from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (1: Ian Nagoski)

Ian Nagoski

Ian Nagoski

Matthew Asprey


Ian Nagoski is a musician, writer, and researcher. His compilations include Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics, 1918-1955 (Dust-to-Digital, 2007) and To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929 (Tompkins Square, 2011). He runs a small LP label called Canary, which is manufactured and distributed by Mississippi Records. He lives in Baltimore.

ASPREY: What music did you grow up with?

NAGOSKI: I’m from a musical family. My mother was a piano and voice teacher. She gave me lessons in those. The family lore is that I learned to count to four listening to her give lessons. She’s been music director at a Unitarian church since I was a teenager, and is finishing her PhD in Music now. Her tastes ran toward M.O.R. 1970s AM radio kind of stuff; my earliest musical hero was, as a result, Jim Croce. One of my sisters is also a PhD, a music teacher, choral music specialist, a writer, and conductor. My father played Van Ronk/Baez type folk songs on guitar from time to time. He also kept a lot of instruments around the house and had an interesting record collection, including Partch, Stockhausen, Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, etc. (He was also a big thrift store and flea market hound, and I picked that up from him.) My grandfather was an amateur swing-era jazz drummer, who gave me serious, disciplined lessons in that. My sisters and I all took dance lessons of various kinds and, because the family business had to do with taking pictures of dancers, I spent a lot of time around them as a kid.

I fell in love with electro and hip-hop around ‘83 and with the radio generally, and the Beatles in particular around age eight or nine. My older brother turned me on to Peter Gabriel when I was an adolescent.  And an older cousin sat me down and turned me on to ‘college rock’ (Sonic Youth, Volcano Suns, Dinosaur, Dead Milkmen, Laurie Anderson) when I was thirteen or fourteen. My local library had a lot of interesting records—Art Ensemble of Chicago, Television, Weill & Brecht. I started playing in pop-metal (as a drummer) and quasi-shoegaze (as a guitarist) by thirteen or fourteen.

ASPREY: When did you realise you were going to be a music anthologist—and were there compilations that provided you with a template?

NAGOSKI: It’s not a choice I’ve ever consciously made. I was always a mix-tape maker and worked in record stores, book stores, and libraries. I tried to be a composer of electronic music in my twenties—did a lot of gigs and made a few records. When I was thirty my daughter was born, so I gave up my music because it was too time-consuming and only lost me money. But I’d been into 78s for about ten years at that point, and a buddy of mine suggested that I make a CD collection for his label. So that became Black Mirror on the Dust-to-Digital label. Then that lead to a relationship with Mississippi Records and got me interested in doing more research and writing about old music. I saw that there were some great stories not being told and saw a way to deal with some of the same concerns regarding memory and musical meaning that I’d had as a composer in a relatable form, so I started doing that.

By the time I started making compilations, I had a couple of decades of making mix tapes and about a decade of improvising and composing for tape under my belt. I was coming from Cage’s strategy of developing a piece of music by first deciding on a duration and thinking about how to arrange sounds within that time-frame. My initial exposure to early 20th century music was, of course, through jazz collections, which were either chintzy (bargain bin collections of Chick Webb or Jimmie Lunceford) or ridiculously elaborate and thorough (the Complete Billie Holiday on Decca, the Complete Robert Johnson, etc.) In my mid-teens, shortly after buying Lomax’s Folk Songs of North America book, I heard the ‘Social Music’ volume of Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology (still my favorite volume) and began to take his premise of listening for the Big Picture (the “voice of God”?) seriously. From my late teens through my twenties, I studied the first generation of collector/anthologists of Americana (Pete Whelan’s Origin Jazz Library, Nick Perls’ Yazoo, Chris Strachwitz’s Folklyric and Arhoolie, Don Kent’s Herwin, etc, etc) and came to think of them as artists as much as the performers that they were presenting, as sculptors, bricoleurs, and composers in the same sense as Joseph Cornell, Bruce Connor, Pierre Schaeffer, etc. I was at university and having a very difficult time finding my way when Pat Conte’s Secret Museum series was released and I felt that he had more to say about the truth of music than anyone in a hundred mile radius of the town where I lived. And, of course, there were collections of more-or-less contemporary music (or art or poetry, for that matter, including the Anthology of New York Poets, edited by David Shapiro and Ron Padgett, and Paul Bowles’ collection of Moroccan writers, Five Eyes) that were very important to me…

ASPREY: How did you come to compile To What Strange Place?

NAGOSKI: There was a song on my first collection, Black Mirror, that I thought was especially powerful—a very intense Greek record with heavy Turkish (and, it turns out, Russian) influence from 1919 by a woman named Marika Papagika. I couldn’t find out much about her, so I started trying to figure her out. In the end, there’s still a lot I don’t know because not much of her life was documented, and she had no children. (She died in 1942.) But she left behind two hundred and fifty performances. So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where she was from, what kind of world she had lived in, and why I had encountered her music but hadn’t been able to find out much about her. To What Strange Place is basically what I learned from that project/obsession as it expanded. I still consider that project ongoing.

