In every community there are hidden talents, not least in the British Turkish community. We recently discovered the immensely gifted multi-instrumentalist Salahi ‘Sal’ Ormandji.
This Turkish Cypriot from Islington, North London, has been performing for over 35 years, and, at the tender age of 51-years-old, has just released his first ever solo album Sazmania – Emotions.
His stunning, purely instrumental album has been 25+ years in the making; each one of the 12 tracks has its own story, lovingly composed, produced and performed by Sal.
As the album name suggests, the star instrument is the saz, a lute-like stringed instrument that dates back to Ottoman times and is very popular in Turkish folk music, and the folk traditions of other countries in the Middle East, Balkans and the Caucasus.
Inspired by the likes of Arif Sağ, Musa Eroğlu, Selda and Zulfu Livaneli, Sal first picked up a saz at the age of 11 and he’s never been able to put it down since.
With friends, he formed a band to play out at private parties and events, which morphed into a popular wedding band. However, family life and financial considerations saw Sal move into a different creative field – graphic design. Yet his love affair with the saz didn’t stop, nor his desire to record an album!
Finally, in 2023 Sazmania – Emotions is live. Alongside recording this special album, Sal has also been busy setting up the UK’s first commercially manufactured electric saz guitar company, The SazCo.
We caught up with Sal to ask him about his new business and fantastic new album, which has been on repeat at the T-VINE offices for the past month. Here’s what he had to say.
Tell us about your background, Sal
I was born to Turkish Cypriot parents at London Hospital in 1972. At the time, my parents and sister lived in a 4-floor house in Newington Green, Hackney, together with my aunts and uncles.
In the summer of 1972, not long after I was born, we moved to Tottenham, where I lived for 25 years until I got married in 1998 and then moved to Hertfordshire to start my own family.
I fell in love with music from a young age, listening to the radio and cassettes at home and, at the age of 10, I started my journey playing the saz.
I went on to play in Turkish wedding bands, shows, international events and concerts, and then I decided to produce and release my own music.
It’s taken me nearly 25 years to fully finish the album due to life’s challenges, but in October I launched my own album, Sazmania – Emotions, which includes 12 instrumental pieces all written, produced and played by myself.
Did you say you make electric saz guitars as well as play them?
Yes. Another big project of mine is that I have launched my own brand of electric saz guitars. They are the first electric saz guitars to be commercially produced in the UK. The project took me over three years to research, design and manufacture.
In 2019, I was ready. I found a luthier who was willing to help me bring this dream to life. It took over six months to make the first prototype, and not only did I learn a lot about guitar-making, but also the luthier learnt a lot about the saz instrument itself. We made a great team!
In October 2019, I launched the SazCo Electric Saz Guitar at The Guitar Show and we had a huge response from everyone; a lot of people who played it loved the instrument. Our journey for SazCo began.
Since then, I have exhibited at further UK Guitar Shows and we now have 4 colour models available.
It has always been a dream of mine to produce my own instruments and hopefully, in a year’s time, I will be selling these [saz’s] in music shops abroad, including in Turkiye and in Cyprus.
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Is Sazmania – Emotions your first album and which parts did you perform on it?
Yes, Sazmania – Emotions is my first album. All 12 compositions are a mine, and I not only played all the seven different types of saz in the album, but I also played and composed all the music as well. I also play keyboards, piano and Turkish percussion instruments on the tracks.
How did Sazmania come about?
The concept and inspiration for my Sazmania album started when I was about 15. I used to listen to a lot of saz music by Arif Sağ, Musa Eroğlu, Selda and Zulfu Livaneli.I learnt a lot about music just by listening to their albums and especially to (singer) Ahmet Kaya’s songs.
The inspiration for some of the songs on my album are from a Greek composer named Yanni who lives in the USA. Some of my pieces are with saz and symphony, which I was inspired to use because of the different instruments featured in Yanni’s music. I hope that one day I will meet him to say thank you for his music and that he inspired me to produce my album.
Did you collaborate with anyone for the album?
The first track on Sazmania – Emotions is a collaboration with another band named Lion Riddims. They did the backing track for this piece, as I wanted it to have a bit of a reggae sound. I added all the saz, strings and flute elements, which I think blended in very well.
I also produced a music video to this track with my brother Serdar Ormandji whilst in Istanbul a few years ago, which I enjoyed every second of.
What’s the story behind the songs on Sazmania?
Every track really has its own a story or inspiration behind them. Each of the tracks to me are like a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Each one tells a different story that I hope will send people on a journey, like it did to me when I was producing them.
