Turkish songs, filtered through the sleek aesthetic of European pop
How do you like your world music anyway? Do prefer that it comes to you more or less untouched by Western hands—archival, authentic, unamplified, and produced in the hollows and crevices of the world where ESPN hasn’t yet been piped in? Or are you interested in how deeply rooted, traditional sounds mesh with the modern world ... in the discos and rock clubs and commercial recording studios of the big city? Beyond Istanbul falls squarely into the second camp. None of these tracks will remind you of remote mountain villages. Most are built on synthetic, Eurovision-ish dance beats; others borrow styles and sounds from Western music—rap, electronica, krautrock, jazz, and dance music. The artists don’t all live in Turkey. Many are expatriates, now in Austria, Germany, or elsewhere. Some of them—the Canadian singer Brenda McCrimmon who works with Baba Zula here—are not Turks at all, but simply love its music.
The cuts for this compilation were collected by DJ Ipek Ipekcioglu, an émigré now established in a Turkish district of Berlin known as Kreutzberg. His monthly sets at the Gayhane Nightclub reportedly draw Turks and Germans alike, and slip bits of disco, jazz, folksongs and electronica together. Here, it seems, Turks are allowed freedoms not generally available in their homeland—social freedoms like the acceptance of gays and mixed race relationships, and musical freedoms like the ability to mix genres and styles.
In fact, in some ways the Turkish migration to Western Europe might remind you of the way that rural blacks moved up to Chicago and Detroit around the turn of the century, bringing their traditional music with them and mixing it with the innovations they found up north. That movement led to electric blues, rock, R&B, soul, and, finally, hip hop in America. In Berlin and Vienna, the combination of Turkish folk songs and 21st century pop is still working itself out, trying different permutations and combinations. Add to this the fact that there really is no single “Turkish folk music”, but rather a whole array of ethnic traditions, and you can see how Beyond Istanbul could become a sprawling, discontinuous sort of project, with a few good songs and a lot of big jumps between. We can probably thank Ipekcioglu for the fact that it is as consistent as it is.
The disc starts with the Night Sessions’ “La Mirage”, its haunting, melancholy flute melody something that you really might hear in a distant mountain village ... or at least a movie about one. (The cut is, in fact, part of a soundtrack by French producers Pascal Werner and Stephane Hareau.) Then, just seconds in, a stark, menacing hip-hop groove breaks in, all strident string slashes, handclaps, and drums. The flute never really goes away, weaving and floating above the massive beat, and it is joined by the full-throated, vibrato-laced vocals, unmistakably Arab and weighted by historical associations. Within its just-under-five-minute duration, we have whirled through the most primitive vistas and the most modern city-haunted soundscapes, making it a fitting introduction to this CD.
The next cut comes from Şivan Perwer, a pioneering reviver of Kurdish folk music. Perwer has been recording since the 1970s, and he has been jailed once and then exiled for singing in his native language (Kurdish language was forbidden in Turkey until the 1990s.) “Heybiyênin”, his cut on this CD, gallops along on hand-slapped drum rhythms, Perwer’s verses tossed out to the band and echoed back to him in marvelous deep-throated male tones. The song is said to be about a Kurdish beauty who is forced into marriage, a subject which, on its surface seems harmless enough, but may also be about an ethnic minority forced into union with a larger power.
Another highlight arrives a couple of tracks later when Nil Karaibrahimgil, who is best known in Turkey for her commercial jingles, contributes the rhythmically unstoppable “Bütün Kızlar Toplandık”. It seems almost completely Western, the first cut on the disc to veer close to slick commercialism (which will become a problem later). Like a good portion of Western girl pop, the song is about the male gender’s many shortcomings, but it is so buoyant and such good fun that only the crankiest could object.
And then there is the slinky, sexy saz, clarinet, and darbuka-laced “Kisaltmalar”, a cut from the long-running psyche-kraut-underground pioneers of Baba Zula. The words, sung by Brenda McCrimmon, seem vaguely familiar at first—you can pick out things like “CNN” and “CIA” and “OK” against a dub-hazed beat. That’s because the lyrics are composed entirely of Turkish and English abbreviations, strung together in a non-linear way. It’s a pretty compelling strategy, burying bits of inexplicable familiarity into its exotic grooves and textures, one that draws you in and disorients you, simultaneously.
The rest of the album is more syncretic, with reggae (Ayhan Sicimoğlu’s “Reggae Turca Tone”), rap (Ceza’s “Rapstar”) and ska (Brooklyn Funk Essentials’ “Ska Ka Bop”). The combinations work in varying degrees—the rap cut is pretty good, the reggae one acceptable, the ska one horrendous. Anyway, I don’t need to go to Turkey for bad ska ... I live too close to Boston. In fact, after a whole string of semi-interesting experiments, it’s the final cut that works the best on the second half of the album. Taner Demiralp’s “Gül Yüzlülerin Şevkine Gel” draws its lyrics from an eighteenth century poem by Tab’i Mustafa Efendi and an Ottoman dialect that no one speaks anymore. It’s a full orchestra effort, western instruments alongside Turkish flutes and stringed instruments and drums. It is as stirring and primal as traditional music can be, cutting right to the heart ... but my guess is that it wouldn’t play very well at a club.