Sounds like Turkish delight

This week’s Sound Ports Festival features a host of top stars from Israel and Turkey, such as the Istanbul-based band Baba ZuLa.

‘WHEN WE play live we never play the music like it is on our CDs... it is always fresh and always great fun,’ says Baba ZuLa multi-instrumentalist Levent Akman (second from right), seen here with the rest of the band. (photo credit: CAN EROK)
‘WHEN WE play live we never play the music like it is on our CDs... it is always fresh and always great fun,’ says Baba ZuLa multi-instrumentalist Levent Akman (second from right), seen here with the rest of the band.
(photo credit: CAN EROK)
The Sound Ports Festival is back. Not that it ever went away. This is not about the revival of a waning cultural event, this about a binational musical venture which more than proved its worth at last year’s inaugural edition, and will take place, at various venues around Tel Aviv, for the second time from April 25 to April 29.
The seaside towns in question are Tel Aviv and Istanbul, and the festival is about the sounds, rhythms and grooves that emanate from Israel and Turkey which, in case you’ve managed to steer clear of the news for the last decade or so, have not officially been the best of pals for a while. But that’s just politics, right? Not the real world. Last year’s bash proved unequivocally that musicians from both countries have absolutely no qualms about mixing it up on stage, and that feel-good factor will come across next week too.
The opening shot – and I use that term in a purely non-militaristic sense – of the four-dayer will take place at the recently reopened Turkish Cultural Center in Jaffa. The artistic program takes in the likes of internationally renowned Israeli composer, producer, poet and performer Shai Ben-Tzur, who will join forces with a Turkish gypsy ensemble, and there will be a musical free-for-all between musicians from both countries which, if last year’s proceedings are anything to go by, might very well develop into a madcap street party. And with DJ Baris K from Istanbul also on the Sound Ports bill, the festival promises to keep the vibes moving along at a fairly rapid pace.
The second day of the festival promises to pack plenty musical fireworks, and downright positive energy, when Baba ZuLa takes the stage at Abraham Hostel (doors open 8 p.m.). The Istanbul-based band’s music has been described as “psychedelic Istanbul rock ’n roll that rolls in a way that westerners haven’t heard so frequently since the late ’60s rock epoch.”
That gives some idea of the group’s general direction, although there’s a lot more to the end product. Levent Akman embodies the multifarious Baba ZuLa mindset. “I am not a percussionist,” says the 50-year-old band member. “I have some drum machines, effect processes, I write rhythms and I sound my rhythms for the group. We have no drums in our band, you know, the classic Western, American-style drum.”
Akman is just as enamored with traditional ways of timekeeping as with employing high-tech enhanced instruments.
“I play acoustic cymbals. I combine electric rhythms with acoustic Turkish cymbals. The sampler machines are very poor with cymbals. I tried them together but I was not satisfied, so I tried my cymbals in an acoustic way. I also play wooden spoons. That’s a very traditional rhythm instrument.”
Akman notes that the Baba ZuLa players have always sought to ply their own path through the musical material they encounter.
“Since the beginning we never played others’ songs. Unfortunately nowadays, especially on the Turkey music scene, a lot of young groups are trying to play covers. We never liked this approach. We never played others’ songs, since we began in 1996.”
Today, Akman draws primarily from his native cultural roots, but as a kid he and his contemporaries were exposed to sounds of a very different ilk.
“Unfortunately, we had Western cultural bombardment,” he laughs. “When I was young I knew [top British rock acts] Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the rest of the rock scene. I liked this rock and roll music. I listened to it a lot.”
All that changed when the family relocated to a more culturally untouched part of the country.
“My father was an army officer, and we moved around and suddenly I found myself in the southeastern part of Turkey, the Kurdish area, and I totally got culture shock. Everything changed. The music scene changed, the language changed. Because of it I changed my mind in this region. I realized that the world is not only the Western world.”
That musical epiphany took place when Akman was 13 and he has never looked back.
Even so, the youngsters had no thoughts of making a career out of his newfound sonic love.
“It happened coincidentally,” Akman recalls. “I met [fellow Baba ZuLa founder] Murat Ertel – he plays [long-necked lute] saz – at high school. We [the Akman family] came to Istanbul in 1982 and I started high school. Murat was playing music in the school music room, with his band. Murat inspired me so we made another band, called Blue Jean. We only played one song,” Akman says with a laugh.
Ertel subsequently struck out in a very different direction, setting up an improvisational group he called Zen. By that time Akman had become pretty proficient on bass guitar and percussion, and he eventually joined their ranks. Even so, he went through a tough learning curve.
“Nobody knew what we were playing until we got to the stage.
It was hard work, but it was like a school. Thanks to Murat I am a musician.”
Baba ZuLa came to being in 1996, when Dervis Zaim approached Ertel and asked him to provide a soundtrack for his debut big-screen offering, which went by the intriguing title of Somersault in the Coffin.
This was an underground cinematic venture and Ertel and Akman thought it would be a fun one-off project.
It transpired that it was very much a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Akman says it was not only a life changer for Ertel and him, it was a turning point for the country in general.
“In Turkish history we have a lot of military coups. In 1980 we had a coup and the military guys cut all the cultural roots of Turkey. Because of that the cultural scene in Turkey was very poor, especially in cinema and the music scene.”
Surprisingly, Somersault in the Coffin provided the catalyst for a positive turnaround.
“This film gave hope to a lot of young directors. It’s a kind of guerrilla-type of move, because they had no budget, but they had belief. After the film came out a lot of movie lovers came to see it, and it is a cult film in Turkey.”
It also changed Ertel and Akman’s fortunes.
“We thought it would all fade away after the film but we got a lot of invitations for concerts. We only had three musicians and we said let’s find some new musicians.”
Help came from other pastures.
“We found an American bass player who was in Turkey then. We had our first gig and it was a great success.”
The band’s debut release, named after the aforementioned cult movie, soon came out and the Baba ZuLa discography now stretches to nine albums. The band has toured the world, and keeps on pumping out the vibes with largerthan- life Ertel frequently taking center stage, joined in often frenetic kind by Akman, percussionist Ozgur Cakirlar, electric oud player and vocalist Periklis Tsoukalas and vocalist Melike Sahin.
Unlike, Zen, Baba ZuLa is not a totally free-flowing outfit, although there is no rote performing.
“When we play live we never play the music like it is on our CDs,” says Akman. “It is always fresh and always great fun.”
For more information and tickets about Sound Ports: