DJ Ipek's space-time continuum in sound
Was it chance or was it fate? When, several years ago, DJ Ipek first crossed paths with baglama player and folk singer Tanja Nachmatova, the electricity between the two was palpable. Over a beat created by Ipek at a performance in Berlin, the singer spontaneously improvised a fitting melody with her voice and instrument.
Ipek loved the result so much that she immediately invited Tanja Nachmatova to her home studio for a professional recording. The trance-like meditative track with the eastern-flavoured melody was released in 2016 by the well-known Berlin electronic music label "Katermukke" under the title "Uyan", or "wake up".
"The message was very appropriate for the time," says DJ Ipek in hindsight, speaking in her Berlin home studio over tea, cigarette in hand. The studio is in a residential building in the Neukolln neighbourhood right on the border with Kreuzberg and has been laid out with Anatolian kelim rugs.
Her piece "Uyan" is also embedded in Anatolian traditions: it is based on a poem by the Anatolian poet and dervish mystic Pir Sultan Abdal, active in the 16th century in the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, whose writing also took aim at social ills. One reason why to this day, he is regarded as a freedom fighter and revered as a saint by members of the Alevi minority in Turkey. "Today he'd be called a protest singer," says DJ Ipek.
Against the resignation
Her electronic version probably struck a nerve because it recalled a lengthy narrative of resistance marked by setbacks, she says: "At what have now become known as the Gezi protests in Turkey 10 years ago, so many people took to the streets. But it didn't have the desired effect, on the contrary: since then, everything has got worse in Turkey, more expensive, more repressive and more conservative. A great many people were arrested or lost their lives. The Arab Spring didn't bring the hoped-for awakening. That's why many were downhearted and came to the conclusion that it's better to do nothing at all, it's better not to protest."
Her song was aimed at countering this mood of resignation, she says: "The message was: You're not alone. And: We must continue to take to the streets together for change."
The video for the track, shot amongst the rubble of an old swimming pool in an open field on the outskirts of Berlin, also conveys this message: "At the start we're seen on our own. But later, we come together and dance around a campfire. That's an old Alevi custom too," she says.
Now, seven years on, DJ Ipek and Tanja Nachtmanova have produced and released an entire album. Their band project is called "Karmaturji" and also includes multi-instrumentalist Ceyhun Kaya. Karmaturji blends traditional Anatolian songs with electronic sounds to create a new, powerful synthesis.
The folk singer Petra Nachtmanova writes the songs and incorporates passages from old folk songs into her lyrics, she plays the Turkish long-necked lute or baglama and devised the album's multi-lingual concept. Ceyhun Kaya contributes synthesiser sounds and beats as well as instrumental parts on the clarinet, saxophone and Greek bouzouki. Ipek Ipekcioglu alias DJ Ipek gives everything its final sheen, making the whole thing even more atmospheric and danceable with trip-hop, techno, deephouse and other electronic styles.
Transcultural international understanding
Her many years of experience as a DJ are invaluable here. The producer first tried her hand at the mixing desk at the monthly "Gayhane" parties at the hip Berlin club SO36, which recently celebrated its 25th birthday. This party series was originally aimed at Turkish heritage lebian, gay and transgender people, but as time went on it attracted an increasingly large, also heterosexual and non-Turkish crowd. At the climax of these parties, everyone often formed a circle and danced wildly to Anatolian folk dance rhythms, a magical moment.
This party series not only established DJ Ipek's reputation as a shaman on the turntables but also as "master of ceremonies for transcultural, international understanding". That reputation quickly spread to Turkey, but initially, urban audiences there struggled to accept her eclectic mix. "People asked me: Why are you playing that? Isn't that peasant music? Because only Western rock and electronic music were cool at the time," says Ipek.
"Arab rhythms and Anatolian folklore pop, which made up some of my sets, were seen as unsophisticated. For the hipsters in Istanbul, it was like I was playing German evergreens: it was in very poor taste. Luckily that's changed since: audiences have become more tolerant."
