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The Southbank Centre’s World London festival fortuitously hit the right note. Its series of concerts, which set out, as artistic director Jude Kelly put it, “to celebrate the cultural wealth of our wonderful capital and its many communities”, included several by Turkish musicians and a string of free events to embrace the 200,000 expatriate Turks who live in the capital. That it coincided with the country’s controversial general election – called unexpectedly early, and billed by some as a referendum of the secular versus the religious – only added to the relevance of Turkey’s place in the world, as well as London.
This diverse triple bill, like Turkey itself, displayed both the progressive thinking and deep traditional roots at work in the country today – and sometimes showed that diversity even in the same song.
Tunisian-born Jean-Pierre “Smadj” Smadja is an Istanbul resident who met the Turkish musicians who make up his SOS band some 22 years ago. Leading the trio with his dextrous fingerwork on the oud (Arabic lute) he added in a potpourri of percussive samples and sounds from a computer terminal directly in front of him. These effects created a glorious fabric of sound – Turkish percussive patterns colliding with electronic phrases – within which the two other musicians wove their music on more traditional instruments.
Savas Zurnaci’s Turkish clarinet scaled the heights of his instrument’s range and acted as his extended vocal chords – a voice in a musical conversation. Orhan Osman on the bouzouki answered his provocations with antiphonal responses and fast fingers on his fretboard, while Smadj looked on, centre-stage, presiding over the rich mix and atmospheric music. The only distraction was the rather ill-judged addition of a belly dancer for a few songs. At first shimmying behind a veil, and then revealing a little more, her tasselled presence pulled focus from, rather than enhancing, the music.
There was no such trickery in Sabahat Akkiraz’s set. And with no electronic gadgets either, her music went back to basics. Her folk style, known as Türkü, draws on the Anatolian Alevi tradition. The Shia Alevis were discriminated against under the Sunni Ottoman empire and saw Attaturk and his secularism as their salvation – although they still experience some prejudice today. More recently, Alevi poetry and music has seen a new flourishing as an assertion – even a re-invention – of the Alevi community in Turkey.
Her nine-song set was truly compelling. Dressed in white linen, her delicate face framed by long black hair, Akkiraz’s charismatic and gentle hand gestures and her sweet and yearning voice cast a spell on the crowd. Backed by three musicians who were as proficient as she was on the mey and zurna wind instruments, bouzouki and percussion, she sang with effortless freedom and her voice floated above the band’s sound to express, in song, feelings of love, loss and mountain landscapes. It inspired the audience to join in spontaneously with syncopated hand-clapping and chorus responses.
Orient Expressions, the six-strong band that followed her, and with which she sang for the last four songs, promised to be the most interesting but was disappointing. In spite of two laptop operators at the back nodding to the driving beats, the music seemed to be clashing with itself, particularly when Akkiraz and some of her musicians – who looked awkward with it all – tried to join in. It was heavy on bass and light on subtlety, yet still managed to have some stand-out moments, notably led by the young, fresh voice of Adile Seyman.
If not Turkish delight, it was without doubt an evening of rich and varied music from a country on the cusp of change.
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