ASPREY: What can you tell me about the economics of these rare Ottoman diaspora records? How were they originally produced and distributed?

NAGOSKI: It’s a long story. But in a nutshell, The Gramophone Company, as it was then called (later Victor/HMV/EMI) started recording in various parts of the world in 1902. Other companies joined them over the next decade. Recordings of immigrant musics in the U.S. were made starting in the last decade of the 19th century. In the first two decades of the 20th century, recordings made abroad were issued in the U.S. for immigrant populations, and in the mid-1910s recordings of ‘down home’ style musics from many parts of the world were produced and issued in the United States by the major record companies, Victor and Columbia in particular—hundreds of thousands of them by the onset of the Depression. The purpose of them was to 1) get some money out of the pockets of the immigrants who were flooding the country at a rate of more than a thousand a day for decades and 2) to sell some hardware—record players. Immigrants began founding their own small, independent record companies in the 1910s, and some entrepreneurial folks started importing physical discs that had been released back home.

ASPREY: Can you give me some idea of the geography of the music? What kind of regional differences did you find between performers?

NAGOSKI: Well, the performers on To What Strange Place cover a wide array of language and cultural groups. Of the American performers on the first two discs, there are Greek performers from  inland, coastal, and island Greece as well as Anatolian Greeks. There are Armenians from both eastern and western Anatolia. Assyrians of what is now southern Turkey and Syrians of western Syria are also represented. There are Arabic speakers (probably Christians) likely from present-day Lebanon or Egypt, too. To the best of my knowledge there are no Sephardic or Romaniote Jews, Bulgarians, or Albanians, not because they wouldn’t belong but simply because I didn’t find useable, beautiful records by them in time for inclusion, unfortunately. I’m not aware of any Turks or Druze on the first two discs, partially because relatively few immigrated and those that did hid their identities as non-Christians or -Jews. (America was not welcoming to Muslims.) The third disc, which comprises recordings made overseas but marketed in the U.S. for the immigrant populations, is more diverse and includes not only Jews and Muslims but also both performers of the very highest ranks of the Turkish and Arab classical worlds as well as socially ‘low’ class performers, including Roma women.

Collection: Ian Nagoski

Collection: Ian Nagoski

ASPREY: Tell me about the hunt for rare records. What are a couple of the weirder places you’ve found them?

NAGOSKI: The Greek records that started me down the To What Strange Place rabbit hole were dragged out of an abandoned house in Baltimore, Maryland. I bought that box of records having no idea at all what was on them for ten cents a piece—$5 for the box. They included not only several by Marika Papagika but also a beautiful 1907 performance by a Greek singer in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). Some of the best Arab classical (tarab) performances on the set were found in practically unplayed condition at an estate sale in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by my friends Paul Metzger and Elaine Evans. (They refused to take any money for them—bless them!) Those included one of the oldest and best performances on the set—the great Egyptian singer Yusuf al-Manyalawi, recorded November, 1905. A group of Armenian records were literally picked out of garbage left on the street in Boston, Massachusetts, including M. Douzjian’s great ‘High Aghchg, Tchar Aghchg’. Those were given to me by my friend Angela Sawyer. I should say that although I did pay ‘serious money’ for a couple records on the set (and then had to sell them immediately after making transfers of them), the vast majority of them were either given to me or else I paid almost nothing for them. Many of them—including great ones like Kemany Minas’ ‘Eghin’—can be bought at auction for less than $10 in nearly perfect condition. Some are ‘rare’ in the sense of being collectable, but most are basically obscure junk that very few people want and even fewer are willing to pay for. Most of the records I’m most interested in “ride that fine line between priceless and worthless,” as my buddies Dick Spottswood and Steve Smolian say.

ASPREY: Do you feel that you’re doing something of a historian’s job when you compile your sets? Do your compilations seek to present a kind of ‘secret history’ (forgive the cliché)? And how do your discoveries challenge the dominant historical understanding of this music?

NAGOSKI: Primarily, I’m driven by a desire to respect the work of the people who made this beautiful music—to say simply and clearly that their lives mattered. I feel connected to them when I hear them play, and I want to know them and share the quality and meaning of their lives to the extent that I can know it. Secondarily, I want to shake people up a little, Americans in particular, and remind them (us) that we haven’t been told the whole story, that we don’t know enough about who we are, that the world is a big place full of beauty and wonder, and that simply agreeing on a few icons and symbols and songs is not good enough. It leads to amnesia and complacency and ultimately reinforces the devaluing of human life and creativity.

