NINE HEAVENS (Six Degrees 657036 1150-2MJ)

This is a grandiose richly textured set. The music comes from Iranian, Indian and Turkish traditional repertoires and has been given a modern treatment with loads of studio effects, synth washes and so on, but this does not detract from the effect. In fact the propulsive beat is occasionally helped along by the technology. Azam Ali, the singer, calls it modern Sufi music. It's more of a soundtrack than a dance album with dreamy vocals that, however, start sounding very samey to those of us who don't understand the words. The vocals, in fact, could have been left off and an instrumental disc would be as welcome as the "unplugged" second disc, which doesn't sound that different from the first. (It's the "raw" versions of the same songs, the unaugmented studio tracks, as if they couldn't decide whether to do a straight album or one with layers of effects.) There are drones on the unplugged side which I guess are not from synths, but it's hard to tell what's making the sounds, maybe a bowed oud? The acoustic set sounds more medieval, if anything, though a lot of European folk music also sounds medieval to my untutored ears. The overall mood of the treated set reminds me occasionally of Brian Eno's 1978 Music for Films or Peter Gabriel's 1989 Passion album (the soundtrack to the film). Both of those albums were groundbreaking in their own way so today it's almost a cipher when you have a synth wash and some traditional tunes. "Niyaz" means yearning in both Farsi and Urdu, and they are yearning for a global trance-dance hit with this album. It's a pleasant if low-key effort, well recorded, just needing an extra twist of something brilliant.

STO KAFESLI SOKAKI (self-published)

Greek-American oud player Mavrothi Kontanis celebrates the music of refugees in two discs released on his own label. The repertoire is drawn from Greek, Armenian and Turkish music in the classical Ottoman era when the Aegean was bordered by one mighty kingdom. In the twentieth century ethnic identities emerged and the social fabric cracked. At the same time recorded music set down traditional folk melodies for the first time. Largely self-taught, Kontanis has learned a lot of material from old 78s and imbued them with a freshness. He is backed by some talented young Greek Americans on clarinet, violin, kanun and percussion.


The duduk is a woodwind, like an oboe, and is one of the loveliest sounds devised by man. Djivan Gasparyan has spent most of his 80 years perfecting his grasp of this soulful sound and has been performing for 60. When he was a lad the local cinema played Russian silent movies and instead of the piano or fiddle accompaniment heard in the West, a small duduk ensemble played along, captivating the youth. Though mostly shepherds played the instrument, Gasparyan became a street musician trying to support his orphaned brothers and sisters. At 21 he joined the National Armenian Song and Dance Ensemble and learned their entire repertoire in two days for an upcoming concert. Soon he was a renowned soloist and by the 1980s influential producers of a hip younger generation, like Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel, were noticing him. Now his sound is quiet familiar from movies like Gladiator, The Crow, and Dead Man Walking. This double disc set is a retrospective of his life's work. Haunting melodies abound. The Mugham (Arabic: maqam) arrived in Armenia from Persia in the 12th century, this is a tonal scale system with differing relations between tones and scales and is familiar from the oud repertoire. It is also the basis of improvised tunes. By the third track the guests turn up, first Andreas Vollenweider with his harp (not too objectionable). Then Michael Brook and even Nusrat turn up for gigs with the master. When Eno licensed an album of Armenian Folk Tunes played by Gasparyan in 1989 Queen Elizabeth 2 stuck it in the deck of her Landrover and dubbed it a royal favourite. I guess that means he can have a little gold crest embossed in his apricot wood duduk. Things get a lot less engaging when there's a different focus, like Jesse Cook and his noodly jazz guitar. And of course there's the new-agey synth you'd expect from an album called "Naked Spirit," but don't let that deter you. Gasparyan has had a rich and varied career, he is probably grateful and gracious for invitations to collaborate. One short collaboration that I found really engaging is with Erkan Ogur (who plays the dede baglama: don't ask me what that is), from an album entitled Donus Yolu, that I will look for, or from his previous Network CD with his own trio: Heavenly Duduk. I prefer the solo material, and there's plenty of it here, but the producers decided to give a slice of his whole oeuvre. It's worth exploring.

