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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Apo Xeno Topo, Kâtibim, and Üsküdara Giderik'en:
The Story Behind the Songs

 

By Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin

 

 

Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

Throughout this article, numbers appearing in parentheses refer to footnotes that can be found at the bottom of this page.

The beautiful historic folk song known in Greek as "Apo Xeno Topo" ("From a Foreign Place") in Greek and as "Kâtibim" or "Üsküdara Giderik'en" in Turkish was born in the region that was historically part of the Ottoman Empire.

Or was it? This is a controversial and puzzling question, as there are many countries who are claiming ownership!

The lyrics for the Turkish version of the song mention the town of Üsküdar, which in ancient Greek times was known as Chrysopolis, and was the town where the Christian disciple Andrew preached.

This song reached across the then-Ottoman Empire, which included present day Eastern European countries, the Levant, and Egypt. Egypt has its own version of this song too, but wait… not just Egypt! Other Arabic-speaking countries also have their own. For example, the song is known as "Gazali Gazali" in Syria, and "Ya Banat Iskandaria" in Egypt. "Iskandaria" is the Arabic name for the Greek Egyptian city of Alexandria, and "banat" means "daughters" or "girls".  

I recently heard the song "Shat Iskandaria" (Shore of Alexandria) by Lebanese star Feirouz. Some people think it resembles "Apo Xeno Topo" if you listen to it closely, but there are many differences as well, enough to make it a different song. Just as Feirouz' version is about the Shore of Alexandria, part of the Greek version refers to seashores, but in the Greek version the seashore is a woman.

There was a documentary filmed several years ago titled Whose Is This Song? It went in search of the origins of this song. It explored Greece, Turkey, the United States, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Egypt, Syria, etc. I didn't watch it; however, I've been told that it does not specifically credit any country in particular. The documentary visits various countries, interviewing locals to provide their opinion and expertise. Of course, everyone claimed their own country was the source. Clearly, when listening to each country's version of the song, the lyrics are different. Perhaps a country claims it as their own when in fact they have their own lyrics, which typically vary from one region to another. So, I guess it's not a matter of who created the lyrics, but rather, who created the melody? Correct? I think so!

We Greeks have three different versions of this song, all with different names and lyrics. The most popular is "Apo Xeno Topo". This song has some controversial lyrics which caused many singers to modify the lyrics. In the original version, the lyrics refer to a love story with a 12 year old girl. I'm hoping this was just a childhood crush between a young boy and young girl. To avoid pedophilia accusations, many artists who performed this song changed the age to 18, and others to 20.

In the end, I give melody credit to the Greeks. Many people say this song crossed borders. But they forget that during the time this song was flourishing, there were no borders in the Ottoman Empire. It covered a huge area, and it was heavily influenced and inspired by the indigenous Greeks of Anatolia (2) — a tribe that had been there since the beginning of time!

Prior to finding the gold mine of information that I discovered when researching this article, I told myself, "Of course this song is Greek! Not only is it found among the Greeks of Anatolia (Asia Minor),(2) but there is also a traditional Greek version from Macedonia. The Macedonian version is somewhat different from the Asia Minor one, but they share the same idea and similar lyrics.

 

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Early Known Versions

Many sources claim that Naftule Brandwein was the first ever to record "Apo Xeno Topo" under the title "Der Terk in America" circa 1922 or 1924, in New York City. Although he did make such a recording, my sources show that the song originally appeared long before that!

  • What if I told you that the first publication in the USA for this was actually in New York City in 1917, by a Greek?
  • What if I told you that this historic song was published in Turkey nearly two decades prior to Naftule's version?

Even many sources written in Greek incorrectly attribute the first publishing rights to Naftule. However, my research has found that "Apo Xeno Topo" was first published and recorded in other years and other cities, prior to Naftule. For example, the renowned Greek singer Kiria Koula Antonopoulou recorded it in New York in 1920. This doesn't mean that she created the song — it's definitely an old traditional classic. We have proof of recordings dating back even further than 1920.

