At the Crossroads

World music old and new is handled lovingly on Harold Hagopian's Traditional Crossroads label

World music has three faces: the archival reissue of past masters, the studio work of current artists and field recordings made on location around the world. These three endeavors require very different sorts of resources and expertise, so it is remarkable that one small independent label, Traditional Crossroads, can claim masterpieces within all three categories and may be said to set the industry's artistic standards in two of them.

World-music labels tend to have names that suggest their focus -- Xenophile ("lover of the foreign"), Shanachie ("storyteller"), Folkways -- but no moniker hits the mark as squarely as Traditional Crossroads, because this is a label where different ways of revealing tradition really do cross paths.

This road begins in Armenia, the ancestral homeland of label founder Harold Hagopian, whose paternal grandparents fled the 1915 Ottoman Turkish genocide of ethnic Armenians, settling in California. The nation they had fled was riotously alive with music, much of it made by Armenians. Udi Hrant was one Armenian musician from Turkey who completely transformed the way an instrument, the ud (a Middle Eastern lute), was played. Hrant had been recording since the late '20s, the Hagopians had bought his records, and their son Richard fell in love with them. When Hrant came to the United States in 1950 to perform, Richard Hagopian's father begged him for an ud for his son. The master asked the boy to play, and he must have liked what he heard, for when Hrant returned to Istanbul his ud stayed in Fresno. He also found the Hagopians a teacher, Kanuni Garbis Bakirgian, a master of a Middle Eastern harp called the kanun who had performed for the last sultan. In time, the work of these men -- Kanuni Garbis and his cronies from the Ottoman Court; Udi Hrant and the other cabaret geniuses of Istanbul -- would see new life through the record label started by Richard Hagopian's middle son, Harold.

Reissues of Ottoman masters would become Traditional Crossroads' first specialty, but its first release was a studio recording Harold Hagopian made of a Gypsy kanun player. Hagopian learned his studio skills through an interesting set of experiences. He was a musician first, growing up playing Armenian music with his father and then studying violin at the Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan. When his father won a National Heritage Award in 1989, the father-and-son duo made records for the British Arc label and Smithsonian/Folkways. Hagopian augmented that studio experience by doing sessions as a violin player, always hanging around the control booth to learn the craft of production.

When this eventually landed him a studio job as engineer, he started bringing people into the studio, taking advantage of cheap staff rates. In 1993 he caught an amazing concert by a Gypsy kanun player named Goksel Kartal. Growing up around his father's collection of vintage Turkish 78s, Hagopian knew there were many great recordings of kanun music from the old days, but he thought contemporary recordings were inadequate. So he brought Kartal into the studio, assuming that one of the labels that had released one of the lousy kanun records would show interest in a well-crafted one, but he was wrong. So he started Traditional Crossroads as a venue through which to release Kartal's record, The Art of Taksim (taksim means "improvisation," which is all-important to Middle Eastern music). Hagopian's audiophile standards were immediately confirmed by the industry; The Art of Taksim won the National Association of Independent Record Distributors award for Best String Recording of the Year.

In a way, Hagopian's musicianship would also lead him into doing archival reissues. His idol on the violin was always Jascha Heifetz, so he was delighted when his studio work put him in touch with Heifetz's producer, Jack Pfeiffer, who was impressed enough with Hagopian to hire the young man as a consultant to the remastering of Heifetz's RCA recordings. That project earned Hagopian a staff position at BMG/RCA, producing reissue compilations of Western classical masters and pop singers. Devoting excruciating care and high-fidelity sound-restoration equipment to this material made Hagopian think about all the vintage ethnic recordings that had never been mastered to disc, as well as the sketchy quality of many world-music reissues. He set about doing it right.

Istanbul 1925, Traditional Crossroads' first archival reissue, stands as a thesis statement of what would follow. Udi Hrant, whose work Harold would eventually issue in three volumes, appears, playing his first recorded improvisations. Udi Yorgo Bacanos, whose own Traditional Crossroads record has just been released, is also included. Several of the female cabaret torch singers who would become the focus of Women of Istanbul are here as well, wailing about love denied in tones of undeniable passion. The presentation of these recordings set a high standard. Hagopian scoured the globe looking for the original masters, the molds from which the 78s were made. Next he transferred the masters to digital tape, then meticulously mastered the tape for CD. He hunted down old photographs and biographical information, wrote elegant, detailed liner notes and pressed his father into duty translating the lyrics from Turkish and Armenian.

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