So you’re playing at Kafana Berlin on Wednesday.
Yeah, I guess so.
The guy really likes you. He told me, “These guys are great”.
The boss? He was a little….He’s probably more business-minded than the younger guys. I felt a little bit he wasn’t convinced about it.
He told me he definitely wanted you guys back.
Yeah, we’re coming back there.
Is it going to be the same constellation?
Yeah, they cut the budget. It’s just going to be the bass and violin. So, we’ll do bass and violin. It would be great to have an accordion. I’d love to go there with Mikhail. Or there are some other great…there’s another great accordion player I would call, who can play everything.
I’m doing a story on the place for Exberliner.
And she’s a great singer. I was blown away.
She really belts it out.
I think it would be just really cool to have a little sevdah group there. Just a guitar and an accordion and a bass and whatever and just play some of that old Yugo music.
The place is fantastic. Just the way it looks. Like an old kafana from Belgrade.
I felt a little uncomfortable not playing Serbian music.
You know some songs?
Some of those songs like Djelem, Djelem and stuff like this I know. I haven’t played them in years.
I think that stuff would go over really well.
Just for the atmosphere of the place. It’s cool to have manouche of swing jazz, but it felt so much better.
But the guy told me he was open to any stylistic thing.
It’s also nice to have a mix. Because it’s so boring if you go to a manouche jam and it’s just six hours of Sweet Georgia Brown.
I just wanted to ask you – last time we interviewed was a year ago – what’s happened in the time being? Is Thrace Is The Place still in business?
Yeah, it’s definitely a project that continues. The guitar player went back to Bulgaria, Anthony. And now he’s running a really nice jazz session in Sofia. So I think he’s happy there. And the accordion player had a child. And the family is sort of reorganizing. And we found a really nice singer from Ankara. She’s a jazz singer. She’s actually here at the jazz institute. And with the clarinet player, Eldar, we’re working together. Also with some other projects. And we’re trying to keep Thrace Is The Place going. And now we’ve been rehearsing with the singer named Cansu. And we’re still with Serdar. And now we’re searching for another element. We met with a Syrian oud player yesterday, who is amazing.
Is he sort of known in the scene?
I don’t know. He just got to Berlin like six months ago. And also we’ve been trying to meet with this guy who just moved here from New York named Patrick Ferrell, who’s a great accordion player, who’s from the New York klezmer scene, who was playing with some Macedonian guys in Brooklyn. He just moved here. We’re still searching for a fixed element. We’re moving a little bit in the Istanbul makam end of it. We’re searching for the right constellation. Probably in April we’ll be performing.
Any other groupings?
No. We’re going to try to fix it with the singer, and we’ll be doing a sort of Selim Sesler type of repertoire. Some songs from Brenna MacCrimmon.
Yeah. Because I really love the group and the Thracian music. So it’s nice to know that it’s still moving along…I wanted to ask you something about Selim Sesler. So he was struggling along, doing his own thing for a while until, from what I understood, Brenna MacCrimmon discovered him, or rediscovered his music and pushed him to a new level. Is that a wrong take on it?
I don’t know. I don’t really know the whole story. But I just found out there was this American ethnomusicologist who produced his first record, Road to Keşan, named Sonia Seeman, and she was actually the producer of that record.
This was the one that came out on Kalan?
Yeah. I think that was the first one.
So even from the start it was someone from the outside who was focusing in on the guy.
It might have been like that.
It took someone from the outside to appreciate his playing.
That’s the impression that I got as well. And he’s not someone that is loved by every Turkish musician.
But he was in the end. A lot of Turks began to appreciate his playing.
Yeah, for sure. But at the same time I heard the Brenna MacCrimmon story how she met him, was she was travelling around and she met Selim Sesler in Thrace, doing tours and listening to wedding bands – that’s how she met Selim Sesler. So I don’t know if she brought Selim Sesler to this ethnomusicologist, or the other way around.
But you mentioned that he was your entrée to Thracian music.
Oh yeah, Selim Sesler, for sure, that’s how I got into it. And that was originally through some friends from California who were listening to him. But there was this interest in the ‘90s in Gypsy and Romani music. The movie Latcho Drom came out, which was the first thing that exposed me to any of that.
What year was that?