(The ‘secret history’ and, especially, ‘old, weird America’ tropes mean nothing to me. There’s nothing particularly ‘secret’ or ‘weird’ about any of it. It’s all perfectly normal, and the answers could be available if the questions were asked to the right people…)


ASPREY: What are some of your other favourite cuts on To What Strange Place beyond the performances of Marika Papagika?

NAGOSKI: On the first two discs, every track, except for two or three, was chosen because I’d fallen in love with it. (A couple are there simply because they’re good listening and an important part of the narrative.) M. Douzjian’s ‘High Aghchg, Tchar Aghchg’ (one of the discs picked out of the trash on the street in Boston) blows me away every time I hear it—absolutely blazing. A monument. (Also virtually worthless. A perfect copy—on an indie label from ‘28 or so—sold at auction recently for $10 or something.) Achilleas Poulos’ version of ‘Her Yer Karanlik’, a song recorded many times, which like ‘September Song’ or a number of other standards kills me—has moved me to tears many times. Sotirios Stasinopoulos’ ‘O Korakas’ is about as good a record as I’ve ever heard—certainly up there with any of the delta blues masterpieces. I adore Naim Karakand—every note I’ve ever heard him play, from 1912 to 1958. Kemany Minas’ ‘Eghin’ is a great favorite. Zabelle Panosian’s ‘Groung’ is a mind-melting masterpiece and one of the greatest records I’ve ever heard in my life. On the third disc, the three Egyptian vocalists—Hilmi, Murad, and Manyalawi—are artists of the very highest order and leave me gasping for breath every time I invest myself in listening to them. And of course, Cemil Bey—what can you say? Jimi Hendrix, Mozart, Charlie Parker, Abdul Karim Khan…He’s in that category of musician from whom music just flows with such devastating power and imagination that you feel grateful just to have heard him.

ASPREY: An early version of ‘Misirlou’ appears on To What Strange Place—a song that has had a long afterlife in American culture all the way to Pulp Fiction. What are some of the other after-effects or later incarnations of this music in America? Was it debased or trivialised in later popular culture?

NAGOSKI: This is something I’m still learning about all the time. To What Strange Place ends with the onset of the Depression when the major record companies in the U.S. essentially stopped releasing recordings of immigrant folk musicians. In the 1940s, those immigrants started releasing their own records, but they never stopped performing. In New York, a strip of ‘Oriental nightclubs’ (Greek, Armenian, Arab, Turkish, etc.) existed for decades along about ten blocks of 8th Avenue, and it became hip for some folks (particularly after the release of films like Zorba and Never on Sunday as well as Kazan’s America, America) to dip into that scene, and it was definitely a thing for some jazz musicians to go check out this modal music in ‘odd’ time signatures around the time that Kind of Blue and Take Five came out. So you find, for instance, that Naim Karakand, who recorded at the first-ever sessions of Turkish-language music for commercial release for Columbia in 1912, recorded his last sessions with Ahmed Abdul Malik in 1958 at a jazz-fusion session (with saxophonist Johnny Griffin) in 1958, and that Malik recorded just a few years later at the Village Vanguard sessions with John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.

Meanwhile, two of the most influential American jazz record producers were of the ‘Oriental’ world. George Avakian (who was Armenian, born 1919 in Russia) signed Miles Davis to Columbia and was one of the most influential figures in 20th century American music. And then there was Ahmet Ertegun (Turkish, born in Istanbul in 1923), who not only discovered, championed, or produced scores of the most important artists on Atlantic’s catalog, but also recorded several interesting sessions by, for instance, the great Armenian Udi Hrant (who also recorded jazz-fusion performances for Riverside) and the Italian-American proto-free-jazz saxophonist and composer Joe Maneri, who was deeply influenced by Greek, Armenian, Arab, and Jewish music from his native Brooklyn. Interestingly, Ertugen shelved those sessions. So the ways in which those who knew the music best and then turned away from it are also deeply instructive. Certainly by the 1950s, Sun Ra was paying some attention to the independent and ethnic releases being made in the U.S. Meanwhile, the scenes in Michigan, where there is a huge Arab-American population, southern California, etc, etc, filtered into the consciousnesses of innumerable artists that we have yet to delineate. But there were Greek-oriental clubs also in the deep South—Atlanta, Georgia, for instance, where we know a belly dance scene took root in the 1950s and 1960s. In my own Baltimore, some of the great performers of the 1950s played in taverns catering to sailors, including the bouzouki virtuoso Yannis Pappaioannou….It goes on and on…

ASPREY: Is Baltimore a good base for your work?

