Turkey’s psychedelic kings BaBa ZuLa turn 20

Described as “art-anarchists”, BaBa ZuLa have carved out a name as fine purveyors of alternative Anatolian music, a hip psychedelic blend of electro, dub, funk, rock ‘n’ folk. Lyrically conscious, their other-worldly Oriental dance beats, playful dress sense, and surreal live performances have gained them a huge global following.

They featured in Fatih Akın’s seminal film Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005), and the band remains an international reference point for those wanting to dig deeper into the progressive politics and sounds of contemporary Turkey.

Their origins date back to their student days at Boğaziçi University in the late 1980s, when founder members Osman Murat Ertel, Levent Akman and Emre Onel were all part of a musical collective called Zen. They started out playing psychedelic rock, but quickly decided improvising was more fun.

In 1996, a chance film project resulted in the need for a second band. A university friend, Turkish Cypriot film director Derviş Zaim, wanted Zen to do the soundtrack for his new movie Tabutta Rövaşata (Somersault in the Coffin). After watching it, most of Zen refused to be involved, but Ertel, Akman and Onel liked the film and so formed a mini band they called BaBa ZuLa (the name means ‘Big Secret’) to do the music.

Following its release, the film won multiple awards, pushing the trio into the spotlight. A live concert led to even more invites, prompting them to co-opt American bassist William MacBeath and, through him, saxophonist Ralph Carney for their performances. Guest musicians have been a regular feature of the band ever since.

Over the past two decades, their collaborators have included London dub master Mad Professor, Jamaican reggae stars Sly and Robbie, and Dr. Das (Asian Dub Foundation), as well as Turkish Romani clarinet virtuoso Selim Sesler and iconic actor Tuncel Kurtiz, whose distinctive vocals appear on several BaBa ZuLa tracks.

The 1996 film that gave birth to BaBa ZuLa
The 1996 film that gave birth to BaBa ZuLa

Like the band’s line-up, their musical journey has also been fluid. They have released eight studio albums to date, with Ruhani Oyun Havaları / Psychebelly Dance Music (2003), produced by Mad Professor, and Kökler / Roots (2008) among their best known internationally. The band’s knack of harmonising traditional Turkish instruments with western beats without ever diluting their Anatolian identity has made them firm favourites at home, while propelling them onto the global stage as one of Turkey’s most successful musical exports.

Sly & Robbie: one of BaBa ZuLa's many collaborators
Sly & Robbie: one of BaBa ZuLa's many collaborators

Their current album, 34 Oto Sanayi, released last November, is their most political. It’s named after the location of their music studios on an industrial estate full of garages and a few artists’ studios, dwarfed by the newly-appearing skyscrapers that threaten to consume the whole of old Istanbul. The album’s eight short tracks cover everything from bigotry to women, minorities, and a song titled Epic Resistance / Direniş Destanı.

Not surprisingly, the Turkish government is not keen, but BaBa ZuLa remain undeterred. Their fans regard them as ‘kent âşıkları’ – modern city minstrels whose musical poetry brings the problems of ordinary folk to the fore, while helping to spread the love of life, God and people.

BaBa ZuLa live in London on 22 Nov.

This Sunday, 22 November, BaBa ZuLa will be playing at Epic in Dalston, east London, as part of their 20th anniversary world tour. We asked Murat Ertel about his inspirations and what’s next for Istanbul’s finest psychedelics.

Did BaBa ZuLa set out to be radically different when the band was first formed in 1996?

I always want to do what I really want. Realising dreams is one of the best parts of life. Being different has never been a priority. If you decide to stay as your original self and try not to follow success formulas, then you find yourself tagged as different for sure.

Who are your musical idols?

Great troubadour musicians visiting our family home, like Ruhi Su and Aşık İhsani, were my early Turkish heroes. Then I began listening to Turkish psychedelia, [artists] like Barış Manço and Fikret Kızılok. When I started going to high school, Santana, Hendrix and The Doors were among my idols.

Murat Ertel’s musical idols include Jimi Hendrix (left) & Barış Manço
Murat Ertel’s musical idols include Jimi Hendrix (left) & Barış Manço

And your biggest inspiration?

My family. They [father Mengü Ertel, mother Ülfet Selçuk, uncles İlhan and Turhan Selçuk] were very well known in my country and pretty successful internationally, and had many similar friends, so I didn’t have to decide to be an artist. I immediately began creating. They also made no compromise for fame or fortune till the end of their lives, which deeply inspired me.

So who are the current band members and where are you all from?

I sing, and play the electric saz, Cura, synthesiser, percussion, and Theremin. Levent Akman plays spoons, cymbals, gongs, and percussion. Özgür Çakırlar plays the darbuka, drums, bender, [frame drum], and percussion. Melike Şahin sings. And Periklis Tsoukalas plays the electric oud, vocals and synth.

