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Out of the Roma Villages of Turkey, Clarinet Reigns Beyond Its Traditions

Photo credit: eurasia.net

Arthur R George By

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You cannot be modern by forgetting what is from you and adapting the other to yourself. Identities should not be deleted in this way. —Barbaros Erköse
The clarinet, foundational for jazz from Sidney Bechet unto Eric Dolphy, remains in strong use in the indigenous Roma music of the eastern Mediterranean. Elsewhere in the world clarinet generally has been moved aside by saxophone's bigger sound. But in the Balkans, Greece, and Turkey, clarinet provides jazz shadings to traditional music, speaks a range of human emotions, and engages in electronically-enhanced experimentation.

Clarinetist Barbaros Erköse is Turkish, and Roma: "gypsy," the oft-utilized but less preferred word. He received a lifetime achievement award at this year's Istanbul Jazz Festival, at age 86. Through his instrument, he represents musical and geopolitical history going back more than a century, and doors opened for Roma musicians. A tree of other players branch out from the range of his experience.

Among them are Ramazan Sesler, also the scion of generations of Roma musicians. He follows the path of his late father, clarinetist Selim Sesler who died young at age 57 in 2014. Selim Sesler was, and remains, as prominent for Romani clarinet as any legacy musician in the United States.

At the Istanbul festival, Ramazan Sesler's clarinet brought solidly eastward guitarist Bilal Karaman's "Manouche a la Turka," a pursuit of the "French gypsy" stylings of Django Reinhardt. Hüsnü Şenlendirici, another Turkish Roma clarinetist, after much adventuring, recently joined with global crossover percussionist Zakir Hussain in a trio with jazz aspects similar as Erköse had played in almost thirty years before.

Populations and Parties

These Romani men were all born in Turkey. Their families were forced to return there from Greece where they had lived for generations, in a population exchange of millions of persons in 1923 in settlement of the Greco-Turkish War following World War I. The men all learned to play music as children, as do many Romani, first learning at home, in families in which everyone plays. That progresses from just fun, to entertainment, and then to parties, and, always, weddings.

Roma culture is uniformly stated as celebratory and music-loving, amid many hardships and social and economic difficulties. There's a wedding band circuit, and even a wedding band genre. Over generations, the Erköse and Sesler families played every kind of stage, concert halls, taverns, and other festivities. Ramazan Sesler practiced with and accompanied his father, acquiring the style, technique, and repertoire of the lineage. Ramazan recalls weddings as the first test for any young player: "You prove yourself there first. Friends heard and liked us, and they said 'Come play at our wedding.' I'm still playing." The music swings from high to low, mostly excited and joyous, occasionally meditative and melancholy. It welcomes new beginnings, and remembers what time sweeps aside.

There's a word, alayli, for those schooled in the tradition through family, as distinguished from okullu, academics. Erköse had the family tradition, the parties and weddings, plus conservatory training, and playing for musical theater and accompaniment of acrobats, dancers, and singers.

Radio Excellence

The culture of constant music yields among the best Roma musicians exceptional qualities of ear, technique, repertoire, and improvisation. Such skills gained Erköse entry as a studio musician for TRT, Turkish Radio and Television. Programming requires versatility for anything on demand, from folk, to jazz and pop, to light classical. Playing behind or alongside others, he became a consistent presence. His performance level was unquestioned, gaining great respect for the Romani and recognition for their music and abilities.

Erköse also worked in traditional styles, as with the Erköse Ensemble, a family band with his brothers and cousins on the album Tzigane, The Gypsy Music of Turkey in 1992. He continues playing now in another family ensemble, with his son Turcay Erköse on cello, nephew Sarban Erköse on darbuka, a goblet-shaped hand drum, and grandson and namesake Barbaros Erköse "Jr." on kanun, an oriental zither.

