I’m happy to once again have another fantastic guest post from Ian Nagoski, a fellow collector who has been a supporter of (and contributor to) Excavated Shellac since its inception. Today, Ian edits Canary Records, a vinyl label manufactured and distributed by Mississippi Records. The label’s second release, a 2LP issue of Tony Klein’s Mortika: Rare Recordings from a Greek Underground is out this month. For more details click here. – JW
These few minutes were recorded by a now-obscure, independent German record company called Favorite which operated from 1904-1914. Favorite were giving the Gramophone Company and Odeon a run for their money by recording and selling exceptional performances in the cosmopolitan cities of the Agean coast by the middle of the first decade of the 20th century (as well sessions in East Asia, South America, Egypt, the independent Balkan states and throughout Europe). According to Professor Hugo Strotbaum, it was recorded by Shekar Hanim (“Hanim” being an honorific meaning, simply, “Lady” or “Ms.”) with an unidentified fiddler and second singer in Constantinople between the 16th and 19th of July, 1910 and originally issued in the US in 1910 or ’11 as part of Columbia’s E6000 series, which, Dick Spottswood reports, ran 1909-11 using Favorite Records masters as source material (although some titles in that series remained in the Columbia catalog for a decade thereafter). Because the singers are female, and we know that religious propriety kept the overwhelming majority of Turkish Muslim women from singing on records until after the formation of the Turkish republic in the mid-20s, we can guess that singers are likely ethnic Greeks, but also maybe Armenians or Jews.
The subject of the song is certain: Çakırcalı Mehmet Efe who was born in 1871 in the village of Ayasurat, near Odemis, a little over 100km south of Smyrna, and was shot down by government brigands on September 17, 1911, fourteen months after this performance was recorded. Çakırcalı was, and is, a folk hero of Turkey, a Robin Hood or a Pretty Boy Floyd as Woody Guthrie sang of him. And like Guthrie’s Pretty Boy, he has been romanticized beyond human recognizability. Ozkul Cobanoglu’s 1992 doctoral dissertation for the University of Indiana on the transmission of Çakırcalı’s story into folklore counts three movies and three novels about him as well as many plays, and eleven folk songs. (Another performance of same song, recorded in Constantinople in 1908 by the Jewish singer Haim Effendi is included on Charles Howard’s Rembetika 2: More of the Secret History of Greece’s Underground Music 4CD box on JSP Records.) Contemporary newspaper accounts of him were as often false as true, because the public was so hungry to hear about him that the papers would run any hearsay. Today, his name brings up more than 12,000 hits on Google, nearly all of them in Turkish, and there’s a Facebook fan page for him with over 2,500 fans and counting.
I won’t try to be the first to attempt to unpack his heroism to the non-Turkish-speaking world. In overview, he is said to have been: a coldly and evenly just man, generous toward his hosts; a skilled marksman and warrior; a pious and devout Muslim; a man haunted by wounded familial pride; a defender of his own honor; a powerful and charismatic leader of his cohort of over 100 rebels; a flamboyant outsider; a man who reacted to cruelty by becoming an unstoppable killing machine; a protector of serfs and a kind, and meaningfully loving man toward women. The time and place of his exploits was one of unjust taxes, regulations, and bureaucracy, exploitative landlords and paranoid, scoundrel rulers, the waning years of the Ottoman Empire under the reign of Abdulhamid II, who Lord Kinross succinctly described in his 1977 volume The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire as “an unhappy man and an inhuman sultan.” In 2003 Dr. H.B. Paskoy gave a lecture in Texas drawing comparisons between Çakırcalı and the American ideal of the righteous Old West outlaw. It would be easy enough to draw comparisons to innumerable other archetypes that fulfill any culture’s revenge fantasies.
