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.

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.

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