Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Turkey and the boy: Istanbul (not Constantinople)

Some of the genres we now call world music did in fact exist here and there in America's musical consciousness under the rubric "ethnic" music when I was growing up in the 1950's, but in the mainstream world of musical America there was little of such offerings to be heard either on the radio or in the conventional concert venues.

But for the eleven-year-old that I was in 1953-54, two musical examples stand out that took my thoughts outside the United States: the songs "Istanbul (not Constantinople)" and "Uska Dara."

Before going into the background of the first song, let me just include the opening, from a 78 rpm recording I had by pianist Lou Busch, whose name on the record was Joe "Fingers" Carr (I found that name itself very catchy,) and his orchestra and chorus, which though dominated by a jazz approach, had a drum pattern that was distinctively exotic

To the musically ravenous pre-teen that I was (otherwise accustomed to the homespun stylings of Snooky Lanson, Perry Como, Doris Day, and the like that I heard on the pop AM radio of the time), the spectacularly shrill choral shout--"Istanbul!", followed by the downward cascading trumpet ending in a raunchy blare, was certainly an ear-catcher. Thereafter, the syncopated drumbeat under the melody continued to hold my interest until the chorus came in with its catchy (at least to my then immature mind) lyrics, as well as the chromatic wandering of the clarinet beginning with the lyric "Every gal in Constantinople lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople. . ." that added a vaguely oriental effect:

And to a young lad whose voice had still not changed, there was the irresistible and indisputably "groovy" effect of the very deep basso voice explaining "People just liked it better that way" in response to the chorus' question: "Why they changed it [New Amsterdam to New York] I can't say."

In the ensuing instrumental break, the band pursues an unmistakeably orientalist agenda both in instrumentation (somewhat shrill winds) and main melody--with its minor notes and chords and, in the second round (above the male du-du-du ostinato (repeated pattern), a return of the wandering chromatic clarinet:

And now a bit about the song itself. The lyrics make fun of the fact that the names Constantinople and Istanbul represent the same city in different historical periods, with the former version being founded (on the site of a Greek city previously named Byzantium) by the Roman Emperor Constantine a few hundred years BC, and assuming the name Istanbul. The central joke is "All the girls in Constantinople/live in Istanbul, not Constantinople/so if you've a date in Constantinople/she'll be waiting in Istanbul." Really cool for a kid who'd never had a date in his life. . . . .

Like many popular songs, this one was recorded by numerous artists, initially by the Canadian quartet The Four Lads in August, 1953, and peaked at number 10# on the Billboard Magazine Charts. (See the Wikipedia article for more detailed background, including a chronological list of "cover" versions of the original.)

I have no recollection how or why the Joe "Fingers" Carr record came into my possession (I still have the 10" 78 rpm record somewhere), but upon listening to the Four Lads version on YouTube, I find I much prefer the Carr recording.

Coming up: the most exotic "Uska Dara", by the inimitable and seductive Eartha Kitt.

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