MUSTAFA KANDIRALI ( traditional crossroads)

Now this is class: a hardback book of 92 pages with a CD of big full-bodied Turkish music played by an ace band (or several bands, they don't say) backing a monster clarinetist. Mustafa Kandirali was the biggest name in Turkish popular music throughout the 1970s and 80s and this album is drawn from 4 of his many albums of that era. As Melih Duygulu says in the introduction, He had the whole country bellydancing to the beat. As a child in the 1930s Mustafa studied clarinet and oud at the Folk House in Kandira. Romani musicians brought their music to Turkey as the Ottoman Empire was evaporating, and their musical traditions blended into the indigenous Arabic ones. By the 1950s Kandirali was a recording artist adept at performing these folk dances. Radio was a new medium and so was democracy as Turkey evolved after the Second World War. Though he was not a composer he made the tunes his own and fans began to recognize his sound. Traditional Turkish taksims were also a part of the repertoire though it was still unusual to hear them on the clarinet. Kandirali's approach to the instrument gave him the status that Benny Goodman had enjoyed in the USA. There's a lot of out bluesy blowing here, even going so far as to suggest Velvet Underground on "Kirbaç Romani," which features a bagpipe drone and violin. Another gypsy song, "Iskeçe Romani," has a hammered cembalom going at breakneck speed over a stop-time drum beat (I thought of the "Bonanza" theme when it started!), but suddenly Kandirali enters slowly and reins it in. He sets up a wail & digs in his teeth; the others are trying to push him to the brink but he pulls the whole piece to his tempo in spectacular style. There's a strong confluence of gypsy and arabic music in Turkey and at the center of the vortex of ouds, violins and sharp percussion you can hear this clear reed squalling away, keeping it all in check.

TURKISH GROOVE (Putumayo PUT 248-2)

In the spirit of ARABIC GROOVE and NORTH AFRICAN GROOVE, Putumayo returns to the fray with a non-stop party à la Turque. Label boss Dan Storper was selector for this set which is all new to me. Middle Eastern rhythms ooze out of each track like honey from a plate of baklava. The overall tone however is of a global beat that is bass-heavy and has synth samples that would be at home in Mumbai or Manhattan. Tarkan's track sounds like it would work in a Bollywood film, while "Sinanay" by Gülseren has a Latino rapper. She represented Turkey at the mega-kitschy Eurovision song contest last year. This does bring up the old issue, if these songs were in English would they be dismissed as pure pap? Well, yes, but there is something to the ceramic drum, the minor seventh violins and other Turkic instrumentation that redeems the discoid guitar and other borrowings from a less-than-stellar musical epoch. Now to another issue. When CDs first appeared I worked in a conscientious record store. We were totally repelled by the "long boxes" that CDs initially came in: they were foot-long cardboard boxes, shrinkwrapped to protect the CD. This was to make them too big to steal and also to replace LPs which traditionally sat in deep bins in the record stores. We started shipping the empty long boxes back to the distributors in protest, to let them deal with the waste paper, but quickly they vanished. World Music Network has copped the look of Putumayo as the two companies criss-cross each others' tracks looking for a world beat compilation to click, perhaps this time Putumayo can return the favour and take an idea from World Music Network. The Th!nk Global series is packaged in recycled cardboard, with no plastic, which (while there is undoubtedly some bleaching and dioxin in the recycling process) is an improvement over the coated gloss paper, staples, and wads of plastic that make up the typical CD package. Putumayo gives a portion of their profits to worthy causes, this too has inspired World Music Network and is a worthy endeavour.


One supposes you are wandering from club to club all night in this compelling pair of discs from London-based Union Square music. I don't recall much about my time in Istanbul, the gateway to Asia and a door to the past, when I hitch-hiked there in 1969. I do remember discovering that there was a local brand of cigarette that contained 1% hashish and everything else is a blue haze. I remember minarets, coffee shops, squalor, mud in the streets, ancient wooden buildings and, when I was feeling really far from home, I took a ferry to Bogazkoy and there was a brass plaque on the boat reading "Built at John Brown Shipyards, Glasgow." That oriental "otherness" is summoned up in the minor-key sound of the high-pitched reed oboe (the zurna) that weaves its snake-charmer magic through several cuts on here, from a traditional belly dance number like Ensemble Hüseyin Türkmenler's "Calgici Karisi binnaz" to the trip-hop club beats meet gypsy swing fantasy of Techno Roman Project's "Bahce Duvarini Astim," and on into a wild improvisation by Hüseyin & Günay Türkmenler. After twenty-five minutes of such intensity we cool down to the solo oud (Arabic lute), but then it's time to guzzle that drink and get back on the dance floor. The Türkmenler guys are at it again and coasting along on a rocking ceramic drum beat with wild fiddle and even wooden spoons in the mix. There's an exquisite long intro on the short-necked fiddle (the kemençe) to a classical piece by Erkan Dedeoglu called "Hicaz Pesrev." I am grateful to compiler Phil Meadley (an English global funk DJ) for finding this. This sampler is drawn narrowly from one or two labels and so there is duplication of artists but, in this case, it's a bonus as you get to see more sides of some of these astoundingly accomplished musicians. Now I know who to look for in the Turkish section.

Mercan Dede and Brooklyn Funk Essentials dominate the second disc but less-well-known acts like Harem shine forth. The premise now is that it's well past midnight and you are quite lost in the back alleys looking for the chill-out room and wondering who those scruffy kids are who seem to be following you. So get into a club and whatever happens, don't let those hypnotic rhythms lull you to sleep!