Masters of Turkish Music
It's been a while since Rounder issued a further volume (of which this is the third) in their Masters of Turkish Music series, and a welcome release this is too in this quarter. That said, the potential market for the product is unclear. The rear cover is unambiguous regarding the scope and remit of the album 'Ottoman Court, folk, and popular music'. But the blurb writer leaves no room for doubt as to where his (or her) interests lie, citing only those artists tending to the left of the divide 'Names like Tamburi Cemil Bey, Refik Bey, and Munir Nurettin Selcuk inspire the same passions in Turkey that King Oliver, Dock Boggs, and Charley Patton do in the United States'. A number of the tracks are clearly 'art' or 'classical' music, and while this broadness of musical scope might appear to present a problem for any reviewer, the exotic nature of the entire ouevre actually surmount any such dilemma. Indeed, even where composers of songs are known, the overall style of accompaniment exhibits a sufficient number of characteristic traits to link them with their 'folk' or 'traditional' equivalent.
To elaborate on the stated remit, quoted above, the performance milieu span the final musical flourish of the Ottoman Court to the New World concert stage, via rural dance music and the emergent Turkish film industry. The majority of tracks were recorded in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), but emigres living in the diaspora are heard here on items recorded in New York City and Los Angeles, California. The timespan of the selected items runs from the first decade of the twentieth century to 1953. '1904-1910' is used as a catch-all for 'we don't know' the actual date of recording for these early Odeon issues. There seems to be somewhat of a chronological imbalance, with seven tracks dating from before the First War, and ten from after the Second, leaving a thirty year period during which thousands of Turkish 78s were issued represented by a mere six titles. It seems a pity, then, that three of the post-war tracks are already available on CD elsewhere: Marko's Taksim on Armenians on 8th Avenue (Traditional Crossroads CD 4279), which I reviewed on this site in 1997, and the double-sided Saz Semaisi on Udi Hrant: The Early Recordings, Volume 1 (Traditional Crossroads CD 4270).
Every single one of the vocalists, both male and female, exhibit an enviable command of their vocal range and abilities. The free rhythm of the gazels and amané pieces allow for some incredible exhibitions of melismata. Hafiz Osman, for example, possessed a voice of sheer intensity though slightly nasal in quality, and on Acim Kizi utilises a series of effective glottal stops with hints of harmonic overtones. The marvellous voice of Hafiz Aschir, heard here performing a mani, indicates precisely why he was so popular a recording artist during the first decade of the century. Pieces by him were released on most of the major record labels during this period - Zonophone, Favorite, Odeon, Orfeon - and he even had his own label at one stage ('Hafiz Aschir - Record') which bore his image, solemnly staring out from beneath a dapper fez. On the distaff side, pure unadulterated vocal passion and power place Müzeyyen Senar (still in her late twenties when Meftunun Oldum was recorded) as a frontrunner, although the sultry tones with hints of eroticism of Perihan Altindag-Sözeri (just turned thirty when Haydar Haydar was waxed) appeal on a rather different level. Unsurprisingly, Munir Nurettin Selcuk's film piece (Track 20), dating from 1950, is the most modern sounding of all heard here. The expropriation and 'ironing-out' of older styles was common during the post-1945 period among regional film makers from Portugal to Egypt, Greece to India, Pakistan to Indonesia. As with modern pop music, songs composed within this genre were often pitched at the lowest common denominator, in order to appeal to the maximum number of paying filmgoers.
Although vocal tracks are dominant here, there is a good sprinkling of outstanding instrumentals. In fact, Saz Semaisi by Hrant Kenkurian is one of the key virtuoso recordings of the entire genre. Continuously inventive, using drone notes here, trebling strings there, rhythms shift and notes (often 'choked' to great effect) cascade in magnificent runs. Sadi Bey's Taksim is a similar tour-de-force, this time on violin, where incredible sequences of notes effortlessly pour forth and his double-stopping technique (facilitated by the tuning GDAD) is magnificent to hear. Haydar Tatliyay's Raks Bedia is an exciting dance tune, featuring an impressive 'call and response' passage between violin and the other instruments. Though noted in the text, the clarinet is carelessly omitted from the instrumentation within the discographical heading, as too is a percussion instrument, either spoons or castanets. The latter instrument, plus a violin, is similarly unnoted in the heading to Track 11. The Longa by Sami, Ihsan and Arif (of whom more below) is yet another fine and complex instrumental, with the players weaving under and over one another, and includes a pleasing, but tension-filled passage where the violin essays a minor line across a major one played on the oud.
