Teslim: Just Don't Call it Fusion 

Oakland duo travels on a Mediterranean journey.

Teslim's first album, a journey into the folkloric music of Greece, Turkey, and the Sephardic continuum, came about by accident. Fiddler Kaila Flexer had been planning a benefit concert, and when her collaborator cancelled at the last moment, Gari Hegedus stepped in. Hegedus plays oud, lavta, baglama, pennywhistle, frame drums, and other instruments common to the Mediterranean and Middle East. "We found we knew a lot of the same repertoire, which was surprising," Flexer recalled. "I've collaborated with other musicians, but we clicked in a way I hadn't experienced in a long time."

Hegedus inspired Flexer to compose music that came from her heart and soul, not just her head. "I'd always been drawn to things that were clever or quirky, a more mental approach to playing and writing," she continued. "After that evening, music without an emotional component didn't hold my attention anymore."

Flexer and Hegedus began playing together as Teslim (pronounced "tess leem") about four years ago. Teslim is a Turkish word, Flexer explained, meaning "commit" or "surrender." "It's usually used in a religious sense, but in music the teslim is also the chorus you return to after your improvisational journey," she said. "We liked both aspects of the word."

On its self-titled debut released last year, the duo creates music that's meditative and exciting, with songs that unfold like a blossoming rose, slowly shifting tempos, timbres, and colors as it pulls you deeper into its transcendental pulse. Hegedus plays a propulsive frame drum rhythm on "El Meod N'ala (God Is Very Devine)," a Sephardic melody with Arab violin accents that give the music the relentless swing of Turkish Sufi music. "Stone's Throw," a composition by Flexer, has a melancholy Celtic sound. The sighing nyckelharpa of guest artist Olov Johansson, from Swedish folk band Väsen, and Hegedus' viola add to the tune's yearning aura.

Flexer began playing Irish fiddle music as a child. "In grammar school they told me fiddle was the hardest instrument to play, but I discovered I had an affinity for it," she said. She studied music at UC Santa Cruz, where she heard the klezmer band the Klezmorim. "They got me interested in other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern sounds, which led me to Sephardic music and back to my Jewish roots. I loved the way Sephardic music adapted and adopted the music of the countries the Sephardim landed in after their expulsion from Spain, particularly in Morocco." Flexer also discovered the Bulgarian wedding music of Ivo Papasov, which opened the possibilities of playing in 9/8, 5/4, and other tempos that sound odd to ears brought up on American pop music's static 4/4.

Some of Teslim's repertoire uses the maqam, a system of modes used in Turkish and Arabic music, Flexer explained. Meaning "situation," maqam includes many divisions within a whole step. In the West, for example, there are half steps between the notes D and E. But in Arab music, Flexer said, there are nine divisions, or komas, that vary depending on the maqam. "Each division is like a different shade of a particular color rather than an unrelated color," she said. "Our Western ears aren't used to some of these notes, but when you start to recognize these colors, the effect they have on you is really powerful. It reaches something deep inside that's hard to describe."

Flexer says Teslim doesn't set out to consciously write music that sounds Turkish or Greek, but "when you're steeped in these styles, it comes out." "We love many different Mediterranean and Middle Eastern musical traditions, and the fact that we might compose a piece using a tuning from one tradition with a rhythm from another is just the same cross-pollination that has been going on for centuries," she said. "I know we have a problem trying to let people know what kind of music we make without a neat marketing term, so I don't care what you call it. Just don't call it fusion."

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