Positioned as it is between Europe and Asia, and with an imperial past that grew to cover parts of both continents, Turkey's music reflects a wide variety of influences as well as being a major influence on others. The most obvious comparison is with Arabic music, which due to the Ottoman reign and the cultural exchange resulting from it shares many traits with Turkish music, including a fondness for blazing drum patterns and passionate female vocalists. Turkey's contemporary music scene is as lively as any in the world, encompassing everything from dancefloor-friendly pop stars such as Ebru Gendes to reworkings of traditional Gypsy melodies. Both of these extremes -- along with the wide space between -- are amply represented on the Rough Guide to the Music of Turkey.
Featuring a solid selection of tracks compiled by Dan Rosenberg, the album opens with "Gungormemisler" by the queen of Turkish music, Sezan Aksu. A decent track, though not one of her masterpieces, the song sets the template for one particular flavour that gets a fair bit of coverage on the album -- the passionate female vocalist and her orchestral backing band. Tracks by Ebru Gundes and Sibal Can take more or less the same form, each featuring some fine double-time drumming and soundtrack-worthy orchestration. Sibel Can's "Padisah" also features some intriguing electric oud playing that adds an extra layer of exoticism. Long-time superstar Adja Paekkan provides a definite highlight with the atmospheric "Dile Kolay," a song rich with flamenco overtones and some fabulous vocal phrasing. Adja shifts tone from chanteuse-like whisperings to full-on passion and back again, making it all seem effortless, her band following on every movement with lightning-fast drumming and guitar lines.
Laco Tayfa and Husnu Senlenspirici change the mood once again with their track "Ciftetelli," featuring some truly spectacular clarinet playing by Husnu and a more folk-oriented mood than the earlier songs. Traditional Rom [gypsy] music is merely the launching pad, though, for a jazz-fusion romp that goes off more than once in unexpected directions.
US-based Omar Faruk Tekbilek contributes what might be the most purely folk-sounding track on the album, "Hijar Raks," a deliciously exotic tour de force of multi-instrumentalism. A twisting and turning melody that soars to ever higher ranges and faster speeds, "Hijar Raks" is another highlight.
Birol Topaloglu's "Arsina Seni" is another unique recording, featuring a subdued and melancholic atmosphere with some fine musicianship, an almost Irish reel-like melody at times and some odd time signatures. These effects combine to create a dark mood that continues with the Barbaros Ekrose Ensemble's "Yalvaris." "Yalvaris" is built around the interplay between Ekrose's clarinet and a very low-tuned drum, each threatening to overshadow the other in feeling and virtuosity, before settling into an uneasy co-existence that gives the song a menacing tone, its gypsy melodies creating soaring landscapes in the listener's mind.
There is an astounding richness on display in the Rough Guide to the Music of Turkey, in terms of emotion, musicianship, and -- perhaps most important of all -- the revitalization of traditional music forms. The album moves thematically from the western-inflected pop sounds of the country's divas, progressing towards an ever-more-oriental sound which culminates in the spectacular "Mavisim" by Kemani Cemal Cinarli and its exotic, chaotic soundscape of gypsy music that is surely as lively today as it was during its nascence a milennium ago. Led by virtuoso violinist Cemal, a ragtag group of musicians from his neighbourhood -- along with three female vocalists -- astound with their ability to create order out of chaos, then plung headlong into the chaos anew. Similarly, Rough Guide's Rosenberg is to be congratulated for making sense of what is by all accounts one of the most varied and eclectic of cultures, while at the same time leaving enough rough edges intact to ensure a genuine, unpasteurized musical flavour.