EOL 3: Mediterranean musicians in America (Signell)

Audio essay on recent immigrants

From the early- to the mid-1980s, I recorded performances and interviews of immigrant musicians throughout the United States, from Honolulu to New York City.1 With a few exceptions, all musicians were born outside the U.S. Some lived in tight-knit ethnic enclaves, speaking little or no English, others slipped in and out of the mainstream as easily as changing clothes.

Each musician of the twenty-six ethnic groups I visited had a story to tell about preserving a world of the past and adapting to a new world of the present. These micromusics (Slobin 1993) faced in to the ethnic community and out to the majority society.

From these interviews and performances, I produced twenty-six half-hour audio documentaries which were broadcast on public radio in the U.S. (Signell 1983, 1985a) and later published on audio cassette (Signell 1989, 1990). A print article describes experiences of Asian musicians documented in the audio series and elaborates on the relationship between scholar and informant (Signell 1985b).

Four of the audio documentaries feature Mediterranean musicians: Turkish, Greek, South Slav (Bosnian, Macedonian, and Serbian), and Albanian. Each half-hour documentary has extensive performance examples interspersed with interviews and commentary. Interviews often reveal a musician's problems, hopes, and strategies for playing traditional music in new surroundings. The interviews and music below are excerpted from those documentaries. Disclosure links to the relevant paragraph in my Tales article in this issue of EOL follow each of the ethnic subheadings below.


Turks count as one of the smallest minorities in America. Of an estimated 100,000 Turks there, most earn a living as doctors, engineers, and in the professions. They tend to blend in with the majority culture. Turkish associations are weak and generally show little interest in Turkish music and culture.

Audio 1
Belly-dance music, played by Gündüz and pan-Middle Eastern ensemble,
95K au
When I recorded him in 1982, Emin Gündüz, a player of the kanun plucked zither, represented the rare Turkish musician who had been making a living from music in America for decades. Although he performed for Turkish associations as far afield as Montreal, Gündüz earned his bread and butter singing and playing in the John Tatasopoulos ensemble at the Astor, a Greek belly-dance club in Washington, D.C. Alongside Greek and Armenian musicians, Gündüz performed in the pan-Middle Eastern style prevalent in such clubs in America. Gündüz told me he sang in Greek, Arabic, Armenian, or Turkish, by request.

Audio 2
Gündüz, singing "Kâtibim"
80K au

Audio 3
Safiye Ayla sings
300K au

In a private recording session, Gündüz sang and played a song that all Turks know, Kâtibim, better known to international audiences under the title, "Uskudara," made famous by American singer Eartha Kitt in 1952. Compare the light-hearted Gündüz interpretation to the sultry Kâtibim by the great Turkish singer Safiye Ayla in 1949.

Audio 4
A Turk & a Lebanese musican performing together in America,
115K au
In their isolation, individual Turks go to extraordinary lengths to reach out for music of their homeland. Ergün Tamer, a Turk who sold insurance in Los Angeles when I met him, went so far as to build his own tanbur (classical long-necked, fretted lute) and teach himself to play it, a sophisticated undertaking. Finding no suitable Turkish music partner in Los Angeles, he did what Gündüz did in Washington: allied himself with a closely related music. Tamer found an Arab musician from Lebanon (Jihad Racy) and the two played duets together. Only in America, Tamer said, would he have played music with an Arab.

Audio 5
şar and Sayın taksim
110K au
The small size of the Turkish population in America makes it nearly impossible to sustain local music groups and makes them dependent on recordings and visiting artists. Since 1973, Turkish soloists and troupes such as the Mevlevi (Whirling Dervishes) have given brief tours of the United States and have gradually built an audience among Turks and Americans.

In 1982, touring classical Turkish virtuosos Necdet Yaşar (tanbur lute) and Niyazi Sayın (ney flute) performed to a full house at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Yaşar and Sayın could be considered a special case of "immigrant" in the sense that both taught Turkish music at the University of Washington in Seattle, and both have toured extensively in America.

Although musicians of the pre-World War Two generation learned and performed the repertoire in the oral tradition, educated, urban Turkish musicians such Yaşar and Sayın usually read from notation (Cf. Shiloah). But the great singers and the great vocal repertoire of Turkish music reign supreme in Turkey (ibid.)

Turkish orthography corrected June 8, 2011

Disclosure: selection, immersion, recording



Pavlos Daskalakis, a lyra (folk fiddle) player, was born in the village of Mirtos near Ierapetra, Crete. When I recorded him in October 1981, he had been in America for four years. He worked as a computer programmer in Berkeley, California.

Audio 6
160K, 360K au
Daskalakis, on the importance of regional Greek music to some immigrants:

There was a kind of festival [here in California]; there was another orchestra with klarino [clarinet] and bouzouki--[Greek] mainland tsamikos. [A woman from Crete said] "'I hate that music." [I played for her on lyra] and she got up and danced and she was very happy.

The most characteristic Cretan dance music he would have played is the pentozali. Compare the pentozali performed here by Daskalakis with the one by played by Papadakis in 1979 in Magrini's article and the one recorded of Piparakis in New York in 1947.

