You can't miss the royal overtones to Istanbul Oriental Ensemble's Caravanserai. As unmistakable as a peacock's tail, this eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music sprang from a repertoire designed to flatter, pamper, and bathe the spoiled personage of the sultan in sensual delight. The luxurious, highly ornamented mixture of hand drums, kanun zither, violin, oud, and clarinet or kaval flute is sumptuous as a fatty-foods feast, heady as a pot of frankincense, and intoxicating as a shot of 151-proof rum. The long zither makam that introduces "Basbasa" quotes from the classical court music of the Ottoman Empire, but the piece soon loosens up. That's because percussionist Burhan Öçal and his rip-roaring ensemble specialize in the forgotten Gypsy music of Thrace, teetering on the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
The Gypsies, or Roma, as they prefer to call themselves, were preservers of Turkish musical tradition during periods of Islamic disapproval of music. The Roma influences also bring outside elements into the songs, and the "I've heard that somewhere before" recurrent quality illustrates the long reach of the Gypsies. Ferdi Nadaz's brilliant microtonal clarinet improvisations on "Askin Sarabi" recall the Bulgarian wedding music rave-ups of Ivo Papasov, while the melodic motifs of "Bozkirda Dugun" suggest a cross-pollination with klezmer and its Black Sea antecedents. The violin flourishes scattered here and there carry echoes of Indian sarangi phrases, and darned if "Halli Dokuyan Kiz," with its mile-thick zither and violin textures, couldn't easily pass for a slice of taarab from Zanzibar, which once was an Ottoman sultanate. And everywhere are the belly-dancing rhythms that kick the most delicately performed songs out of the academy and pack them into a crowded coffeehouse a-jiggle with gyrating hips.
Folks who generally are wary of Eastern-inflected Mediterranean music will find little off-putting here once they home in on the amazing solo flights. Nadaz's flute and clarinet leads have the accuracy, phrasing, and swing to guarantee him the spot with the immortals he probably occupies. Nadaz died from an extended illness shortly after recording "Ya Kerim!" though you'd never know he'd been sick from the energy of his performance. Band leader Ocal provides the clavicle-slipping backbone punctuated by furious darbuka drum eruptions, and Alaatin Coskuner comes across like twin Alaatins massaging the length and breadth of a lone kanun. Every note of Caravanserai is carefully crafted to promote well-being. Did I compare this disc to a carbohydrate-heavy feast? It's more like some long lost delectable health food.
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