’94? Mid nineties.
I remember I was in Prague in the mid nineties and there was talk then about Roma music from the Balkans, but it didn’t really start gathering steam until after 2000.
But it does seem as though a lot of those acts were curated from the outside. Taraf de Haidouks, Kočani Orkestar…
Also Mahala Rai Banda, Fanfare Ciocărlia. But the only one that really wasn’t was Boban Marković.
Yeah. He was a sort of star. But I guess Goran Bregović was already sort of cultivating the style.
I read the article that Sergei put together on you. He mentioned that at first you were into some hardcore stuff.
Yeah, I used to love a lot of punk rock. And I realized the other day that my first exposure to Turkish music was through a band called The Ex. They’re from Amsterdam. From the squatter scene. I was listening to these guys in the ‘90s. There is a record they made called Scrabbling At The Lot, and they did a bunch of Turkish stuff on this record, like Black Sea dances.
And you were into the hardcore scene and playing guitar.
Yeah. I used to play in a lot of punk bands.
What year was it that this Gypsy stuff came to you as a revelation?
Yeah, well, when I was a teenager. When I was a teenager that movie came out. In the U.S. there was this big cross-over between folk and punk. And even now, if you look at dirty punk rockers riding freight trains they are playing folk; they have fiddles and banjos.
So this Balkan stuff made it to these guys.
Oh yeah. These Gypsy-Balkanesque-train hopping-punk rocker stuff –
Really? That seems so inconceivable to me. I remember listing to an interview with Eugene Hütz, and he said that the skate punks of today would be doing their tricks listening to Fanfare Ciocărlia and Taraf de Haidouks. I just thought that was so mind-boggling.
Yeah. There was some of that stuff and old fiddle music and thrash punk. It’s weird. But this kind of cross-over was taking place.
So who were some bands that you started listening to in the beginning?
Gypsy bands? Taraf de Haidouks. I think just them, really.
Fanfare Ciocărlia at all?
Yeah, I found out about them later. There was no internet. So you get it out of the library. I had no idea what something was or who they were. You couldn’t Google one of them. You couldn’t even find out who organized Taraf de Haidouks. I was fortunate to see them play. I was, like 17. That was ’99 or something.
That was in Philly?
And that just blew you away.
Yeah. It totally blew me away.
Could you say that after that you decided to play violin?
Yeah, basically, more or less at the same time. It’s funny, I always had it in my mind to go to Romania. I never managed to get there. Been to a lot of other places.
And then after that, what happened? Did you hang out for a while in the States?
Yeah. I travelled around for a while in the States. I was riding freight trains around and hanging out with people. I lived in New Orleans for a while, playing this kind of pseudo Gypsy music.
Did you make it to New York at all?
Sometimes. But I didn’t really spend any time there.
Did you go to the Mehanata Bar.
So was there much of a scene at all back then? Or was it just very difuse?
People who were into Balkan music.
In the U.S.? I think it was just beginning. I mean, there were always resurgences. But in this time you wouldn’t meet a lot of people. I travelled all over the U.S.. But, I mean, who knows. It’s not like I met everybody. But at that time when I was travelling, I was one of the few people I’d meet who was playing an acoustic instrument. I mean, this was in my teens. But now, for instance, with young counter-culture people in the U.S. everyone is playing violin or accordion.
Is that right? That’s amazing. That’s a wonderful development. You always think that the tendency is in the direction of traditions getting lost. But there is also in a sense a revival taking place.
Yeah. But I don’t know what’s big in the U.S. right now in that scene. You can see in pop music there is a lot of retro R & B. Like, you know, the big stars. And some smaller stars. Retro R & B and retro country, folkloric influence in American music.
I guess, if you’re talking about venues, one of the few venues back then was this Mehanata Bar. It’s a Bulgarian bar in New York. It moved around a bit, but it was where Gogol Bordello had their home base, and where Balkan Beat Box started off. Interesting story, actually. I went there some time ago, but pretty much after the whole hype, and they just had some Balkan DJs and stuff, different kinds of vodka and expensive shisha pipes. But it had been a pretty cool place. I just contacted them to see if there was anyone around from the old days who could share some stories. There are some great stories floating around….But to go back to your story: you resolved to make it to Romania.
