Olcay Bayır breathes new life into Anatolia’s rich musical heritage

Olcay Bayir

Sometimes you hear a debut album and get completely blown away by its quality and feel. Olcay Bayır’s Neva / Harmony is such an album. Meandering like the subtidal currents connecting the area partly kissed by the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea, Olcay has woven the many musical threads of Anatolian culture into a warm and magnificently colourful tapestry of sound.

Yes, Olcay Bayır wanders far and wide throughout her album, but remains nevertheless firmly grounded in the fertile multicultural soil of her roots: Anatolia. A soil permeated by centuries of travellers -merchants, musicians, soldiers, poets and pilgrims alike- who brought along with them not only goods and good intentions but a vast repertoire of songs well. As it borders Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, Anatolia became both framed and faceted by numerous cultures and traditions.

Born into a Turkish-Kurdish musical family, Olcay was actively exposed to cultural and musical diversity from early age onwards. Her father, an ashık (a mystical troubadour) hosted musical gatherings at home. “Most of the songs I recorded for this album were sung to me when I was a girl,” says Olcay. “These musical traditions truly have become part of me. I’ve been rendering my soul in song since I was six years old.”

Leaving the south eastern Turkish region of Gaziantep (aka Antep) to study classical opera in London, Olcay brought the gems of her personal musical treasure chest with her. She performed solo and with ensembles of musicians over the years. When one listens online to recordings of Olcay back then and the songs recorded on ‘Neva’, the most striking difference is not so much her velvety soprano but the sense of harmonious completeness of the musical accompaniment she enjoys on the album. For Olcay renders each song with a natural ease, elegance and mastery as if she has been a recording artist all her life.

On Neva you perform sounds, scales and modes from various traditions and regions in Anatolia with a group of ten musicians. Since you used to perform solo or in an ensemble setting, I imagine it was quite an undertaking to find the right kind of people to work with. How did you get connected?
“Initially, when I started searching for the right sound, I was discussing my insights and plans with a number of people. I found out it did take time, indeed, to discover who resonated in tune with what I envisioned. My brother joined me, as well as some friends and people with whom I’ve been working for a while. I also got in touch with musicians via friends and my network in the music scene. Perhaps it’s surprising we are all London-based, given our varying backgrounds. Three of us hail from Turkey; the others come from Greece, Albania, England, Wales and Venezuela.”

It may well be due to Olcay’s conscious departing point and the various roots of everyone involved that Neva conveys a strong sound of truthfulness and mutual musical understanding. However, as silky smooth and thus seemingly ‘simple’ as the album sounds, as complex and demanding are both the vocal and musical styles employed on it.

The album opens with an inviting violin solo which preludes the merry drum of an up-beat Albanian love song, ‘Jarnana’, which makes you want to get up and dance in enjoyment and anticipation. It is followed by an Ottoman cafe song which is related to the 1922 disaster of Smyrna: the city burned, many people died and the majority of its Greek and Armenian inhabitants were exiled. It might also relate to the 1923 tragedy of Asia Minor, when the horrific population exchange between Greece and Turkey based upon religious affiliation tore the region apart. This Greek song, ‘Mia Smyrnia sto parathiri’ (‘My Smyrna at the window’) is a good example of the syncretic Greek rembetiko tradition which flourished in Anatolia especially in Smyrna and Constantinople. This tradition became popular again amongst younger Greek and Turkish generations seeking rapprochement from the 1960s onwards. Usually, the melodies in these rembetiko songs are based upon Turkish modes, which are very close to the maqam known from Arab musical traditions. However, rembetiko songs became more tuned to the Western harmonic system since they were performed on instruments that were capable of playing Western chords.