The oldest composition on the album is a track called “Rain”, which I composed almost 30 years ago. I had just purchased my first professional keyboard, a 4-track recorder, plus mic’s and an Atari music software machine. I was so excited and Rain was one of the pieces that I composed with this equipment.
When I finished the piece, I didn’t really know what to name it until one night, when I had finished recording all the saz parts using the microphone. I realised the mic was picking up the rain hitting my window in the portacabin I had in my parents’ garden at the time, and that’s when the coin dropped that I should call this piece “Rain.” It’s the longest track on the album and musically it means a lot to me.
How are you planning to promote the album?
My dream is to next create some music videos in the coming months to complement some of these musical pieces. My ultimate dream is to play with a live symphony orchestra and perform these tracks in a concert.
When and how did you get into music and to play the saz?
My passion for Turkish music started when I was about 7-8 years old. I remember sitting at home in the 70s listening to Turkish music on the radio with my mum and dad. There was always a certain type of music and sound I used to hear that I loved so much, but I never knew what the instruments were or even who the singers were because in those days we only had radio to listen to Turkish music in the UK and not TV.
It turned out that the particular type of music I loved to listen to was called Türkü, which is basically traditional Turkish folk music, and the main instrument that was used was a saz, but I never knew what this instrument looked like till a few years later.
I remember going to Turkish weddings with my mum and dad, and I would be excited just because I was going to hear music live. I remember seeing people playing the electric saz, and it’s then that I saw what a saz looked like and I immediately knew that I wanted to play this [instrument] as well.
In December 1983, me and my whole family went on holiday to North Cyprus to visit relatives and it’s then when I finally saw a real acoustic saz instrument and also got to play one.
When one of my older cousins returned back from his studies in Ankara, he had in his hand something in a big black sleeve. At first, I didn’t know what this was until he took it out and it was then that I realised it was a saz. He sat down and started playing it, and oh my God, it was that very moment that I fell in love with this instrument and I immediately asked him if he would teach me how to play it.
I spent every day of the next 3 weeks of that holiday learning what a saz is, how to hold it, how to tune it. My cousin also taught me the basics of music.
I was so keen to learn to play that I learnt my first song in just 3 days! It was a song called “Leylim Ley”, which remains one of my favourite songs.
On the last day of my holiday, my cousin gave me my first music book with different songs in it, so I could keep practising in London. Incredibly, he also gave me his saz as a present, which I still keep to this very day. I was so excited to have my own saz, it was unreal.
When I got back to London, I didn’t stop playing that saz day and night. I would buy Turkish music cassettes by various artists such as Arif Sağ, Musa Eroğlu, Selda and Zulfu Livaneli, just so I could pick up different techniques and styles. As a youngster, I also learned there was different types of saz, including one called a bağlama, which had a shorter neck than my own instrument.
My saz playing career started properly when I was 15 years old, through attending a Turkish [supplementary] school at Langham School in Wood Green on Saturday mornings. This is where I made other Turkish friends who also played the saz; it was the best days of my life!
As a group of young musicians, we played cultural festivals, concerts, parties, and international evenings, which essentially was the start of my music performance career.
We went on to create a band called “Nidalar” as all of our musical instruments were made by a company called Nida. We used to play at home parties, Kına Geceler [Henna nights for brides to be], birthdays, etc.
Then, in 1985, we formed a band called “Hatiralar” with my older cousin Yusuf Mertcan. There were eight of us in all and till today the band is still going.
I left them in 1991 to form another band with my old Turkish school friend, Ibrahim, who first got me to play an electric saz. We called our new group “Sevenler”, which is also still going today.
It always makes me happy to see both bands playing at weddings, knowing that my passion for the saz and music helped start these bands. The musicians in these bands taught me about other instruments and also how to record digitally.
In 1995 I started to create my own compositions and made my first proper recording using my 4-track recorder, a Korg X3 keyboard and an Atari computer, which I use to sequence my music pieces. I created 8 songs and produced my own album named “Donmeyen Saat” meaning the non-turning clock. I made 12 copies on cassette tape, which I gave to close friends and family.
I promised myself that one day I would produce a professional album of my own compositions and would let the world know what I can do with the power of the Saz family of instruments.
Where can people listen to and buy Sazmania Emotions?
The album came out in October and it is available to listen to and buy from all major digital platforms, including iTunes Music, Spotify, YouTube Music, Amazon, and more.
Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
I want to send a positive message to all the young Turkish Cypriots kids and also adults that anything is possible, and to never give up.