recorded four songs pseudonymously (two Turkish folks songs and two patriotic Greek songs) before recording four songs for Gennett Records in 1924 that were rejected for release and another four on January 28, 1925 that were released by Gennett (all in Turkish). By 1940 he had been married to a woman from his home town named Soultana Bilber and was single again when he had an address at 743 W North Ave in Chicago at which time he had recently been farming in Culver, Indiana. Shortly thereafter, he relocated to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he lived for three years before he died October 3, 1944 in St. Joseph's Infirmary after a stay of 8 days of "physical exhaustion" accompanied by a bacterial infection at the age of 62.

Columbia and Victor both ceased recording immigrants in the Armenian (and Arabic) languages around 1920 and stopped recording in Turkish except for a few rare instances. They did, however, continue to keep many titles from their back-catalog in print well into the early 1930s and issued imported recordings for the immigrant population into the 1940s. (See the Canary album Notes From Home Vol 2).

Much of this music became a connecting link, on records and in unrecorded performances by the players and their contemporaries, for what would become in the United States a variety of "scenes," including a network of "oriental" nightclubs and a more loosely organized world of community parties. Taken as a whole, they're both the dying gasp of a world that would never exist again and a harbinger of something new to be reborn, partially through the existence of the mechanical means of their reproduction, in the generation to come after them. No one at the time could have known either of those truths. They were always just now and now and now and now, moving forward as we all do in our best moments like blindfolded poets stepping faithfully toward an open elevator shaft.


released May 5, 2021

All recordings made in New York City for the Victor and Columbia labels.
Recording dates derived from Ethnic Music in America and Columbia E Series 1908-23 by Richard K. Spottswood and the Discography of American Historical Recordings at the University of California Santa Barbara under the supervision of David Seubert:

Tracks 1-4 December 6, 1916
Tracks 5-12 February 1917
Tracks 13-14 April 1918
Tracks 15-16 November 18, 1919
Track 17 ca. June 1921

Known accompanists:
Tracks 1-4 Kemany Minas (violin), Morene Eff. (oud), Hagop (kanun)
Tracks 15-16 The. Kappas (kanun), Avny Bey (violin)

All performances in Turkish except 13 & 14 in Armenian.

Many thanks to Christine Gabaly for her contribution (15 of the 17 track presented here) in memory of her grandparents Setrak and Siranoush Aijian.
Thanks to Harry Kezelian and Joseph Graziosi for their insight.

We have retained transliterations from the original disc labels.

Transfers, restoration, and notes by Ian Nagoski


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early 20th century masterpieces (mostly) in languages other than English.

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