Ipek is now in demand all over the world: she holds workshops in Spain and Mexico, performs in Istanbul and Amsterdam and frequently, at various locations in Berlin. At this year's Berlin "Kultursommer" festival, in the courtyard of the Humboldt Forum – the reconstructed city palace in Berlin's historic Mitte district – she shared the stage with Turkish pop star Ezhel and the German-Iranian stand-up comedian Enissa Amani.
DJ to the German President
Two years ago, at a celebration to mark the 60th anniversary of the German-Turkish Recruitment Agreement, she even DJ'd at Bellevue Palace, the official residence of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. She's published several compilations on the renowned Munich-based Trikont label; she regularly releases individual tracks on Spotify. "Karmaturji" is her first album featuring her own music and a bonafide band.
"Karmaturji" consists of the folk singer Petra Nachtmanova, the multi-instrumentalist Ceyhun Kaya and Ipek, which makes it a trio. Petra Nachtmanova has Polish-Czech heritage, grew up in Austria and now lives in Germany. She studied history and immersed herself in Turkish, eastern European and central Asian musical traditions. To do this, not only did she learn how to play the baglama or Turkish long-necked lute; she also learned the Turkish language.
"She's our encyclopaedia," says Ipek. Ceyhun Kaya is a professional musician, composer and sound designer who moved to Berlin from Turkey just under 10 years ago. In Turkey, he played in a number of bands including Cümbüs Cemaat and Bandista. He's involved in a variety of projects in Berlin, and together with Petra Nachtmanova he curates the monthly event Beynel Milel (Ottoman for "international") at the Villa Neukolln.
On their shared album, "Karmaturji" draws on traditional poetry by classical Anatolian poets like Yunus Emre, but also other folk tunes, clothing them in new, electronic garb. The dark, ominous "Ask Eri" (Soldier of Love) is based on a poem by writer and mystic Emre, who lived between the 13th and 14th centuries.
There's a well-known setting of the piece by the folk singer Ruhi Su, who died in 1985, one of the most influential interpreters of traditional music in Turkey. Ruhi Su is also a symbolic figure for the Turkish left wing.
The Karmaturji trio composed the piece "Zevk-u Sefa" back in 2019 for the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. As part of a concert series the museum, which resides in the famous Pergamon Museum in Berlin's Mitte neighbourhood, commissioned six crossover bands to each devise a musical interpretation of an artwork from the collection.
Translated into contemporary musical language
Karmaturji opted for objects itemised as "Four Ivory Panels" – decorative frames common in the eastern Mediterranean in the 11th century depicting a range of everyday scenes: people at the court or out hunting, enjoying music, fruit and drinks. The items inspired Petra Nachtmanova and Ceyhun Kaya to compose a gentle, somnambulistic track and overlay it with lyrics reminiscent of a fairytale; lines narrated by Ipek in German and sung by Petra in Turkish.
The Ottoman title "Zevk-u Sefa" means, translated into contemporary German, something akin to "sensual pleasures" or "hedonism". "I love these old Ottoman words," says Ipek, explaining the reason for the title choice.
"Evlerinin Onu Yonca" is based on an Iraqi-Turkmen song about the beauty of a lover. It tells of a house that's surrounded by clover and tulips, to shield it from prying eyes. "Kolysanka" is similarly fairy tale-like and dreamy; it's a Polish lullaby embedded in electronic sounds with a tempo that gradually builds, and is introduced with a kind of music box melody.
And on the track "Tangomatika", an elegiac pulsating electro tango, Petra quotes from a Russian maths book and lists the Arabic calendar months in Russian. "It's our aim to acquaint the world with these songs, which mean something to us, to give them an electronic interpretation and thereby make them accessible to people who don't listen to traditional Turkish music," says Ipek.
"We asked ourselves: What would a contemporary version of this song sound like? We wanted to retain the originality and the soul of the songs but translate them into contemporary musical language."
Karmaturji has done just that. The album forges a link between the Anatolia of the early Middle Ages and old Eastern European folklore and Berlin's vibrant nightlife: producing a space-time continuum in sound.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Karmaturji: "Karmaturji“ (Trikont)