From Anatolia, From the Heart: Bridging East and West, Neotolia’s Originals Spring from Mediterranean Traditions, Turkish Folk Songs, and Jazz Forms
In Anatolia, where Eastern Europe, Western Asia, and the Mediterranean world overlap, layers of history – thousands of years of it – can translate into layers of melody, rhythm, and sound. This is the vision of Neotolia, an international ensemble of diverse, highly skilled musicians based in Boston. Led by singer-songwriter Nazan Nihal and pianist/composer Utar Artun, the project explores traditional and tradition-inspired pieces through the lens of contemporary composition, jazz, world music and improvisation.
On their latest album, Neotolian Song (Interrobang Records; release date: April 23, 2017), the Turkish-born duo imagine lost ancient languages (“Neotolian Song”), mourn those lost to terrorism (“Değişmek Cesaret İster/ Change Takes Courage”), and weave new emotion into striking folk songs. Artun and Nihal have enlisted musicians hailing from Finland to Lebanon, from Iraq to China to add their own voices to complex yet elegant pieces. Turkish traditional instruments like the qanun, ney and oud, Western and Eastern strings (violin, cello, erhu) join a core quintet (Nihal voice, Artun on piano, Jussi Reijonen on guitars, Bruno Råberg on bass, and Giuseppe Paradiso on drum kit).
“We’re feeling our roots, but we want to keep our music in the present,” explains Nihal. “We put our own stamp on it, drawing on the influences from different cultures. We have one foot in Anatolia and one foot all around the world.”
The group will perform in Boston, New York, and DC in April and May.
NEOTOLIA feat. DAVID FIUCZYNSKI: Değmen Benim Gamlı Yaslı Gönlüme from the album “Neotolian Song” (Interrobang Records, 2017)
The project began one night several years ago, when Artun was visiting Turkey. He heard Nihal sing several traditional songs in Nihal’s arrangements and was stunned. “We have to record those songs,” Nihal recalls him saying.
This connection blossomed into love and marriage, and Nihal moved to Boston, where Artun is a professor at Berklee College of Music. She found herself listening to more and more Turkish music to stave off homesickness, which sparked Artun’s interest in recording some of the songs she had arranged.
An ongoing collaboration ensued, with the duo working on original compositions as well as arrangements of traditional repertoire. “Utar can transform music in any direction imaginable,” says Nihal. “For example, I come with a musical idea, discuss it with him and then we find a groove or rhythm. After that point we improve that idea together. Utar adds the final touch. He scores the music. Then the band plays it, and it becomes real.”
“We tried to make a kaleidoscope of different colors,” notes Artun. “We use African and Indian elements, jazz and American grooves, Eastern European scales and Turkish maqams. As such an ambitious concept, some of the songs called for us to invite guest artists who could bring these ideas to life with their unique voices.”
Some pieces called for a sleek duo, like “Manastır Türküsü” – a spirited song from Artun’s home region. Some suggested unexpected instrumentation like Chinese flute (dizi) performed by Yazhi Guo (who has been named a “National Treasure of China’’), or a Middle Eastern cello line on “Neotolian Song.”
Other songs were enriched by master artists: Turkish-Armenian Grammy-winning avant-garde percussionist Arto Tunçboyacıyan and world-renowned drummer Dave Weckl on “Thrill of the Chase;” longterm Bobby McFerrin Voicestra member Joey Blake on “Rondo Afro Turca;” and Guggenheim Fellow and microtonal guitarist David Fiuczynski on “Degmen Benim Yasli Gonlume.” Their contributions, as well as the quintet’s elegant, exploratory approach, are featured in three videos the ensembles has created to accompany the recording.
Though the music ranges far and wide in geography and genre, the group keeps its Turkish heart. Traditional songs, modes, and sounds inform all the tracks, though never in predictable ways.“We have three traditional songs on the album reflecting the heritage of Turkish folk music. From our perspective Turkish Folk Music is free and open-minded, based on songwriting,” explains Artun. “Maqams – Turkish melodic modes – are used, but the feeling and writing are the main components,” Nihal continues. “Like blues guitar players, folk song lyricists write about daily life. There aren’t the same strict rules.”
Neotolia have loosened these rules further, adding polyphony to the mix. To bring it all together, they sought out master qanun (Turkish zither) player Tahir Aydoğdu, who was able to navigate the adventuresome merger of Turkish traditional ideas and Western chordal harmonies. “‘Bir Varmış Bir Yokmuş Hayat [Once Upon a Life]’ for example has a lot of interesting microtones,” says Artun. “It’s hard to play and phrase. You need good musicians like Bassam Saba, who aren’t intimidated of expanding their usual way of playing.”
Nihal and Artun have expanded the landscape of their homeland in other ways, with fantastical forays into the past, including a deep dive into the ancient language spoken in Lydia, in what is now western Turkey. “This piece turned out really lyrical,” notes Artun. “I asked Nazan, ‘Can you put some Lydian words to it?’”
Nihal began to research the ancient language, yet couldn’t find what she was looking for. She reached out to a Greek friend, who introduced her to one of the leading scholars of Lydian in Greece. The text he passed along became the lyrics for “Lydianic,” which is believed to be the lyrics of an ancient Lydian song. Though the pronunciation and exact translation has been lost to time, the song’s impact remains. “When we played this tune in concert, people started crying. We were shocked,” Nihal remembers. “Meaning may not be as important as the message you’re sending from the heart.”