The lost music of the Ottoman Empire is uplifting and soulful, and Ian Nagoski tells Tim Hughes it deserves a comeback.

IAN Nagoski is a man possessed of missionary zeal.

But this energetic American is not fired up by politics or religion, but something much more important: music.

A collector of rare records since his student days, this musicologist, radio presenter and composer has made it his life’s work to share some of his most unusual finds with the wider world.

And his latest passion is the soundtrack to a culture half-a-world away from his home, deep in the Appalachian woods of Western Maryland. It’s the music of the Mediterranean, or more specifically, those countries of the former Ottoman Empire.

“I produce reissues of old 78rpm records, which are gathered from digging around basements, attics, and flea markets,” he says. “I like learning the stories behind the records and telling them.”

And those stories are the ones brought to the USA by immigrants from South Eastern Europe and the Near East in the early part of the 20th century.

He explains: “As the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, a lot of people fled from the scoundrel government, outrageous taxes, compulsory military service, and social and ethnic conflict.

“Some folks from Anatolia and the Levant went to France, Australia, and other places, but many joined the throngs that arrived in the United States, where 1,000 people a day arrived at the port of Ellis Island alone.”

And they all brought their music – which is haunting and soulful but also frequently joyous.

So what does it sound like? “The music is massively diverse,” he says. “There is rural Greek folk music, Armenian melodies arranged for classical performances by the great composer Komitas (whom Debussy called a genius), centuries-old dance music from Syria, Ottoman court music, and the cosmopolitan music of port city cafes which draws on styles from Italy to Iraq.

“There are murder ballads, patriotic songs, laments, virtuoso show-pieces, historical songs, love songs... everything!”

But is it relevant today, I ask? “Well, in America, apparently, it isn’t at all,” he answers. “That’s the only explanation I can see for writing it out of our shared musical culture.

“To me, having never really learned much of anything about the modern Middle East and its relationship with America, it has been an important window.

“The lives of musicians are very small, whether they’re famous or not, but they dedicate themselves to expression, making them a good, simple, honest way to learn about the larger world.”

And the fact their music has been overlooked, continues to irritate and inspire him.

“The level of neglect borders on spite and disdain,” he says.

“The sheer ignorance about this stuff seems at times wilful. Americans expect immigrants to assimilate as hard and fast as possible, to forget the Old World and become American. And anything that immigrants start to forget, their children pretty much finish for them.”

On February 13 he brings his box of records to the Old Boot Factory, a new venue in East Oxford. The show, based on his collection To What Strange Place, will see him sharing his love of Ottoman-American music with anecdotes about the personalities behind the songs.

“I play records and tell stories,” he says. “I have complicated and emotional relationships with some of these great, old records, and it’s great to be able to share them. I explain who the performers are, what they accomplished, and what the records are about.

“I explain the journey that brought us all together in the room with the voices of performers who made these records nearly a century ago.”

It’s clear Ian is passionate. But how did it all begin? For a man with no Mediterranean roots it is an unusual obsession.

“I lived for a decade in Baltimore, Maryland, where the TV show The Wire is set,” he says. “And it was there that I came across a box of old, Greek 78s – some of which went back to 1908.

“I had already been collecting 78s in foreign languages as no one else wanted them, and they were so cheap.

“As I fell in love with those Greek records, it dawned on me that they’d been recorded in the same time and place as some of the records I had in Turkish and Arabic: New York in the 1910s and 20s. A light went on in my head and I realised that these musicians were at the same studios and, in some cases, knew each other.

“This was in 2006, when my country was mired in two insane wars in the Middle East, and the public discourse was mostly xenophobic and ignorant.

“There were several records by a Greek singer whose work was very cosmopolitan. And her voice was really extraordinary. I took on trying to learn her story and tell it. In the process, I had to learn a huge amount, and my own compilation, is the result.”

And it struck a chime.

“Where I live in Maryland, the lingua franca is bluegrass,” he says. “That’s all blazing string-band performances and aching, sorrowful songs of the difficulties of life.

“As I was digging through all of this Armenian, Greek, Turkish, and Arab stuff, it seemed pretty clear that most of what I was coming across was also blazing string-band performances and aching, sorrowful songs about the difficulties of life. It’s the same.”

* Ian Nagoski presents To What Strange Place at the Old Boot Factory, St Mary’s Road, East Oxford, at 7.30pm on Monday, with ‘bouzouki & bass’ music from The Family Elan. Tickets are £7 (£5 concs) from