Everyone except Özgür lives in Istanbul. I think only me and Melike were born here. Our families are originally from Istanbul, though Levent’s family is also from Istanbul.

Describe BaBa ZuLa’s sound?

The 21st century sound of Istanbul. We have so many influences, like dub, punk, funk, rock etc. mingled with our geographic culture. In the past, it was always me writing the lyrics and melodies, and Levent producing the rhythms, but since the last album, there’s more lyrical input from Melike and melodies from Periklis.

Which of your albums gave you the most satisfaction?

I would say our last album [34 Oto Sanayi] because it is our first vinyl, and lyrically and musically it’s very different from our previous albums.

Do crowds in Turkey respond differently to your music to those abroad?

Yes, they tend to dance more and understand the lyrics easily. But if we are around the Balkans, Greece, Mediterranean or North Africa, then dancing is no problem. There are fantastic responses elsewhere too: some Shamanic rituals, catharsis and ecstasy [occur] with no concept of borders.

For those who’ve never been to one of your concerts, what they can expect from BaBa ZuLa live?

A strong, deep connection with a specific Oriental culture and geography, that’s also familiar. Lots of effects to stimulate different senses, and a psychic experience if our performance is good.

Live at Mekan, Taksim, Nov. 2013   Photo: Alper Ertug
Live at Mekan, Taksim, Nov. 2013 Photo: Alper Ertug

How involved are you with the band’s visuals?

My father was a well-known graphic designer, so I learnt about the inter-discipline of contemporary arts from him. I designed our logo and I am the sole art director for all our album covers. I always consult Levent, but mostly the concert projections are my ideas too. Sometimes we work with special artists of course, but conceptually we have to be in control.

The band are renowned for their cool album covers, all designed by Murat Ertel
The band are renowned for their cool album covers, all designed by Murat Ertel

BaBa ZuLa is currently celebrating its 20th year. How have you evolved? What have been your highs and lows?

20 years is too long [to describe]. I think it’s getting better and better. We became a group that can perform and is known around the world, having produced 8 albums. We give about 90 concerts a year and spend around 200 days on the road.

[Over the years] we have more things than we need, and [won] many awards for best film score or best theatre music band of the year etc. We are very modest, just wishing to play the music we want, and still we do it: that’s the high point of my career. And now we can do it around the world.

Levent Akman at Festivalul Plai, Romania, Sept. 2013.   Photo: Bogdan Comanescu
Levent Akman at Festivalul Plai, Romania, Sept. 2013. Photo: Bogdan Comanescu

Best international festivals you have performed at?

We’ve played Roskilde in Denmark, Memphis in May in the US, and the Spirit of Tengri Festival in Kazakhstan, the Cannes Film Festival, the Taormina Film Festival – hundreds of festivals! I love festivals.

In the UK we performed a few times at festivals too. The one I can not forget was the Festival of the Dying and the Dead in London.

Your music’s always had a politically conscious element to it. Has it become more difficult to earn a living in Turkey?

Now our country is in a civil war and this makes things worse than before. Many gigs are cancelled and people are getting killed. Because of our lyrics, we have been banned from lots of TV and radio channels and today’s conditions do not help, but we won’t compromise.

Are BaBa ZuLa still scoring soundtracks?

Yes. We have done music for many movies, documentaries and theatres since [Tabutta Rövaşata]. We also do live music for silent movies.


How many countries will you be visiting on this tour and is it your biggest-ever world tour?

Yes I think so. It’s the biggest since we were formed back in 1996. We cannot count countries, but counting the continents, there’s five of them. Speaking of two where we might not be able to perform [on this tour]: I really hope we can play again in South America and we have never performed in Antarctica – that would really be something.

What else will you be doing for your anniversary?

We are planning a compilation album of old and new unreleased stuff, remixes and collaborations.

Antarctica: the only continent where BaBa ZuLa has yet to perform
Antarctica: the only continent where BaBa ZuLa has yet to perform

Which new artists would you like to work with?

Artists from the Argentinean Nu Cumbia label ZZK RECORDS – we love their releases and always dance to them.

What music are you currently listening to?

ZZK mostly, and the new wave of African Dub is also very appealing. As always, the old funk blues and psychedelia of 1960s and 1970s. Turkish records from this period have been a favourite and it feels so good that the world is finally catching up with them. Everybody seems to know and dig Selda [Bağcan] for instance. It’s a great feeling.

Favourite things about London?

Swinging 60s of course. I also love the late 70s period, when punk and reggae come together. I really wish I could have seen Syd Barrett at the UFO club, and Hendrix coming to London and rising to fame. And the legendary Can performing in London.