Istanbul Psychedelic (Streamed on 21 November 2020. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Rachel Coombes)
A recent LondonJazz News interview with Serious’s Director of Programming Pelin Opcin (director of Istanbul Jazz Festival since 2005) highlighted her consideration of site-specificity for jazz performance – be it open-air or in multimedia-friendly locations. The LJF Istanbul Psychedelic session, which saw four Turkish ensembles performing on and around the Bosphorus and its inlets, seems to have been shaped by this vision. As the sun slowly sank, the cameras moved with each set from pier, to boat, to an unobstructed vista overlooking the Bosphorus Bridge, and finally to a more intimate urban environment in the shadow of the Golden Horn Metro Bridge. From the comfort of our living rooms, we were able to explore the different characteristics of Istanbul’s fluvial environment, journeying as we did so through an eclectic assortment of the country’s sound-worlds and instruments.
Representing a young generation of Turkish music-making was Islandman, led by multi-instrumentalist and producer, Tolga Böyük, with Eralp Güven on percussion and Erdem Başer on electric guitar. Described as channelling ‘Anatolian psychedelia and ritualistic rave’, the trio have garnered much recognition in recent years for their inimitable sound, winning a Montreux Jazz Festival Talent Award in 2018 (and proving by doing so the ever-expanding scope of the jazz genre). Their opener Dimitro (from their second album Kaybola) encapsulated the group’s intriguing fusion of influences: an 808 drum machine propelled along vocal samples of a Bulgarian wedding song. Later in the set, the ambling, mellow melody of Shu! transformed into a hypnotic and trippy experience with a smooth, underlying dancefloor-friendly groove.
Amplifying the ritualistic, shamanic ambiance of the night were the next performers, Baba Zula – an acknowledged influence on Islandman. Formed by the (electric) saz (or bağlama, a seven-stringed instrument) player Osman Murat Ertel in 1996, the band’s line-up now includes Ümit Adakale on the darbuka (a single-headed hand drum) and Mehmet Levent Akman on the wooden spoons (and electronics). It may be hard to imagine just how much the bright, energetic clickety-clack of the spoons contributed to the rhythmic momentum of the music, but they really were central to the percussive texture of, for example, the reeling Kelebekler Kuşlar (Butterflies and Birds). Baba Zula’s psychedelic folk music is heavily indebted to Ertel’s experience of the 1960s music scene in Istanbul, a time during which the electrification of the saz made the integration of elements of Western rock and pop far easier. But traces of reggae, dub and electronica infuse the band’s sound now – perhaps most successfully in Küçük Kurbağa (Froggie), from the band’s latest release Hayvan Gibi (Like a Beast). The familiar-yet-unfamiliar fuzzy microtonal progressions of Ertel’s saz, an instrument so intimately connected with Anatolian culture, was perhaps the most memorable musical encounter of the whole evening. Towards the end of the set, Ertel moved briefly to the theremin, where his dramatically choreographed gestures heightened the sense of mischief that this band exudes.
Ertel cites the headliners of the evening, Moğollar (meaning ‘Mongols’ in Turkish), as an important influence on his own musical development. It is easy to see why: these pioneers of Turkish rock, led by Cahit Berkay (one of the group’s founding members), have been synthesising traditional, vernacular and contemporary popular music in a seamless fashion since 1967. The mournful saz melody that opens Selvi Boylum Al Yazmalım (The Girl with the Red Scarf), is then directly echoed by an 80s-style synth sound, after which we hear a haunting melodic sample on the Turkish clarinet. This marriage of instruments from different cultural traditions seemed to encapsulate the theme of the entire evening. For the upbeat numbers Dinleyiverin Gari (Just hear it out [will you?]) and Bi’ Şey Yapmali (Something Must Be Done), Cahit Berkay and guitarist/singer Emrah Karaca abandoned their instruments to deliver exuberant vocals. They rounded off the set with a sensitive rendition of Gündüz Gece (Day and Night), originally composed by the blind Turkish bard Aşık Veysel. For this final song, Emrah Karaca took to the microphone alone, with Berkay accompanying him on the sazbüş (a metal-bodied saz), which, when played with a bow as he did, produces a rich, melancholic sound.
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We were brought back to more familiar jazz territory with the final set of the evening, featuring the New York-based Swedish-Turkish saxophonist İlhan Erşahin’s project Istanbul Sessions. He was joined by the core members of his group: bassist Alp Ersönmez, percussionist Izzet Kizil, and drummer Turgut Alp Bekoğlu. Some of the set material derived from their recently-released record Bir Zamanlar Şimdi (Once Upon a Time Now); a particular highlight taken from this album was the appropriately fierce jazz-rock tune Aslan. But one of the most successful pieces was an earlier composition entitled Sarıyer (the name of Istanbul’s northernmost district). The repetitive octave-jumping bass riff, combined with a simple techno rhythm and a deliciously suave sax melody seemed, somehow, to powerfully evoke a modern, quotidian urban existence – it was a soundtrack to city life. The music was telling us a story of late-night Istanbul and New York, a fusion of Eastern and Western urban cultures.
With thanks to Emrah Tokalac