EOL 3: Mediterranean musicians in America (Signell)

Tales: Selection

As a reader, I often wonder why the author chooses to study the lute player and not the flute player, why folk and not classical, why Greece and not Albania. Did a funding opportunity or a conference theme help make the choice? A personal or family history? A perfect subject to solve a current ethnomusicological puzzle, or to fill in a blank spot on the world music map? Or, like so much else in life, a combination of these and just plain luck? Clarifying the choice of tale to tell helps the author and reader understand the purpose of the work at hand.

For names of immigrant musicians for the MNW project (Signell 1983, 1985a), I relied on the advice of friends and colleagues at the foreign language services of the Voice of America, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies (organizers of the annual Festival of American Folklife), the Folklife Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and my other personal and professional contacts.

Of my recordings, I make no claims that they represent a comprehensive survey, or that these are necessarily the best or most typical performers. In most cases, I believe my contacts steered me to what they considered typical and best, but the recordings are only audio snapshots of little-known American genres in the early- and mid-1980s. This presentation is less a problem-solving exercise, more a survey of genres. Each reader/listener will find a personal interpretation of the music and interviews.

For the commercial 78 rpm recordings, I visited Spottswood's vast archive. Together, we picked old recordings that seemed related to my recordings and to those of other EOL 3 authors. The 78 recordings did not always match the later ones, but will seem to interest specialists, especially the Italian ones.


Although the Turkish community in the United States is one of the smallest groups of immigrants, I decided to include it in the first MNW series, thinking my years of research in the Turkish homeland might be helpful.

Emin Gündüz was referred to me by his cousin who lived in northern Virginia. The cousin had played baglama and sang at my request in a Turkish folk music ensemble at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. I was enthusiastic about Emin because of the rarity of professional Turkish musicians in America, and because of homogenization of regional styles into a pan-Middle Eastern blend that I had been observing on the U.S. East Coast for several years prior to meeting Emin. By coincidence, the Astor club was on M street, only a few blocks away from the NPR headquarters at that time. Like chance, convenience can play a role in our choices.

From the Greek nightclub recording, I selected his free-rhythm vocal improvisation against a chiftetelli rhythmic ostinato because he took center stage musically at that point, and that rhythmic texture represents to me the essence of gypsy nightclub (gazino) music which Turks enjoy so much.

At the studio interview, I asked him to sing "Katibim [Uskudara]," because of its fame in Turkey, America, and internationally, and because I could also compare it with a recorded performance by a Turkish artist nearly forty years earlier, available on a re-issued CD I had co-produced.

I heard of Ergun Tamer from my fellow specialist in Near Eastern music in Los Angeles, Jihad Racy. I decided to record Tamer on one of my trips to Los Angeles. He seemed an ideal subject for the theme of the displaced immigrant who develops a great enthusiasm for the music of his homeland once in America. His duet with Racy again encapsulated for me the theme of homogenization of Near Eastern styles in the U.S.

Prior to this recording project in the early 1980s, I already knew Yasar and Sayin. I worked with them during my research in Turkey (1970-72) and the year Yasar was visiting Artist at the University of Washington (1972-73), where I was writing my dissertation. As leading performers on their respective instruments in Turkey, their New York concert seemed a significant event for immigrant Turks, the majority of whom live in the New York area. The double taksim improvisation by leading professional musicians puts in perspective the performance by Tamer and Racy.

I included the 1893 "Turkish" musicians in Chicago to publicize these rare and little-known cylinder recordings generally available for listening only in-person at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Although Safiye did not record in the U.S., I offered her version of "Kâtibim" for the listener to compare with that of Gündüz, and because it was popular with the U.S. Turkish-speaking community. And because I love her voice.

Marko Melkon, an Armenian-Turkish ud player, was the only immigrant who appeared on the re-issued CD I co-produced. I chose him as one of the best-known performers for the Turkish-speaking community in America during the first half of the twentieth century.


Having studied Greek music and language intensively in graduate school, and having researched Greek folk music for three months in the Aegean islands, I thought this might be helpful in looking at music of Greek immigrants in the U.S. This antiquarian background led me to concentrate on folk music to the exclusion of the widespread bouzouki and other more modern developments more commonly found in the Greek communities in America.

