Night Train to Izmir truly is a Turkish-Israeli musical celebration

Turkish-Israeli delights: Outdoor bilateral musical extravaganza brings down curtain on this year’s Israel Festival

 KALBEN: ‘I play with an amazing band, sometimes strings, piano and brass sections join us on stage.”  (photo credit: Hakan Bintepe)
KALBEN: ‘I play with an amazing band, sometimes strings, piano and brass sections join us on stage.”
(photo credit: Hakan Bintepe)

Families can be a source of friction, support, anguish and unconditional love. Seesaw dynamics may also apply to relationships between any parties with a basic common denominator, including members of cultures that are close geographically and in other ways.

There is a palpable sense of that bond between Israelis and Turks. Numerous Turkish musicians have made the trek over here to perform, over the years, and quite a few of our own talented artists have set out their creative stall in Istanbul and other major cities there.

That affinity will be on show at Independence Park in Jerusalem, on Thursday (8 p.m.) when a variegated array of acts, from both countries, take the stage for the denouement of this year’s Israel Festival.

The concert is called Night Train to Izmir – a Turkish-Israeli musical celebration. The first part of the title suggests we are in for an immersive Turkish experience, which tells part of the story. The latter half conveys the more inclusive idea of the shared cultural ground between the two countries.

That is the conceptual baseline followed by musical director Shlomi Alon, probably best known as sax player and rapper with the veteran hip hop-rap band Hadag Nahash. “I feel that Turkish music is embedded in Israeli music,” he says. “That works through Mizrahi music. A lot of Turkish songs took on Israeli arrangements like ‘Tipat Mazal’ [A Drop of Luck, written by Orhan Gencebay and reworked into a 1980s cassette music scene hit here], and ‘Ba’avar Hayu Zmanim’ (There Were Times) by [Mizrahi music megastar] Zohar Argov. There are other songs, performed by people like Shlomi Shabbat.”

 TURKISH-BORN Israeli ethnic rock superstar Berry Sakharof.  (credit: ELDAD SHUSHAN) TURKISH-BORN Israeli ethnic rock superstar Berry Sakharof. (credit: ELDAD SHUSHAN)

So the cultural interface has been in place for some time now, on all sorts of levels. Naturally, as with most areas of life in this part of the world, we eventually get to comestibles. “It is like with food, and cultures that are near each other often meld into each other, in a good way. Israeli music incorporates Arabic music, Greek music, Turkish, Spanish, Andalusian – anything from around the Mediterranean Sea. The music crossed the borders. It is because of all that, that Israeli music is so much richer.”

The proof of that bilateral pudding will be out there for our listening and visual pleasure later this week, when Turkish-born Israeli ethnic rock superstar Berry Sakharof does his seasoned thing, along with a quality Israeli cast that includes internationally acclaimed Iraqi-inflected rocker Dudu Tassa, high energy Middle Eastern, gypsy, reggae, electronica, you-name-it threesome Balkan Beat Box, multi-ethnic act Harel Shachal & the Ottomans, and the electronic indie band Red Axes. 

The Turkish side features British-Turkish rapper Janset, Murat Ertel firebrand frontman of Turkish psychedelic group BaBa ZuLa, and Kalben who tends more toward the more folkie singer-songwriter end of the musical genre spectrum. 

A musicologist I chatted with some years ago noted that Turkish music is so rich because of all the influences it took on over the centuries, particularly during the time of the Ottoman empire when Turks encountered all kinds of other cultures. Added to that, Turkey sits on the intersection of Asia and Europe. 

Alon observes that adds sonic layers to Turkish music that you don’t find in the Arabic area of the discipline. “I am not an expert in this particular field, but there are nine microtones between tones in Turkish music,” he notes. “In Arabic music, there are four and in Western music, there are two. Turkish music has a very rich language, and we have a lot to learn from Turkish culture.”

Turkish cultural delight

THE TURKISH side of Thursday’s lineup certainly backs up that idea. Ertel is a fearless improviser who infuses his live performances with boundless energy and an alluring sense of mayhem. Janset should bring an edgier cross-cultural feel to the proceedings, while Kalben offers softer, more lyrical, insight into the way Turkish culture ticks. 

Interestingly, the multidisciplinary artist (in addition to Kalben’s musical work, she engages in all kinds of visual and literary pursuits) did not get into the music scene at a very young age. She released her debut, self-titled, album in 2016 at the age of 30, and that was after taking a master’s degree in media design and cultural studies, and nurturing her literary skills in such areas as scriptwriting, editing, project managing, and translating. She did, however, start out on her musical path when she was small. 

Turkish music has a very rich language, and we have a lot to learn from Turkish culture.”

Anonymous musicologist

But there was a longish winding road to be navigated before Kalben could settle on her main line of work. She put out a bunch of children’s books, landed a small role in a TV series and, on the odd occasion, presented some of her musical ideas at gigs in Istanbul and Ankara.

She says that today she is grateful for her bifurcated backdrop, particularly in music, which was always going to be her principal avenue of artistic expression. 

“I started writing songs at the age of four and I played the keys for a bit when I was eight or nine. Then around 13 to 14 came my guitar. A second-hand, semi-broken classical guitar named Santana,” she smiles. 

It proved to be an epiphanous event. “That was when I started singing and realizing I had a best friend in music. I also play a bit of harmonica and melodica these days, thanks to all the people who have encouraged and inspired me.

“All of these different instruments have had positive impacts upon one another, since I have the chance to compose music, benefiting from the unique and distinct melodies and sounds they all subsume.”

With such a layered artistic upbringing, it came as no surprise to learn that her influence references comprise a veritable smorgasbord of sounds and cultural baggage. The 66-year-old Turkish singer-songwriter Nazan Oncel, 75-year-old American multidisciplinary artist Patti Smith, singer-songwriter Beth Gibbons (probably best known as vocalist with English rock band Portishead) English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey and later, Turkish rocker Fikret Kizilok, all came into Kalben’s sphere of influence. 

Add that lot to the Beatles. Swedish rock band the Cardigans, French electronic music duo Daft Punk and Led Zeppelin, and you have an eclectic set of styles, rhythms and textures to feed off.

Sounds from this part of the world also seasoned her artistic continuum. “I am always open to any kind of influence when it’s about music,” she says, adding that it is as much about the emotion songs can evoke in her, and the cerebral appreciation of where they are coming from. “I love being under the spell of tunes and melodies. I love being haunted by little and vague sounds that I try to formulate and plant into my music. 

“Recently, I’ve had a very interesting story, at least was to me. I fell in love with one of Dudu Tassa’s songs and started to hum it and sing it in a language that did not exist at first. Then, those sounds became my lyrics. 

“I could find the words through music, which was an amazing experience. I took the song with me for weeks while on a vacation, a hiking trip and doing some errands. I sang it and listened to it nonstop. This was such a thrill to be immersed in a song like that. Especially, being used to composing and writing alone, creating a safe space within a fellow musician’s world, is quite charming as a humane experience too.”

Kalben says she bemoans the fact that she didn’t get to play in a band during her earliest formative years, but appreciates being on her lonesome on stage. “I was given the chance of being a storyteller – an occupation of solitude with grace.” Today, she has the luxury of being able to decide between solo work and collaborative ventures. 

“I play with an amazing band, sometimes strings, piano and brass sections join us on stage,” she says. “We become a bigger family. It’s a great feeling.”

That vibe should be front and center in Independence Park on Thursday, betwixt a multicolored, multidirectional, stratified brew of artistry, and a veritable musical tour de force.

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