Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Syrian Diaspora: Echoes of the Past

Yesterday morning, out of the blue, I was reminded of a compilation of music released by my friend Ian Nagoski, a music historian and collector of rare vinyl. 

The compilation, “To What Strange Place”, is a collection of recordings from the Ottoman-American diaspora, painstakingly assembled from dozens of century-old 78rpm records recorded or released in the Little Syria district of NYC between 1916 and 1929.

I was struck by the sad cyclical nature of the situation. A century ago, as the violence and chaos of the collapsing Ottoman empire swept through the region, millions of refugees - Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, Greeks, Turks, Roma, Druze, Circassians, Arabs and other ethnic minorities - flowed out of the former Ottoman Empire in waves, settling across the Middle East, Eastern & Western Europe, North Africa, and the US.

Ian’s compilation reintroduces us to voices from that outmigration, vital portions of American culture and history that were subsequently scattered by the Great Depression and assimilated by the end of the Second World War. Among the traditional love songs and folk melodies there are songs of loss and longing where pain, sharp as a needle, pierces the heart of the listener with no regard for barriers of time or language. These recordings were made when the scars were still fresh on the hearts of the singers who oftentimes lost everyone they loved and everything they owned.

"Groung" by Zabelle Panosian, was recorded in 1916, just months after the worst of the Armenian genocide, and she sings,

Crane, hast thou not news from our country?

Crane, whence dost thou come? I am servant of thy voice.

Hasten not to thy flock, thou wilt arrive soon enough! 

Crane, hast thou not news from our country?

Hasten not to thy flock, thou wilt arrive soon enough! 

Crane, hast thou not news from our country?

The song Andouni ("Homeless"), sung by Armenag Chah-Mouradian (Another Armenian) is also clearly about the loss of home:

My heart is like a house in ruins 

The beams in splinters, the pillars shaken 

Wild birds build their nests where my home once was... 

Although Armenag's version of Andouni featured on “To What Strange Place” is not available online, several other versions of this powerful iconic song can be found - including this one, which includes a full English translation.

Another striking song from this period Rast Gazel,Faryadi Figan" (“Wailing, Moaning”) by Hafiz Saadeddin Kaynak can be listened to here (along with two other songs from the compilation).

 The compilation also features a version of Sayyid Darwish's famous song "Zuruni Kulli Sana Marra." performed by Zaki Murad, an Egyptian Jew. It was recorded in Cairo, but it was released in the 1920s by a record label in Little Syria. The opening lyrics were used as the closing lines to Mahfouz's novel "The Palace Walk".

"Visit me once each year,for it's wrong to abandon people forever."

So here we are again...

Another wave of refugees

If you want to help the Syrian refugees, you can give to the UNHCR here.
Or you can give to  Mercy Corps here.
If you're interested in supporting Ian's work as a music historian and preservationist, you can purchase his entire discography directly from him here. It's 14 records of amazing music on a single USB drive.
There's also a short documentary on his work and his label, "Canary Records" that's worth a watch:

(Thanks to Ian for his comments and suggestions on this blog)

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