Erköse's radio work opened the door for musical partnerships that branched to connections among others. He joined Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem on ECM releases Conte de L'Incroyable Amour ("Tale of Incredible Love") in 1991, and Astrakan Café, recorded in an Austrian monastery in 1999.

There are between 10 million and 12 million Roma living in the European Union and related countries. In Spain, Roma music became flamenco. On "Parfum de Gitane" on Astrakan Café, Brahem sought to link Iberian (Spanish) and Maghrebi (northwest Africa) cultures, grounded in a classic Ottoman (Turkish) tradition, a different synthesis from flamenco. Erköse brought in traditional Eastern and a pure tone with flights of free jazz. His opening notes on clarinet are so strong and clean they sound deceptively like a trumpet. Brahem most recently utilized Western jazz bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette for Blue Maqams on ECM, applying Turkish scalar maqam modes and microtones, a presentation patterned after the modal arrangements of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.

Combinations, Not Separations

Turkey is conventionally described as separating the "west" from the "east" in an Orientalist view of the world, or as crossroads, musically capturing influences of folk songs, Arabic rhythms, and popular music. Brahem looked at Turkey and Greece, and flamenco, and his native Tunisia, as producing a Mediterranean sound. Brahem imagined the oud, a lute-like instrument, as uniting Asia, Europe, and Africa fluidly around the Mediterranean basin, rather than strictly an east/west conjunction.

He sought to break from a traditional mainstream of recognizable musical patterns. Erköse did the same. American trombonist and former Sun Ra player Craig Harris featured Erköse and vocalist Carla Cook in Nation of Imagination in 1998, melding Turkish, Rom, blues, reggae, funk, hip hop, and stylings of the American songbook. On Lingo Lingo, Erköse's own album in 2000 on the Golden Horn ethnic label in California, an original song "Yalvaris" was inspired by a North African dance song he heard in a French disco.

Around that turning point of the millennia, Hüsnü Şenlendirici from the succeeding generation assembled an 11-piece improvisational and experimental band, Laço Tayfa, for a matchup/mashup of non-traditional influences with American combo Brooklyn Funk Essentials. "Brooklyn funk, Gypsy funk, acid-jazz, funk-jazz, reggae, and dub" created In the Buzzbag over a nine-day recording session in Istanbul. A tight exemplar of Brooklyn horns, drums, and vocal met high amplitude Turkish strings, drums, and clarinet.

The Roma aspect gave edgy accents; the rhythms of the album are still energizing, but the overall sound was overwhelmed by beats not so different from much else in the marketplace. The effort was popular live in concert and among critics; it got people dancing, earned a Grammy nomination, but was reported to have sold poorly because it sounded too Western, neither distinctly Romani nor sufficiently "world" for a U.S. audience.

Some Romani resist being confined to traditional forms as they push for contemporary inclusion. Others oppose their music being used simply as a spice tossed in to flavor the world music industry. For Şenlendirici, incorporating Roma music into world music indicated recognition of Roma values and cultural traditions and openness to new ideas and alternative sounds.

The flexibility and improvisational skills of Roma musicians qualify them for fusion or synthesis work, and the improvisations lend themselves to jazz—like aspirations. Merging indigenous music with other styles without dilution requires maintenance of perceived authenticity, although the music has always absorbed other influences. Erköse has said "you cannot be modern by forgetting what is from you and adapting the other to yourself. Identities should not be deleted in this way." Brahem has said that combining tradition, roots, and modernity can be banal if too conservative, a bad fit if too extreme. Authenticity is said to come from representing the locality of a place with accuracy and originality. "World music" is not merely from distant places. It becomes universal as the feelings it arouses can be understood by those who are completely foreign.

Şenlendirici intentionally sought international markets. With Laço Tayfa he aimed for "cosmopolitan" audiences, with ambitious arrangements that some thought overdone. On his album Hicaz Dolap he rendered the title song with electronics. Erköse did an all-acoustic version on his own Lingo Lingo. They were two different treatments, each recorded in the same time period, by players of different eras, with differing sensibilities and approaches.

