by Carl Wilson
I was fortunate enough this weekend to be present at the revival of Double Double Land in Toronto’s “Talking Songs” series, in which people play recordings for other people and talk about them, featuring a special guest – the independent intellectual, anthologist, vintage 78s collector and “Fonotopia” DJ/podcaster, Ian Nagoski, who regaled us with the sounds and stories of Indian classical singers with disreputable pasts, Lemko-American bands, Carpathian “hillbillies” and the parallels between bluegrass and polka (both urban adaptations of mountain stringband music), the Okeh laughing record (though he didn’t mention the great Tex Avery cartoon that uses it as soundtrack to its second half), canary breeding as a form of musical composition, and much more.
Much beyond collecting for collecting’s sake, Nagoski’s fascination with non-English-language (aka “ethnic” at the time) records made in the U.S. before the Second World War serves him as a lens on ignored or suppressed histories of America, non-canonical views of musical development (in which it doesn’t all culminate in rock) and the confidence games of the American dream.
On that last theme, one person he didn’t play but alluded to is Marika Papagika, a great singer of many styles, including what we today would refer to as rebetika (or often “rembetika” in English). She was a Greek immigrant to New York who, with her husband Costas, made many successful recordings and opened up a nightclub nearby where the Port Authority is today – until they lost it all in the stock-market crash of 1929, just a year after the song above was shellacked. The emotional detail of her singing is spellbinding.
Nagoski has played an important role in reintroducing her to modern (and non-Greek) audiences, by including her music on his compilations Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics (1918-1954) and To What Strange Place:The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora (1916-1929) and finally a collection entirely of Papagika songs, The Further the Flame the Worse It Burns Me. The one he’s rhapsodized over the most is below, the even-more-plaintive Smyrneïko Minore, which the Kronos Quartet heard on Black Mirror and arranged and performed it in concert.