Baba Zula is a Turkish five-piece which combines traditional instrumentation and influences with studio wizardry and psych-rock freakout flair. Think Steeleye Span with multi-stringed saz instead of guitars, or Fairport Convention playing belly dance music rather than electrified jigs and reels. Better yet, don’t think of anybody else at all, because Baba Zula is unlikely to sound like anything you’ve ever heard before.
Apart from the saz, whose six or seven metal strings (depending on the type) give it a sharp, ringing sound much brighter than western stringed instruments, the band relies on the cura saz — a smaller model with an even higher pitch. Percussion instruments fill out the sound, notably the darbuka (a small hand drum) and the bendir, whose hand-held round wooden frame is similar to the Irish bodhran. To western ears, this mix of unusual instruments produces sounds that are familiar in their general contours but unique in their particulars. Throw some bass, keyboards, and plenty of effects int the mix, and you’ve got something unique.
Despite a reliance on traditional sounds, and an obvious affection for them, Baba Zula are far from some stuffy ethnomusicological purists. Lead track “Abdulcanbaz” immerses the listener in a thick stew of bass, percussion, and strings right off the bat, but Murat Ertel’s vocals are heavily reverbed, the bassline hypnotic, and the overall effect is one of dreamy — or maybe nightmarish — disorientation. Follow-up tune “Butterflies Birds/Kelebekler Kusler” features those stringed instruments played at a dizzying pace, something like Bill Monroe’s banjo picking by way of Istanbul. Such weird juxtapositions shouldn’t surprise anyone, coming as they do from a band that plays self-described “psychebelly dance music.”
The band’s other vocalist, Elena Hristova, shows up for “Worried Leaf/Efkarli Yaprak”, a reggae-tinged excursion into Turkish psychadelia. Hristova isn’t a belter, but her tentativeness suits the material well. The eight-minute “Hopce” lopes along on a bed of percussion, flayed strings, and gong (gong!) with occasional shout-along outbursts that even English speakers can participate in. If you’ve never heard Turkish saz played through a variety of effects — fuzz, sustain, phase shift, wah-wah — here’s your chance.
Not all the band’s choices are on target. A couple of songs are sung in French and English, which seems an odd choice for a group so steeped in Turkish traditional influence, and serves to rather break the mood. Happily, the album recovers with the nine-minute “Hayde Hayde,” which brings back Elena Hristova’s vocals for a moody, meandering walk through the soundtrack of someone’s bad opium trip. The instrumental “Temptation” closes the record in an 11-minute burst of sustained glory that leaves little doubt that this band could jam on this one tune alone for another hour. More fuzzed-out, electrified saz? Yes please!
Baba Zula is essential listening for anyone with an interest in world music or the outer edges of rock and psychadelia, or — ideally — both. As vital as, say, Tinariwen is for North Africa, so is Baba Zula for Turkish music. Gecekondu is the band’s fifth full-length, yet the band is hardly a household name. This album it deserves as wide an audience as it can get.