NAGOSKI: It’s OK. It’s a small city (600,000) and very poor. I have a hard time finding work in order to simply keep body and soul together, much less to have money to buy records. But there were significant immigrant populations here in the early 20th century—Slavs, Jews, and Greeks in particular. So those records turn up sometimes. It’s close enough to some other major cities, where I can learn more—D.C., NYC, Philadelphia, Boston, etc. I still need to go to Chicago, Michigan, and L.A. to continue the work, but that hasn’t been possible so far. (I lived for a six months last year in Asheville, North Carolina in the Great Smokey range of the Appalachian mountains—very much bluegrass territory. I like that music and culture a lot, but there was not a lot of the left-behind Greek, Jewish, Slavic, or Asian cultures that have come to dominate my internal life. So I’m not sorry to be back, particularly because there are a lot of good libraries here. Libraries are key.)

Collection: Ian Nagoski

Collection: Ian Nagoski

ASPREY: Have you been able to go crate-digging and researching in Turkey or Greece?

NAGOSKI: No. Everything on To What Strange Place arrived to me on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. A few records were found in the mid-West and were sent to me. None came even from the West Coast. I’ll finally go to Athens, Thessaloniki, and Istanbul for the first time in April 2014. (I’d also like to go to Lebanon; Israel; Izmir, Turkey; and Alexandria, Egypt. If anyone reading this can help, please write… a few years ago, I would have added Aleppo to the list, but that’s out of the question now, of course.)

ASPREY: I see you have been raising research funds through Kickstarter rather than through, say, an academic institution. Can you tell me about that?

NAGOSKI: After I toured Europe for To What Strange Place over several weeks in early 2012, I arrived home with a lot of unsold merch. I wound up selling it off by making more merch at home and running the Kickstarter campaign. After costs and two months of full-time work running the campaign, I had turned a profit of about $5,000, which I hoped to use to tour the West Coast of the U.S. and then buy a plane ticket to the Near East. But because I could not find venues that would pay enough for me simply to break even on those trips, I then spent the money paying outstanding bills and moving my wife and I to Asheville, North Carolina, where she wanted to live. But she then rather promptly left me. So I moved again, penniless, back to Baltimore. No hard feelings. Life is just hard.

I received a gift in 2011 from the Kindle Foundation, which nearly saved my life. I will remember that day with gratitude on my deathbed. But other than that, I have received no support from any institution. I have given lectures at many schools, and my fondest wish is to teach some day, but because I am a high school dropout without even an undergraduate degree, I am not qualified to apply for a teaching position at any American academic institution. I have been turned down for numerous fellowships and grants. I support myself by writing and record production on a for-pay basis, and at present, I am working three part-time jobs at near-minimum wage.

ASPREY: Can you tell me about the book project you’re working on?

NAGOSKI: There’s a collection of my writing and interviews on the subject of music from over the past twenty years called Music is a Hard-Working Thing that Transparency Press in Los Angeles has asked me to do. However, the funding that they felt they had when the offer was made has not come through. I hope it does.

I wrote 100,000 words for the notes to To What Strange Place, but Tompkins Square Records had me shorten those to 10,000 words (including the 20 minutes of spoken text at the end of disc 3). I have learned a lot since the publication of To What Strange Place and hope that I can finish the project by writing the book it always should have been. This depends on finding a publisher who can support the project.

ASPREY: What are your future plans?

NAGOSKI: By the end of the year the fifteenth and sixteenth releases on my LP label Canary will be issued. (So that’ll be sixteen LPs in four years.) One is a collection of Hindustani vocal art music from the period surrounding independence from the British Empire—the last of the old court singers and the first of the new public singers, all of them awesome. The other is of the great Greek star of the 1930s, Rita Abatzi. A gospel LP that I made dealing with both visions of the apocalypse and the early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement from the late 1930s to the early 1950s is nearly finished, but I have no one to release it. I’d like to finish that if there were a publisher.

I have definite plans to finish three more LPs for release in 2014. One has to do with laughter and animal imitation as entertainment as they existed on record in the early 20th century—my own entry into the world of hindsight-genre. Another deals with one of my deepest and oldest loves, central Javanese court gamelan. And another addresses the first generations of Arabic-language-speaking women on record.

I need to do biographical studies of two artists from To What Strange Place—the Syrian-American violinist Naim Karakand and the Armenian-American singer Zabelle Panosian, both of whom recorded incredible work in the 1910s in New York City—in the short term.

The great pivotal and colorful Greek-American bouzouxis Ionnis Halikias (Jack Gregory) is a project I wish to take on, and I am awaiting an angel to make that possible.

I mentioned the two books I need to do, my tour in April 2014 including Greece and Turkey, and my fascination with the 8th Avenue scene of ‘Oriental’ clubs and its cross-over into the world of jazz…

I have begun and will continue my studies in cage-bird song (canaries and nightingales in particular), as they relate to human culture. (My initial work on that was exhibited at the Post-Natural in Nature exhibit at the Museum for Naturkunde in Berlin earlier this year and will be published by a small magazine in Connecticut any day now.)

So, you know…everyone needs a hobby…