The Music We Call the World: Turkey

Albert Grantowski

[April 2002.]

“Substances inquire after each other, come to an agreement, whisper to one another, and strike up a harmony, constituting the music we call the world.” — Orhan Pamuk, The New Life

My wife Emese and I recently returned from a package tour of northwest Turkey: four days on a tour bus through the snowiest storms there in 30 years, punctuated by stops at the wrecks of ancient cities, ending with two days in Istanbul, where we ditched the tour and explored on our own. The European side of Istanbul, where we stayed, is cleaved by the Golden Horn, an inlet off the Bosphorous. On the south side are most of the guidebook sites and the ubiquitous street sellers who hawk guidebooks, postcards, and other mementos to the tourists who flock there. The north side is more residential and more upscale. There, in the Taksim district, we met Ayleen and Mugor, two young Turkish women. Ayleen had answered a call to an email list for Turkish music guidance. She and Mugor helped us select the recordings reviewed here.

Misirili AHMET: mel de cabra (http://www.megamuzik.com/). Ahmet lays down intricate, precise improvisations over common Arabic rhythms. One of the best pieces on the album, “Ahmedi,” has Ahmet on five drums, apparently overdubbing himself. Martial-sounding finger rolls introduce an orgy of rhythms played over a succession of core patterns — Bayu (three notes, one tone), Malfuf (three notes, two tones), and Maqsum (five notes, two tones). Ahmet is joined on the album by percussionists playing a miscellany of instruments from South America, the Middle East, and Africa. Bass and reed instruments fill out a couple of pieces. Ahmet writes in the liner notes that he has raised the Darbuka (a goblet-shaped drum common to the Middle East and popular among amateur hand-drummers, AKA, Dumbek) to the level of a lead instrument. While his Darbuka does not rival the Tabla of Zakir Hussain or Mrdangam of Trichy Sankaran, which represent to me the pinnacle of percussion playing, Ahmet is a percussionist of the first order. (This is perhaps not a fair comparison, as these Indian drums produce a virtual orchestra of sounds, far more than the relatively simple Darbuka.) It is difficult for a (mostly) percussion recording to sustain interest over its entire length; this one does not. Ahmet’s finger play is lightning-fast, clear, and inventive — but the CD becomes a bit tiring after a while.

Selim SESLER ve Grup Trakya’nin Sesi: kesan’a giden yollar : Regional and Roman (Gypsy) Music from Thrace (Kalan CD 154) http://www.kalan.com/. Selim Sesler, “master” clarinetist, leads the Thrace Ensemble in a collection of Turkish Gypsy music from Kesan, one of dozens of towns and villages in the Thracian region southwest of Istanbul, each with its own heritage of music and dance. The 15 pieces on the CD are the music of celebration, dance music for weddings and ritual. Sesler’s plaintive clarinet snakes and weaves over rhythmic foundations laid down by a Darbuka, a Daire (large frame drum with jingles) or a Davul (double-headed bass drum). A Cumbus, its plastic head and metal body producing a banjo-like sound, a Kanun (zither), and a violin complete the ensemble. The clarinet and percussion dominate. To an outsider, the music evokes images as much as feeling and movement: gypsy girls, skirts in hand, dipping and spinning; villagers, arms linked in funereal procession; smoke from hookahs of headmen dissipating into space. Nearly every piece is a remarkable combination of infectious, trance-like, get-on-your-feet-and-dance music and the music of melancholy that marks endings, loss, and death. That is to say, this is the music of life. The CD is housed in a picture-filled booklet with some English text.

Erkan OGUR & Ismail H. DEMIRCIOGLU: Gülün Kokusu Vardi (Kalan CD 086) http://www.kalan.com/. Ogur and Demircioglu are troubadours of melancholy. The collection of lovely, dignified songs on this CD are for playing in the dark, pondering existence. Ogur and Demircioglu offer the consolation of those, more articulate, deeper, who have suffered too, and live to sing about it. The English translation of the title, Once There Was a Scent to a Rose, suggests more particular grounds for sorrow. Ogur and Demircioglu play a variety of plucked string instruments, including a Kopuz, a fretless instrument dating from at least the 10th century, when it was used by “witch-poets” in religious ceremonies; the Baglama, Cura, and Divan sazi, descendants of the Kopuz; and classical guitar. The dirge-like, plaintive music is played with restrained brilliance. Occasional modern touches, reminiscent of John McLaughlin or flamenco or classical guitar stylings, seem intrinsic to this apparently ancient music. Ogur and Demircioglu, alone or together, sing on all the pieces. The vocals remind me of the voice of call to prayer heard daily in Istanbul — a yearning, throaty, chant-like sound. Most pieces are backed by a bendir (frame drum), its simple cadences as if marking diurnal turns. The CD sound is warm and rich. We will listen to this often.

Muammer KETENCOGLU Karanfilin Moruna: Anadolu Zeybekleri [To the Purple Carnation: Anatolian Songs] (Kalan CD209) http://www.kalan.com. Ketencoglu, accordionist and vocalist, leads an ensemble of vocalists and instrumentalists in a collection of ancient Zeybeks or songs originating in Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey (Asia Minor). The liner notes imply that the original songs were for Davul (two-headed drum) and two Zurnas (squawky, bamboo-reed horns). Two of these appear on the album. In both, one raw, eerily human-sounding Zurna drones; the other, herald-like, proclaims a simple melody; and the Davul repeats a pattern as of the distilled echo of thunder in a valley.

In most of the other ten pieces, Ketencoglu leads various ensembles in buoyant, heartfelt tunes, sung in a yearning, throaty voice. The notes translate only two titles, “Don’t wear white: It turns to dust” and “Lumberjacks carry lumber from the mountain.” Like these simple propositions which express a wisdom derived from quotidian experience, the music on the album conjures beauty and mystery from elemental rhythms and melodies. Track 11 with its lilting frame-drum pattern especially captures the ever-circling-ever-the-same feel present in all these pieces — of the patterns of life repeating across the turns and revolutions of the earth. The genesis of the album reflects this pattern: Ketencoglu heard Zybeks in childhood, rediscovered them in archives, and on the album, adds accordion and other foreign touches to traditional instrumentation, and so births the past again in the present. The listener is pulled, soul first, into an enchanting cycle of sound.

BABA ZULA: ucoyundan onyedi muzik (Doublemoon dm007) http://www.doublemoon.com.tr/. Traditional Turkish music reinvented with modern machines and instruments, by musicians for whom any sound from baby cries to sex moans is valid musical material. Loops, samplers, African Mbira, saxophones, and bass guitar join traditional Turkish instruments to produce an album of diverse yet coherent music. Dub, trip hop, lounge sax, psychedelia, surf, Hendricks-like guitar riffs, minimalism, found sounds, and god-knows-what fuse perfectly with Middle Eastern sounds. Punching in track six, for example, reveals a drum machine set to trip hop, an ostinato bass, Selim Sesler sounding a bit like Charlie Mariano, and a Middle Eastern rhythm, all leavened with bird songs and female vocals. Every piece, even track seven, 40 seconds of what sounds like glitch and simple percussion loops, somehow sounds “Turkish.” Maybe this is an illusion of context, but infusing such foreign sounds with a folk flavor is an impressive accomplishment. Most of the 17 pieces are less than three minutes long; some are just fragments, reflecting the film-music background of some of the principals. The result is a dark, moody, always interesting album that never fails to deserve one’s attention.