Making Music in Prewar New York
A year before the US entered WWI, New York City—particularly Little Armenia on Lexington Avenue and Little Syria near City Hall—was home to an immigrant enclave whose lives back home were being wrecked by the war. As they made a living from petty businesses, a scene of musicians was rising among them. Columbia and Victor were the two major record labels, and they mined the immigrant scene, making music on 78 rpm records. Music for the homesick.
Fast forward a handful of decades. Ian Nagoski, a record shop owner in Baltimore, wound up with a box of Greek gramophone recordings. As he gathered more records of the same kind, he unraveled stories about the lives of the musicians who made them.
I gave Ian a call to talk about some retro ethnic music.
VICE: Hi Ian. How did you first get a hold of these 78 rpm records? Were they all gramophone recordings?
Ian Nagoski: Yeah they're all 78 rpm recordings from the first four decades of the 20th century. I made it a habit to buy anything that was on 78 rpm that was not in English. I had gotten something in Turkish and Arabic, and I liked them but I didn't really think much of it. Then I wound up with a box of records in Greek, and I realized that the Turkish and Arabic ones that I already had were recorded around the same time and place, that is during the 1910s and the 20s in New York, by people who may have known each other. Seeing that there was a relationship there, I made it my job to learn as much as I could about the stories and the interconnection of these people.
There's one particular voice in these records that stands out, Marika Papagika. How did you first find out about her?
She arrived in my life in a milk crate that was dragged out of an abandoned house in Baltimore. An old Greek man had died and the guys who were hired to clear up the house grabbed all the records and brought them to me and I bought the whole box for five dollars, it was 2006. That was the box of Greek stuff that really sent me down the rabbit hole. I really wanted to know everything I could about Marika in particular. I already had records by the oud player Achilleas Poulos, and the violinist Naim Karakand – it was sort of the connection of all of those and I realized that they were all great musicians.
Then you released a Marika Papagika album through Mississippi Records, The Further The Flame The Worse It Burns Me. How did that happen?
I've been in touch with them for several years; I have my own little record store in Baltimore, Maryland. Eric Isaacson, who runs Mississippi, and I had a relationship by phone. I had made a record in 2007 called Black Mirror, which included a song of Marika Papagika and he heard that and really liked it a lot and asked me to do something similar for their label. They basically just offered me my own imprint, Canary Label, so I tried to gather everything she ever recorded.
Great. What do you know about her life? Were her songs all recorded in New York?
Her death certificate says she was born in Kos, and we know that she first recorded in Alexandria, Egypt at the end of 1914. She arrived in Ellis Island in New York in 1915, and began recording at the end of 1918. She only recorded in New York from that time on, except for, I think, six songs she made in Chicago, for a little independent label called the Greek Record Company.
So the ones recorded in New York, were they all Columbia Records?
They're all Columbia and Victor which were the two major labels at the time and which are both now owned by Sony.
I was going through the tracks in To What Strange Place, and there's this guy Panagiotis Toundas, who worked as an art director for Columbia Records and His Master's Voice. He was also a big name in the Greek rebetiko scene. Were they related to Papagika somehow?
Toundas was working for those companies in Greece and he's the one who discovered Roza Eskenazi and Rita Abatzi, they were the two great female Greek singers of the 1930s. So it's complicated, but there's definitely a thread of continuity. Marika recorded some of Toundas' compositions in the 1910s. Rita Abatzi was a little girl when Marika was at the peak of her fame – she was seven years old. So we are really talking another generation, but there is a continuous thread.
Photo courtesy of Hugo Strötbaum.
Who were the other producers?
In New York there was another guy, Tetos Demetriades who was born in 1900 in Constantinople, and he came to the US and became very close friends with Marika. I believe he produced a number of her records in the late 1920s. He's the guy who first recorded Misirlou [which was later covered by Dick Dale and is part of Pulp Fiction’s OST, among dozens of other covers].
What was the mainstream pop while this underground stuff was brewing?
When Marika was recording for Victor, their number one star was Nora Bayes. Her song "Over There" was a huge hit in like ’18 '20. It was very much pre-jazz. Ragtime was part of the atmosphere, but really it was more like vaudeville, music hall, patriotic songs and little sort of pop ditties. But American popular music was not really tied to the music of black folks, the South or the poor white. It was very much still a world of sheet music. They could take it home and play it on the piano. Bluegrass and jazz came to the scene later on.
But there was still a market for this kind of music.
Yeah definitely, the recording business was very new and they were trying everything. They tried to tap into the immigrant market.
There were two other musicians who were released from Columbia as well, Nishan Sedefjian and Achilleas Poulos. Can you tell us a bit more about them?
Yeah, they were friends. Nishan was from Trabzon in the Black Sea. He immigrated to Manhattan’s Little Armenia and Achilleas was from Balikesir in Marmara. He arrived in America in the early 1910s. They produced the song “Neden Geldim Amerika’ya?” (“Why Did I Come To America”).
It’s interesting because there’s a Turkish version of the same song. Which literally translates to “Why I Came to Istanbul?”
Yeah, there are versions. It may be a much older folk song that Poulos didn’t write and that he adapted from his own experience.
Do we have information about where these people used to hang out?
Achilleas Poulos opened a bar with his wife, which was shut down two times during the Prohibition. They would serve ouzo in coffee cups. And Marika Papagika owned a bar in 8th Avenue, where she used to sing night after night. We don’t know much about the scene. There aren’t pictures, apart from one that was taken by American photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’ Keefe’s husband, but it’s a picture of the outside of the café. There’s a photograph on the To What Strange Place, of a man and woman dancing in a Turkish nightclub in New York, that was taken in what was then the Jewish neighborhood of the Lower East Side, which was run by a Sephardic Jew.
Finally, there was another character, Jack Gregory [Iaonnis Halikias] who was sort of a dope dealer, right?
Yeah. He was the first major bouzouki player on record. He lived in New York City, he recorded for Columbia in 1931, 1932 for a short time before he realized he’d signed a 20-year contract which he had no intention of fulfilling. He didn’t record again. He was a real character and because he was a drug dealer, he was well known to the musicians in New York during the 1930s and 40s. We know that Roza Eskenazi and George Katsaros hang out at his place. His son has a large collection of music tapes that were made in Jack’s living room. He was the go-to guy to hook you up. He was also hobbyist pickpocket, not out of need, but because it was fun. They say he had a whole wardrobe full of wallets.
Cool, thanks a lot for bringing us the stories of these people.