A similar blending of tonal systems can be heard in the Armenian traditional ‘Mer Dan’ (‘My home’), although this song centres more in the Turkish melodic range. It unfolds itself gently but melancholically, like a nightingale traversing an atmosphere of painful longing. Here, the sound of the clarinet and frame drum is as reminiscent of the Central Asian heights as Olcay’s voice.
Surprising reggae beats, Balkan grooves and gypsy jazz elements emanate from ‘Benim yarım’, a song composed by Olcay’s brother Erdoğan and rearranged by Olcay. The exclamation ‘Aman!’ in the song connects it lightly to the lyrical range of ambiguous Sufi songs: aman means ‘mercy’ in Turkish and ‘peace’ or ‘safety’ in Arabic. Sufi poetry often blurs the distinction between the human ‘game’ of love and the passionate yearning for spiritual union with the Divine. In such poetry, ‘wine’ usually symbolises ‘God’.
The next song, ‘Min bêriya te kiriye’, is a well-known Kurdish traditional which was first rendered in song in the second half of the 20th century by the famous Kurdish poet, writer, singer and musician Şivan Perwer. In 2003, he recorded a live album which bears the same title. Olcay’s rendition is fresh and poignant; its presence on her album a statement in itself.

Olcay’s rendition is fresh and poignant

A Sephardic lullaby draws the attention of the listener to the Jewish minority in Turkey, once more prevalent than these days. Sultan Beyazid II, who reigned from 1481 till 1512, formally invited the Jews to the Ottoman Empire when they had to flee especially Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Reconquista. Many of them found shelter and a new home in Anatolian cities and villages, but especially in Constantinople and Salonika, present-day Thessaloniki in Greek Macedonia.
Hauntingly beautiful is Olcay’s spun-out rendition of ‘Melamet hırkası’ (‘The Cardigan of Modesty’), a mystical poem cherished by many of Turkish descent. It is attributed to the 17th century Alevi-Bektashi poet Nesîmî, who lived at the time of the Ottoman conquest of Baghdad in 1640. In English, his poem runs as follows:

“I wore the cardigan of modesty on me
Threw the bottle of rectitude on the ground, who cares
Haydar, Haydar, I threw it, who cares!
Devotees say
It’s sinful, the wine of my love
It’s me that pours and drinks the wine
It’s a sin of mine, who cares
Haydar Haydar, it’s my sin, who cares!
Sometimes I fly high above
Watching the earth
Sometimes I go down on earth
The earth watches me
Haydar, Haydar, the earth watches me

Go ask Nesîmî:
Are you and your lover getting along well?
Whatever the answer is
She’s my lover, who cares
Haydar, Haydar, she’s my lover, who cares!”

This 17th century poetry refers to the mystic cult of the Melamîlik, that considers modesty, humiliation and living in purity the most important concepts to embody in life. In the mystical strand of Alevism (non-related to Shi`ism), Haydar is one of the names of Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s son in law. Haydar can also mean ‘a brave lion’ or ‘eternal life’ –symbolic attributes denoted by Alevis to Ali.The charming, grounding Balkan flavours of the subsequent song entitled ‘Penceresi yola karşı’ allow for a steady descent to earth again. Olcay rounds the album off on a tender, promising note with another Kurdish traditional: the lullaby ‘Lay lay’.

Having listened to Neva countless times, its vocal and musical refinement remind in a way of the oeuvre and musical accompaniment of another lady singer, one of great stature in traditional syncretic folk music worldwide: Loreena McKennit. Olcay Bayır arises like a multilingual Anatolian avatar of this renowned Canadian lady bard, since she possesses a similar grace to render stories with an authenticity and emotional intensity that moves one to the core. But mere comparison falls short on Olcay’s merits, as she decisively has a style of her own.

Like a charming, proud, mysterious woman shrouded in layers of colourful garb, Neva can be generous and joyful, rhythmic and sensual but also contemplative and modest, inviting and soothing; drawn to the Divine, lamenting loss or celebrating the moment –but always, always honouring her ancestors.

Olcay Bayır’s debut album Neva / Harmony was released 27 October 2014 at Riverboat Records. Her next performance is on 23 January 2015 at SOAS London, UK. For more information, visit Olcay’s website. You can follow her on Facebook, too. Olcay’s page on the website of World Music Network offers sound bites of Neva.


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