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Friday, January 20, 2012

Come in from the Cold: Warming up with Monitor Records

If you were to wander into the dimly lit Russian cafe in lower Manhattan called the Two Guitars on almost any evening you would find Sasha Polinoff entertaining the guests...Sasha sets the Slavic mood for the vodka, caviar, and the Kiev cutlets. (MFS 432)
Monitor Records, founded in 1956 by Michael Stillman and Rose Rubin in New York City, issued over 250 recordings of music from around the world. An artifact of the period's interest in "exotic" records, the recordings were appealing to people for the same reason I find them fascinating today: they project a sense of another place. Sometimes these places aren't "real"--much of the music on Monitor was licensed from state-sponsored record labels in the then-Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Sometimes they are--as is the case for the recordings made in venues in New York City. But from the covers to the liner notes to the music itself, the albums are transporting

The Monitor albums I'm feeling drawn to these days all mention cafes and nightlife and warmth, and make me want to bundle up and find a little place where the food is filling, the drinks flowing, and the music wistful (wistful for what? I'm not sure, but when music makes you feel like you're somewhere else, it kind of feels like that place is lost to you at the same time). If you feel like that too, here are my picks for getting cafe-cozy, accompanied by excerpts from the liner notes. 

"Put the record on your turntable, dim the lights, pick up your vodka drink and relax--it's Sasha time!"
The Feenjon Group

"The Feenjon Group can be heard nightly at the Cafe Feenjon...a mecca for lovers of Israeli, Greek, Arabic, Turkish and Amenian song and dance. Many notables of the entertainment world, too, attracted by the informal atmosphere and musical excitement of the Cafe, have become late-late habitues and frequently participate in the performances."
Vienna by Night (MP 510)

"A songstress with haunting appeal she evokes the intimacy and charm of the small Viennese cafes."
Bela Babai and his Fiery Gypsies

"Bela Babai...can be heard nightly at New Yorks Chardas where lovers of Gypsy music and fine Hungarian cuisine meet. Wherever Bela Babai appears the musical greats come to hear..."

-Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

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