Scented and spiced with the rich cultural and musical heritage of Istanbul, Dalmak is a distinctively flavoured listen. The quartet of Esmerine, led by cellist Rebecca Foon and Bruce Cawdron – formerly the drummer of Godspeed You! Black Emperor – have created a mystical, beautifully fragrant bloom of exotic instrumentation and diversity through sound. Esmerine have added two musicians to their roster, with the inclusion of percussionist Jamie Thompson and multi-instrumentalist Brian Sanderson.
After the quartet’s European tour, Esmerine were invited back to Istanbul, returning for an artist residency in the city. Dalmak is the result of their time spent in Istanbul, a rich, intense period that had a massive influence on their music. Dalmak doesn’t just breathe out the sweet, aromatic air of Istanbul, it sweats out the city in husky, shaded tones; an inter-continental journey that re-imagines the modern classical topography. The dusty cello is placed alongside a host of eclectic instruments, peppered and then fused into the mix succinctly and bravely. The instruments of bendir, darbuka, erbane, meh (which may just be the coolest name for a musical instrument), a barama and saz all feature, and then there is something called an electric guitar…
The word Dalmak is a Turkish verb: for contemplation, absorption, to dive into, to bathe. Fittingly, Esmerine have drenched themselves not only within the verb’s definition and titular use, but in the music of Istanbul. Esmerine’s native homeland may be Canada, but the music of Dalmak crosses the continents with the slice of a gliding bow. The vibrant chaos of the city engulfs the atmosphere, but the music also engulfs the city; the music is a reflection of the city. Flares of intense fire cloud the skyline with strong, spicy rhythms and highly focused, articulate melodies.
Despite Istanbul being a lively city, the music never feels cluttered or dazed by the whole experience. You can easily imagine yourself walking through a colourful bazaar, thoroughly absorbed in the aura and the scent of the city. Esmerine cut through the streets, but they also, expertly, cut through any musical differences the two nations may have, unleashing their hybrid at the humid, arid street level among the flavours of the city; their intricate layers of harmony sizzle in thick, ornate pots, while their percussion speeds along at full throttle, down the dusty backstreets that lead through the districts of the city. Esmerine chop the different musical philosophies in half, and create new, lasting ties in place of the old order.
It isn’t long before the music contemplatively broods, settling down for awhile but never for long; the atmosphere, much like the city, is always alive, constantly flourishing with some beautiful, exotic harmonies that have been left to free-roam the streets, meandering with purpose and unpredictability. Snaking melodies border on the middle-eastern; a sound that immerses itself in the very atmosphere of Istanbul.
The two sections of ‘Lost River Blues’ make for an intoxicating hybrid, entwined with dusky shadows and a humid, instrumental climate. You could say that each instrument is a different aroma, rising up and out of the famous bazaar in the old city. The second part introduces some pounding percussive rhythms with a delectable dramatic flare, the dynamics rising into the red and winding itself tightly around the melody, a fluid, uncoiling chant, brimming with the potency of thick smoke.
‘Hayale Dalmak’ injects a slower, meditative pace into the proceedings, relieving the dramatic with a deep, peaceful contrail. Esmerine’s intensity levels are a real shot in the arm. At times, melodies are plucked quietly, arcing as delicately as black eyelashes, but they never deviate from what is at the center – an intense cauldron of dynamic fire and free flowing passion.
It’s a listen of brutal intensity and beautiful celebration; a true mirror of musical and cultural diversity, chained together at last – they needn’t be continents apart.