To Scratch Your Heart: Early Recordings From Istanbul – by Adam Thometz

In my humble opinion, Turkey is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. Part of the reason for this is its geographic location; technically, it’s a part of both the East and the West. For the Turks, however, because the two sides fuse so effortlessly in their country, the concept of East vs. West doesn’t exist in their minds, whereas in places like Europe and here in the States, people categorize the shit out of everything just to make sense of it, which I think is a largely misguided way of understanding the world. But that’s a different conversation! Let’s talk about Turkish music!

The liner notes of the album that I will talk about set up Istanbul in the 1890s and the first half of the 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire was crumbling, as a gargantuan cosmopolitan city, a cosmopolitan city that was unrivaled by anything in what we call the West, including New York City. A lot of ethnicities were represented: the Turks, the Greeks, the Armenians, the Gypsies, the Arabs, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. The cosmopolitan nature had been the largest influence on Turkish culture and, of course, the musical tradition was certainly no exception. An Englishman, William Sinkler Darby, was responsible for preserving this music. With help from the Gramophone & Typewriter Company, he went around the world recording the music of areas that he visited. This CD is the fruit of his labors.

The music on this record is nothing fancy; it’s very homely and blue-collar. It is a mix of different regional folk styles, such as Greek, Gypsy, Armenian, Arabic, etc. This is a reflection of the cosmopolitan nature of Istanbul at the time. The best way I could describe it to someone is Middle Eastern folk blues. The instrumental style is very minimal and open.

Most of the singers on the record are “huffaz,” (sing. “hafiz”), a term that means “guardian” in Arabic but is generally used to refer to someone who had completely memorized the Quran. This is significant because there is an entire art to memorizing and reciting the Quran, which seems to influence the gentlemen on this record. One aspect of it is what’s called “tajweed.” It means “elocution” in Arabic but it mainly refers to the way that the Quran is supposed to be read, intonation and everything. To get a sense of what it sounds like, here is a video of tajweed in action by one very famous hafiz, Sheikh Abdel-Basit Abdel-Samad, at a forum in Chicago:

Even if you don’t understand what he’s saying, it still sounds like the word of God, or Allah, or whatever you call Him.

The Turks that sing on this record sound a lot like that. Although they sound slightly more sacrilegious on this record, the Turks still sound very similar to guys like Abdel-Basit in their intonations and there is still an air of a homely reverence for their God, much like the blues here in the States. Basically, the music is what you get when you cross Abdel-Basit and Elmore James, with various regional styles thrown in for good measure. Of course, you can listen to the music without the religious connotation in mind; that is just my association and it may or may not mean anything to you (plus, I don’t understand Turkish so I don’t know what the lyrics are). Nonetheless, I still think it’s very beautiful and enduring music and I would recommend it to anybody who has even the slightest open mind.

Here is a link to the record on the label’s website along with some previews:

http://www.honestjons.com/shop.php?pid=36067

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