As a young man, he was a bootleg tobacco trader because of unjust regulations on the plant. Persecuted by the authorities, he fled to the mountains and rose through the ranks of nomadic militiamen called zeybeks to the stature of efe, top dog. Here’s where it gets complicated, musically and culturally. Zeybeks were nomadic and independent professional fighters of western Anatolia for several centuries. Over the generations, their allegiances were changable. Historically, some were seen as helpful to the proletariat, some as a neutral if chaotic force, and some were rapist cretins. Well after the time of Çakırcalı, the zeybeks fought against the Greeks in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22 that resulted in the Smyna tragedy. Had Çakırcalı lived, we can only guess what side he would have taken and what difference his leadership might have meant to the state of Greco-Turkish relations today. But the Greeks identified with the zeybeks enough to make a tradition of zeybek-style dancing, which they called zembekiko. Gail Holst-Warhaft described her exposure to the dance in late-60s Greek taverns beautifully in her book The Road to Rembetika as her point of entry into Greek folk music:
“…unlike any dancing I’d ever seen – not exuberant, not being done for the joy of movement, not even sensual. It reminded me almost of a Quaker meeting, where only if the spirit moves does the man speak. The music would begin, the rhythm insistent, the voice harsh and metallic, and the dancer would rise [alone] as if compelled to make his statement. Eyes half-closed, in trance-like absorption, cigarette hanging from his lips, arms outstretched as if to keep his balance, he would begin to slowly circle. As the dance progressed, the movements would become more complex; there would be sudden feats of agility, swoops to the ground, leaps and twists, but the dancer seemed to be feeling his way, searching for something, unsteady on his feet.”
Meanwhile, the wild ways and outlandish, cutthroat mountain dignity and rough-and-ready attire of the zeybeks symbolize for Turks a nostalgic, golden image of Turkishness, just as the John Wayne-type cowboy serves as an image for American-ness. There continues to be a traditional zeybek dance in Turkey, performed in groups of men and with upright nobility, “in imitation of a hawk,” according to a Wikipedia writer. Probably neither the urban cafe zembekeiko of Greece nor the folklorically-enshrined zeybek dance of Turkey are exact reenactments of the real dances of Çakırcalı and his brethren, but they are, instead, both variants patterned on what is believed about the mountain bandits and what they mean to men in more recent times.
But back to Columbia E6110 and these anonymous women of unclear ethnic derivation singing about a great man who still walked among them. What are they singing? They, like the dancers who imitate the zeybeks, are singing a variant on something older and deeper. Of the eleven songs on Çakırcalı accounted for by Cobanoglu’s paper, two of them, both of similar length to the one of this record, begin with the image of the Poplar trees in the region of Smyrna with their leaves falling (foretelling onset of a difficult winter, Turkish folklore says). In 1962 the Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet (born in 1902 in present-day Greece, then Ottoman territory) quoted a full verse of a poem into his own poem about his journey into political exile “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved;” “The poplars of Smyrna / losing their leaves…” Was he quoting, in fact, this very song or quoting something from which this song came or referring to it to draw out its “underneath”?
Apart from the poplars, several other themes run among the variations of Çakırcalı songs. Several versions begin with the image of the hero descending the mountain, announcing his presence to us, here below. Several mention his purple fez, his horse or his supply of bullets. Most refer to him as tall as a cypress, a tree used over and over from the old Persian poets including Rumi and Hafez to Turkish folk rug-weaving patterns to symbolize correct application of the faith of the Prophet, submission to God’s will, the true meaning of Islam.
The target audience for this release were the tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of Turkish-speaking Christians and Jews in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, Florida, Rhode Island, etc. Dr. Sedat Dişçi of Ege University points out that between 1860 (about four decades after Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire) and 1920, one and a half million Ottomans emigrated to the U.S., although 85% of them were Christian and Jewish ethnic minorities, just as we suppose the singers on this record are. By virtue of the fact of this record’s existence, a century-old mass-produced document of Anatolian lore intended for consumption by immigrants from the waning Ottoman state, we have evidence of a significant story of the late Ottoman Empire in circulation within American Empire as well. This song of revenge against the unfair Turkish overlords by a still-living hero was sold here, in the land of Freedom and Opportunity, to Turkish-speaking Americans, three decades before Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” But beneath the clothing of language, it’s the same damn song.
– Ian Nagoski
Issue Number: E6110
Matrix Number: 4051-f