By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
The translations are essential. These languages, sung to intensely ornamented melodies, never fail to pierce the heart, but it is nice to know what is going on. Usually the singer is going through hell over love. And I mean hell: You should see all the burning and writhing. Richard Hagopian sings, "The peach trees and their beautiful blossoms/How they burned and burned me." Not even the milk is safe: "I drank milk," sings Madlen Araradian. "My tongue burned." Never to be outdone, Udi Hrant makes his hellish blues universally contagious: "My cruel sorrow burns the entire universe."
Traditional Crossroads has developed a reputation, in world-music circles, as the label that does amazing Middle Eastern reissues. The reputation is deserved but inadequate; Hagopian stresses, "We have more living artists than dead artists at this point." Some of Hagopian's work producing the living is akin to the label's archival endeavor: The recently released Sulukule updates the label's focus on Istanbul to the present-day music performed there by Gypsy ensembles, and Hagopian recorded the contemporary band Kudsi Erguner Ensemble performing the compositions of Tatyos Efendi, an Armenian genius of the late Ottoman period. Hagopian has also made departures from Istanbul in his selection of artists, producing perhaps the greatest klezmer record by a living musician, Alicia Svigal's Fidl, and another mind-blowing fiddle record, Scattering Scars Like Dust by the Iranian prodigy Kayhan Kalhor. Lately, he is perhaps most enthusiastic about two records in an idiosyncratic genre called Bulgarian wedding music, made by the father of the genre, saxophonist Yuri Yunakov.
One immortal who made his best records with Harold Hagopian is Djivan Gasparyan, master of the Armenian wood flute called the duduk. On his first Traditional Crossroads release, Ask Me No Questions -- as on Gasparyan's other recordings, including those used in the films The Last Temptation of Christ and Dead Man Walking -- the duduk appears in melancholy isolation. When Gasparyan saw these movies, he noticed that his music always played during the morbid parts. Gasparyan set out to make a different kind of record, one that showed the duduk in a more lighthearted context as the instrument that accompanies Armenian folk dances. That record, Apricots from Eden, is the most rapturous record in the Traditional Crossroads catalog.
The label has been a bit less ambitious, thus far, in releasing field recordings (which is somewhat like saying Mark McGwire is less ambitious in the field than he is at bat). Their sole focus in field recordings has been Cuba, which came to Hagopian's attention through cigars rather than music. A lover of fine leaf, Hagopian went to Cuba to produce Cigar Music, a collection of tobacco songs gathered through field research but recorded in a Havana studio. Recently the label released Changui, a collection of bona fide field recordings from the mountains of Cuba; it is a sensuous masterpiece that belongs in any collection of Latin music.
In the many ways it reveals the music from many cultures, Traditional Crossroads is sustained by a deep truth: Music is a country without borders where an international language survives unspoken. Harold Hagopian first learned this as a Juilliard student when he went to Russia, speaking no Russian, to rehearse a Haydn quartet with some local musicians who spoke no English. "After the first note," Hagopian remembers, "my anxiety was gone. I was playing too loud, so I quieted down; they were playing too fast, so they slowed down. Within the first measure, we were speaking the same language."
Traditional Crossroads records are distributed through Rounder, and many of them should be available locally. Beginners might want to start with Istanbul 1925, Apricots from Eden, Fidl or Changui. Records may also be ordered directly by calling 800-422-6282.