Simplifications

Şenlendirici retreated to more simplicity with his solo recording The Joy of Clarinet in 2005, focusing on the instrument itself, pitched closely to the sound of the human voice, as a medium for musical expression of the hopes and yearnings of centuries. That album combined ancient Roma soul and modern chillout.

When Şenlendirici joined Zakir Hussain and Tunisian oud player and vocalist Dhafer Youssef in another trio, recorded as Sounds of Mirrors, it recalled the earlier configuration and nationalities of Turkish Erköse and Tunisian Brahem in Astrakan Café. This newer effort, however, looked beyond Brahem's Mediterranean emphasis, back to India, believed to be the ancestral home of the Romani, replacing the Turkish darbuka hand drum with Hussain's Indian tabla.

In other projects, Şenlendirici has returned to village music, leading a local clarinet and drum parade in his video "Millionerche," and still elsewhere with small string ensembles, placing clarinet strongly front and center. The music retains a native authenticity while drawing on his strivings of the past decades. Through that path, it becomes more inviting as "world music" but still grounded as Romani.

Seeking Roots

Selim Sesler gained world recognition after being "discovered" in 1998 by Canadian singer and musicologist Brenna MacCrimmon in a Turkish restaurant music hall. He was substituting for an absent musician and MacCrimmon, who had been seeking him amid Roma music in western Turkey, just happened to be there. She recorded him and brought him to tour Canada, before he had become recognized in Turkey and subsequently the world.

A second album, Road to Keşan, was developed in association with Sonia Tamar Seeman now at the University of Texas, Austin, and included an ethnographic booklet on the lives of Romani people and the role of music in their lives. The albums were released on the ethnic Kalan label, then later on Traditional Crossroads. Subsequent Sesler albums, on Doublemoon with that company's heightened aspirations for worldwide marketing, expanded more broadly across a wider region of Turkish music.

Ramazan Sesler's album Babadan Oğula ("From Father to Son") on Sony Music was a tribute to his father, presenting some of his own compositions and treatments of his father's work; a brother, Bulent Sesler, plays kanun, the zither, and two other relatives join in. The cover shows Ramazan as a boy standing in front of Selim, just barely tall past his father's elbow.

The musicality of Romani people integrates them into the Turkish music industry, including the nightclub, studio, and classical concert paths led by Erköse, but they remain marginalized in many other ways. That Erköse, a Rom, was honored at the jazz festival through İKSV, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (in Turkish: İstanbul Kültür Sanat Vakfı), a national cultural institution sponsored in large part by Turkish banks and corporations and to a fractional degree by government, provides a distinct contrast to news reports depicting Turkey largely as a place of ethnic strife.

Turkish ethnomusicologist Muammer Ketencoğlu, a musician himself, has written much on the effect of population displacements and the minority policies of governments upon performance styles. He theorizes that history and art tell two different stories. History, and news, describe wars, empires, and treaties. Music tells a more personal, emotional story different from concepts of nations and states, assimilation and cultural cleansings, which might otherwise seem to shape and direct life.

This year's Istanbul Jazz Festival, as in prior years, was to have imported leading musicians from outside Turkey: French accordionist Richard Galliano, Latin Grammy winners Monsieur Perine, and Americans: singer Gregory Porter, swing guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli, and, together, saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Brad Mehldau, bass Christian McBride, and drummer Brian Blade. Covid-19 cancelled those plans and forced drawing inward and virtual, to a showcase of an all-Turkish roster. The names were unfamiliar to an outsider, the music varied. One, 30-year-old female jazz and neoclassical pianist Büsra Kayikçi, presented in the Young Jazz series, obtained much attention with her quiet demeanor and intricate compositions; her piece "Birth" was recently announced as a score for choreography of the New York Theater Ballet. Among other performers, were reminders of the vitality of the clarinet.

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