Ian Nagoski Brings Obscure World-Music 78s to CD With The Black Mirror
Sometimes stupidity is your best friend. Just ask any ethnographer. Anthropology, social studies, and other so-called soft sciences are ripe with field research methodologies assaying how best to go about conducting culture-specific fieldwork. But as anybody who has ever tried to navigate a completely new or foreign place can tell you, nothing beats going up to a stranger and admitting you don't know a goddamned thing.
"I went into Afghan grocery stores and would go up to the counter and say to the guy, `Look, I don't know anything,'" recalls Ian Nagoski, local musician, co-owner of the True Vine record store, erstwhile City Paper contributor, and, now, ethnomusicologist thanks to his new Dust to Digital anthology, The Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Music 1918-ca. 1955. He's remembering how he first started trying to find out about world music on his own, without the aid of prepackaged CDs and compilations that purport to inform you about other cultures.
"`I'm really stupid,'" he continues. "`But I have $30. If you could, could you pick me five classical tapes or five folk tapes, just whatever you think people are buying, what people think are good.' And the next thing you know the guy is taking out his wallet and showing you this photograph and going, `That's home--and here's all the best music from where I come from.'"
That elusive journey to another time and place purely via ephemeral music is what Nagoski aims for with Black Mirror. It's a 24-track tour through obscure Syrian, Thai, Balinese, Indian, and various Eastern European folk music, with liner notes providing the best information Nagoski could uncover about the recordings, the music, and the artists. They're all culled from 78 rpm records that he's collected in his life, all from purchases he's made from flea markets, thrift stores, or just somebody who had an old stash of records he or she was looking to unload. They range from the otherworldly Greek vocalist Marika Papagika's 1919 recording of "Smyrneiko Minore" to a fascinatingly rare Lao monk prayer recital from 1928, all filtered through his own experience locating, discovering, and falling in love with the music.
"Compilations of this kind that I really admire the most--three come to mind immediately," Nagoski says. "Pete Whelan's Really! The Country Blues on OJL, the Harry Smith Anthology [of American Folk Music], and Pat Conte's Secret Museum. Those are documents of a particular man's obsessions and private sound world and he's sharing this piece of it with you. So that was the point--this is the sound world that I have occupied. I didn't make these myself, but this is my life, this is a manifestation of this behavior that causes these problems in my life and creates all this joy in my life, too."
He's sitting in a chair in True Vine's aisle after closing, sipping from a beverage and surrounded by the store's overflowing rows of various LPs stacked in display cases and on the floor around him. The tape recorder capturing this four-hour conversation sits atop an old funk LP. A foldout Betty Davis poster from one of her 1970s LPs hangs behind the counter. Some obscure world-music LP is laying on the counter. And whenever Nagoski--a mellifluously voiced and omnivorously intelligent 32-year-old Delaware native--needs a quick example about something to do with music, records, the music industry, record stores, record collections, whatever, all he has to do is send his eyes searching around the room for a readymade citation.
It's the organized chaos of a wide-listening record store that serves as a comforting security blanket for anybody who has ever thought, even briefly, in terms of "VG+/VG+." Compilations such as Black Mirror are part of this landscape, which the CD reissue market has graciously made more widely available. And like the inspirational triumvirate he alludes to, Black Mirror is equally as enigmatic, transfixing, haunting, pretty, and just plain odd. And while, yes, it's the product of a record geek for record geeks, it's such an idiosyncratic dose of the weird and the beautiful that it's hard to imagine any music fan not being somewhat intrigued by the mysteries it contains.
And like most obsessive endeavors, its origins stretch backs years. Nagoski first started listening and collecting 78s in high school because they were old, relatively cheap, and "I was, again, just trying to find records that I hadn't heard before," he says. "And I was buying a lot of reissue LPs--those Yazoo things--so I knew old records were good and there would be good stuff on them if I could just find them, and so I went looking for country records and blues records like everybody does, I guess. And they're not there--but there's a lot of other stuff and you just go, `Well, what is this?'"