Some Early Versions Sung in Greek

All versions of this classic are said to originate from the Greek community of Anatolia (2). It appeared under many different names, with local variations in various parts of Asia Minor.

Song Title
(Roman Alphabet)
Song Title
(Greek Alphabet)
Year
Source
Apo Tas Athinas Απο τας Αθήνας 1906 Recorded in Constantinople
Apo Xeno Kosmo Άπο Χένω Κόσμο 1917 Recorded in the USA by Mario Liberopoulo (Μάριο Λυμπερόπουλο)
Ehasa Mantili Έχασα Μαντήλι 1926 Recorded by Giorgos Vidali (Γιώργος Βιδάλη)
Ehasa Mantili Έχασα Μαντήλι 1928 Recorded by Lefteris Menemenlis (Λευτέρης Μενεμενλης)
Ehasa Mantili Έχασα Μαντήλι 1928 Recorded in the USA by Kazis Miltiadis (Καζης Μιλτιάδης
Ehasa Mantili Me 100 Flouria Έχασα Μαντήλι με 100 Φλούρια 1928 Recorded in the USA.
Apo Xeno Topo Άπο Ξένω Τόπο 1960 Keti Grey, with Markos Vamvakaris
Apo Xeno Topo Άπο Ξένω Τόπο   Xanthippi Karathanasi
Apo Xeno Topo Άπο Ξένω Τόπο   Anatolian (2) Greek Asia Minor
Anamesa Tsirigo Ανάμεσα Τσιρίγο   Peloponnese Southern Greece
Eehasa Mantili Ήχασα Μαντήλι   Smyrna and Εrithrea Anatolian (2) Greek Asia Minor
Ehasa Mantili Έχασα Μαντήλι   Greek Thracian
Eskoutari
Escutari
To Skoutari
Εσκουτάρι   Recorded by by Virginia Magidou on the album Greek Songs in America USA. Eskoutari is an old city in what is now present day Turkey. Before the genocide of the early 20th century, it was heavily inhabited by Greeks. The Turkish name for it is Üsküdar, and the Greek name is Skoutari. In ancient Greek it was called Chrysopolis, part of the district of Constantinople.
Apo Tin Athina Os Ton Pirea Από την Αθήνα ως τον Πειραιά   From the Greek island of Mitilini (also known as Lesvos) and also Anatolian (2) Greek Asia Minor. At the time of the genocide in the early 20th century, many refugees from Turkey flooded the Greek mainland and islands. These refugees heavily influenced the Greek island music, bringing with them their traditions and art. This song is found on many Greek islands with varying local flavors.
Apo Tin Athina Os Ton Pirea Από την Αθήνα ως τον Πειραιά   From the Greek island of Paros.
Apo tin Smyrni sto Pirea Απο την Σμύρνη στο Πειραιά    

 

Some Non-Greek Versions

There are many recordings of this song by various artists around the world. Some of the versions in Turkish appear under the song title "Kâtibim".

  • "Talama Ashku Gharani", ("How Long Will I Yearn?") an old Muslim hymn from the Levant. It expresses longing for the Prophet.
  • A military march in Constantinople which may have been intended for people in Western Europe.
  • "Fel Shara", a Sephardic version.
  • Eartha Kitt, 1953, in Turkish ("Uska Dara"). The translation for her version appears elsewhere on this web site.
  • Mohamed El-Bakkar, 1959, in Arabic ("Banat Iskandaria") on his album Port Said.
  • Hani Mitwasi, 2006, in Arabic ("Gazali Gazali") on his album Khamrat Al Hob. The translation for his version appears elsewhere on this web site.
  • Loreena McKennitt, 2006 ("Sacred Shabbat") on the album An Ancient Muse. Hers is a fully instrumental version, without lyrics.

 

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The Klezmer Connection

In New York City, Greeks and Jews lived among each other, just as they did in mainland Greece and Anatolia. (2) There were two renowned clarinet players from the 1920s who were recording Greek music: Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras.

