Interview: Murat Ertel – Baba Zula (January 2017)

If there’s a genre-defying band par excellence, it has to be Baba Zula. Throughout its 20-year story, celebrated this year with XX (double-CD released by Glitterbeat that we recently reviewed), the Istanbul-based project has introduced its audience to an entirely new perspective of Turkish music. Today, its hypnotic blend of traditional, electronic and psychedelic sounds has also become one of the trademarks of the city on two Continents, inspiring a new music scene on the Bosporus and challenging the current Turkish status quo.

A few weeks ago, we reached Baba Zula founder member Murat Ertel by telephone in Istanbul and enjoyed a “panoramic” chat about his band, Turkish music and the troubled current situation in the country.

Arguably, there’s no better occasion than the release of a greatest hits album to retrace the journey of a band. So how have Baba Zula and their sound changed since 1996?

“Baba Zula’s main core has not changed. Since our first album we play a music that is concentrated on electric saz, darbuka and acoustic percussions. Then, we add machines and electronics to the mix. This is still the core of Baba Zula music. Of course many other things have changed, but not our approach. We still don’t have complex harmony: we don’t use chords or when we use them, there are only two or three. However, they’re not simple chords, but tricky and complex ones. We might only use two chords, but the sound they produce is a suspended force. So, we always have a bag full of tricks.”

Murat goes on: “Since the beginning, we have mainly performed as a trio, but we recently added two more musicians. One is an electric oud player and another is our female singer, who has always been there, but not as a permanent member. The addition of the oud gave us many new opportunities to be creative. Even if we had already an original sound that was not found elsewhere, now that’s even more original. It’s arguably the first time that an electric saz and electric oud play together: I’ve never heard of this before.”

What can you tell us about your music influences? Where does the Baba Zula sound come from?

“Our influences mainly come from traditional Turkish music, to which we added different styles from every part of the world. On the one hand it is a sound that is always evolving, while on the other hand, even if we have changed some members and instruments, our core is still there. For example, I love to listen to Bob Marley and Santana, but in some ways, if they would have changed their styles, I wouldn’t find them so interesting. So, what we want to maintain is our spirit: we are and have always been open to different genres and we have always welcomed new elements in our sound.”

What does it entail to bring together so many different influences and sounds? How do you manage to do that?

“Electronica has always helped us a lot: if you use traditional instruments and combine them with electronic arrangements, you can definitely play original sounds. In addition, if you start using unheard scales, and then combine them with harmonies or rhythms that are not frequently used; you can do many new things.”

Murat continues: “We are always trying to stay fresh: we want to get excited by our music. Many people do the contrary and I’m ashamed for them. I’m ashamed for musicians who plan to be commercially successful and sacrifice their music for that cause. This is not good. I have respect for people who want to improve and become better musicians. While, if you plan in advance to be successful and look for the easiest way to make money with music, you end up using music and sooner or later it becomes clear. Since there’s a big competition, because of dropping record sales, everybody now wants to give concerts and play live. Many musicians are looking around and to be successful they simply copy what’s already there. This is a recurring situation in the Turkish music scene. Take for example what happened with Mısırlı Ahmet, he’s a famous Turkish darbuka player, who plays Egyptian darbuka using a table style. So, during the latest 10/15 years, you can’t listen to the traditional Turkish darbuka style anymore, but only the one developed by Ahmet. In this way, we are losing our tradition.”

Baba Zula has always embodied the sound of its home town (Istanbul) and its eclecticism. What’s your perspective of the Istanbul music scene today?

“Lot of the main clubs are closing down. For example, Taksim Square area, which once was lively and full of alternative venues, is turning to other things for rich people and people coming from Arabic countries. European and American tourists are coming less and less, so many artists and musicians are leaving that neighbourhood. However, they’re moving to other places that are not on the tourist map. For example, they’re going Kadıköy or Beşiktaş and lots of new projects are emerging there. As a matter of fact, there are many new interesting bands forming there.

But, the sad thing is what is happening on a more countrywide scale. Lots of newspaper have closed and been attacked, journalists are in prison and many writers and musicians are waiting for arraignment. It’s a shame because it has become dangerous to be involved with culture. But we’re still moving on, music has become more important than ever! It’s a way of resistance and survival; it’s an environment where we can breathe. Otherwise, without music, life would be unbearable. This is what’s happening and sometimes we’re scared about the situation.”

On a more positive note, Baba Zula are finally spreading their name on a global scale. Their new album and forthcoming tour will spread the sound of the band all over the world. How is to relate to audiences who are not used to your music?

