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Minor Empire: Cool sound & shamanic mystique

Photo by Heicham Eid

If asked, how would you describe your impression of Turkish music?

If you’d had the opportunity to form one at all, it might sound something like this: initially you are impressed by the ornate vocal calligraphy, in misty scansion, as if echoing from high minarets.

Then you are hit by abstract musical vocabularies of disconnected intervals, spidery harps, and squeaky horns playing, like that sound you hear when blow on a tight blade of grass between your palms…

That is what you were thinking, right?

So try this one on: sexy electronic atmospheres with unwinding lyrical meditations, rolling through melodic modal changes, and outbursts of staccato percussion and cold fusion guitar pyrotechnics, with bass reverberations that spring into the realms of techno and dub: yikes! Can this also be Turkish music? Y’think?

Absolutely, yes! These qualities define the unique domain of Minor Empire, proud winners of the World Group of the Year Award at the 2011 CFMAs, with their new romantic, Ottoman-tic sounds, a magnetic cohesion of modern global musical thought, and virtuosic musicianship, formed and formulated here in Toronto.

Why so cool? I asked Ozan Boz, the band’s tidy architect, in a Bloor West cafe. “Because we do it from scratch.”

He speaks thoughtfully, “It’s all reflective of our Turkish roots, of course. We’ve paid attention to covering all of the geography and the various traditions of our country: Balkan, Black Sea, South East. But everyone tries to avoid stereotypical impressions of what they do. So we try not to sound like anyone else. It’s intuitive.”

In matters of intuition, he relies strongly upon his lissome vocalist and partner, Ozgu Ozman, whose shamanic mystique is the focus of their compelling live show.

As a result of the fall she took while entering the Isabel Bader Theatre on their victorious night at the CFMA’s, she has spent much of the year on crutches. Now on the verge of a summer tour, she has employed all the down-time in creating new songs.

“There is a screening process,” she smiles. ”To keep the music’s integral force, we have to have strong feelings about it. We isolate ourselves…carefully…to arrange the structures, the ideas, the unique qualities of each song.”

Ozan explains, “We start with simple things, but they have to be different. She will run upstairs and say, ‘Don’t stop playing that! That’s good!’ Then, without forcing, without formulation, we develop a sound. The unorthodox arrangements that we end up with are the products of the freedom we have to experiment and reflect. We create that freedom before we start to do the work.”

“We don’t care if it makes sense to others because it made sense to us,” Ozgu continues, “The goal is to not be afraid to put something out that you know is good.” They find that Canada provides the necessary fertility and freedom for song writing. Repression of the media is a sore spot in their homeland, which is otherwise a vibrant, competitive Islamic democracy.

“Turkey has been a bloodbath country throughout its history. The artists have to struggle to remain stable. This collective memory brings a lot of insecurity,” Ozan murmurs. “But we want that side to co-exist with our personal musical creation. The microtonal scales and meters are obviously Turkish, but there is a simultaneous feeling of where we are now, of the continuing heartbeat. It’s like two musics co-existing. It’s “Second Nature”, as our album title says. The terminology the press uses to describe the complexity of music hasn’t really expanded at the same rate as music has.”

The ineffable quality of Ozgu’s voice at the center of each song is the jewel from which the band radiates. Her charisma at center stage is both becalming and insurrectionary as the stream of her breathy voice urges the band and audience into deep feelings of longing and tranquility. “I rely on a lot of breath and chest voice for those meditative effects. The key is the breath coming in,” she confides. “We don’t do much post production on the voice,” smiles Ozan, proudly.

How important is it to be funky? “Very!” he insists. “I fool the dancers. I always place the beat squarely on the one, especially in the unusual time signatures. It feels like a strong downward kick, although the song may be in signatures of six, or seven or thirteen.”

Besides the print on the jewel case, there is no English on the disk. How do they communicate the cultural rudiments of their compositions to their Canadian cohort, including jazz guita r don Michael Occhipinti, progressive percussionist Debashis Sinha, and ambient bass strategist Chris Gartner?

“If I tell them the story of the lyrics, they can come to a response through innuendo, or abstraction,” says Ozgu. “We begin a song with a solo on the traditional saz or kanun to establish the terrain of the song” Ozan adds, “They understand what we are going for:” and he makes a lifting gesture, “The FEEL. There is a co-existence of different ideas. And they make some good calls.”

Michael Occhipinti identifies himself as “the improvising guy” in the outfit. “The melodies are so powerful that they create emotions which sustain lengthy improvisation,” he explains. “And Chris Gartner just makes everything so funky, you get sucked in.”

Part of this complex appeal is Michael’s use of electronic effects. “Like most guitarists, I’m not completely happy unless I’m stepping on a pedal. By manipulating sound and creating textures, a psychedelic quality comes out that’s really fun. It’s through juxtaposing folk music with some very modern ambience that Minor Empire achieves its transcendence.”

The addition of the intuitive Toronto trumpeter Lina Allemano to the current touring lineup promises further levels of sophistication in the live blend, as the band travels from the west coast through The Islands Folk Festival in Duncan B.C. July 20, The Mission Folk Festival July 21-22, Festival Place in Edmonton July 25, The Banff Centre July 27, and Toronto’s Harbourfront homecoming on July 28, prior to a grand finale at Hillside in Guelph July 29.

Inspiration galore will be provided by this young and innovative group of master players. Don’t miss the opportunity.

 

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