Womadelaide 2017. Interview with Periklis Tsoukalas. 23 Feb 2017
In the lead up to Womadelaide 2017 at Botanic Park I had the opportunity to speak with Periklis Tsoukalas of Baba Zula about the group and their musical styles and influences.
Founded in 1996 by Levent Akman and Murat Ertel, Baba Zula has since gone through many transitions with performers and musicians coming and going from the group. Periklis Tsoukalas was the latest to join, in 2010, and is a composer, electric oud player, and vocalist.
Baba Zula roughly translates to big hidden secret, according to Tsoukalas, a secret which might be life itself. The group have a lot of musical influences, and it is difficult to characterise their style, even for the band.
“I really don’t know if any description can really include what we are doing”, he says.
“It does include psychedelic moments, as well as rock, as well as reggae… because all these sounds are based on eastern Mediterranean rhythms. Also we are using microtonal scales, which differ from western scales in music, and deliver totally different results.”
Baba Zula have been described as “the unrivalled torchbearers of 21st Century psychedelic Turkish rock ’n’ roll” but even in their own bio they recognise their style as a unique blend which they call ‘Istanbul psychedelia.’ Another popular term used to describe their style is ‘Oriental Dub’, but their instrumentation and musicality suggests influences of past Sufi-Islamic tradition, the Turkish gypsies, pre-Islamic Shamanic music, right through Anatolia reaches all the way up to present-day Istanbul.
“This current form of the band is very powerful – very rock and roll psychedelia – really vibing” Tsoukalas says.
With so many influences, and at least 3 composers, it is challenging to imagine how the group comes together to write new songs.
“It is a natural procedure”, Tsoukalas begins. “We are just expressing the music we are living daily in Istanbul. Istanbul was always the metropolis of [the] eastern Mediterranean, therefore it is a big mosaic – colourful – including many people from around the world, so cultures are mixed… giving a unique character to the city. When it comes to arts, we are mirroring this reality and expressing it.”
Tsoukalas explains that the group are not aiming to write any one kind of special musical style.
“We grew up with many kinds of music – traditional, acoustic, electric, jazz, rock, blues, reggae – so we are just going with the flow – we have freedom inside us, and this is very important, so we are free, and… we don’t have limits. We try to be unlimited” he says.
Daily life in Istanbul can be very hard. The members of Baba Zula use their music to express freedom from those limitations. That freedom is the foundation of every Baba Zula song.
“Improvisation is a very big part. Every concert is different. The sounds you hear on the records are not the same in the performance. Sometimes we don’t have any idea, we are just plugging our instruments in, hitting the record button, and then [we] start jamming. We do it again and again, and without saying anything everybody understands what is best for him or her to play. Everybody feels good with his part, and at some point it becomes a song.”
They are renowned for not performing the same way twice. Just as improvisation is the foundation of much of their song writing, it is also the backbone of their live performance.
“A song on the record could be 3 or 4 minutes, but then on stage it could be up to 15 minutes, and almost non-recognisable!” Tsoukalas says.
“Improvisation is really connected to freedom, which is important for us”.
But their sound isn’t by accident. Every band member makes very deliberate choices about the sounds they are creating and it is integral to the finished product.
“Great care is taken to get the correct sound from the instruments to be correct for the intended expression” Tsoukalas concludes.
All of the band members hail from a musical or artistic family background. That background has been their foundation for such an eclectic musical style. Tsoukalas recalls his father playing Carlo Santana records when he was very young, but at the same time he listened to oud music, or Indian classical music, or Greek music.
“Music was always in our houses, and of course this affected… our life from the very beginning. We grew up with all this music, at the same time… traditional music of the eastern Mediterranean together with modern music from the west. It is just inside us” he concludes.
This won’t be the group’s first trip to Australia, and Tsoukalas admits they love it here and are very much looking forward to the tour.
The band will perform on 3 separate occasions over the 4 day long festival; Saturday at 1.00pm on the Moreton Bay Stage, that night at 8.00pm on the Zoo Stage, and finally on Monday at 5.15pm on the Foundation Stage.
Their performances promise to be something truly special, and no 2 are likely to be the same.
Womadelaide runs from the 10th to the 13th of March at Botanic Park, in Adelaide.
Who: Baba Zula
When: 10 to 13 Mar
Where: Botanic Park