Filippo Cicciù speaks to Turkish psychedelic explorers Baba Zula, who're playing in London at the end of January
Baba Zula are playing on a tiny boat lost in the Bosphorus. The water of the strait separating Istanbul’s Asian and European shores turns as red as the sun disappearing behind the minarets of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Their music is pure psychedelia, yet deeply rooted in Anatolian tradition. Eventually the buzz rising from the boat fades as night falls.
This is one of the most touching moments of Crossing The Bridge: The Sound Of Istanbul, a documentary about Istanbul’s music scene filmed in 2005 by Turkish-German director Fatih Akın. Also on the boat is Einstürzende Neubauten’s Alexander Hacke, who serves as the film's narrator, taking the audience on an unforgettable trip around the music pulsing through the narrow streets of Turkey’s megalopolis.
More than ten years have passed since the film was made, and almost everything has changed in Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no longer a prime minister out to impress Western liberal democracies with his mild political Islamism; he has become an authoritarian president viewed more and more by the West as a Sultan or dictator. But Istanbul is still one of the most fascinating places in the world, even as its savage construction industry shows no mercy towards its few surviving green zones. The likes of Sezen Aksu or Müzeyyen Senar were far from amateurs when Crossing The Bridge was made, but many of those that were are now among the scene’s most respected musicians. However, when Fatih Akın decided to meet them for his documentary, Baba Zula had already been playing music together for ten years. Following a short apprenticeship with the jazz-punk collective Zen, Murat Ertel and Levent Akman formed Baba Zula in 1996 to play “psycho-belly dance music”. But their encounter with dub truly marked the moment when their sound was formed: a mix of traditional Anatolian music, poetry, upbeat tunes, oriental traits and acid psychedelia blended with the aforementioned dub.
In order to refine their sound Baba Zula flew from Istanbul to London in the late 1990s to work with producer Mad Professor. “At that time our music was moving closer and closer to dub,” Murat tells me, “so we started looking for a producer who would be an expert of that sound. In the beginning, we were undecided between Scientist and Mad Professor but eventually, we decided to work with the latter because, unlike Scientist, Mad Professor had experience working with artists not strictly related to dub and reggae music, so we thought he was closer to what we did till that moment.”
Some two decades later Baba Zula have become one of the most important bands in Turkey. At their crowded gigs, girls with headscarves dance next to aged hippies, drunken punks and the kind of hipsters who curl their moustaches before going out. Baba Zula songs often take the shape of a long instrumental crescendo, and when there are lyrics, they are rather more like thoughts expressed in poetic form. The band’s libertine soul has always helped them negotiate the ever tense socio-political situation in Turkey. “Nothing ever changes in here,” sighs Levent, the 50 year old founding member responsible for their electronic and dub touches. The situation today is not so different from how it was back when they started out, he continues, with a strong dose of hüzün. More than a mere word for Turkish people, hüzün encompasses a fundamental concept: expressing the eternal and melancholic sadness underlying everything in life. “When we started off in the 90s some of our songs were banned on radio and television. Today there are just more journalists in jail but for us the situation has dramatically remained the same.”
At Baba Zula concerts it’s not unusual to hear people yelling political slogans. On their 2014 record 34 Oto Sanayi, there is a song inspired by the anti-government protests that erupted in Istanbul's Gezi park during summer 2013. Called “Direniş Destanı”, the Turkish title translates as “The Epic Of Resistance”. “We don’t play that song too often anymore,” remarks Murat, while tuning his electrified saz, ordinarily a traditional Anatolian instrument. “We always have to become more and more careful,” he continues, explaining why performing a song like “Direniş Destanı” might cause problems. “It is truly a dangerous time for Turkey, we are living in an age in which you can go to prison just because you have retweeted something.”
“Today in Turkey many musicians get summoned by the authorities for the meaning of their lyrics,” adds Levent. “Gevende, one of our favourite bands from Istanbul, recently released a new album and got called up by the police asking to learn more about their lyrics. The point is that Gevende is famous for using an invented language!”
For their part, Baba Zula blend the sound of Anatolia with influences from other parts of the world. “We took our traditional music to another level,” says Murat. “There are not so many bands who combine traditional with contemporary music but for us, it has always been absolutely natural and spontaneous. What I find strange is to listen to young Turkish bands playing music rooted in California or London and filled with lyrics in Turkish. This is just copy-paste. Our music is open to the geographies of all the world. It breaks the borders of languages, religions, races. In our songs, you can find the sound of Santana, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti or Grateful Dead. But in itself, it is always something geographically connected to Istanbul.”
Indeed, it’s impossible to talk about Baba Zula without thinking about Istanbul, a city where different cultures, ethnicities, languages, religion, and traditions have been living side by side for centuries. Baba Zula’s music can be considered as a metaphor for the city’s unique status as the beautiful crossroads where Europe and Asia simultaneously connect and separate. Its sense of magic occasionally scarred by terrible pain is evoked in the lyrics of “Gariplere Yer Yok”, one of Baba Zula’s most recent songs, the title of which translates as “No Place For The Strange”:
“First Greeks and Armenians
Soon after Jewish people
Today Kurds and Gipsies
Guess who’s coming next?”
“In my dreams I see a democratic Istanbul, the most democratic city in the world, but when will it happen?” asks Levent in a low voice, just after he has told me that he prefers to use handcrafted Istanbul Agop cymbals instead of the most popular Zildjan, a company founded by an Armenian from Istanbul at the time of the Ottoman Empire now based in the US. “I am scared for my future in this country, even in this city. Let’s see what happens, let’s wait, in the meantime we still play our music and this is relieving for me. If I didn’t play I guess I would have to go to a mental hospital because I wouldn’t be able to stand this country in this situation. Music is my island.”
Levent and Murat carved the soul of Baba Zula from their encounters with musicians and artists from all over the world. Their last album XX isn’t exactly an anthology but it contains re-arrangements of some of their most famous songs alongside new material. They developed the project in Istanbul before and after the failed coup of 15 July 2016. “Baba Zula never repeats itself,” says their Greek born member Periklis, who joined the group a few years ago, playing a traditional Persian oud like it’s an electric bass. “A self-growing organism never repeating itself and regenerating with new dreams and desires," he concludes.
Baba Zula play at Nell’s Jazz & Blues Club in London on 29 January.