Finding Virtue In Vinyl
ALLISON KEYES, host:
Now we open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, something TELL ME MORE does just about every week to find stories about the way we live now. You've seen the box of lonely LPs, that's vinyl records for those who don't remember that. And you've seen them at the garage sale, on the sidewalk or at the thrift store. Old, sometimes a little beat up records full of music, popular back in the day but now selling for just 50 cents a pop. You know what I'm talking about. I've bought my fair share and so have you.
Well, we have a rather fabulous recording here that's nearly 90 years old.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MARIKA PAPAGIKA (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)
KEYES: That's Marika Papagika, a Greek-American singer who was popular in the 1920s. Ian Nagoski knew that when he heard her he had found something special. Nagoski is a collector of obscure music, the older and less known the better. He then makes albums by using his discoveries. Some of them so wrapped in the mist of time, he doesn't even know their names or where they're from. His work is featured in this week's Washington Post magazine in a piece by freelance writer Jason Cherkis.
Ian Nagoski joins us now, from member station WFWM in Frostburg, Maryland. Welcome, Ian.
Mr. IAN NAGOSKI (Record Collector): Hi, thanks for having me.
KEYES: I have to say, when I first heard that album, I went, wow, what a cool singer. What a cool voice. How did you find her?
Mr. NAGOSKI: Her records staggered into a record store that I used to have in Baltimore, Maryland. Some guys who clean out houses found a bunch of stuff left behind by a Greek fellow who had died. And I bought them just on principle, because anything that's in a language other than English, I just buy. And I started listening to them over and over again, and I just got really attached to something in Marika's voice that seemed to me to be extremely special.
KEYES: Almost like a haunting kind of quality.
Mr. NAGOSKI: Very, very haunting, I think. The words to that song, for instance, are deeply, deeply touching. They go, if you love me and it's a dream, in the sweet dawn may I never wake up. So it's a song of incredible fulfillment and yearning almost simultaneously.
KEYES: Did you already know about her when you picked up the music or did you learn after you looked her up?
Mr. NAGOSKI: No, I didn't have the slightest idea who she was or what she was. There was very little information forthcoming. And so I started trying to dig around and find out as much as I could about her, and really eventually got pretty obsessed.
KEYES: And she's not the first discovery of that sort you've made. Talk about how long you've been looking for music like this.
Mr. NAGOSKI: I don't think I've never not gone looking for music that was unusual. Records have really been my primary education throughout my life.
KEYES: Why do you think music, obscure music, I guess, in particular, has been such a calling for you? Something that's so visceral for you.
Mr. NAGOSKI: Well, it's a whole way of understanding the world or of expanding one's understanding. So in the case of Marika, for instance, the fact that she is such a great singer, made so many records, was so immensely popular and yet has been written out of the history of American music, basically. I mean here she was in New York City, made 225 records in 10 years and, you know, you could only find three sentences about her online. It just seemed to me to be a real mystery why she had been written out like that.
KEYES: Which is really interesting. But you know what? We actually wanted to play another example of something you've found. I believe this is in Heorot Doujin(ph).
(Soundbite of music)
KEYES: See, that's a different kind of cool. I understand you don't even know this person's first name.
Mr. NAGOSKI: I don't. I guess that he might be a guy named Heorot Doujin, who immigrated through Ellis Island. But I really don't know. I have gone about systemically contacting everyone with that last name in the United States and have actually not yet heard back from a single person. So if anybody out there knows who this Doujin is, gee, I'd love to know. It's a blazing, blazing performance. He's a fabulous oud player and was living in New York City and sort of operating in the same social musical world as Marika.
The diaspora of the Ottoman Empire, Doujin was Armenian and was playing in a kind of scene of Armenians and Greeks and Syrians and just great, great musicians. And a scene that's not been particularly well documented or thought about. I'm not saying it's Storyville in New Orleans, but there were a lot of really good musicians and they recorded prolifically. Fabulous stuff.
KEYES: I believe I read in part of the article, you were talking about how some of the immigrant music that you had been hearing had been kind of almost erased from the American musical scene.
Mr. NAGOSKI: Well, it's an interesting question, how it is that music and languages other than English in the United States doesn't get included in the story that we tell ourselves of what America's musical landscape is like.
KEYES: So it's like a DNA strand. It's missing big chunks.
Mr. NAGOSKI: Yeah, I think so. And I think there's a political element to it, which is sort of interest as well, of this business of being an immigrant. You know, nowadays we have all of these people coming from South Asia, West Africa, Central and South America. And there is a question of, you know, are we going to insist that immigrants live this life of, you know, incredibly, brutally hard work and becoming capital A American, leaving behind and throwing behind their own culture and their own language as fast as possible. Or is there another way to go?
KEYES: That is a whole another conversation. But let me ask you one other question. I know back in 2007 you made an album with some of the artists you had found, including the fabulous Marika. What kind of reception did it get? And is there a market for this kind of found sound, especially in light of what you were just saying?
Mr. NAGOSKI: I think the people were intrigued by the pieces on that disc, which is called "Black Mirror." One of the reasons that people paid any attention to it at all was because it came out on a label in Atlanta, Georgia called Dust to Digital, which had already gained a reputation as, you know, a really, really important conduit for American music.
And I felt very, very fortunate that that label chose to put out what basically was a kind of, like, greatest hits for my record collection. And people liked it. And I'm very proud of it.
KEYES: Ian Nagoski, a music collector and self-described historian, a lover of sound and all its many forms. Crackly, obscure, mysterious found sound. Thanks for joining us and taking us on such a musical journey.
Mr. NAGOSKI: Thank you, really appreciate it.
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