Spassov Trio's Bulgarian Jazz Is Latest Offering From Traditional Crossroads

Label has assembled uniquely varied repertoire, from klezmer to authentic belly-dance music.

Independent record labels are labors of love. Some make money, while most lose it — yet new ones keep popping up.

For Harold Hagopian, founder of the 7-year-old Traditional Crossroads label, which recently released the Theodosii Spassov Trio's The Fish Are Praying for Rain, it seemed like a natural step.

"I'd been producing records for other labels and got tired of shopping the discs around," Hagopian recalled. "I realized I knew as much about music as any of the labels did, so I decided to start one myself."

His first release, in 1993, was The Art of Taksim by Turkish harpist Göksel Kartal. The National Association of Independent Record Distributors voted it Best String Recording of the Year, a reassuring distinction that made Hagopian "really happy."

The son of respected Armenian-American oud player Richard Hagopian, Harold grew up on a raisin farm in Fresno, Calif. — home to the country's largest population of Armenian immigrants. "It looks like Anatolia [Turkey, the Armenian homeland]," Hagopian explained, "and the farming industry is the same."

Surrounded by Armenian culture and music, Hagopian loved Armenian traditional sounds and Western classical music equally. He began playing violin in grade school and wound up attending New York's Juilliard School of Music.

While recording an orchestral album, he became intrigued by the production process itself. After he produced an album of his father's music (Armenian Music for the Ages) for Smithsonian-Folkways in 1992, the studio owner offered him a job. "It was hardly any money," he said, "but I could use the studio for my own projects, which helped me start the label." Three years later, he began helping RCA's Jack Pfeifer at RCA remaster many classical recordings — including those of Hagopian's idol, Jascha Heifetz — and continues to work there today.

Access to one of the world's top studios has allowed Hagopian to undertake elaborate work for Traditional Crossroads. This has included tracking down the original metal masters of old Middle Eastern vinyl records for tracks such as Mahmut Celalettin's "Neva Hicaz Gazel" (RealAudio excerpt) from Hagopian's charming Istanbul 1925 compilation. It's one of a number of Traditional Crossroads archival releases, although the label does more than that.

"We've released African music, such as Morikeba Kouyate's Music of Senegal, klezmer music by groups such as the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Cigar Music: Tobacco Songs of Old Havana and an authentic belly-dance album, Gypsy Fire, which is our best seller," Hagopian said. "I've also taken a keen interest in Bulgarian music, which has connections to Turkish music."

The Fish Are Praying for Rain by the Bulgarian Theodosii Spassov Trio is the most recent Traditional Crossroads release. On it, Spassov sounds like the late flutist and saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk on tracks such as "Karchenitsa 216" ("Morning Back Crack 216") (RealAudio excerpt) — except Spassov plays a simple, rural shepherd's flute.

Down the road, Hagopian plans to release a new disc by the great Iranian classical singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the vocalist's first venture with a label outside Iran.

"I'm not worried about making money from Crossroads," Hagopian said. "It isn't a commercial enterprise for me. Maybe putting out these records will help raise people's consciousness. And besides, it's fun."