The early years of the international recording industry were fraught with the energy of different labels from different industrialised countries charging around the world like enthusiastic moneymaking wolfpacks in search of new markets to exploit. The Gramophone Company of Britain was one of those labels. It paid Franz Hampe to strap his equipment to the backs of donkeys and set off across the Caucasus. It sent William Sinkler Darby to Moscow where he found an opera singer and bought a black fur coat. It summoned up Fred Gaisberg, who went to India with his recording outfit and travelled eastwards through China and on to Japan. “Japanese music is simply too horrible,” he told his diary in Tokyo in 1903, “but funny to relate, Europeans who have been long in the country profess to really enjoy it.” Never mind. Japanese buyers had money and they were willing to pay for what they liked, so he hunted down those musicians who, he was told, were quality items, and he recorded them.
Years went by, and Gramophone made its way through various buyouts and renamings until it became HMV and EMI. To Scratch Your Heart: Early Recordings from Istanbul is a little of the gleanings from its vaults. Darby visited Istanbul, and so did Gaisberg. They must have found the city in upheaval. It had been the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and for the first two decades of the century that Empire was in its death throes. An independence movement ended with the formation of a Turkish Republic in 1923. Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Atatürk, decided that his nation was going to be fresh, modern, competitive, dignified, and democratic. If the vestiges of the old Ottoman caliphate got in the way then they would be pushed aside. There were new freedoms for women, and as a consequence a few of those women can be heard singing on To Scratch Your Heart.
These women singers were probably Greek Christian or Jewish. No one’s feelings about public decency change overnight in obedience to a new law, and, in spite of the reforms, the stage was not regarded as a proper career for Muslim ladies. Shyly, the decent unrecorded souls retired into history, dust and worms forever, and the bold went on to post-death careers on albums like this. Fikriye Hanım’s voice comes out like loops of syrup from a jug, and Musarref Hanım starts with a wonderful sound that projects itself forward and swerves, bounces, performs switchbacks, all without asking her to draw breath. The strings in the background tiptoe with a wary alertness, as if they’re afraid she might turn round, like Susanna in her bath, and catch them gaping at her.
But most of the musicians are men. A Hafiz — several of the singers have the title Hafiz — is a man who can recite the Koran from memory, which, as far as a non-Muslim audience is concerned, means that he has a winding declamatory style and excellent vocal control. These Hafizes establish a call and response rapport with their instruments. Some of them, like Hafiz Asir Effendi, swap between voice and instrument regularly, while others, like Hafiz Cemal Bey, spend long stretches of time on their own, making the volume of sound in the air expand and contract like light pouring in through a fluctuating iris.
Other performances are purely instrumental. One of the best of To Scratch Your Heart‘s instrumental tracks is a masterful example of oud from Yorgo Bacanos. The most surprising is Kamil Efendi’s piano taqsim. This taqsim is surprising because the rest of the taqsim here are not performed on piano. The instrument is a loner among the more piercing sounds of bağlama and ney. Remote uncle, it comes respectfully into a room of buzzing partygoers.
The old recordings have been intelligently remastered; the crackle is gone, but the slight atmosphere of rustling, that almost-breathing sound of the shellac, is still there. And even besides that, there’s an ambiance in these old songs that you don’t hear on modern ones. I keep trying to figure out what it is. It’s not age alone, but I think it might be something that age confers, and something which has been abolished by time. The sense of intimacy is different. Gaisberg noticed that his kabuki performers, who were conditioned to react to a human audience, would dress themselves in costume and makeup before they sang into the machine, and the musicians on To Scratch Your Heart perform as if they were addressing entire rooms of people. The closeness of a Bing Crosby murmuring his ba-ba-boo into the microphone’s ear was just around the corner, but for the length of these two discs we’re still in the grand old age of raw projection.