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Uncle Ali: Touring Turks in New York City ca. 1951

by Canary Records



The Metropolitan label was, like Nick Doneff’s Kaliphon label, an offshoot of Adjin Asllan’s Balkan label. It released some of the most niche releases of the Near Eastern immigrant community in the 1940s-50s, including the five discs made by Victoria Hazan in Ladino, nine discs in Armenian by Edward Bogosian (see the Canary albums Everything is Fake and Don't Let Me Be Lost To You B-Sides), and about 26 discs in Turkish. Of the Turkish-language releases, the first eight were by primarily Greek-speaking Balkan-roster mainstays Marko Melkon (including two sides sung by Victoria Hazan; see the Canary releases I Go Around Drinking Raki, No News From Tomorrow, and Don’t Let Me Be Lost To You B-Sides) and Virginia Magidou (see the Canary release I Was Born a Badass Chick) plus one additional disc - her only release - by one Sarah Behar (see the Canary album No News From Tomorrow).

The remaining 17 known Metropolitan discs in Turkish were credited to five performers who appear not to have recorded either before or after (except for violinist Yekta Akinci), all of whom have Turkish names - not Armenian, Greek, Jewish, or Albanian as all of the other artists on Balkan, Metropolitan, and Kaliphon were. Turks represented a small minority of those who emigrated from Ottoman territories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Frank Ahmed's Turks in America: The Ottoman Turk's Immigrant Experience (Columbia International, 1993) and subsequent research by his student Işil Acehan indicate that Turks tended not to immigrate through New York due to discrimination against Muslims. They generally opted instead to enter the U.S. through Providence, Rhode Island. Only single men were admitted, the vast majority of whom were rural villagers who settled in the Massachusetts towns of Peabody, Salem, and Lynn where they worked primarily in the leatherworks, the population peaking shortly before WWI at just over 2,000 individuals. Nearly all of them returned to Turkey by 1930.

We have no immigration details or press references for any of the individuals on the Metropolitan label recordings, and there has not been any available lore from within the community of those who remember stories of the music of that time and place. With the sole exception of Yekta Akinci (b. 1905; d. 1980) who was the son of the musician and composer Ahmet Mükerrem Akinci, we have not been able to trace biographical data for them. They were certainly not part of the immigrant population.

Accompanied by the core Balkan-label accompanists Marko Melkon, Nick Doneff, and Garbis Bakirgian, they recorded a total of 34 sides. My first guess was that they were immigrant musicians performing, for reasons I could not begin to explain, under Turkish pseudonyms. It was the researcher Harry Kezelian who proposed that they were touring musicians.

Near Eastern musicians (Greek, Armenian, Lebanese, etc.) who toured the U.S. during the 1940s-50s were generally “name” players who had records out, not only in the homeland but also issued in the U.S. - Rosa Eskenazi, Sami el Chawwa, Giannis Papaiouannou, Udi Hrant, etc. The mystery of how and why these Turkish performers could have shown up without some extant biographical data might be explained by an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in November 1951 titled “Turkey Today,” presented in cooperation with Turkey's Ministry of Information. The exhibition included Turkish handicrafts and photos as well as watercolor paintings by Turkish children. A press release for the show’s opening states:

"On Saturday, November 17th at 3:00 PM, the Brooklyn Museum will present a program of Turkish Folk Music and Songs in connection with the exhibition. Admission to the public is free."

It is our speculation at present that these five Turkish musicians (or some of them) may have been sent by the Turkish Ministry of Information to play at this Brooklyn Museum exhibition opening. (Kezelian has pointed out that Turkey was admitted to NATO only three months later; the exhibit was likely part of a goodwill campaign to strengthen ties with the West under the third president Celâl Bayar’s administration.) Whether Melkon or Doneff attended the event and met the performers there or whether Adjin Asllan’s brother Selim knew them from Istanbul, where he had lived and made recordings for the Balkan label a couple of years earlier, enters into the realm of fantasy. We don’t know.

The performances themselves are stylistically typical both of Turkey's urban nightclubs of the late 40s and early 50s as well as the "oriental" nightclubs around New York's 8th Avenue, Port Said and the Brittania in particular where Doneff and Melkon worked regularly. It is easy to imagine that Melkon and Doneff relished the opportunity to exchange tunes and jam with players from the current scene of Turkey’s metropolis and took advantage of the opportunity to play with musicians who had their fingers close to the pulse of modern Turkey. The only other two immigrant players on the session were Garbis Bakirgian (b. 1884; d. 1969), a classically trained native of Istanbul, and the conservatory-trained Turkish pianist, percussionist, and bandleader Tarik Bulut (b. Istanbul May 21, 1921). Bulut himself had been sent to the U.S. as a Goodwill Ambassador by the Turkish government in 1947 to study at Julliard. When his visa expired two years later, he simply refused to return to Turkey, to the dismay of his benefactors who insisted that he repay the $3,000 grant he'd been awarded for his travel and studies. Shortly thereafter, he made several discs for Metropolitan under the pseudonym "T. Agabey," which he also used on his appearances on these discs. (Further information on his long music career in the U.S. can be found in the notes to the Canary album In An Egyptian Garden: canary-records.bandcamp.com/album/in-an-egyptian-garden )

We can say with certainty that the 17 discs made by this circle of Turks did not sell well. The Turkish-speaking immigrant population of the U.S., although accustomed to buying discs on the Balkan-Kaliphon-Metropolitan group of labels through the 1940s, being largely Armenian and Greek, did not respond enthusiastically to buying discs by these unknown Turkish performers recorded in New York even with familiar names listed on the labels as their accompanists. It seems reasonable to suppose that each of the discs was given only a single pressing of 500 copies. Surviving copies turn up infrequently, and there is marginal interest in them when they do. In the history of Near Eastern music in the U.S., they are marginalia to a footnote.

The twenty-two sides presented here include all four by Caylani Instanbuli Anemde, one of two unaccompanied improvisations by violinist Yekta Akinci, seven of the ten sides by Ali Fasih Tekin, ten of fourteen by Zeki Arikan, and, unfortunately, none of the four by Vahit Artan. The remaining sides represent not only gaps in the discographies of the obscure primary performers but also missing pieces of the work of their accompanists who are among the most significant immigrant musicians of the middle of the 20th century in New York. We hope to add to the collection over time.


released March 16, 2021

Accompanists (and track numbers):
oud - Marko Melkon 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22
violin - Nick Doneff 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 33
kanun - Garbis Bakirgian 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22
piano - T. Agabey 14, 21

Cover image from the film Dark Odyssey, directed by William Kyriakis and Radley Metzger. Dancer Maria Vassilakou shot by Peter Erik Winkler in 1958 at the Port Said Club, 257 West 29th Street, New York City. (Violinist Nick Doneff is on the bandstand, out of frame.)

We have retained the transliterations from Turkish as they appear on the original disc labels for the benefit of other researchers and to represent the material as it was seen at the time.

Transfers, restoration, notes, and compilation by Ian Nagoski.
Thank you to Kevin Barker for the loan of one disc and to Harry Kezelian.


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

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