But a Cretan musician in America cannot play only pentozali:

People are expecting me here [America] to play [mainland] Greek music. They don't know Cretan music, they know Greek music. Even the Greeks, because they are mixed, they are not just Cretans ... The only change that happened to me is that I had to play some other stuff besides the Cretan stuff--from mainland also. So that other people could dance also, not just Cretans. [Cf. "performer-audience contract" in Slobin 1993].

So Daskalakis played for panegyri (feast days) and weddings. "I sang rebetika, and Greek songs with another orchestra with violin, mandolin, klarino. We play for a few festivals around and celebrations."

He said most Greek music he encounters is pan-Hellenic. Lots of groups go far away from traditional Greek music--modern songs made in Greece. "It's a kind of bridge between Greece and United States, for Greeks. [They] play modern Greek songs. [They sing] 'Never on Sunday' in Greek."

Daskalakis was surprised that he could learn new Greek dances in America:

I've learned some dances here myself that I didn't even know existed. I learned from Greek-Americans and Americans--they did some research. There are lots of Greeks; they didn't dance in Greece. They came over and wanted some kind of identity. One way of expressing that--the Greek identity is dancing, right?--so they learned some Greek dances.

Like other immigrants, Dhaskalakis found his regional identity changing outside his homeland. He said, "When I went to Athens, I missed Crete. When I went to America, I missed Greece." He says his lyra playing is indispensible for his Greek identity in America, but that he has no intention of improving or learning more. "An anchor to the past," he says, it must be fixed and unchanging. Perhaps significantly, Dhaskalakis sang a prisoner song, Xriste na spousan oi fylakes, accompanying himself on the lyra.

Audio 7
Xriste na spousan oi fylakes

210 kB .AU

Christ, let all prisons be abolished
That I may escape this fortress
To take to the mountains
Climbing all the way to the highest peak
To catch a glimpse of my village
To hear the roar of rifles


Another Greek musician, the celebrated Perikles Halkias, told of no struggle to maintain his identity. A professional musician from an early age in the mountains of Epirus in northwestern Greece, Halkias performed the same music for a half century after coming to America. In 1985, the US government named Halkias a National Heritage Fellow (akin to Japanese "Living National Treasure" or English Knighthood). I recorded Halkis, the last living great artist of this Epirus folk instrumental tradition, at his apartment in New York City in 1982. In an interview, he reminisced about his early days as a musician in Epirus.

Audio 8
Halkias, playing skaros improvisation on clarinet
150K au

My documents say I'm 68, but I'm really 72 or 73. I started playing music when I was ten years old. I was tending the goats and sheep up in the mountains. I took a piece of wood and carved out a shepherd's flute. Another time, I made a flute from an old gun barrel. Finally, I made my own clarinet from wood, even carving the keys from wood. When I began performing for weddings, our group used to accompany the bride from her village to the groom's village. We didn't have any shoes and sometimes the snow was ankle-deep on the ground. How we survived is a miracle.

Disclosure: selection, immersion, recording

South Slav

I recorded South Slavs3 (Serbs, Bosnians, and Macedonians) at the 1981 Festival of American Folklife from the public sound system mix board. Americans identifying themselves as Serbs numbered about eight million in the 1971 census.The 1990 census shows 544,270 Croats (0.2%), 257,994 "Jugoslavs" (0.1%), and 116,755 Serbs [the Census only reports self-identification; it does not attempt to explain the results]. A large concentration of Serbs resides in the greater Chicago area, the home of "Beogradski Suveniri (Belgrade Souvenirs)" ensemble.Folklorist Richard Marsh, of Croatian ancestry, described a typical South Slav picnic.

People are buying chunks of lamb. Usually it's wrapped up in this paper. You gotta have green onions with your lamb. Maybe they'll pour a little section of salt over in the corner of your piece of paper. [Then you'll be] tearing off a piece of meat with your fingers, dipping it into the salt, taking the green onions, taking a swig on your beer ... Then there'll be a band.

Audio 9
Niska Banja

70K au
The fast, asymmetrical Serbian dance rhythms are alive and kicking when the Belgrade Souvenirs band plays. "Niska Banja" is in 2+2+2+3 (2+2+2+3 appears only in the South, close to Macedonia, where such patterns are typical).

The 1971 census estimates 10,000-12,000 Bosnian Muslims in America. Beogradski Suveniri's singer, Hasan Redjovic, is Bosnian. Hasan told me about the words to "Bosno Moja (My Bosnia)," a song with special meaning to Muslim Bosnians in America anguishing over the troubles the past few years in their homeland.

Audio 10
Bosno moja

315K au

Bosno moja, divna, mila, lijepa, gizdava!
U tebi je Sarajevo, uzdah sevdaha

My Bosnia! Beautiful, dear one, adorned with precious decorations.
Within you is Sarajevo, full of love.

Redjovic did not live in a hermetically sealed musical world. He said he enjoyed rock, country, Elvis Presley, and Engelbert Humperdink. Folklorist Marsh observed a pattern to Americanization of South Slav music.

