You might think of Xavier Thomas’ most recent album, “débruit & istanbul,” as a musical travelogue. For Thomas, who records adventurous electronic music under the name Débruit, the record is as much a portrait of Istanbul's diverse, colorful music scene as it is a recollection of a crazy two-week trip to the city on the Bosphorus.
“Every time I needed to meet someone in the city, I’d be discovering the city at the same time,” Thomas recalls. “It was always a journey, an inspiration. That’s why I called [the album] “débruit & istanbul” — because the city was a collaborator. Every collaboration was a little journey, an exchange, and a way of fitting worlds together."
On commission from Belgium’s Europalia Arts Festival, Thomas — who is originally from the Brittany province of France, and currently resides in Brussels — took two weeks to traverse Istanbul, arriving on the doorsteps of both veteran and younger performers, encouraging them to play whatever music felt natural while he rolled the tape. He took those recordings and worked them into the album.
“Débruit & istanbul” spans droney psychedelia (“Duman,” featuring saz master Murat Ertel), rustic folk (“Dalga,” featuring Romani clarinetist Cüneyt Sepetçi), and murky percussion (“Galata,” featuring eccentric jazz fusionist Okay Temiz) all under Thomas’ brooding, crackling electronic umbrella.
The track “Kaciyorum” is a collaboration with Gaye Su Akyol, a singer from the city’s younger generation who channels Turkey’s rebellious folk-rock tradition. Director Yaniv De Ridder made the music video for the song using old-school analog techniques, recording found footage off a computer monitor with a film camera and then manipulating that footage with an analog mixer.
When De Ridder heard the track for the first time, "I could totally feel and imagine the colors and the vibe for it,” he says. "The lyrics [talk about] 'running in Istanbul,' and I had pretty cool footage of a person running, which became the key scene in the music video."
Like De Ridder’s video, Thomas’ music has a vintage, ‘70s inspired sound. He also has a globally-attuned ear, which in the past has bent toward whatever the occasion demands. On the marvelous “Aljawal” album, for instance, he collaborated with Sudanese-American singer Alsarah for a sound both crisp and lively; on the Afrobeat-inspired “From the Horizon,” the mood is ecstatic and hyper-rhythmic.
On a recent visit to Los Angeles, Thomas stopped by the studio at dublab and DJ’d a selection of the Turkish music that inspires him. Below, stream the set and read Thomas’ thoughts on a few of the tracks.
“Débruit & istanbul” Tracklist:
- Selda Bağcan - "İnce İnce Bir Kar Yağar"
- Okay Temiz - "Denizaltı Rüzgarları"
- Ayşe Güzin Sokullu & Baha Boduroğlu - "Olamam Ki"
- Arif Sağ - "Lambaya Püf De"
- Neşe Karaböcek - "Çayelinden Öteye/Yali Yali"
- Mustafa Özkent - "Burçak Tarlası"
- Özdemir Erdoğan - “Gurbet"
- Moğollar - "Hitchin"
- Arşivplak - "Volga Nehri / Coban Yildizi"
- Débruit feat. Gaye Su Akyol - "KACIYORUM"
Selda Bağcan - "İnce İnce Bir Kar Yağar"
"In the ‘70s, Selda was a very politically engaged singer, and she did a lot of protest songs — she’s a very strong woman,” Thomas says. "I didn’t collaborate with her, unfortunately — she’s too big I think. But I love her music."
In fact, it was Bağcan’s music that largely sparked Thomas’ foray into Turkish music. "[U.K. label] Finders Keepers did a reissue of ‘Selda’ [Bağcan’s 1976 album] and I got into that. It’s folk and it can be a bit psychedelic, and there’s a bit of synthesizer. This record was really an inspiration, and I needed to hear more straight away."
Also an inspiration to Thomas is Bağcan’s uncompromising activism. "There’s a famous song where she tells journalists to write about what’s happening in the country, [saying] ‘don’t shut your mouth.’ There’s a parallel with what’s happening now in Istanbul, with freedom of speech. The city needs a young Selda to activate people, to bring people together with one voice."
Okay Temiz - "Denizaltı Rüzgarları"
Okay Temiz, a Turkish jazz fusion percussionist who once collaborated with American trumpeter Don Cherry, was the hardest collaborator for Thomas to pin down on his recording trip to Istanbul. “While I was there, I tried to convince him to be on the record — which he knew about, but he pretended he didn’t,” Thomas recalls. “I had to go back three times to his studio and convince him. He just made me prove myself and he tested my motivation. Now, I visit him every time [I go to Istanbul]. It was a very special encounter."
Thomas considers Temiz’s contributions to “débruit & istanbul” to be more like field recordings rather than studio creations. "I didn’t want to influence him too much,” he says. “I’ve tried to do that before, and people just try to play something they think you want. I just want their style, as deep as it can be."
Of "Denizaltı Rüzgarları," Thomas says: "I really like synthetic sounds, and there’s a bit of that here, and a bit of fusion. Temiz plays the cuíca, this Brazilian percussive instrument. I just like the sound of it."
Arif Sağ — “Lambaya Püf De”
One of the key sounds on “débruit & istanbul” is the saz — a guitar-like stringed instrument that features prominently in both traditional and alternative music in Turkey. For the record, Thomas collaborated with saz player Murat Ertel, founder of Istanbul rock group Baba Zula.
“The saz has a magical sound,” says Thomas. "The way people play it, it has to be connected with really strong feelings, really strong emotions. And Arif Sag is one of the geniuses of this instrument.
"If you go to London to the Turkish neighborhood, [many of] the little kids carry them on their backs,” Thomas continues. "When they [learn to play music], I guess that’s the instrument they pick. The shape of the instrument is so recognizable, they can’t hide it."
Neşe Karaböcek - "Çayelinden Öteye/Yali Yali"
"There's a long intro with an organ and this beautiful voice,” Thomas says of "Çayelinden Öteye/Yali Yali." “You can really feel the emotion, and also the technique. The musical scale is different, there are more notes than [Western listeners] are used to, so for some people it feels like it’s on the edge of [dissonance]. But for me, that’s when it triggers something really special."
Thomas’ most recent travels have taken him to Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he made recordings that will feature in his next record. When Thomas played the track for a local musician, the musician broke down in tears. “We were shooting a video at a sound system, and I played this track, and this guy in the band just totally opened up to the sound of this voice," Thomas recalls.
Mustafa Özkent — “Burçak Tarlası”
Like Bağcan, Mustafa Özkent first became known to Western audiences and the world at large thanks to a reissue by Finders Keepers. His album “Gençlik Ile Elele” is funky, eastern-tinged party music.
Özkent was one of the collaborators Thomas knew he had to have for “débruit & istanbul.” “He picked me up in his car, we went to his house, we had a few beers, and he showed me all his work from back in the day on tape and vinyl," Thomas recalls.
Later, Thomas says, "I saw him play in Brussels and he got really emotional. He’s a session musician, and he hadn’t ever played music in front of people. Suddenly, there he was playing this music in front of [an audience], and people were going crazy. It was really touching. And the gig was amazing."