Eternal Roma 

Turkish percussionist-singer Burhan Öçal feels the Gypsy soul in his music. You will too.

Last week I sat down next to the low-hanging leaves of an olive tree and played Burhan Öçal's Gypsy Rum, a recording of traditional Gypsy music that Öçal and the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble made four years ago. Suddenly, I was transported to a land of grueling travel, mischief, pain, and lighthearted lust. Gypsy sound creates a world, and each of the instruments travels a road that has no apparent end. Torrid desire? It's there. Plaintive sorrow? That too. The clarinet, or zurna, worms its way across space seductively, and the zither (kunan) flits like an appreciative breeze. Beneath these melodic lines, the oud (lute) rolls on as smoothly as dark, solid ground, while the drums (darbouka) beat down like hot air, or cold snow, depending. This, I realized, is the metaphysical geography of Gypsy music, and, if you ever dreamed of running away with the first caravan to cross your path, you'll fit right in.

Öçal, who plays at Zellerbach for one night this Friday (8 p.m., 510-642-9988,, comes from the area once known as Thrace near the northwestern corner of Turkey, close to the mountainous Bulgarian border, not far from the Black Sea, and several hours from Istanbul. A daring drummer and gripping vocalist from a family of amateur musicians, he is hailed as a musical encyclopedia who can rip on multiple instruments. While Öçal describes a life at the ethnic crossroads that includes Greek, Balkan, and Jewish traditions, his early and deepest love was Gypsy music. A boyish desire to be a Gypsy is still with him, and he says he is happy to be mistaken for Roma by Gypsies themselves. When asked why during a phone interview from the Florida leg of the group's national tour, he says simply, "They are so nice. They are so talented. They are cool."

For Öçal's youthful circumcision, he asked his father to get a loud Gypsy band with four drummers. He wanted music so thunderous it would cover his cries during the ritual presided over by a near-blind Muslim official with a sharp razor. Even though he got fewer drummers, the band not only blanketed his howls, but the sheer energy of their music helped him recover quickly enough, he marvels, so that he was able to dance before the weekend-long party was over. No wonder that, as a young boy, the sensual power of the music was clear to him. "Gypsy music is moving all the time, and all the pieces have a secret message," Öçal says. "Many of them are erotic. It conveys the real life."

Öçal is also a renowned vocalist, singing with a voice that smolders with sensuality. He has his mother to thank for his voice training, while his father, a businessman who ran movie theaters, introduced him to American jazz and Hollywood films. Is it any wonder that Öçal thinks of Gypsy music and jazz as essentially the same, or that he is able to veer off into collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, the Kronos Quartet, or Jamaaladeen Tacuma of Ornette Coleman's band? Musical and geographic boundaries are something the Roma people have never much cared for. Gypsies historically go where they need to and play the music they find. So does Burhan Öçal.


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