“We don’t have a strategy; we just play our instruments and make the music we love. Being born here in Istanbul, I’m used to listening to, and loving Turkish music and music coming from this geography. So the music we play is influenced by tradition, but we didn’t want to copy the masters or play the old songs again, because there’s no way we can do it better than them. Many people are playing old songs and create different versions using blues or rock, but I don’t think that the results are better than the originals. Honestly, I‘ve never listened to anyone playing better than the old masters. That’s why I think that young musicians need to do something new and that’s also why we have chosen to do something original. Even if you don’t like Baba Zula, you can’t say that we are not original. You can say whatever you want, but not that we’re not original.”

How do you feel being part of the so-called world music scene, do you relate to it?

“The world music scene is focussed on a Westernised and Capitalistic point of view. They want us (the Non-Westerners) to play music that is traditional and with acoustic instruments. They really don’t like world music bands to experiment with electronic and electric instruments. They’re very narrow minded and can only pay attention to what’s happening in their old colonies. For instance, Belgians like Congolese culture, British people like Indian or Pakistani music and Americans like Afro-American music. Since Turkish people don’t have a cultural link with Europe, the Western world is only today slowly catching up with our music. This is happening through the psychedelic movement of the 1960s. That was the music of our childhood and is very important for us. We didn’t decide to play psychedelic music, it was something natural, because it is the music that we really love. When I was a child, my family was listening to folk and traditional music, while I was really into those guys from the ‘60s. It was through that music that I could understand the music my parents were listening to.”

What about XX? How did you choose the musicians and DJs to work with for the remixes album and the songs to include in the main compilation?

“It happened naturally, because it was about people around us and people we really like to work with. We thought that it would have been great to collaborate with them. So yes, it wasn’t a strategy, but all happened naturally. Sometimes you have dreams, and it happens that those dreams come true. It was the same with this album, because there are many musicians we’ve worked with who are also our friends: they are really close to us and we love to work with them. Actually, it doesn’t matter if they’re famous or not, because it’s really about the way they work. This happened with Arastaman or our sound engineer who’s a tech freak and really good arranger. We never thought of them as musicians or engineers, but as people who were just really good to work with.”

“Then, for the other album we had to go through a hundred of songs and choose the unreleased ones. So, even if it is a compilation, it only includes original material, never published tracks. We collected those songs from many formats: mp3, analogue and digital recordings, CDs, reel to reel tapes, cassette tapes, hi-fi, lo-fi… Everything! We didn’t care too much about the audio quality, because that’s my way of thinking about it: if music is good, the quality of the recording is not so important. Anyway, I know that many people don’t agree with that and are used to listening to hi-quality recordings, but I also enjoy listening to old 78RPM records and I believe that if the music is good; it doesn’t matter to compare it with hi-fi digital recordings: I’m not interested in this.”

“In addition, we also wanted to record some songs again, produce new versions. This was the original idea for this album. We were going to record old songs again and play them better. But we only did two of them and decided that we couldn’t finish it. Because it would have taken too much time. But I’m still very pleased of those two re-recordings.”

Baba Zula is a band usually associated with electrifying and unpredictable live performances. So what happens when you spend so much time in a studio? How is to bring your live drive in a recording studio?

“Many people say that Baba Zula studio and live works sound very different. I take this as a compliment, because if somebody says that our live shows are not as good as the albums, it’d be very bad. Actually, it’d be the same if someone says that once on stage we sound just like the albums. I think that when you play live the outcome has to be exciting and more engaging for the listeners. While in the studio, it always needs to be about quality.”

You have recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the band and XX was a brilliant “birthday gift”. Can you tell us what is going to happen in the following 20 years or at least in 2017?

“Starting from this spring, we are going to tour around Europe and we have another two tours next to that one (one of them will be in Australia). Then, I have many side projects and we have already plans for three Baba Zula albums. The first one will be a soundtrack, which is almost ready. Then, there will be a live album and finally there’s going to be a brand-new Baba Zula work coming out next year (in 2018). We have already started working on that project because we’re always making music. We’re always composing for movies, theatre and documentaries, so we never stop creating new tunes. For this reason, our repertoire is getting bigger and bigger and we feel the need to share it with people. Then, people also usually ask us to include live tracks in our albums. We did it in XX, but we are also playing new tracks during our gigs. We want everything to be natural, not forcing anything.”

On the 27th of April Baba Zula will play in London at Under the Bridge. How would you prepare the UK audience to that gig?

“I’m really looking forward to it. The last time we came to London, I think it was two years ago, it was kind-of sold out show. We had a really good reaction and are really looking forward to coming back.”

Murat concludes: “To prepare the audience, I’d say that Baba Zula is a mix between traditional, folk and electronic sound. We’re a Turkish band based in Istanbul and we sound psychedelic. But then it’d be better if I stop, or I would talk for hours about our music.”

photo ©: Can Erok