My favorite musical discovery of 2017 was Turkish psychedelia. Who knew this was even a thing? Well, obviously lots of people, but maybe not so many in the U.S.A. I first tumbled onto it with the reissue of many of the pioneering psychedelic discs on the Uzelli label, highlighted in their “various artists” release Psychedelic Anadolu. Now here is a two-disc set celebrating the 20-year career of a band called Baba Zula, which came out early in 2017 on the Glitterbeat label.
Baba Zula’s heart is the co-founders, Osman Murat Ertel and Levent Akman. They started the band in 1996 to build on 1960s Istanbul psychedelia. That early iteration mostly started from a foundation of Turkish folk music, to which various electronic effects and extended soloing were added, along with an attitude grafted on from Western psychedelia.
“Those original bands of the ‘60s grew out of traditional Anatolian music,” Ertel says in the album’s promotional material. “But the coups of the 1970s and ‘80s put an end to any experimentation. We picked up the reins to make music for the 21st century with electric instruments, effects, and machines, something contemporary and unique. I always tell people that they might not like us, but no one can say we’re not original!”
The first of the discs is 12 tracks of this wild band’s two-decade career, including collaborations with the likes of the drum-and-bass duo Sly & Robbie (even I’ve heard of them!), as well as Dr. Das of Asian Dub Foundation, and Alexander Hacke (of the Berlin industrial group Einstürzende Neubaten).
Rather than simply pull together tracks from its many releases, they chose alternative versions, live cuts or reinterpretations of popular tracks. Among the best of these is a newly cut version of one of their best known songs, “Aşıkların Sözü Kalır” or “Eternal Is The Word Of Poets.” This long track features vocals by Canadian Brenna MacCrimmon, who specializes in Turkish and Balkan music.
Two of my other favorites are the last two tracks. “Çöl Aslanlari” or “Desert Lions” was re-mixed by Hacke. And “Abdülcanbaz” is a 20-minute live version of this song featuring virtuosic solos on electric saz and electric oud. But don’t miss the short “Biz Size Aşık Olduk,” which was created as the theme of a popular serial on Turkish TV and which became a hit across the country.
As for the second disc, I’m not a huge fan of dub, but one of my perennial favorite bands Calexico opened the door to dub for me a little bit. The tracks that stand out for me so far are those that put more emphasis on the acoustic underpinnings of Baba Zula’s sound – saz and oud in particular – rather than the riddim or electronics: “Nobey Dub,” “Lemon Dub” and “Ufak Dub” all lean in that direction; the short “Divan Dub” has some dubbed vocal bits but plenty of oud in addition to impressive percussion. I can see putting this disc on late at night with the lights down low and perhaps some consciousness-altering substance.