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Burhan Ocal

Burhan Öçal:
Music alla Turca

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 12 May 2001 - The French and the Americans do not see eye to eye about, among other things, jazz. There is a revival of interest in Archie Shepp and Chet Baker in France. Shepp opened the Banlieues Blues Festival in Paris. His picture was on the cover of Jazz Magazine recently, while the March issue of Jazzman commemorated the 10th anniversary of Baker's death with a two-page article. Neither Shepp nor Baker are on the tips of many American tongues these days. Jazz made by Frenchmen, and Europeans in general, even less so.

For example, if you praise a Turkish jazz musician to the cats in New York, be prepared for puzzled if not hostile looks. Although, in one case anyway, that may be about to change. Burhan Öçal just finished a rare two-month U.S. tour with the Kronos Quartet in San Francisco and the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble in Irvine.

One night last summer, Öçal's performance of his suite Groove alla Turca topped the bill at the Istanbul Jazz Festival. It featured two thin and freaky scratching and sampling DJs from Marseille, while a large man who carries heavy loads on the docks of Izmir sang with operatic power in a robust traditional folk style. The audience was ecstatic. The same work, recorded with Öçal's co-leader, the former Ornette Coleman bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, has now been released in Europe by Doublemoon Records.

Groove alla Turca presents soulful, Oriental raps by the Egyptian pop singer Natasha Atlas. Jack Walrath, the last trumpeter to play with Charles Mingus, rides with gusto on top. The trombonist Art Baron in the middle. The bottom is well exploited by Tacuma. Öçal's odd-metered rock- and jazz-tinged Oriental percussion supports a bubbling funk groove, shuffling Turkish rhythms, scales and strings. The title is to be taken literally. Like anything truly new, it is refreshingly politically incorrect.

Some thoughtful people suggest that just possibly the next epoch of the music once known as jazz may be built on such fusions with other cultures. The New Orleans tradition would then become one element in a true world music. "Many varieties of ethnic music are in the process of making themselves known to jazz," Tacuma says.

Öçal plays classical and authentic traditional Ottoman music as well. He is a master of Turkish vocal techniques. Some Turkish forms resemble jazz - in taqsim, one musician develops a theme and then the others pick up the thread. Mainly, Öçal invests in a jazz-based category to a large degree of his own making. Really innovative people are hard to list. One "pure" jazz critic named it, oversimplified but not inaccurately, "Turkish square dance music." In Turkey, Öçal is a star, drawing enthusiastic, large crowds. Western listeners knowledgeable about ethnic music from around the world are fascinated by him.

Burhan Ocal
Burhan Öçal
Photo Courtesy of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County

Öçal made his international name with the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble; their first recording, "Gypsy Rum," won the 1995 German Record Critics Award. Born in 1953 in Kirklareli, a village in Thrace, introduced to percussion through his father and religious vocal music through his mother, he mastered many scales and modes and all sorts of Turkish percussion sequences and instruments. He also plays the oud. After living in Zurich for 15 years, he has just moved back to Istanbul.

He says that it had been his "good luck" to grow up in a hometown that is "in the center of the old music," a place where odd and extended rhythms were part of everyday life. He learned them like learning how to walk or talk. So now when he plays in time signatures such as 45/16, he does not even have to count. He illustrates, singing while accompanying himself on a darbuka (a finger drum) between his knees. It comes down to 11, 9 and 11 again, making 31; and then add a 5 and finish with another 9 to equal 45: "It's easy." .

Take his word for it.

"I am always leader of any group I am in," he says. "I am a natural leader. I am like Bruce Lee. You must be strong with musicians, musicians are not easy." He laughs upon hearing that a journalist had described him as looking like "a cross between an Anatolian rocker and a Swiss gangster." Öçal's words are punctuated by laughter: "I can sleep in the street like a Gypsy or I am also living the high life in five-star hotels. It is of no importance for me. I love music. I love action. I went to a Turkish classical conservatoire for a couple of weeks, I was bored. I went to a jazz academy in Switzerland and it was boring too. I am not classical or folk or rock or jazz, I am just following my instincts."

He has played at the University of Nebraska with Seamus Blake, a blazing young tenorman of rising repute. He performed at the University of Southern California in duo with the classical guitarist Eliot Fisk. Later this month he'll be in Germany with the Joe Zawinul Syndicate. His percussive color drives the pianist Peter Waters's adaptation of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

""Bach is my main man," says Öçal. "I listen to hip-hop too. I go to small jazz clubs and to classical concert halls. I listen to everything."

Burhan Ocal : Gypsy Rum

Burhan Öçal, Istanbul Oriental Ensemble: Gypsy Rum

Burhan Ocal: Jardin Ottoman

Burhan Öçal: Jardin Ottoman

Burhan Ocal: Sultan's Secret Door

Burhan Öçal, Istanbul Oriental Ensemble : Sultan's Secret Door

Burhan Ocal: Caravanserai

Burhan Öçal, Istanbul Oriental Ensemble: Caravanserai
released February 2001.

Related links: Turkish Music History

Music From Turkey

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz and world music editor of

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