Yeah, I decided to travel with some folks called the Cyclown Circus who were traveling by bicycle and doing street shows. Actually, like dixiland jazz and doing street shows. And they travelled all over Europe. And they spent a lot of time in Berlin.
Western Europe as well?
Yeah. When I met them we were in Berlin. We went to Denmark, we went to Switzerland, Italy.
What year did you come to Berlin?
The first year I came here was 2004. We stayed at Rigastrasse, at the squat. We played at Fischladen. This kind of stuff. It was a different Berlin.
Did you make one trip trough the Balkans, through Ukraine and further?
Yeah, they bounced around Europe for a while. And I traveled by bike from Italy, through Croatia and Bosnia, to the Guča festival. I spent one night at the Guča festival, almost got in a fight with some guy.
Someone pigeon-holed you as being a typical American.
Yeah, and I probably said some dumb shit.
A typical Serbian story.
A lot of slivovitz. And then we biked through Bulgaria. This was probably 2005. There was a festival in Bulgaria called the Koprivshtitsa festival. That was every five years. And then we went to Istanbul.
And then from Istanbul you went up to Ukraine?
I went to Ukraine later. From Istanbul we went down to Cypress. Playing rembetiko music every week. And from there we went east. We cycled to Georgia, we went to Russia, China, Indonesia. And when it was all done – I had basically a couple records of Selim Sesler –
Which you had picked up in Turkey.
Were you just in a record shop, and you were like, – oh this is interesting?
We were busking. We were doing street shows. We were on Istiklal. And so it’s really easy to meet people if you hang around Istiklal and play music. You meet a lot of people. We became really good friends with a band there called Kara Güneş. And we ended up hanging out with them a lot. Anyway, right around the corner there was Selim Sesler playing twice a week at the Badehane. And he was there twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays or something. So yeah. It was just pretty crazy music. If you never heard it before. I just didn’t understand anything what they were playing. It was crazy. It was like crazy jazz. They were just jamming. It was hard to understand. They were using different notes, had different song forms, had crazy rhythms. It was just shocking. And I think that’s why I liked it. I was always into weird, crazy music. Like punk rock, Tom Waits and free jazz.
I wanted to ask you about the connection between punk and this music. When you think of punk you think about a style of music that sets out to shock, that transgresses boundaries. And this kind of music that Selim Sesler was playing was a kind of traditional music, wedding music, a music that is rooted in old customs. So what is the punk connection?
Well. I think you can also say that punk music is also very traditional. The punk culture is like an orthodoxy, with its own dress codes and social taboos. In the anarcho-punk scene there are taboos about what kind of food you can eat, you have taboos about your political beliefs, your social activities, dress code. In that sense they are similar.
But talking about the sound itself.
Well, is there something louder and more obnoxious than davul zurna? It’s like listening to Napalm Death. If you just hear it from a distance you don’t know if it’s davul zurna or Finnish death metal. You can’t tell. It’s crazy. It’s loud –
Shrieking…But what’s interesting is: here’s an American guy – you would never think that this would win over someone from the States.
Yeah, I mean, I think people get into this music through belly-dancing or through all kinds of different things. Romanian music is much more accessible. But even that is kind of aggressive to listen to. Bulgarian music.
You mentioned last time you felt that Bulgarian music was a little more aggressive. And Thracian music was a little different. In what sense, I’m curious?
The Turkish swing, the 9/8 is not straight. The accent is delayed and it gets this funky groove. And when the Bulgarians play 9/8 it’s dat-dat-dat-dat. They’re punching you in the face. That’s how I see it. The Romani 9/8 that they do is really groovy. And the same thing when they play in seven, there is always this up-beat that is really strong. And the Bulgarian is always on the down-beat. They are just beating you. I like both. But I think when I ws listening to lot of Bulgrian or Turkish music, I was, like – Selim Sesler is really groovy.
When did it occur to you that this was something you wanted to do yourself? Was this when you were back in Berlin, or on your trip?
Yeah, we were travelling in South-East Asia and we were kind of done with traveling, and I was, like, – maybe I want to go to Istanbul and meet these guys who play with Selim Sesler.
Did you then spend a year in Istanbul?
I spent another six months living there. Before that I lived there four months. And I’ve been there a few times since then.
