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TO WHAT STRANGE PLACE - THE MUSIC OF THE OTTOMAN-AMERICAN DIASPORA 1916-1929 (3CD set)

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Tompkins Square (TSQ2608 )

Don't let the title alarm you, this is simply a wonderful array of gorgeous vintage Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Jewish and Syrian music recorded on the sunny island of Manhattan during the very early years of the 20th century or from records pirated by record shop owners for their émigré customers who, removed from their war-torn native lands and homesick for the old traditions, found solace in these recordings.

The glorious music contained here runs the gamut of eastern European, Anatolian and Arabic styles from Greek theatre melodies, amanadhes, gazels, tsamikos, taxims and demotikan tunes played on the tar, saz, clarion, violin, guitar, santouri and laouto. It features such magnificent vocalists as Marika Papagika, Shmon Arslan, Achilleas Poulos and instrumentalists like the Anatolian violinist Nishan Sedefjian, the Greek cellist Markos Sifnios and the Turkish master of the kemence and tanbur Cemil Bey.

Every track seems to be filled with buckets of soulful playing and heartfelt vocals - the divine beauty of the taxims of Athanasiou Makedonas, the heart stopping laouto runs and aggressively rural vocal sounds of Sitirios Stasinopoulos, the mysterious pleading style of Kanuni Garbis's poignant gazel Neva Ouchak, Zabelle Panisian's chillingly longing singing on Groung  (a startling song about a lost bird exiled from it's ruined nest) and the freewheeling violin improvisations of Naim Karakand that stop you in your tracks.

Fans of the great rembetika singer from Kos, Marika Papagika will be delighted to see her super-rare The Grass Widow (recorded under the pseudonym Maria Smyrnea) included here and if you love to hear a truly adventurous taxim, check out the swirling  improvisation Cefti Telli performed by the brilliant gipsy violin player Kemany Memdouh.

Almost as mouth watering is the Greek rembetika guitarist George Katsaros' slow zembekiko What A Bad Ass I Am which is undoubtedly one of the many high spots of this record as is Miserlou by Tetos Demetriades who took  Greek music deep into American culture as the song was picked up by 40s band leaders like Xavier Cugat and Harry James and later by surf guitar killer Dick Dale who made the tune a nationwide hit.

I can't think of anything better than to set aside a few hours to simply let this music wash over you while you absorb the in depth information  presented by compiler Ian Nagoski.  Incidentally, Ian actually appears on the CD - the last three tracks where he discusses the music and the absorption of Ottoman minorities into the USA - (an unusual concept but yet another aspect which makes this compelling CD more desirable).

To What Strange Place is filled to the brim with beautiful performances that simply take your breath away, anyone who has the slightest interest in eastern Mediterranean music must hear this stupendous collection. The sound quality is tremendous, you wouldn't believe that these recordings are over eighty years old and the choice of material is simply brilliant.

Our highest award is five stars but in my opinion, you could double that for this priceless collection. I'm convinced this perfectly produced set is destined to win some huge award this year because it's absolutely faultless.

Review Date: July 2011

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