To Scratch Your Heart -- Early Recordings From Istanbul. Honest Jon’s Records, CD & LP
The title of this collection comes from the Turkish satirical writer, Refik Halid Karay. Karay, reporting on the mass purchase and public use of the then newly developed phonograph player, asserts:
Listening to a song from a phonograph, which I assume Edison simply invented
as a new year’s present for his grandchild, was as difficult as swallowing honey
from a carob. Then the gramophone arrived with its flat, hard-body records, and
the American’s sound machine became cheaper and easily available, drowning
out the world with blabbery, loud music and din. What a state Istanbul was in!
On streets lined with coffee house, the cacophony of forty-odd gramophones
playing at once will gnaw at your ear, scratch your heart, and blow your head up.
To Karay, the early commercialization and consumption of recorded Turkish music must have been a societal and aesthetic irritant. The musical and cultural tapestry that existed in Istanbul during Karay's lifetime during the early twentieth century was likely just as rich, if not richer, than the recordings found on this collection. To us modern consumers, eighty to ninety years later, these recordings are a refreshing musical panacea and an incomparable treasure.
If there is one unifying theme to this set it is that an overwhelming diversity of regional, ethnic and personal musical styles were captured in Istanbul during the early days of recorded sound. Istanbul was a cultural nexus between East and West, a crossroads of Europe and Asia where endless varieties of “backwoods” and urban musical expression cross-pollinated with rural and “uptown” performers. A very small, yet excellent sampling of the fruits of this city’s recording activity is found in this two CD/ four LP collection. Every track contained in this anthology is by artists that lived in Turkey but Istanbul was also a recording hub for Albanians, Armenians, and Greeks, to name a few.
The massive undertaking of providing a sampler of early traditional Turkish music is achieved admirably by Honest Jon’s Records by relying on mainly mint copies of the 78s, primarily (if not exclusively) taken from H.M.V. issues. As there is no discography found in this release, the reviewer can only infer from the artists featured that the producers used HMV material for their masters. This is good in that HMV discs from this time period were produced from exceptional materials and pressed in plants that exercised high standards. The studios and the engineers were also top notch. Finally, many of the finest artists living in Turkey were recorded and promoted by H.M.V.
Some of the most prestigious artists to record during the “Golden Age” of early Turkish music are featured on this set including the great Münir Nurettin Selçuk and Hafiz Aşir. What is most exciting is the inclusion of two very rare and unusual performances. Two taksims, or improvisations, one on the piano by Kamil Efendi, and the other on the rebab ile (pumpkin-violin), by Eyyubi Mustafa Sunar Bey, are the highlights of this set. For those familiar with the modality and use of sub-tones in Turkish music, the playing of a taksim on piano is a nearly impossible task. The inclusion of the piano taksim also demonstrates how cultural synthesis and exchange occurred in Istanbul during the early twentieth century: modalities and approaches to performances that were unique to this region were adapted to Western instruments, expanding the range of that interment. Mustafa Bey’s recording of the seldom-heard rebab ile is exceptional in both his perfect intonation and in the dark overtones produced by this instrument. Listening closely to this performance suggests several of Bela Bartok's more introspective passages and one is left to wonder if he may have heard a rebab lie during his travels through this country.
The taksims on this set cover a wide variety of Turkish folk instruments including the oud, clarinet, tanbur, zurna, kemençe, and şerare. Indeed, the sheer number and diversity of taksims is one of the many strengths of this volume. Of the thirty-two tracks in this collection, there are fourteen taksims. Art songs, gazels, and the other main variety of “contemplative” Ottoman instrumental music, the peşrev, are very well represented. That being said, perhaps the only issue that I do have with this set is that other types of early Turkish instrumental (and vocal) music are noticeably absent. Curiously, two of the most exciting types of Turkish music with which I am acquainted are not included in this collection. The Zeybek, a dance closely associated with Western Anatolia and the Aegean region, is absent as is the Havasi, a dance originating from the Romani-Turkish communities. Also as mentioned in the notes, there are no religious songs included in this set though most of the performers were well trained in the musical recitation of the Koran.
The disc transfers and digital re-mastering on this volume are strikingly clear, articulate and warm. The pitch appears to be correct on most, if not all, of the recordings and the ambient tone of the original recording session is remarkably intact. As mentioned above, the reviewer feels that most of these discs must have been in exceptional condition. Andy Walter at Abbey Road did a stellar job of keeping the detail and nuance of the performance preserved while reducing the non-musical artifacts inherent on the surface of the disc. Having listened to both the CD version and the LP version, this reviewer found no discernible difference in either the overall sonic conveyance or in the depth or warmth of the playback. Perhaps a system with a different d/a converter would yield a dissimilar result. However, I am sure that there are quite a few people that just enjoy the notion of playing an LP and having a larger graphic format.
The highest mark that I can give to Honest Jon’s, a record store cum label established in 1974, is their choice of Gokhan Ara to write the notes. Mr. Ara displays the rare ability to be firmly erudite in early Turkish music theory and history and to be an impassioned and animated writer. A gifted musician, scholar, and collector, Gokhan articulates a set of notes that makes this music comprehensible to the layman and compelling to the specialist. His clarity of explanation is exceptional.
The packaging of both the CD and the LP are also worth noting. The CD is attractively presented as a modified digi-pak with beautiful salmon toned stock. The thick booklet is rich with pictures of the artists and period hand-tinted photos. The LP is gorgeously packaged in a large slipcase and a tip-in booklet. All in all, “To Scratch Your Heart” is a very tasteful, well-produced and stunning tribute to an early body of recorded ethnic music. I encourage them to explore more the rich diversity of early Turkish music recorded in Istanbul and to issue more of these stunning sets.
Christopher C. King
ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303
“These reviews first appeared in the ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303, and they are reprinted with permission of the ARSC Journal. For information about ARSC, see www.ARSC-audio.org.”