And you lived in Taksim?
I lived all over. We lived in Beyoğlu, I lived in Dolapdere –
Dolapdere is a bit of a dodgy hood.
It was cool. It’s really near Taksim. There’s the market there. I mean these days it was where all the Erasmus students were living. Tarlabaşı, Dolapdere – they gentrified it. But, yeah, I lived all over the place.
Another place that you mentioned you would go to was this Araf. Does it still exist?
I think it still exists. It was quite successful. Selim Sesler would play there every Friday. When Selim Sesler was still alive he was playing Tuesdays and Thursdays at Badehane and then every Friday at Araf and then he played twice a month at Babylon. This guy was playing. Regular gigs, and it was always full.
And he was dogged with health problems towards the end.
I don’t think he had a healthy lifestyle.
But what kind of place was Araf?
Araf was like a rooftop bar. And they had a pretty nice sound system. There were always good DJs. It was a popular place with expats and Erasmus students. It was a good place. As far as the rooftop bar scene goes. It was alright. There were some other cool places there.
When did you get hip to Ciguli?
When I came here after Istanbul I started studying at the Turkish Music Conservatory. It’s on Bergmannstrasse. It was run by a great oud player, who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago. But I was studying there. And then I also ran into a friend from Istanbul who had moved here. And we started a band together. And we played kind of Burhan Öcal inspired stuff from his Istanbul Oriental Ensemble. And he got me into Ciguli.
He was a really funny guy. The Turks didn’t really appreciate him. But an amazing accordion player and he composed some hits, didn’t he?
Yeah. Big hits. He was a TV star. I think probably the people like Selim Sesler liked Ciguli. I think Ciguli is cool because I was thinking – do you know Spike Jones? He was an old novelty act from the U.S.. It’s just really funny music. His music was funny. The things that he did were funny. I was trying to imagine – in Turkish music you just can’t be funny. It’s just too sad and tragic and serious. And it’s hard to make a joke in makam. But then I was, like, no, wait, there is Ciguli. Ciguli knows how to be funny.
That’s like why they didn’t like him. Because he makes a fool of himself.
They thought he was a joker.
And also in terms of appearance, he didn’t look like your typical star.
He wore that hat. He went on stage once in a pink suit and everyone was making fun of him.
I mentioned to you, I saw him play here in Berlin. It was really sad, actually. There were like, ten people in the audience and he was standing there all lonely on the dance floor cradling his accordion getting no feedback. It was cool to see him, nevertheless.
And you translated an article on him.
I’m working on translating a really epic interview that he did in 2002 with Roll magazine, a Turkish magazine in Istanbul. Like Rolling Stone of Istanbul. A really cool interview talking about his life, coming to Istanbul in his forties, or whatever, already with two kids and a wife. Came to Istanbul with a bag of spoons and some bowls to sell in case he couldn’t make any money. His went to Kumkapi and started busking. Got hooked up with a gig playing in restaurants, sleeping under the table. Yeah, yeah, he’s a weird guy. Sent all his money home to Bulgaria. He slept under this table for like ten years, even when he was getting recording contracts and stuff. He was, like saving his money.
Then he composed Binaz and everyone knew him after that.
Yeah, he got a TV gig, he had a TV show – Bizim Sokak.
Which was this Turkish sitcom kind of thing.
He’s a weird guy, because he seems like a Gypsy, but in this interview he says that he’s not. I don’t know. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t? You don’t know.
When might you be finished with the interview?
I just have a couple more pages to go. It’s already like, ten pages or something. It’s really epic. You know the whole guy’s life story. It’s a tell-all.
Do you think there will come a point that he will be appreciated for being the kind of musician he really was?
In Turkey and also outside.
I mean I can say that everyone I know loved Ciguli. All the Turks that I know. Whatever that means.
As with a lot of these Balkan Roma musicians – for example when Šaban Bajramović died, I think there was one western newspaper that deigned to give him an obituary. But there still hasn’t come a point where these people are appreciated for what they have accomplished. Do you think that there will ever come a day that the West will give credit to these musicians?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s not like they’re big stars in the West.
Always this parallel was made between the blues of the American south and Roma music from the Balkans. These guys were our European blues. And Shantel was one of the guys who picked up on this. Just like this blues music became rock and roll, this Gypsy music from the mahallas was going to create a new genre.
