Souped-up tradition

“We’re playing totally traditional songs on all-traditional instruments, and somehow it’s knocking people off their asses,” marvels Turku member Ted Monnich.

The multi-instrumentalist understands that world music’s ancient beat has a limited appeal for many modern American audiences. And though the Columbia, S.C.-based musician plays such music himself, he’s certainly not blind to the challenge of putting it across.

Monnich possesses a bracing, irreverent wit you don’t usually associate with the oft-seen, careful political correctness of non-native world-music players. “With some traditional music, [like] certain Chinese and Japanese music, people are, like, ‘What is that, a cat on the screen door?'” he says with a chuckle. But Turku has somehow transcended cultural barriers, Monnich maintains, though he’s still scratching his head about the reasons.

“Of course, we’ve got fans that are already into world music, and people from those cultures [who] like it, but we’ve also got hippies, retro punks, headbangers, Deadheads,” he points out. “We played at a coffeehouse in Charlotte recently, and we saw an entire cross-section of young culture come out … and we don’t understand why.”

Novelty is one reason, he suggests. Turku (which also features Carla Monnich, David Korup, Shahriar Panahi and Farzad Roberts) plays high-energy, nomadic folk songs from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kurdistan and the Balkans — or “300-year-old rock ‘n’ roll,” as the band likes to bill its sound — on string and percussion instruments whose very names sound exotic to American ears: baglama, divan saz, tambura saz, cogur saz, kasik, oud, davul, zils, dumbek, djembe, tar, riq (not to mention the more familiar violin). As a traditional Eurasian band, they’re mining a genre not exactly teeming with competition.

“We’re one of the only bands in the United States doing this music and certainly the only one in the Southeast,” notes Monnich, who plays baglama, saz and kasik. But he’s not so naive as to assume that Turku’s surprising appeal to young people stems from some sudden, collective thirst for culture.

“It’s exotic, challenging, ‘new,’ but it’s not like other world-music genres,” he observes. “What everyone says, but particularly young people, is that it’s refreshing. There are a lot of drums, a heavy sound, a driving beat.”

Monnich pauses, before unearthing what seems to be the bottom line: “Somehow,” he boasts, “we lend a flair to this music, [so that] it really rocks.”

Turku’s songs also exude sinuous, shivery rhythms that hold an odd note of familiarity. It’s the emotions inherent in the songs that audiences respond to, Monnich asserts.

“One reason for our popularity is that we don’t have a lot of vocals,” he theorizes. “When people hear foreign words in music, they tend to gloss over them. But music is a universal language — not to be flaky about it, but it moves you. The stuff we do, it’s peasant music from Eurasian villages, from people for whom music is all they’ve got. These are their lifelong expressions of sorrow and joy, and it’s pretty intense.”

Paradoxically, though, this music is also a perfect soundtrack for partying. “We’re doing the kind of songs where a whole village would come out into the square, get drunk off their asses, and dance,” explains Monnich.

Traditional dancers flesh out the band’s lineup onstage. But this is no extraneous adornment or gimmick — it’s a necessary accompaniment to the Turku sound, says Monnich: “They … interpret the music into a visual aspect. The dancers are our pyrotechnics.”

The band also has a psychic chemistry that just might be contagious, the multi-instrumentalist suspects. “We can understand each other by facial gestures, and people [intuit] that,” he reveals.

But that doesn’t mean all band members were created equal.

“Farzad is a virtuoso, and he can play us all under the table,” admits Monnich, giving the band’s violinist and oud player his due. That’s no knock on Turku’s Western talent, however, says Monnich, because mastering these sounds is no mean feat for any American.

“The Eastern musical system [has] more notes than the West,” he explains. “Sharps and flats are actually divided. It gives a wonderful richness [to Eurasian music]. … We had a great classical violinist audition for us, but we couldn’t use her, because her fingers couldn’t go where those notes are.”

Besides their heavy percussive numbers, the group also plays trance-inducing Sufi hymns, a mystic Islamic tradition that had one enchanted clubgoer staggering up after the show with a bedazzled demand.

“He said, ‘What was that?'” recalls Monnich, laughing about the not-unusual response. “These hymns are designed to bring you out of your daily, mundane existence.”

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