Naftule Brandwein, whose name is sometimes spelled as Naftuli Brandwine, was a renowned Ukrainian Ashkenazi Jewish clarinet (klezmer) player, and he was known as the King of the Klezmer Clarinet and King of Jewish music. He recorded this song in the 1920's, in the United States. Some sources claim it was published in 1922, while others claim it was in 1924. Brandwein's song title was called "Der Terk in America" ("The Turk in America").

Born in 1884, Naftule Brandwein grew up in a family of musicians. He claims to have been inspired by the music of the Greek, Turkish and Romany people. In fact, countless sources claim he loved Greek music.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo shows Naftule Brandwein with his clarinet.

To help bring us closer to the source, I would like to quote a passage from the book Fiddler on the Move: Exploring the Klezmer World by Mark Slobin (1) that refers to the melody shared by "Apo Xeno Topo" and "Üsküdara Giderik'en":

What Feldman calls the "transitional repertoire" plays a pivotal role in klezmer music. Through networks of travel and business, Eastern European musicians moved melodies across long-distance routes, picking and choosing whatever they liked. A long-term process of domestication infused the Jewish musical repertoire with items that had originated elsewhere, both geographically and ethnically.

Most often, the actual patterns of derivation and metamorphosis are opaque, but sometimes the regional and ethnic overlaps are transparent. One such is the so called "Araber-tants" [Arabic Dance]. Klezmer scholar Martin Schwartz has seen it first as an Istanbul version from the first decade of the twentieth century; the melody is known among Greeks as a syrtos dance tune. Somehow it made its way to Jewish circles, where someone affixed the label "Arabic" to it.

The Greek and Near Eastern connection to klezmer was "particularly strong before the middle of the nineteenth century, resulting from the strong presence of Greek language and culture in Romanian cities," where klezmorim had easy access to the music of the Greek community, this Near Eastern character became more pronounced once again. In fact, it was the Greek-American market that continued to support klezmer music after the Jews had largely abandoned it in the 1950s." (Feldman 1997).

To continue quoting this fascinating book:

At almost exactly the same time in the mid-1920s, the piece was recorded by Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein, the two masters Feldman cites as being especially interested in the Greek/Near Eastern repertoire, for very different purposes and under different titles. Tarras, like many other klezmers, played with Greek musicians. He did a series of Greek recordings in the mid-1920's as a band leader for the Columbia Records Greek Orchestra…. and the piece is called "Magia Monikanes". It is the same tune that Brandwein labeled "Araber-tants"… "Araber-tants" is the Turkish style of klezmer, a generalized term for a number of transitional repertoire items."

Ethnomusicologist and founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Hankus Netsky, writes about his experience and understanding of this musical style. Let's not forget that the recording "Terk in America" ("Apo Xeno Topo"), by Naftule was considered to be klezmer style music.

During an interview that Joel Rubin held with Netsky in 2007, Netsky revealed that he had visited an uncle in the 1970's to listen to old music. He reports, "That sounded amazing to me. And I said 'Play that again! That's good!' And what I think it was, was…. my sensibility regarding ethnic music really was formed around Greek music, and while I'd heard lots of Jewish music and lots of klezmer, I'd never heard any klezmer that sounded like Greek music. Everything else I heard, no matter what it was, it tended to sound to me too processed, too American. And it was when I heard Brandwein that I heard something that sounded, you know, like European Jewish music that I knew existed but I'd never heard."

 

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Possible Byzantine Influence

I grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church and have been exposed to Byzantine music and chant from a young age, which also contributed to my thoughts about this song. As most people know, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Hellenic (Greek) people have been indigenous to these lands for thousands of years, and we clearly influenced communities in Turkey, despite the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.

The genre of music of Anatolia (2) known as Asia Minor, Café Aman, and Rebetiko was, and is, heavily influenced by the structure of Byzantine music. In October 2018, Rebetiko music was approved and registered through the UNESCO World Heritage Organization as a historic contribution of the Greek people. It is formally recognized on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This is a major move because it gives us the proper credit, recognition, and historical acknowledgment that despite it being developed among various ethnicities in regions that today are part of Turkey, it belongs to us. It is our contribution to the music world.