It's important to know that the Americanization is not a willy-nilly acceptance of all American music. Musicians and the people who listen to music have esthetics, and they select those aspects of American music that are appealing to their esthetic in their own tradition. Generally, they tend to go for the more melodious things, tunes like the theme from Dr Zhivago, faintly Eastern European flavor helps. "Fiddler on the Roof" tunes, those are very widely accepted. They like country music. The little kids may like hard rock. But that's put in a whole other category. There are tamburica (Croatian ensemble) boogie-woogie numbers, tamburica versions of Ray Charles' "What I'd Say." And these numbers have a specific place in the repertoire. In no sense is the music becoming totally assimilated to the point where it won't be distinguishable from other American musics.

"Makedonski Trubaduri (Macedonian Troubadors)" called Lorraine, Ohio in the Midwest their home. Where their Serbian and Bosnian colleagues performed harmonized melodies, the Macedonian Troubadors stuck with traditional single-line melodies and drum. A good clarinetist must be agile, creative, and inspired, said their soloist, Bob Yankelovic.

Audio 11
Yankelovic, playing Edna Moma s' Majka
105K au

They like to see us take the clarinet and work it as long as we can. You get on the high notes, and get down way on the low notes and work on that for a while, along with the drummer following the beat real closely. That's when the person who dances in the front, that's when he can express himself. The clarinet is off to its own world. And the guy dancing then goes to his macho dancing. He's in his own world, and everybody else follows him to the beat of the drum.

Disclosure: selection, immersion, recording


An estimated 70,000 Albanians, Geg and Tosk, immigrants and descendants, lived in America at the time of my recordings. In a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, America's heartland, I found an Albanian dervish monastery. Baba Rexhep, the venerable head (sheikh) of this Bektashi sect of Islamic devishes, explained to me his mystical concept of sound and music. The elevation of all sounds to a religious experience extends (or is perhaps the converse) of "music as an elevating factor of the religious experience" (Cf. Shiloah).

Audio 12
Voice of God
105K au
"God created everything, so everything we see is God. God created everything we hear, so all sounds are the voice of God." To his understanding, the bark of a dog, the bleat of a sheep, and the bright sounds of the Geg Albanian chifteli lute all count as the Voice of God. Is it a coincidence that Baba Rexep's reverence for sounds matches John Cage's?
An Albanian wedding

Some of the most popular records from the "Golden Age" of ethnic records in the U.S. were skits which re-created a traditional wedding. My visit to Detroit to record Baba Rexep coincided with a full-scale wedding of a South Albanian couple. The power of sounds to enhance a simple story is as effective for us today as the ethnic records were for the immigrant.

1. Father of the bride, on the day before the wedding, in suburban Detroit:

My name is Zihni Mançe. I am the father of the bride. Today is the happiest day of my life, because my daughter is going to get married. I'm really am a little bit excited, but on the other hand I'm happy, I'm really happy. This is the first time in my house--"eating" we say--to celebrate my daughter's wedding.

audio icon
Audio 13
Men's song
170K, 370K au

Audio 14
Women's song
150K au

2. In a traditional Albanian wedding, the groom arrives at the bride's home to bring her to his home on horseback. In a suburb of Detroit, the groom arrives by automobile. Outdoors in the back yard under the shade of the trees, men congratulate each other with toasts and songs. Inside the home, women praise the bride, sing songs, and shower her with colored confetti.

Audio 15
110K au

Audio 16
125K, 250K au

3. After a two-hour trip to the groom's home across the border in St. Thomas, Canada, an imam (clergyman) conducts a Muslim wedding, followed by an hour's worth of dancing outdoors in the groom's back yard.

Audio 17
Banquet hall
120K, 250K au
4. The grand finale of the wedding day takes place in the banquet hall of Holiday Inn in London, Ontario, fifteen miles from St. Thomas. About 500 guests are seated at banquet tables. There is an open bar, a full-course wedding banquet, band onstage, and plenty of floorspace for dancing.

Disclosure: selection, immersion, recording


Musicians adjust or change styles to earn a living. Some survive by merging into a larger musical culture, as did Emin Gündüz from Turkey, playing in a pan-Middle Eastern ensemble in Washington; and Perikles Halkias from Greece, who undoubtedly also played in such ensembles in New York. Ergün Tamer from Turkey merged into a Turkish-Arabic musical alliance. For personal, not survival reasons, Pavlos Dhaskolakis merged his Cretan identity into a larger Greek identity as he distanced himself from his homeland.

Other authors in this issue of EOL continue the theme of Mediterranean musicians who adapt. Magrini follows a single Greek musician's stylistic odyssey in Musical identities of Kostas Papadakis. Pettan finds Croats taking on new musical lives in Janjevo and Australia in The Croats and the question of their Mediterranean musical identity. Gronow and Spottswood take up the immigrant adaptation theme in print in American Folklife Center 1982 as does Slobin 1993 and many others.

Bruno Nettl's online article, "Relating the present to the past," puts musical change in an anthropological perspective.


From the earliest ethnic music on 78 rpm records in America at the turn of the century to the testimony of the musicians and audience in this series, music played a powerful role in community identity and self-identity.

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