Beyond the magnificent music, there is much to like about this release. It features a useful glossary of musical terms for the uninitiated, for example. The CD itself pleasingly bears the reproduction of an old 78 rpm issue label. And the booklet cover design, featuring an engraving (probably 19th Century) of a group of Turkish musicians, is tasteful. The discography is, in general, very good, as might be expected from the involvement of Richard Spottswood, one of the great discographers of our time. Even so, there are a number of minor anomalies, beyond the confused dating of the pre-First War Odeons. The matrix block OK 1195 to 1482 was used by the HMV recording envoy in Istanbul between 20 August and 27 September 1932. The notes give OK 1419 as 'ca August 1932', but unless most of the recording was done in the first eleven days (and no specific details have survived), September seems a better estimate. Two tracks by Osman Efendi with adjacent matrix numbers - that is, almost certainly issuing from the same recording session - are dated, respectively, 'pre-1910' (Track 4) and '1904-1910' (Track 18). Osman is the vocalist on the first of these, but the second is an instrumental trio - 'One of our favorites on this CD' state the notes - but not even suggested is that Osman himself is the player of the fretted stringed instrument. This is identified here as 'ud' (which it may well be), but on other recordings we know that Osman played both tanbur and saz. The attribution of Track 11 - 'HMV, 1940s' - is singularly unhelpful, and one wonders what the source was if not an original 78. The name of one of the post-1945 US record labels, Kaliphon, is misspelt with an excrescent 'e' in the heading to Track 19. Musseyen Senar's item (Track 10) is, we are told, dubbed from a 'pirated American pressing' on the Istanbul label, but the original is not given. I don't know either, but can add that she recorded extensively for Odeon during the post-war period, when this 'pirated' disc appeared. Singer Hamiyet Yuceses similarly appeared on both Turkish Odeon and US Istanbul around the same date, and one wonders if the latter company didn't actually legitimately lease recordings from the former.
On the minus side, however, the overall impression created by the booklet notes is of a job only half finished. Most obvious, perhaps, are the incomplete transcriptions and translations, which is less than helpful for non-Turkish speakers. 'We supply only the first verse below' states the heading to Track 7, though no reason is given, and none is obvious. This policy is repeated elsewhere, but for most vocal items no effort has been made at all. Conversely, details regarding the musical forms are, on the whole, useful and informative, though one might debate the statement, 'As in the amané style of Greek rebetika...' While the former certainly fed into the latter, with the amanés long established in Turkey prior to the enforced repatriation of a million Greeks from the country in 1922, they rapidly became distinct traditions. In addition to Seyh Ismail (noted in the headnotes), three others on the CD - Mahmut Celalettin, Hafiz Aschir and Nafi Bey - also use the 'Aman, aman' cliche as a springboard for complex vocal improvisation.
Much less satisfactory are the biographical details of the performers. Research has obviously been rather perfunctory. Dates and birthplaces are given for some artists but not all, even where the information is freely available. Question marks indicate uncertainty but are sometimes unnecessary. The dates for the great oud player Marko Melkon Alemsherian, for example, from evidence given by his own daughter (in the sleevenotes to Traditional Crossroads CD 4281), are 2 May 1895 to 1963 (given here as '1895?-1963?'). Those for Munir Nurettin Selcuk are generally accepted as 1899 to 1980, and for Hafiz Aschir as circa 1870 to 1936, though none are offered here. The year of birth is known for Perihan Altindag-Sözeri (1922, and she was alive in 1998 - is she still?), and a specific date of death for Hrant Kenkurian (29 August 1978).
Headnotes to Track 8 observe how Haydar Tatliyay's violin style 'differs radically from the Ottoman court style', which is self-evident, but no mention is made of his birthplace as Sevres, in Greece, which most likely accounts, in part at least, for the disparity. And while in that country, the instrumental ensemble heard on Track 23 playing a hasipikos dance tune is identified on aural and stylistic grounds as 'probably Greek'. I have no quibble with that assessment, but a note that the reverse of the original 78 disc featured a tune for another dance also known in Greece, the karsilamas, would have added greater weight to the suggestion. Incidentally, the name of the band and the tune title have been transposed in the notes.
Of the '1904-1910' violin/kanun/oud trio designated on the original record label as Sami, Ishan and Arif (Track 21), the note writer muses that the first of these may be 'The celebrated Egyptian fiddler Sami el-Chawa'. Although most of his recordings were made (across half a century) in Cairo, 'Little Sami' (1889 to 1965) was actually born in Syria. Another possibility, far more likely to my way of thinking, might be suggested: the kanun player is probably Haci Arif, who was recording solo items as early as 1904, and the violinist probably Kemani Ihsan Bey, perhaps with Hafiz Haci Sami Efendi (better known as a vocalist, admittedly) on oud. Sami and Ihsan certainly recorded together - the latter accompanying the vocals of the former - for Zonophone in about 1905.
The music is sublime, the presentation just fine, and the notes flawed but otherwise adequate. Ignore that problem and just revel in the gloriousness of it all. You'll be glad you did.
Keith Chandler - 14.12.03