He started buying boxes of records--the things that people actually listened to--and realized that people weren't listening to Skip James and Bukka White in the 1920s. "What people actually listened to was these patriotic songs and songs about your mother and one-steps," he laughs. Some of these collections, though, also contained gospel records. "And one had the Original Female Jubilee Quartet, which is this spectacular gospel record from the teens which has turned out to be the first-ever recording of the voices of African-American women in the United States issued commercially. And there was a couple of other gospel records, so I decided gospel records are good and songs about mothers are not. So I'm not going to buy those. Anything about God--buy that."
It was the purely subjective filter by which he started to acquire his collection, which now runs about 400 78s that he really, really loves, acquired purely through trial and error: "If you go to buy records and you see a box where everything's in Russian and you ask how much for the box and [the guy] says `$5,' buy it."
Nagoski soon realized he was only beginning the journey, though. Finding music he adored was one thing, learning what the music is about something else entirely. Labels are often in foreign languages--"and I only read and speak English," Nagoski notes--which necessitated trying to get translations. Sometimes the person from whom he bought the records could impart some information. Sometimes he'd locate a native speaker who could translate at least what was on the labels, or let him know that such-and-such Gypsy song is "very famous." And sometimes not even American-based scholars could tell him much about the records he dug up.
The language barrier wasn't the only problem. Given the dates of these recordings, not much information about the labels, artists, and music is going to be available online. And in many instances--such as with Lemkos and Hutsuls folk recordings, ethnic populations that were cleansed after World War II--tracking down knowledgeable sources proved very difficult.
He cites the aforementioned Lao monk, Sathoukhru Lukkhamkeow, as a prime example. His "Nakhone Prayer" comes from a collection of 11 late-1920s Laotian records that Victor released only in Indochina. "It came to me because a couple of dealers had bought out the collection of a former executive of Victor Records when he died," Nagoski says. "And he had it as these oddities, these curiosities that he kept. So they were unplayed. So the guy said, `Do you want the Lao records?' Fuck yeah I want the Lao records."
He discovered that five of these recordings exist in an archive in Berkeley, Calif.; he owns the only known copies of the remaining six recordings. "But the label is entirely in Lao," he says. "The only English words say `Lao monk'--which you can kind of figure out."
So he tried to find a native speaker in the community, to no avail, and then tried calling the embassy in Washington, which he says was not interested at first. He finally did forward a scan of the label to someone who informed him that the script used is an old version that isn't used anymore, so he'd need to find somebody at least 80 years old who would be able to read it.
"Now, Laos is one of the poorest countries on God's green earth and has one of the lowest literacy rates, so the chances of finding an 80-year-old who can read and has managed to get to this country and who speaks English--good fucking luck, right?" Nagoski laughs.
He eventually turned to looking for Laotian monasteries online and found two in Atlanta. The phone number for one was disconnected, and the man he talked to at the other spoke very little English, but Nagoski was able to communicate that he was trying to get something translated and left his phone number. Another monk called him back a few hours later, and Nagoski e-mailed him the label scan.
"He writes back and translates the label, and not only does he know what it says but he says, `Actually, this is the last of 13 prayers on the topic of the Buddha before birth and this is the same prayer that I pray,'" Nagoski says. "`This is the one that I've dedicated my life to as well.' So this monk from 1928 in Laos and this cat in Atlanta are working on the exact same spiritual project, and I somehow manage to hear both of their voices in my life. In the end you have to talk to somebody. Somebody has to be able to tell you what it says and, beyond what it says, what it means. And there's still stuff about some of these songs that I just don't know."
So the journey continues. (He's still looking for a Turkish speaker, for the record.) And he still comes across records in circuitous, meandering ways. "Almost every week somebody calls the stores and says, `My husband died and he has some really old records,'" Nagoski says. "Half the time it's nothing special, so I ask them what kind of music their husband listened to, and most of the times they're not exactly rare records. But sometimes you do get something. Sometimes the woman's voice says, `Well, my husband tried to own one copy of every record ever made.' And in that instance I say, `I'll be right over.'"
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