Turkish Music: An Omnibus Review

Maras Sinemilli Deyisleri/Ulas Ozdemir: Ummanda (Kalan, 1998)
Erkan Ogur/Ismail H. Demircioglu: Gulun Kokusu Vardi (Kalan, 1998)
Kardes Turkuler: Dogu (Kalan, 1999)
Turk Ritm Grubu: Ten/Skin (Kalan, 1999)
Selim Sesler ve Grup Trakya’nin Sesi: Kesan’a Giden Yollar (Kalan, 2000)

(This review was written by Big Earl Sellar for a previous incarnation of Green Man Review.)

Turkey is one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions on this planet. With the Karain cave giving us evidence of Anatolian civilization beginning at least 10 000 years ago, the people of this corner of our planet have had a long time to develop a musical culture with the same complexity as India’s, a tradition to rival Celtic, and a beauty that is truly universal. The Kalan label concentrates on the wonderful music of this area, with a particular interest in presenting the traditional forms. This set of discs present but a few facets of Turkish music, giving us a hint at the musical diamond that exists.

Ummanda is an archival recording of sorts, including recordings from 1981 to 1997, featuring the saz (the ubiquitous 3 or 4 course Turkish lute). On these tracks, there is a mix of field and studio recordings of the common songs in the repertoire of this instrument. Although a tad repetitive at times, this disc is a perfect introduction to this genre. Illustrating the tradition, mixed with the Arabic/Islamic influences that have shaped it over the last thousand years or so, it presents a diverse overview of the music of this instrument. The oratory “Ciqle (Guli) Marxike” features a solo performance of a three-course saz with a mournful vocal in the archaic style, and illustrates the sort of song one would hear walking the streets of Istanbul in millennia past. The denseness of group performance is aptly illustrated by “Kanabilin Mi,” with multiple instruments and vocalists singing a song that clearly shows a strong Muslim influence. I really liked this disc, in spite of the fact that all the liner notes are solely in Turkish, and Kalan’s English web site doesn’t seem to acknowledge its existence! Just goes to prove that you don’t necessarily need to comprehend to enjoy.

Less archival and more organic is Gulun Kokusu Vardi, a beautiful meeting of two wonderful Turkish performers. Erkan Ogur and Ismail H. Demircioglu trade off on several stringed instruments and vocals to create a beautiful disc of the more introspective, mellower side of modern Turkish music. The dense mix of instruments on tracks like “Mecunum Leylami Gordum,” with its beautiful harmonies in the vocals, show the complexity of this music wonderfully. Although the lines are simplistic, the flow of the riffs between and through the instruments create a sonic tapestry that a million synthesizers could not replicate. Both performers are exquisite musicians, taking solos on a half dozen instruments each, never stooping to the shredding or flash that many musicians on a project like this would be prone to do. The over 50 years’ experience between them show readily on “Daglar,” which exploits a multi-part time signature between instruments to create a gentle song of great complexity and grace that flows off their hands effortlessly. Exquisitely recorded, and with wonderful graphics, this is one of my favourites of this set, a disc that bears repeated listening.

Equally impressive is Dogu by Kardes Turkuler. This band is part of the Bogazici Performing Arts Ensemble, a collation of artists dedicated to maintaining cultural arts history as Turkey moves closer to the developed West. On this disc, they perform music from or inspired by the eastern Turkish tradition, yet another fascinating sub-genre. The songs on this disc are more complex musically and especially percussively than the rest of the discs reviewed here. An obvious Afghanistani influence is felt as well, while the Arabic influences are oddly shifted from the melodic to the ornamentation of the songs. The result sounds more like across between eastern European (Croatian music comes to mind) and that from the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, but with the saz in the center role. It’s a glorious mix, more danceable and accessible to newcomers and another strong candidate for larger exposure in the World market. On “Turna,” the broad percussion snakes itself around saz and guitar, while a female vocalist sings a vocal line that owes more than a passing glance towards parts further east. “Kara Uzum Habbesi” sounds like an ancient precursor of both rap and Rai, while never betraying its European roots (and there’s a relentless groove to it, worthy of any dance floor). Spanning from the hyper-traditional chant of “Haynirina” to the more modern reading of tracks like “De Bila Beto,” Dogu has instant appeal, instant groove, and instant satisfaction.

For the drummer on your list, there’s Ten/Skin by Turk Ritm Grubu, or the Turkish Percussion Group. A group that is already winning acclaim in European Jazz circles, T.R.G. is a quartet of drummers fusing Turkish drumming styles with jazz and world elements. This record, however, ranges from the humdrum to the dull. “Kayip Kimlik Vakasi” is a meandering number, sounding more like a bit of jamming than a song. “Giz” alternates between fairly run-of-the-mill drumming styles (think Neil Peart from Rush) mixed with a bevy of percussion instruments and some synth to create something akin to incidental music from a bad horror flick. The disc shows some amazing drumming prowess, but is not as interesting as, say, a night of Kodo. The production is rather odd as well, with the drums overpowering all the other instruments (and thus reducing melodies to the background); right from the opening track “Bulmaca,” the drums often clip horribly, obviously from their placement in the mix. The packaging, however, is glorious, if that’s any consolation..

The final disc of this batch is also the hardest to describe. Kesan’a Giden Yollar features the music of Thrace, in north-eastern Greece, next to the Turkish border. The relationship between this disc and the others reviewed here is tangible, at best: while distantly related, this is a tradition of its own, and a fantastic one at that. Whereas the music of Turkey revolves around instruments of relatively ancient heritage, the music on this disc come from much more recent designs. Lead by clarinettist Selim Sesler, the ensemble presents songs that evoke Eastern Europe, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and the Arab world: a fascinating mix of musical cultures floating around a unique musical core, a style based on eight-note lines with a great deal of ornamentation thrown in. The medley of “Sari Gulum Var Benim/Mahmutkoy Kaarsilamasi” sounds like a musical tour around the eastern Mediterranean, by guides who share their view liberally. The track “Tulum” evokes a similar journey from Greece, through Bulgaria, Turkey and on into Iran. This unnamed group also adds some east Mediterranean Romany songs to the mix, with “Alay Bey” being a stunning example of yet another culture added to the mix. (It’s really hard to picture the rather geeky looking middle-aged guys on the cover making such insanely hip music!) The disc is presented in a stunning hardcover booklet form, with lots of photos, and liner notes (an English translation is included). A stunning piece of work for true aficionados of Worldly charms.

It’s always wondrous to find yet another fresh voice on the music scene, and the Kalan label certainly has found one for me. As this company continues to export its product into the west, they give us an amazing insight into a world of music largely unfamiliar beyond its basest forms. With a bit more translative skills and marketing, I can guarantee you that Kalan will make a splash on the world scene, with their releases of vibrant, intriguing and danceable music.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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