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For the record: When record lover Ian Nagoski heard a 90-year-old song by a Greek immigrant, he found his life's calling

Ian Nagoski of Baltimore specializes in finding lost immigrant music.

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By Jason Cherkis
Sunday, August 22, 2010

Five years ago, as often happened, Ian Nagoski was stuck behind the counter of his True Vine record store in Baltimore one afternoon when a set of burly men showed up at his door carting a box of records. The box was not filled with obvious collector's bait. The vinyl did not shimmer like fresh store stock. The discs were just old 78s in wrinkled brown paper sleeves. The box had been marked as trash.

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The men were part of Baltimore's eviction economy. They worked hauling out the left-behind junk of the foreclosed, the kicked-out, the newly imprisoned and the dearly departed. If they found old records, they brought them to Nagoski, hoping he'd be enough of a softie to want to save them. He didn't always take everything, but he did have one rule: If the records were not in English, he had to buy them.

This box, Nagoski noticed, contained very old Greek records. He paid $5 for the box, roughly 10 cents per record. When he put them on his turntable, he didn't know what to think. These were interesting, sure. But maybe he'd paid too much.

Nagoski, then 30, returned to the box every week or so. He started to focus on seven or eight records made by a Greek immigrant who recorded in the 1920s. Her name was Marika Papagika, and her songs were nothing short of entrancing. She hit such sad notes, tones he'd never heard in all his years of listening to music. They seemed like "the sound of the very first cry from human beings." He eventually concluded that her tear-stained ballad "Smyrneiko Minore" was the best song he'd ever heard.

Papagika, he discovered, had been one of the most widely recorded artists in the United States in the 1920s. She'd made well over 225 records and had been successful enough to open up her own New York hotspot, called Marika's. But there wasn't much else he could find out. He could locate only two pictures of her. Her Wikipedia entry ran just three lines. He decided he had to rescue her from obscurity.

Papagika would just be the latest in a string of artists who'd been fuel for a Nagoski salvage operation, though none had seized him as thoroughly as she had. Over the years, he'd become a kind of flea-market scholar, excavating and celebrating vanished music and long-forgotten artists -- from the earliest Afro-Cuban rumbas to the earliest Bollywood soundtracks -- and had made a name for himself as an ethnomusicologist.

A life-long record fiend, he had found his calling in unearthing your great-grandmother's 78s collection -- the songs immigrants made when they first reached America, the songs they craved most from back home. In 2007, he released a compilation of his archival work, "Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics," which included "Smyrneiko Minore." The collection received glowing reviews on such taste-making music sites as Pitchfork and the Fader.

The Papagika song garnered more than 17,000 hits after being posted by a friend of Nagoski's on YouTube. Soon David Harrington, a Kronos Quartet violinist and the group's founder, took notice. The group has since included the song in its repertoire. "Nothing really could have prepared me for the entrance of Marika Papagika," Harrington says. "It just wiped me out -- that first note. Even now, I listen to that at least once a week. That particular note raised the bar on what a musician could accomplish. I will always be grateful to Ian for uncovering that performance."

And Nagoski hasn't stopped uncovering lost treasures. In 2009, he released a second compilation, "A String of Pearls," and helped reissue a collection of early Rembetika -- Greek urban folk music popularized in the '30s. He recently began producing a radio show available as an Internet podcast dedicated to spinning and celebrating his 78s. Called "Fonotopia," it has played selections including a 1947 recording of a D.C. preacher and the earliest psychedelic music, recorded in Central Mexico in the 1940s. This month, Nagoski finally released an entire album of Papagika's work through the Portland-based label, Mississippi Records, and his own Canary Records.

"The more I discovered how little was known, the more I felt compelled, like, 'Okay, this is my job,'" Nagoski says. "That's me. That's what I contribute. I have to go learn this story and tell it. Part of it has to do not with her but with me, with my place in the world, with wanting to do something with my life, wanting to contribute something that I thought a force for good."

***

Growing up in Wilmington, Del., Nagoski didn't have to travel far to find songs worthy of obsession. He first heard the guitar at his father's knee, listening to him pluck out the house favorite, the gold-rush ballad "Sweet Betsy from Pike." His mother taught piano and voice. He can still remember her Bach and Beethoven, her cathartic renditions of '70s pop hits, and her deep tutorials on the Beatles' "Abbey Road." He and his twin sisters were encouraged to play along. Thrift-store instruments hung on the walls -- a banjo from 1865, an old Martin guitar, violins and recorders -- museum pieces you could touch.


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