Kayhan Kalhor review for RootsWorld

My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of an atmospheric collaboration centered around kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor, who ECM listeners may recognize as half of Ghazala. This album is sure to be of particular interest to ECM fans. Click the cover to read more and hear samples.


Kayhan Kalhor/Erdal Erzincan: The Wind (ECM 1981)

The Wind

The Wind

Kayhan Kalhor kamancheh
Erdal Erzincan baglama
Ulaş Özdemir divan baglama
Recorded November 2004 at Itü Miam Dr. Erol Üçer Studio, Istanbul
Engineer: Mustafa Kemal Öztürk
Produced by Kayhan Kalhor and Manfred Eicher

The Wind is a significant way station in the travels of kamancheh (Iranian spike fiddle) virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor and baglama (an oud-like Turkish instrument, also known as the saz) master Erdal Erzincan, who under its name are captured on record together for the first time. Ghosting them is Ulaş Özdemir, the musicologist who aided Kalhor in his search for musical material during research trips to Istanbul, and who plays the divan baglama (bass saz) almost like a tambura, stretching a droning sky across which the duo may fly.

Improvisation is of primary importance in Kalhor and Erzincan’s world of sound—so much so that the performance documented here feels like one long freeform variation, divided though it is into 12 parts.The baglama has a haunting insistence about it, which tills soil until Kalhor’s bow comes sprouting through. The latter seems at first like a trick of the ear, for its verbs conjugate by way of a most understated grammar. As it becomes more faithfully inscribed, gathering minnows and courage from every limpid pool, Kalhor’s spirit billows like parachute silk between elements, of which the album’s titular wind is but one of many. Every gust of air keeps him afloat, but also reminds us of the importance of rootedness. And all of this in the album’s first six minutes.

Part II moves in swaying patterns and, like much of what follows, practices the wisdom of restraint even at its most eruptive moments. From here, the album turns fragmentary, dialogic corners, ping-ponging motifs across a divine net according to subtler rules of play. Strum-heavy passages (Part IV) are balanced by holy unions (Part V), marking slow escalation into clouds near to bursting with melody. As territories expand, so too does the capacity for these musicians to breathe. An open circuit in search of a conductor, they unleash electrical charge from the friction of their dance. Erzincan’s fingerwork in Part X inspires Kalhor to just such a lightning bolt of expression, the overtones of which are almost deafening in their affect. Kalhor’s pizzicato action in Part XI spins a different cyclone before the bittersweetness of farewell sets us on our way.

Kalhor and Erzincan inhabit everything they play as bees inhabit a hive, wagging to invisible rhythms and joining the almighty hum that activates every soul to buzz its wings. What we have, then, is the honey.

Kayhan Kalhor/Erdal Erzincan: Kula Kulluk Yakışır Mı (ECM 2181)

Kula Kulluk Yakışır Mı

Kayhan Kalhor
Erdal Erzincan
Kula Kulluk Yakışır Mı

Kayhan Kalhor kamancheh
Erdal Erzincan baglama
Recorded live February 2011 at Bursa Ugur Mumcu Sahnesi by Emre Teke
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

In his book Global Minstrels: Voices of World Music, author-musician Elijah Wald describes Kayhan Kalhor, Iranian master of the kamānche (spiked fiddle), as a “one-man cultural ambassador.” As revealed in that same text, Kalhor educates as intensely as he plays, peddling music not as cultural snake oil but as an opportunity to cross divides. Through his collaborations with such influential acts as the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, he has continued to hone his sense of global community. Yet none of his journeys have taken him as far as those with Anatolian virtuoso Erdal Erzincan, whose lithe touch on the bağlama (a Turkish long-necked lute) has proven fire to his smoke. The result of their joint ambassadorship is an exchange of musical interests, passions, and respect in selfless conversation.

Their first collaboration, 2004’s The Wind, introduced a duo that could not only think out loud, but also feel out loud. On that landmark document the heritages of both musicians bore hybrid fruit, with behind-the-scenes assistance from musicologist Ulaş Özdemir, in a program that was equal parts thematic portaging and free sailing. From that debut arose an ongoing collaboration, which on Kula Kulluk Yakışır Mı offers hungry listeners plenty more to digest. This follow-up shares its title, which translates as “How unseemly it is to follow anyone slavishly,” with a folk song by Muhlis Akarsu, a modern bağlama hero whose life tragically ended in the 1993 Sivas Massacre. True to Akarsu’s steadfast character, slavishness is farthest from the reality of this performance, recorded live in Turkey in early 2011.

Kalhor and Erdal
(Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

On Kula Kulluk Yakışır Mı, Kalhor and Erzincan deepen their mutual interest in improvisation, sprouting five spontaneous leaves from traditional branches in an hour of uninterrupted playing. The first of those improvisations opens to the bağlama’s unique insistence, its oud-like twang foiling the rasp of Kalhor’s horsehairs before shifting into the folk song “Allı Turnam.” This juxtaposition of the unplanned and the internalized sets the pattern.

Although the improvised portions are distinct from their evergreen counterparts, both draw upon the remembered and the unknown. Classical standbys like “Deli Derviş” and the title track inspire cheers of approval and recognition from the audience. At key moments, the musicians get swept up in the power of it all, building from simple elements to powerful abandon. “Daldalan Barı” is a notable highlight of the concert’s first half in this regard, especially for the way in which Kalhor reaches skyward with his notes in the final stretch. Yet the duo saves its most transcendent moment for last when it blends a revisiting of “The Wind” into the multi-part “Intertwining Melodies,” the latter of which braids Persian and Turkish strands in a masterful summation.

With a single gesture, Kalhor and Erzincan manage to turn the “e” of “effect” into an “a,” filtering the golden light of their encounter into a musical experience so physical it would sprout legs and run if it could. These two sages embrace order, even as they convey the chaos of things, turning night into day.

(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine. To hear samples of Kula Kulluk Yakışır Mı, click here.)