Despite that, many believe otherwise. Even though an invading force (the Turks) seized and occupied Anatolia,(2) it did not erase and wipe out the cultural heritage that was already there. To this day, our old Rebetiko music is beloved by many and continues to echo through the sokakia of its birth place — not just in present-day Turkey, but throughout mainland Greece, the diaspora, and beyond. Also, a lot of our music was spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. This is why you will find many traditional songs in Syria and Egypt that are shared with the Greeks under the Rebetiko / Anatolian (2) musical style. All of this predated the era of Oum Kalthoum and big Egyptian orchestras. Our musicians were traveling, taking our musical style with them. Armenians and Greeks owned recording studios in both Egypt and Syria. The overlap of certain traditional songs is not a coincidence at all.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo shows an aerial view of the ancient Greek Monastery Panagia Soumela, which was built in the fourth century. It resides in what is today northern Turkey, in an area that was once largely populated by Greeks and known as Pontos. Click the photo to see more detail.

 

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The Opera Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga

The musicologist Judith Cohen attributes the origin of the song "Apo Xeno Topo" to the opera Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga (The Chickpea Seller) by Ottoman-Armenian composer Tigran Gevorki Chukhajian. (3) (4) He was born in Constantinople, Turkey, and studied music in Milan, Italy. He is considered to be the first opera composer in Turkish history.

In this operetta, the Greek title of the song is "Ehasa Mantili" (Έχασα Μαντήλι), which means "I Lost a Handkerchief".

Some sources say that Greek comedy operetta music was taken from European compositions. Here, we are referring to specifically Greece and not Europe in general. This might lead some people to form the theory that "Apo Xeno Topo" was European. However, this specifically refers to what was happening within Greece for new works and borrowed.

I strongly believe Chukhajian may have incorporated a traditional Eastern folk song that already existed and modified it to make it sound more European. The song may have already been known in the region as an old classic.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This flyer promotes a performance of the opera Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga at the Pantheon Theatre in Patra, Greece. It does not credit the theater company. The text says "magical song and nostalgic music of Turkish Opera".

For more information about this historic opera, see the article "Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga: The Popular Ottoman-Armenian Operetta" elsewhere on this web site.

 

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Footnotes

  1. Slobin, Mark. Fiddler on the Move: Exploring the Klezmer World. 2002.
  2. Literally, "Anatolia" means "the East". Greeks use it to refer to the eastern part of the areas populated by Hellenic people, particularly the land mass of Asia Minor where modern-day Turkey resides.
  3. Cohen, Judith. Liner notes for the compact disc Dans mon chemin j'ai rencontre, 1997.
  4. The composer Tigran Gevorki Chukhajian's name is written in Greek as Ντικραν Tσουχατζιαν, in Armenian as Տիգրան Չուխաճեան, and in Turkish as Dikran Çuhacıyan. Other spellings in the Roman alphabet are Chuckhajian and Tchouhadjian.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Panayiota, the author of this article, models a traditional costume representing the folk culture of the island of Mitilini (also known as Lesvos). She is holding a ceramic handmade drum known as a toubi, which is indigenous to this island. A version of this song known as "Apo Tin Athina Os Ton Pirea" comes from Mitilini.

 

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About the Author

This page was contributed by Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin, who is happy to share her culture and music she grew up with! Here's how Panayiota describes her background:

I always love engaging with intelligent like-minded people, especially artists. I love sharing anything and everything about my Hellenic culture and upbringing, especially music and dance. A conversation with me will bring you back to America's favorite Greek-American movie by Nia Vardalos called My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I love investigating Greek culture, history, music, and dance. Speaking of investigating, I think I missed my calling, I probably should have been an investigator. Instead, I use those skills to dig and dig and dig tirelessly, often times falling asleep on my laptop... just to find the truth. But, most importantly, accurate truth. For me personally, and other respectable folklorists, my culture and accuracy are very important. Each generation of ethnic born artists has a duty to do the best it can to pass down our traditions as was taught to us. We have been given this artistic gift to be the gatekeepers of our heritage and culture.

Panayiota

 

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