Music from across the sea

The Sound Ports Festival features Israeli and Turkish music.

The Sound Ports Festival (photo credit: PR)
The Sound Ports Festival
(photo credit: PR)
Tel Aviv will rock, roll and groove to the intoxicating sounds of Israeli-Turkish music of the highest energy order on March 9 to 12. The initial Sound Ports Festival features a host of top stars from Israel and Turkey, such as the sultry-voiced painter turned singer Gaye Su Akyol.
Akyol is a pertinent case in point and reflects the culture of a country that geographically and culturally straddles East and West. She recently released her debut album, Develerle Yasiyorum (I Live with a Camel.) There is a solid rock music substratum to her output, but her voice and inflection clearly come straight out of her national roots. Her gig at the festival will take place at the Einav Center on March 9 (10 p.m.), with singersongwriter Noga Erez opening.
One of the intriguing slots in the lineup is seasoned Turkish percussionist Burhan Öcal, who is coming here with his Istanbul Oriental Ensemble. They will be joined on the Reading 3 stage by local stellar singer Shai Tzabari on March 11.
Fiftysomething Öcal began his musical quest as a tot and was surrounded by earnest artistic and cultural endeavor from the word go.
“I was born in Kırklareli, a city full of music culture, a city with a big Gypsy musician population,” he says. “My friends were musicians, everyone around me were musicians, and my parents were also into the art. My father ran the only open-air cinema of my village. So I was surrounded by music and cinema. Like my friends, I started playing music at a very early age. I played at weddings first,” he recounts.
It seems that the Öcals were made of sterner stuff and were determined to offer the local residents some topquality entertainment.
“They ran an open-air cinema, so I followed American and European movies since I was child,” says the percussionist. “It was not that easy in those days in Turkey, especially in small places.”
Öcal also did his best to listen to as wide a range of sounds and musical offerings as he could.
“I listened to kind of everything, from Turkish traditional to American jazz, from rock ‘n’ roll to wedding music,” he says.
That formative ethos is still very much a guiding light for Öcal.
“I was – and still am – curious about good music. I listened to Nat King Cole and The Beatles and [Turkish troubadour] Asık Veysel at the same time. I had the chance to listen to Western music in my father’s cinema. I played Gypsy roots and wedding music at weddings. And my mother tuned in to classical Turkish music on the radio in the evenings,” he says.
Öcal cites his parents as his principal source of inspiration.
“They taught me to appreciate art and music when they could hardly make a living themselves. I was always a dreamer, and they always gave me hope. Even though they no longer here with me, their way still enlightens me,” he says.
All these years down the line, Öcal says he does his best to keep his playing chops well oiled and constantly works at developing his instrumental technique.
“With practice, working, working and working,” he declares. “I have been playing percussion for 40 years, but if I miss my exercises for a little while, I feel my technique going down.”
Today, Öcal divides his time between his bases in Turkey and Switzerland and says the cultural back and forth helps him develop a multipronged approach and that he is also drawn to Western improvisational music.
“In addition to continuous exercises, my career in Europe has added a lot to me. Playing with [Portuguese classical pianist] Maria Joao Pires or legendary [Austrian-born jazz pianist and keyboardist] Joe Zawinul gave me great insight into what free music should be. It helped a lot with my improvisational skills,” he says.
In addition to his instrumental work, Öcal performs his own compositions and arrangements and generally weaves multi-layered sonic fabrics into his output.
“With my Istanbul Oriental Ensemble or the Trakya Allstars band, I arrange roots Turkish and traditional music with modern forms. When I play a classical pianopercussion duo or in a string quartet formation, we perform my compositions, with crossover contemporary experiments in a melodic way,” he says.
The man may be a veteran and a regular fixture on the global scene, but he says he never plays the same piece the same way twice.
“Of course we rehearse and we have certain rules during a concert, but in all my shows there is space for improvisation. I cannot do without that,” he says.
Öcal’s lengthy performance roster includes appearances at major jazz events, such as the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. He says the genre is central to his way of thinking, and he has mixed it with some of the biggest names in jazz and beyond.
“I feel that jazz is the ethnic music of our planet. I can’t forget my long collaborations with Joe Zawinul or with Sting at the Montreux Jazz Festival,” he says.
One of his biggest thrills was when he met legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
“I almost fainted when they introduced me to Miles Davis in Switzerland many years ago,” he admits.
The percussionist expects to feel comfortable on his upcoming visit here and feels that Turkey and Israel, and the Middle East as a whole, share an abundance of cultural ground.
“The cultures of the two countries are very similar. Not only these countries but also Greece and Lebanon or Cyprus, for example. We belong to a certain geography. You can have the same food or hear the same tunes in our geography [region], but you cannot find them, for example, in France or Japan,” he points out.
Öcal is an admirer of some of our leading ethnic music professionals, such as violinist-oud player Yair Dalal, kamanche player Mark Elyahu and his cohort in the Tel Aviv show.
“I admire Yair Dalal, and I’m also impressed with the vocals of Shai Tsabari. I’m excited to collaborate with him! I also follow Mark Eliyahu. He’s rising rapidly on the European music scene. It is very exciting,” he says.
The Sound Ports program also includes several free slots. Turkish DJ Cüneyt Sepetçi will do his spinning best at the Psychedelic Oriental Party at 12 Rothschild Boulevard on March 9 (10 p.m.), and there will be a jam session in the Jaffa Flea Market on March 11 at 4 p.m. And if you’re looking to lay your hands on some choice vinyl, the Casino San Remo eatery on Nechama Street in Jaffa will host The Record Fair, with records supplied by the Hamor LP outlet on Dizengoff Street and its Turkish counterpart Deform.
For tickets and more information: soundports