Music from the Fringes with a Rebellious Soul

The Turkish band Baba Zula ushered in a new style in Turkish music: oriental dub. The band with its rebellious spirit goes way back in the contemporary Turkish music scene. Grit Friedrich reports

By Grit Friedrich

Levent Akman and Murat Ertel sat down in a café near the fish market in the Istanbul district of Besiktas to philosophize about their latest album. It celebrates the dazzling multicultural sound of Istanbul with music that takes its cues from tradition but remains open to the city's dynamism.

"Our roots are important to us – roots that supporters of globalization want to cut away. But differences are good because people and cultures are not all the same, and they don't have to be," Akman said.

Soundtrack of a city

The members of Baba Zula got their start over 15 years ago with a song for a Turkish film. The soundtrack to "Somersault in a Coffin" (Original title: "Tabutta Rövasata") became a cult hit, ushering in a new style in Turkish music: oriental dub.

Music about the dignity and beauty of Istanbul's illegal settlements: Baba Zula live at the International Beethoven Festival in Bonn, Germany

​​Back then, nearly everything was improvised. On stage and in the studio, the band didn't really know where their journey would take them, said Murat Ertel, who plays a Turkish stringed instrument called the Saz in the group.

The loose collective of the band's early days has grown into an official trio that gets plenty of support from guest musicians. For two tracks on their current release, French musician Titi Robin joined them on guitar and oud, which is a type of lute. Dr. Das, bassist for the group Asian Dub Foundation and the Berlin duo Alcalica, also joined Baba Zula in the studio.

The group's mastermind Ertel found a new singer to head up the tracks: Elena Hristova from Skopje in Macedonia, known at home with her band Baklava.

"Because the Turkish musical heritage is so wide-ranging, most of our singers concentrate on just one genre. Many are not really open to the West," he said. "Elena is different, and that's why we've been so happy to work with her."

At home in "Gecekondu"

The new Baba Zula album is called "Gecekondu," a term used in Turkey for illegal settlements built on the fringes of major cities like Istanbul or Ankara. These growing slums, built with the simplest materials, have become home to many newcomers trying their luck in urban centres.

One could argue, though, that there's more dignity and beauty in the gecekondus than in the ritzy financial districts now conquering the legendary inner city areas of Istanbul. One example is a historic district situated in the shadows of the Byzantine city wall, known as Sulukule, which has been almost completely torn down.

The band opposes the gentrification of Istanbul, as Ertel explained. "The new album narrates urban life. It is rather personal music, bound up with this city," he said. "There are images of an asphalt jungle and a house that is being built in a city, and we always support the ones who don't have power."

After a pause to think, Ertel added, "I do prefer folk music to classical Turkish music because folk was always the music of the rebellion against the sultan and against the palace. Turkish classical music was always just about love."

"Gecekondu" meanders through eras and cultures – a bit like a stroll through Istanbul. Baba Zula strike a good balance between club music and ancient sounds with Murat Ertel, for instance, playing his saz with electronic amplification and a rebellious soul. The music that emerges is percussive and electronic, with a clear sense of pleasure in the psychedelic.

Grit Friedrich

© Deutsche Welle 2012 editor: Lewis Gropp