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Arto Tuncboyacıyan: Mr. Avant-Garde Folk

By Published: July 4, 2011
Undoubtedly, Tunçboyacıyan's openness stems from the multicultural nature of Turkey and its unique geographic location, with one foot in Europe and another in Asia. For centuries, the country has existed as a cultural crossroads and a trade hub, not only between Europe and Asia but with Africa as well. Tunçboyacıyan grew up in this melting pot, and internalized the disparate influences, even if he was unable to distinguish them clearly at the time or understand why they sounded so familiar to him: "It was peculiar for me why am I feeling this way and why are all these things coming out," he says. The percussive miniature "Speak with Your Eye" on Human Element is a clear example of these influences, with its vibrant rhythms echoing more than one continent, though particularly Africa. "We had here in Anatolia, 2000 years ago, those types of drum ceremonies," Tunçboyacıyan explains, with the benefit of several decades of hindsight. "There are a lot of drum ceremonies in Anatolia. I believe everybody has this millions-of-years-old information in their body and soul. That comes out."

Tunçboyacıyan has found these common ancestral traits wherever he has traveled: "When I went to South America and played with native people," he says, "when they played that beat, I felt it was like it was what I was playing all my life. I found the same thing in Africa, and the funny thing is I find the same thing in Irish music. Later I learned that they [Irish] came from the Balkans, passing through Asia Minor, and they brought the first boiled grain, which is warm beer, to Ireland from Anatolia." The Irish would maybe become a little defensive if they thought that claim to the origins of their famous stout lay elsewhere, but certainly linguistic scientists can attest to the links between the modern Gaelic language and language spoken in the Balkans and Asia Minor, many drunken nights ago. "When people move, they bring their food, dress, language and music," states Tunçboyacıyan with beautifully simple logic.

In spite of not owning his own cassette recorder, Tunçboyacıyan was already a seasoned recording artist in Turkey and throughout Europe, when he decided to move to the USA in 1981, to explore new musical avenues, with his dress, language and music in tow. In New York, where he still resides, Tunçboyacıyan came face to face with jazz musicians, though once again, the language was not unfamiliar to him at the most basic level: "When I was growing up, people were playing Coltrane, but I didn't know anything about the jazz form," he says. "But I understood they were expressing their own lives through their music, playing what they'd survived."

When he first arrived in this new country, where everybody had a cassette recorder and a record player to boot, Tunçboyacıyan had little choice but to express himself with sound: "The problem was the English language, not playing music," he remembers. It wasn't long before he began working with some big names, though for someone who was playing with trumpeter Chet Baker
Chet Baker
Chet Baker
1929 - 1988
without knowing who he was, this is not how Tunçboyacıyan saw it at the time: "When I was playing with Chet Baker, I was playing with people in Turkey at that level. Right away you recognize people are at that level even if you don't know their name. I had many experiences where I didn't know their name, but from the first note you can recognize their quality and how unique they are."

The 11 years Tunçboyacıyan spent as a studio musician provided him with much of the new experience that had lured him to the States in the first place: "The people around me had ingested Coltrane and Miles Davis in their own world," he says, "and you absorb that. You recognize revolution and individual creativity—different colors, different flavors— but the process is the same."

Tunçboyacıyan's own colors and flavors graced recordings by a host of jazz musicians in those early years, but the memory of one collaboration excites him all these years later: "Oh, Arthur Blythe
Arthur Blythe
Arthur Blythe
sax, alto
!" he exclaims with obvious relish, recalling his first encounter with the great alto saxophonist: "That's another experience. I met Arthur Blythe in a kitchen in Brooklyn; I didn't speak English. I see this guy. We were two percussionists and a saxophonist. It was early morning. We smoked together, then he took out his brand new instrument—in my experience, it was brand new where I come from. When he started playing, my jaw dropped because I'd never heard that tone before.

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