Zabelle Panosian sang a hit record that became a staple of Armenian American households in the 1920s but died in anonymity.
Panosian is one of the many immigrant musical performers whose songs will be presented during “Historic Recordings from the Ottoman Diaspora: Music & Migration” at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. At the event, Ian Nagoski, a record collector and music researcher, will introduce early 20th-century recordings by immigrants hailing from areas like present-day Turkey, Syria and Lebanon on Tuesday. Nagoski said his presentation will both play the music created by immigrants and contextualize the lives of the musicians who created it, many of whom were fleeing to the United States from World War I and genocides within their home countries.
“It’s about looking at their time and place, particularly as immigrants to the U.S. and as people from the Middle East,” Nagoski said. “I’ll tell a story and then tell someone else’s story that’s related to that, weaving through a variety of issues that immigrants were dealing with.”
The vast majority of the records are from 1913 through 1942 in New York City, which was one of the only places in the world that had the equipment to produce them, Nagoski said. The music made by immigrants during this era was massively diverse in terms of genre and content, he said, and was also linguistically and culturally complicated depending on the region of origin. Immigrants from the Middle East often used instruments such as the oud, a pear-shaped string instrument resembling a lute, or the kemenche, a bowed string instrument, as a homage to their countries, said graduate student in ethnomusicology Armen Adamian.
“These communities have developed strategies of self-expression like music, showing their ability to adapt and form new dynamic senses of expression in their new life trajectories,” Adamian said.
Nagoski said in rural areas of countries like Armenia, the songs created skewed toward a folksy style, while larger port cities maintained a cosmopolitan feel. This medley also included a highly refined classical repertoire and comedy records, he added. He said second-generation performers would actively hybridize music they grew up with in the Middle East, with ragtime, a style that went on to influence jazz.
Music researcher Harout Arakelian said much of the music made by immigrants is highly dependent upon the specific individual and the history they carry with them, as much of the music details their tribulations as they immigrated to new places, which Nagoski will detail in his presentation.
“(Nagoski) is able to draw parallels between societal issues and the music and who these people were, the early experience of immigrants in the early 20th century,” Arakelian said. “He’s one of the first people to introduce this music in a digital realm.”
Nagoski said he has reissued 20 hours of early 20th-century recordings by immigrants from the Ottoman Empire, but only utilizes around 10 recordings for his presentations. Panosian, a wealthy opera singer from present-day northwestern Turkey, is one of the most striking musicians in his catalog, he said. Famous for her soprano voice, the singer brought over songs that she learned as a child in her native village of Bardizag and recorded them in the U.S.
In 1917, she released a best-selling record titled “Groung,” or “Crane,” that Nagoski said became deeply meaningful to the Armenian community because of its messages about home. He said the eponymous song is a plea to a crane, asking the bird, “Do you have any news from home? Hasten not to your flock, you will arrive soon enough.”
Panosian later went on tour to raise funds for countries facing the ravages of war and genocide, Nagoski said, performing everywhere from Europe to Egypt to South America. However, she stopped performing and recording in the 1950s and became largely forgotten in the public eye, he said, despite her momentous impact on the Armenian community.
“That’s why it was such a hit record,” Nagoski said. “It was because in 1917, Armenians in the United States were realizing that the world had ended back home and that they were stranded and everyone they had ever known was dead.”
Over the course of his research, Nagoski said he stumbled across Panosian’s record, which had been lost for a hundred years, and fell in love with her voice and her words, despite not being Armenian himself. The researcher said he hopes to convey that admiration of her and other immigrants’ music Tuesday, as he views music as the greatest joy in his life.
“What it was that she accomplished was a record that stops people cold,” Nagoski said. “I’ve seen many people break out crying during it. It’s just one of those things, one of those voices that really kills people.”