What I think is interesting is I was reading something about the ethnomusicology of Roma people – just in terms of ethnomusicology on the of the first times when they realized this was a thing was when they had this concept of creating an ethnocentric musicology which was based around the idea of making a nation state –
Around the time of Bela Bartok.
Yeah, Bela Bartok, but I think even before him when they wanted to unite villages and communities they would always have these musicologists going to Croatia, say, but they were from the Austrians, the Austrian government, and they were just collecting the German songs, and saying ,– these are the German songs of our Croatian lands. They don’t care about the other ones because they want to make sure it’s all part of this Austro-Hungarian Empire. So in the first time they ever met with this they brought up the subject of Gypsies, and you could see that the only people who really talked about them were the Hungarians – this was like in the 19th century, and they said, – the Gypsies have polluted Hungarian music and they have distorted it and they just perform Hungarian music for Hungarians in their perverted way. You know, you’re looking at the 19th century, and they are really pushing this. And later when Bela Bartok went there, when he started transcribing Gypsy music, it again was this perverted Hungarian music. I guess that’s the kind of thanks they get.
At the same time the Gypsies are the ones who are responsible for tending these traditions. Without the Gypsies a lot of these songs would just be forgotten.
I don’t really know about the politics of this in Turkey, but one thing that is interesting for me is that for whatever stereotypes they make in Turkey, it seems like they give the Roman people their due for performing the music and taking part in the musical heritage.
You could say the same thing about the Serbs as well. A lot of Gypsies would concede that racism does exist in Serbia, but if you look at the way Gypsies are treated in Serbia and also Turkey compared to say Czech Republic and Hungary –
And Bulgaria –
Right. So it doesn’t really have to do with the more southward you ago the more tolerant people are. Bulgaria defeats that thesis. My wife, who is Turkish, is always saying cigan this, cigani that. But it’s surface racism. It doesn’t really belie any deep-seated animosity.
I know a lot of Turkish musicians, who are like, – I don’t like Gypsy music. There’s definitely that aspect to it. But in a sense, it’s accepted. It’s on TV. They’re Gypsies, they have their music. And you have these big stars, and they have Gypsy TV shows, Gypsy dance parties on TV. And they are sort of playing this caricature. Maybe it’s racist.
But the notion of what is a Turk – it’s not based on blood or ethnicity. It’s more of a cultural thing, or a shared language thing. And the Gypsies play a role in that. You can’t say they are any less Turkish than someone who traces their lineage to Mongolia.
At the same time the Kurdish people –
At the same time they are discriminated against.
Maybe that’s why the Gypsies aren’t discriminated against, because they already have another one to discriminate against. It’s always a hierarchy, right? The Gypsy music is acceptable but the Kurdish music isn’t.
I’ve never really looked into the Kurds. I’d like to make some trips to south-eastern Turkey. My wife regards herself as Kurdish, and she often takes the Kurdish side, but doesn’t go so far as to support the PKK. At the same time she likes Erdoğan. It’s a strange thing – but I was told forty percent of AK party politicians are Kurds.
Well, they are very religious.
That’s something that a lot of people in Germany don’t realize. They think they are all Alevis or something. Of course a lot of them are, but not the majority…But what’s interesting also is in Thrace, they sort of buck the trend and for the most part vote for the CHP.
They are very liberal. Last time I was there, I was with my friend and we were traveling around, and we would drive past all these mosques and he said, – you see, we have all these mosques, but no one is inside. You know, I am hanging out in his house, and every day they get a case of beer. The neighbors are growing weed. His dad is like ninety years old, coming up, smoking joints.
That’s the idea of Thrace – very hedonistic, fun-loving people.
The Dionysian –
It comes from Thrace, doesn’t it?
And, what’s his name – Orpheus. So, yeah, it’s a really interesting place.
Do you have any plans to go back?
I would love to. It’s a little bit complicated in my family. It’s hard to leave my family.
Because you have two kids.
But, yeah, I still have some friends down there. I also really want to go to Azerbaija. But I like to play this music because it should be played for people, and I want to share it. It’s good for a dance party. And I guess in that way, I like to cultivate it, a repertoire of unusual numbers.