I think a world music program host at Pacifica radio station KPFK-FM in Berkeley, California found Pavlos Daskalakis for me. The story Daskalakis told me fit in well with the new-found identity themes of other informants in this series. Daskalakis played and sang the rizitiko first for me, seeming to show off his best and most important piece. The style of Cretan lyra of the Aegean Sea south of mainland Greece contrasted with the Halkias's Epirot style of northwest mainland Greece near the Albanian border.

In my graduate studies with Sam Chianis at Wesleyan University, I learned the name of Perikles Halkias as one of the great masters of Greek folk music. Hearing his music again at a live performance in Washington, D.C. in connection with the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, I tracked him down to his mid-town West Side apartment in Manhattan, New York and arranged for an interview and music recording session there. The skaros introduces the first piece Halkias played for me, and seems to show off best his performing skills and the essence of the Epirot style. Again, my antiquarian proclivities steered me toward a dying tradition, a condition which even Halkias admitted (Slobin 1993:79, quoting "Pericles in America" documentary film soundtrack, produced by John Cohen).

When Richard Spottswood told me of the re-issue on CD of the Papagika recording, I chose it for her superb musicianship and its close tie-in with Magrini's Greco-Turkish theme. Spottswood's early lyra and bouzouki recordings offer the listener a chance to compare sounds with Magrini's Papadakis recordings.

South Slavs

United States is a large country (5000 miles/8000 km between Honolulu and New York) and my travel funds for this project were limited. When the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife brought South Slav (former Yugoslav) musicians in 1981 to my city, Washington, D.C., I took advantage of this windfall and recorded them at the festival. These South Slav musicians were not all immigrants, but I recorded them anyway under the financial exigency excuse.

I chose "Niska Banja" because we ethnomusicologists love those exotic asymmetrical meters, and because it demonstrates that the South Slav community in South Chicago is strong enough to hold on for generations to this rhythm so alien to the majority musical culture.

Extra-musical considerations also played a part in the choice of "Bosno Moja." Even in 1981, the news was full of tragic stories about Sarajevo and I felt sure that these lyrics would evoke bitter-sweet memories for some in the South Slav audience. I believe Hasan is an immigrant.

The ecstatic clarinet solo by Macedonian-American Bob Yakelovich contrasted with the two other South Slav examples, brought up the exotic asymmetric meter again, and paired well with the clarinetist's interview describing what he does.

As a former tanburica player, I found the ensemble sound of the 78 rpm recordings different from what I was accustomed to, and assumed that others would find the comparison with the sound of Pettan's tanburica-accompanied video equally useful.

The guslar recording represents the 78 rpm category of self-produced labels.

Ratna pesma sounds Bulgarian to me, so it serves three purposes: 1) comparison with "Bulgarian" music of Pettan's Croatians in Australia; 2) a thematic link to my Albanian wedding "skit"; and 3) a historical audio document of Mediterranean musicians in America.

I included A Oj Bosno, thinking Pettan and other specialists would find useful a historical recording not readily accessible. A scholar might be inspired to re-issue some of these 78s on CD.


I don't remember which of my regular contacts referred me to the Albanian Bektashi monastery in Detroit, but I was attracted to it because of my previous research with Sufis in Turkey. As a bonus, they suggested I time my visit to the monastery to coincide with a full-scale Albanian wedding.

Baba Rexhep's philosophy about the Voice of God's seemed to encapsulate his mystical message and I thought the juxtaposition of the animal sounds of the garden with the virtuoso lute player realized his message literally. That was my interpretation, arrived at long after returning home, and I can only guess that he would approve.

For the wedding which took place across international borders, I was capturing an event in real time. I tried to capture the audio highlights of the day-long event, from the men's and women's separate farewell songs at the bridal family home, to the Muslim wedding and outdoor dancing at the groom family home, to the enormous banquet and dance in the evening at the Holiday Inn.


Shiloah's emphasis on artistic content of Jewish music in this issue of EOL deserves the historical counterpoint of a recording of an outstanding cantor who immigrated to America.


To honor our Italian hosts of the Bari conference from which this issue of EOL sprang, I included typical 78s of Italian musicians recorded in America. I leave it to my Italian colleagues whether they find these recordings and pictures merely amusing, or useful to their research, or both.

Tales | Signell ToC | EOL 3