Janet and Jak Esim - Adio
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cd cover Janet and Jak Esim
Kalan Musik (www.kalan.com)

The existence of a Jewish community is maybe not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Turkey, but in fact Jewish populations were present in Anatolia way before the arrival of the Turkish populations from the East - think of St. Paul's letters. Their number was much strengthened by the invitation extended to the Sefardi Jews expelled from Spain by the Sultan who could not believe that a great King would deprive his kingdom of such an active and beneficial group. The Ottoman Empire, while leaving no doubt about which religious group was dominant, was at the same time remarkably tolerant, and so Muslim and Jewish traditions coexisted side by side for centuries. A visit to the lovely village of Kuzguncuk on the Asian shore of Istanbul will provide a striking visual example, with Mosque, Synagogue and Orthodox church grouped together, three tiny buildings almost comforting each other against the surrounding high-rises. This coexistence produced a complex network of connections: cross-influences in mystic Brotherhoods, with shared cults and practices including music, as well as the birth of the unique Sabbetaist community, a Jewish group externally adopting Islam on the example of the self-proclaimed Messiah Sabbetai Zevi, still worshipping in what is called "the Jews' Mosque" in Istanbul.

"Kol Beruey mala"
Despite emigration to Israel, due in part to the recurrent bloody attacks by religious fanatics, the Jewish community in Istanbul still has deep roots and is well represented in all fields, from cultural activities to finance and industry. Apart from the aforementioned fanatics, and despite the historical kinship with the Muslim Palestinians, anti-Semitism in Turkey is remarkably weak, the strong ties reinforced by the immediate help extended by Israel to Turkey in times of need, most recently after the disastrous earthquake of 1999.

Since the late 80s, Janet and Jak Esim have intensively researched and represented Turkish Jewish traditions - especially Sefardi but also Askenazi - with their own complex story of differences and similarities. Their long-term commitment has produced half a dozen recordings scattered around several labels, but now Kalan Musik has purchased the rights and are making them all available again on CD.

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This new project was especially recorded for the label. The arrangements by Herman Heder, who also performs on various guitars, brilliantly integrate the improvisations of some of the best Turkish musicians equally at home with folk traditions and jazz: Erkan Ogur and songwriter Bülent Ortaçgil on guitars, percussionist Murat Özbey, Nezih Yesilnil on contrabass, Yahya Dai on saxophones, E. Bora Gürel on violin and Mamet Cafarov (Azeri, I believe) on accordion. They provide the necessary variety in instrumental colors, tastefully enhancing the melodies of a repertoire based on traditional songs covering a broad time period and very different social functions: love songs, hymns, drinking songs, lullabies and romanzas sung in harmonious combination of Judeo-Spanish, Turkish and French.

Reedman Yahya Dai shines through the record, and he's a very worthwhile addition in this context: his tongue-in-cheek, jazzy sax riffs color the first track, built around the intense purity of Janet's voice, and then expands in a final inspired solo. Cuban tres and fretless acoustic guitar hold a dialogue in the second song, providing a continuously varied background for Janet's voice, while Jak takes charge of the lively love song that follows, punctuated by Yahya Dai's spirited dancing on soprano. Two waltzes follow, the first an original composed by Heder on a poem by Lina Alburek Cohen, and carried by the swirling accordion, the second a song of unrequited love with Ogur properly introducing some bluesy elements in his fretless solo.

The most striking piece of the album is a Thracian lullaby where the violin in the closing solo refers to the Turkish classical music style, with double stops and quartertones, before launching seamlessly into a klezmer dance. Especially striking for me was to hear a melody that I remember from my childhood with very similar words, used as a lullaby in rural Tuscany. Of course it's impossible to chart the "origins" of such melodies, but I found the Istanbul Sefardi repertoire to be particularly inclusive, using Verdi arias as well as a maxixe melody (a dance from South America sometimes called "Brazilian tango"). If I am not mistaken it's Yahya Dai again, this time on EWI (electronic wind instrument), providing the other-worldly accompaniment to the liturgical song that follows, powerfully combining Jewish lyrics, a Turkish makam and a polyphonic arrangement.

The drinking songs, while pleasant and funny, are lighter fare in a café-chantant atmosphere with appropriate violin stylings. The CD closes on a somber note with a lament for Mercedes, wife of King Alphonse of Spain, rendered in a very simple but effective arrangement for voice and guitar, Erkan's e-bowed guitar providing a suitably mournful finale.

The excellent recording quality is focused on the voices but nicely balanced, allowing the instrumental nuances to be fully perceived. Rich notes are provided in Spanish, Turkish and English, but unfortunately the lyrics lack an English translation. Nonetheless, this is a collection that might well be recommended as one of the best introductions to this specific tradition. - Francesco Martinelli

CD available from cdRoots

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