Tuesday, 2 December 2008


No, not a reference to Thanksgiving - which has no meaning for us Brits unless we have a Yankee spouse or family - but a throwback to the BBC Symphony's 'East meets West' events. The one I went to was a revelation, because following Michael Ellison's appetite-whetting visit to my City Lit class, I heard for the first time a Turkish classical/traditional group of supreme sophistication, the Ali Tufekci Ensemble. As pictured above by Simon Jay, the members of the ensemble are Ali himself, player of that ney or Arabic flute beloved of Mevlana and the sufis of Konya; Furkan Bilgi, whose bowed kemence can encompass everything from melancholy introspection to animal howling; kanun player Halil Karaduman, the extrovert of the group, who demonstrated on his 'Turkish zither' twelve tones between one tempered note and the next; and Enver Mete Aslan, Ud player equal to the subtleties of the Iranian equivalent we heard demonstrated one Christmas evening in Isfahan. Sitting in the middle is the remarkable young singer Guc Gulle.

The ATE's 'sets' ranged from religious and folk groups to wild dance music: a breathtaking range. In between we had one of the best harpists in the world, Sioned Williams, who of course is also the BBCSO principal and has Iranian connections due to her husband (she's an enthralling speaker, though she didn't get the chance on this occasion. We'd love to have her back with the class - at Morley she told us movingly of the incredible sacrifices her hard-up Welsh parents made to get her a decent harp).

The end was, for me, rather unspeakable, though the students in front gave it a standing ovation. It seems to me debasing for a group like this to have to go along with the doodlings of the 'BBCSO Fusion Ensemble', though you couldn't fault the contributions of the hard-working Turkish students and BBCSO members. I've always thought 'fusion' the watered-down worst of all cultures, and this grand finale only confirmed my prejudice. Never mind; the Ali Tufekcis had already given us the best.

The concert, and Michael's talk, made me very nostalgic for the east of Turkey, which I travelled round in 1986 with Simon - when he was teaching English in Istanbul - and the lovely Emma, whom I've not seen since. I remembered especially the strangeness of Erzurum, about Michael waxed enthusiastic: every second person there, he says, is a poet, and musical evenings abound (as maybe they must in this isolated place, snowbound in winter). To be truthful, this very conservative city at high altitude - it was cold at nights even in August, when we went - holds up a mirror to the best and worst of Turkey. There we also experienced the horror of a carpet factory peopled by seven- to fourteen-year old girls sent out to work while their fathers lounge around all day in cay houses (they stop at around fourteen when the close work has cost them their sight). The friendly man who took us there just couldn't understand our objections, and the visit ended very unhappily.

Well, I hope that's all over two decades later. To look on the bright side - much needed in this December gloom - I scanned a few of my photos from the 1986 trip (crikey, the old Olympus OM-10 produced such sharp images. I'd never have given up on it had it not let me down in Syria. Although it was fixed, it could still be capricious). The first three are of Erzurum's architectural splendours from the Selcuk era. This is the 1310 gateway to the Yakutiye Medresesi, outside which we were preached at by a fanatical young man who refused to address or look at Emma:

And this is the real glory of Erzurum, the Cifte Minerali Medrese with its extraordinary 13th century minarets.

I may be wrong, but I think this view of the minarets was taken from the mausolea of Uc Kumbetler.

Our journey took us from the Black Sea coast to Erzurum, Kars and the ruined Armenian city of Ani, past Ararat and round Lake Van to the south - Diyarbakir bisected by the Tigris and Euphrates, Urfa and Abraham-country, the fascinating cliff-town of Mardin and the mountain-top mausoleum of Antiochus I on Nemrut Dagi. Tradition had it then - I guess it survives - for handfuls of tourists to take a minibus up to a rest house and rise just before the sun to catch the mountaintop in its full glory. I remember the journey up a ravine by the light of full moon so well because it came into my head to play through Rachmaninov's 'climbing' Paganini Variations up to the plateau of the famous Eighteenth Variation.

Sunrise, accompanied by countless clicking shutters (not mine at that point - I still have that snooty notion of being a 'traveller' rather than a 'tourist'), was indeed as spectacular as we had been promised. So allow me to post two shots - an eagle head on the west terrace, and the row of headless figures on the east terrace facing the sunrise:

Moving further (north) east, I can't recommend too highly two compilations recorded on a shoestring by that enterprising musical traveller Michael Church. His two-CD Georgian collection, 'Songs of Survival', confirms what I already knew of that country's amazing polyphonic choral tradition; I'll never forget the revelation of the Rustavi Male Voice Choir when Memo Rhein brought them to St. Petersburg for a showcase concert. Michael's collection runs the gamut of sacred and profane. Even more remarkable, for me at any rate, is the diversity of the other volume, covering Chechnya and its neighbours.

Here we have some outstanding vocalists in works that in many cases hover between Caucasian and Russian idioms. I especially liked the balalaika-accompanied songs of Sahab Mezhidov. There's also consummate delivery from the Chechen-Ingush Tamara Dadasheva and Lydia Bachaeva's earthy tones. Crucial to discs like these, which fall rather indiscriminately into the 'world music' category, is explanation of the texts and full documentation, which Michael has done superbly. I hope he completes his Caucasian trilogy as he hopes.

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