Baba Zula: from the belly of the beats

by Giovanni Fazio

Underground music maniacs, the real hardcore otaku (obsessed fans), have long raved about the Turkish psychedelic music of the 1960s and ’70s — crazy reverb-drenched, twangy-guitar tracks that sounded like The Ventures if they’d been a belly-dancer backing band with a taste for hashish and quarter-tone tunings.

This stuff never traveled much, though, and only recently has this music started reappearing on cleverly packaged compilations wrapped in an aura of retro-chic, on albums like “Love, Peace, and Poetry: Turkish Psychedelic Music” and “Hava Narghile,” which is the “Nuggets” of Anatolian psyche-pop.

A first glance at Istanbul-based band Baba Zula — with their garish, baroque visual style and classic, shaggy boho looks — might leave you thinking that one of these ’70s hippie bands has aged particularly well. When you listen, though, you’ll hear a stylistic pastiche that is thoroughly postmodern — mixing traces of dub and improv-rock with traditional Turkish instrumentation.

This sort of blend is appreciated more overseas than at home — though that’s starting to change. Next month will see Baba Zula’s live debut in Japan, and the band spoke with The Japan Times to discuss their evolution and influences.

Baba Zula formed in 1996 as an improv group doing music for avant-garde theater. But it quickly became a band in its own right, based around members Murat Ertel (electric saz and guitar), Levent Akman (percussion, drum machines, toy instruments) and Emre Onel (darbukka, sampler, keyboard, vocals). The band’s lineup has expanded and contracted over the years but is again a trio. Says Ertel: “We came back to the beginning. I think it’s the ultimate Baba Zula sound because simplicity and roots are important for us. Turkish traditional folk music also emphasizes simplicity and fewer instruments, but the music becomes more powerful because of it.”

Baba Zula have released three albums on Doublemoon: “3 Oyundam 17 Muzik,” a collection of their music for theater; “Ruhani Oyun Havalari,” which saw them move more heavily into “Oriental Dub” mode with Mad Professor behind the mixing desk; and their latest “Duble Oryantal,” which also saw Jamaican greats Sly & Robbie supply a few rhythm tracks. Ertel describes how the group hooked up with Mad Professor, the premiere U.K. dub mixer, who has worked with Massive Attack and Jamiroquai, among others: “We met him in Istanbul at a show, and he agreed to make mixes for three of our songs, but it went so well that he did the whole album. Mad Professor is crazy about electronics and effects . . . He brings a sense of clarity to our music. Also, he’s a rootsman and he comes from the (African) Yoruba tribe, so we learned from each other the spirit behind our thinking.”

A typical Mad Professor production for Baba Zula is something like “Kisaltmalar (Dub Mix)” on their second album. Guest musicians Husnu Senlendirici on Gypsy clarinet and Brenna MacCrimmon on vocals provide snakey, supple melodic lines that the Mad Prof. stretches and fractalizes with delays and dropouts; a decidedly Oriental bassline grooves along in that irresistible 9/8 Turkish rhythm, heavy with the anchor-weight of dub, and rolling darbukka percussion gets subtly shaded by veils of echo and filtering.

When Ertel is asked what “dub” — a nebulous word at best when once removed from the shores of Jamaica — meant to him in a Turkish context, he replied cryptically, “Dub means the power of simplicity and emptiness and beauty of echoes of time . . .” When pressed to elaborate, he’d say only “I think that says everything about dub.” Period. Hard to argue, really.

The band is capable of strange and delicate beauty, on tracks like “Cecom,” which mixes insects and garbled bits of found sound with a slow, trilling melody on saz, and a haunting, doubled vocal by MacCrimmon. They’re equally capable of kicking out the jams, though, and Ertel says “it’s important to have a groove: music that if you hear it, it will be moving you. We want to dance at our own concerts too! And of course, we have to make our bellydancers dance . . .”

Baba Zula are known, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as purveyors of “Psychebelly Dance Music,” and the collaborations of free-minded dancers have become an integral part of their live act. Many dancers in Tokyo adore the band for its eccentric approach.

Nourah, a student of Tokyo legend Mishaal, and an accomplished dancer in her own right, toured Denmark and Turkey with the band last year and will dance with them in Tokyo. She tells how “dancing with Baba Zula is unlike with any other band; it’s really improvised. You’re never sure how the song is going to change or end. But they trust me and just want me to dance freely.”

Asked why Baba Zula incorporate bellydance into their shows, Ertel says, “I think it’s a very erotic and a very revolutionary ancient ritual from matriarchal times.” Asked about its popularity in Japan, he replies “I think women all around the world are becoming more powerful to express themselves. But Japanese bellydancing has a very high aesthetic side to it. We performed with Nourah the most and she is fantastic . . . if she only pretended to dance like a Turkish bellydancer it wouldn’t be influential for us.”

Baba Zula often talk about how important improvisation is to their sound, but their songs also seem quite structured. “When we play live, some part comes from the soul, and some from the mind,” explains Ertel. “Just like yin and yang, we have to keep a balance. It’s different always, and that’s why it’s exciting. We are jamming composers.”

The band’s most striking aspect may be its ability to bridge Turkish folk styles like taksim or gazel with imported styles like dub or electronica, but as Onel has said previously, “We are not concerned with an East-West synthesis whatsoever. As long as sounds are in harmony, it doesn’t matter if they come from a cooking pot or a drum.” Ertel notes that “the great division in music is between the West and the rest, not just the East.”

In the end, Baba Zula are a very hard band to pin down, full of contradictions that they somehow resolve musically. One thing that you can be sure of is that their show will be quite an experience; “Our concerts are rituals,” says Ertel. “We are trying to reach a point of catharsis, trying to feel an energy which comes from the ancient times.”