Baba Zula rock the Beethovenfest | Music | DW | 10.10.2012
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Baba Zula rock the Beethovenfest

Turkey was the guest of honor in Beethoven's city of birth - and there was a lot more on offer than just classical music. Baba Zula hypnotized the audience with their avantgarde take on Turkish music.

The mood's running high as young and old, Germans and Turks and several other nationalities dance in a circle, their arms raised, while Murat Ertel wanders through the crowd with a string instrument known as the baglama hooked up to an amp.

Baba Zula are musicians who like to get into the thick of things, and they don't worry about breaking norms. Murat wears a sultan's robe at shows, percussionist Levent Akman looks like he jumped right out of the 70s with his wild hair and loud clothes, and Coas Kamci, who drums on a darbuka, looks contemporary in his cap and jeans.

The trio makes music oriented somewhere between that of electro clubs, the drug-addled psychedelic scene of the 60s and Shamanic rituals from the Orient. Since their music is hard to categorize, Baba Zula have come up with their own term: oriental dub.

"We're a little avantgarde as well as traditional," said Murat Ertel. "We create something new from tradition, and we do it by pushing boundaries and playing with possibilities."

Baba Zula feel a bit like trailblazers in the avantgarde music scene; they don't want to be classified as "undanceable" nor as "suitable for the masses." But they don't really have much to worry about there. Their music is catchy, hypnotic and gets listeners up on their feet and out on the dancefloor.

The sound of Istanbul

Baba Zula's success story began in 1996 when they recorded their first song for a Turkish movie. In 2005, prize-winning director Fatih Akin's film "Crossing the Bridge" - about the sound of Istanbul - put the international spotlight on the band. Since then, more and more guest musicians have recorded with them, including Alexander Hacke of Einstürzende Neubauten and the French performer Titi Robin.

Baba Zula dancing with the crowd at a show Copyright: Barbara Frommann

Baba Zula aren't much for staying put on stage

But one thing has remained the same throughout the years: When Baba Zula take the stage, then everyone in earshot grooves and rocks à la Orient - belly dancers included. That's the sound of Istanbul, says Murat Ertel, adding that there are very few places in the world that bring together so many musical styles as the place he calls home.

"You hear traditional music, Arabic music, electric saz, techno, rock 'n' roll, Latin, 50s style - you hear all of it just by looking around for a day," Ertel said.

But there's more to it than just a mish-mash of musical styles, Ertel confided, saying that even the noises of the animals in the street have something to do with it - seagulls, cats and dogs. It's cosmopolitan and very chaotic at the same time.

"That's unconventional for the rest of the world. In the West, American music is played everywhere, and in the East, they have their own music. In Istanbul, the two melt together. You feel that and it happens in a very natural way. That is Istanbul's strength," he said.

The 'in-between people'

Istanbul, the metropolis of 20 million on the Bosporus: Although the pulsating city that straddles Europe and Asia had to give up the title of Turkish capital to Ankara several decades ago, it's still remained the country's queen of cities. People from across Turkey come to Istanbul to seek their fortunes, bringing their culture, music and customs along with them. The avantgarde is alive and well in Istanbul, and nowhere else do so many trends and fashions develop. But nowhere else do the traditional and the contemporary collide in such a striking way.

Mural Ertel says people don't feel as though they really belong to either the West or the East. "Baba Zula is an Istanbul band that makes the music of this city. And we do so consciously," she noted. "We are neither-nor. Like the Turks who live in Germany and are viewed by Germans as Turks, but when they come to Turkey, they're seen as Germans. Those of us in Istanbul are in-between people. I call us 'the Bospurus people' - we move between Asia and Europe."

A press shot of the band Baba Zula (c) Alper Ertug

The band says they make music inspired by "in-between" people

Trance music with a message

Just making music and getting their audience up dancing isn't enough for Baba Zula. They have a message, and it usually involves helping the poor and combating the power of the state. That was true on their last album "Gecekondu," a term used in Turkey for illegal settlements built on the fringes of major cities like Istanbul or Ankara. The album tells the story of the houses, constructed without permits under the cover of darkness.

Entire districts in Istanbul have sprung up in this fashion and are home to millions of people, who are tolerated living on the outskirts of the city.

"We really appreciate this way of life," said Murat Ertel. "It's a very indigenous way of living right in the middle of the chaos of a city. But in Istanbul, many districts are being torn down by the government in order to build new skyscrapers. We don't like that; it's inhumane."

Voice of the people

The voice of the people serves as hope and inspiration for Baba Zula. After all, they draw their music from traditional sources. But the group says it's important to set themselves apart from classical Turkish music.

"That music is mostly just about love," Murat Ertel explained. "But in folk music, the common people often rebel against the sultan. That's why we love folk music."

The band performed at the 2012 Beethovenfest Bonn, proving once more how inspiring they feel that folk music and their home city to be. Likewise, the festival's motto this year of "Eigensinn," or strong-mindedness, suits the band from Istanbul. Much like the composer for whom the Beethovenfest is named, Baba Zula are going their own way.