Okbari: Armenian and Anatolian Folk Music

What the folk?

Okbari explore Armenia and Anatolia

Raise your hand if you know where Anatolia is.


That’s unfair. I’m sure some of you were geography majors in college and are totally aware of Anatolia’s crucial place in the creation of civilization. You might also know it as Asia Minor (that’s a place I could pick out on a map), the peninsula that forms the Asian part of Turkey and was named by the Greeks in reference to that land east of Constantinople (now known as Istanbul, as any They Might Be Giants fan is well aware).

As the bridge between Asia and Europe, it is very much the Middle East and saw Phrygians, Cimmerians, Lydians, Persians, Celts, Tabals, Greeks, Assyrians, Armenians, Romans, Goths, Kurds and many more cultures set up shop among its mountains and plains between the Black and Mediterranean seas. As you might imagine, that has led to an incredibly rich culture in what is now Turkey, and Okbari have done us all a serious service by honoring the memory of their mentor, Alan Shavarash Bardezbanian (aka Al Gardner), with a 14-song disc exploring the musical heritage of Anatolia and Armenia, a musical heritage Bardezbanian brought to Maine, virtually unassisted for decades, before he died far too early in late 2006, at the age of 56.

The unassumingly titled Armenian and Anatolian Folk Music is enjoyable on its own merits, with impeccable playing of often upbeat and danceable tunes that ought to appeal most to bluegrass and math rock fans. It is also, however, a reason to think about a region of the world most of us don’t know a great deal about.

Okbari have done this for us before. Amos Libby and Eric LaPerna released a self-titled disc this time last year, and introduced themselves to Portland and beyond with their debut full-length, By the Banks of the Red River, in 2004. Both times, I marveled at their ability to take the foreign and make it familiar, in a time when so much of our attention is focused on the very volatile part of the world from which the pair take their musical inspiration.

What they most succeed in doing is conveying a sense of how old and textured this music is. Compared to the poppy indie and radio rock that mostly comes across my desk, this sounds positively ancient, which, of course, it is. My favorite tune, “Rompi Rompi,” is popular enough that I found a translation telling me it’s about a savvy trader named Rompi who’s encouraged to “let Halime’s navel jiggle.” The song has swagger, with LaPerna’s quick percussion punctuated by hand claps and Libby’s vocals seemingly unable to resist cries of “hai!” (This is apparently the song to play for a dancer who requests a “karsilama,” or song in 9/8, and Wikipedia tells me that some international folk dance clubs do a line dance to the piece.) 

Without trying to get too political, it’s hard not to think about how arrogant Americans are when you hear this stuff, like a bunch of toddlers refusing to listen to their parents. Our 300-odd years of history seem like the blink of an eye compared to the millennia that have gone into the creation of these folk songs. The range of the stringed oud, both bassy and bright, is like the breadth of the region’s history.

Some of the coolest contrast comes when cultures seem to collide. In “Elimon Ektim Tasa,” a brief 2:20, the oud opens things with ripping single notes, then is joined by a clarinet that could double as a kazoo. Sometimes, the song could be the happiest you’ve ever heard, which may not always jibe with Western impressions of Turkey and its larger region. “Chinarboyev” features Libby’s voice rolling and fluctuating like the latest American Idol, though the lyrics are delivered with the crisp intonation of a lecturer in applied physics.

Or how about this for traditional meeting contemporary? If you google “Telgrafin Telleri,” the title of track five, the first result is a Youtube video of the comely “Jennifer” entertaining a crowd with a plenty-sexy belly dance accompanied by Snakes Rising. Technology is a wonderful thing.  The longest song here at 5:51, “Telleri” is the closest thing Okbari get to a lament, with a spare oud opening evolving into a strum that supports a quavering vocal.

It’s a moment to reflect on Bardezbanian’s impact on Okbari, but they don’t let it linger. Their take on the rest of his personal favorites is just too fun for looking back.