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American musicians bring sights and sounds of the Silk Road to Brooklyn

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Ted Monnich had to think twice before deciding to come to Brooklyn this month.

The head of Turku, a band of American musicians whose repertoire includes folk songs from Afghanistan, Monnich wondered if it was in good taste to stage his show as scheduled in post-Sept. 11 New York.

The answer, after much soul searching, was ’yes,’ said Monnich.

"This music transcends politics," said Monnich. "But to be honest, after Sept. 11, I had to look at the situation and wonder, is it in good taste or prudent to perform in New York? But things settled down a bit, and we took it upon ourselves to show to the people that experienced hate from that region, that there’s beauty there, too, that doesn’t require an understanding of language."

The musical selections that Turku performs are folk songs from cultures along the Silk Road, the ancient 4,000-mile trade route that spanned from China to the Mediterranean, including Afghanistan. Turku musicians play "authentic instruments" from those cultures.

"Much of this music is very accessible to Western ears," said Monnich, who plays the saz (a Central Asian, long-necked lute). "None of it is so exotic that people would hear it and say, ’I don’t understand’ or ’I don’t like it.’ You tap your toe to it. You cry to it. You will be moved by it. There’s something universal about it."

While the music is still played in some regions today, it was considered the popular music of the Silk Road 150 to 200 years ago, says Monnich. "It’s the equivalent of Kurdish bluegrass," he said.

"This is what the village celebrated life with. It’s played at a birth, a circumcision, a wedding, a funeral. They celebrated life through music and dance in the villages. That’s what our performance is all about," said Monnich in a phone interview Monday from Columbia, S.C.

In the short time since Sept. 11, Monnich said the American public seems to have become curious about - and possibly ready to embrace - the music Turku performs.

"What surprised us was, a couple months after these terrible events the public started becoming interested in Islam, and became more interested in us and our performances," said Monnich. "They wanted to learn more about these cultures, and they said, ’We want to understand.’"

The program Turku will perform at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College on Jan. 19 includes songs from many cultures including the Kurds, the Rom (or gypsies) and even Sufi dervish folk songs. Turku is joined by the Zafira Dance Company, a troupe of world-fusion belly dancers.

"They’re not doing the sequin bikini belly dance you might find in a Greek restaurant," assured Monnich. "We’re doing dance from the Mediterranean to India and bringing in influences from all of those cultures. [Zafira] performs a great amount of traditional dance, but at the same time, they borrow from different cultures to express in dance what they’re moved to by the music."

Monnich said the band performs on a series of risers draped in textiles, but the extent of the set has been hampered by stricter airline security.

"It’s not as easy to fly now, so we’re shipping [parts of the set] rather than taking them on the plane," said Monnich. "We don’t have a big set; the focus is on the energy of the band and the music and the interaction between musicians and dancers and the audience. We don’t want an invisible curtain between the two."

Turku has played everywhere from folk festivals in upstate New York to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Along the way, Monnich said, he’s made the surprising discovery that his American band is part of a dwindling number of musicians who continue to play this music. The songs Turku performs are part of an oral tradition, passed down from person to person, with many left undocumented.

"The thing about these cultures that have lagged behind the West in development," explained Monnich, "is that they look to us for all we have. So they embrace our popular culture. They consider Euro-pop music to be better. They don’t listen to village music. They say, ’I’m a modern Turk or Iranian,’ and they turn their back on their own culture. Some of them come to see us perform, and they don’t understand why these Americans are playing their old-fashioned music. But I say, this is good stuff.

"The reason I got into this music, is because it moved me," said Monnich, explaining that "Turku" is the Turkish word for "folk music." "I’m Slavic in heritage and grew up in Pittsburgh. I grew up listening to that type of music. There’s a real joy to it, but also a spice to Eastern European music.

"I started following it to the Balkans and it was even stronger," said Monnich, who explained that he studies ethnomusicology as a hobby. "I followed it further East to Turkey. The music goes into Persia and Afghanistan and Kurdish music. And it is the feeling of the music that drew me to it and influences the selections that we choose to perform and study. Some of the music has never been heard in North America before."

The artistic director of Turku is Farzad Roberts, former lead violinist with the Persian Royal Youth Orchestra and featured violinist-composer on Iranian State Radio. Roberts and Monnich are joined by Monnich’s wife, Carla, on davul (a two-sided bass drum struck with a switch on one side and a large beater on the other), Denys Proteau on cumbus (Turkish banjo) and Daveed Korup on percussion.

"The origins of the music are traced to the Silk Road," said Monnich. "It’s a metaphor for that trade route. So much of the instruments of the ancient Turkic cultures came out of Mongolia, out of Asia, and were swept along with the western expansion of the Mongols. You can hear that nomadic influence of the horse beats in one song in particular, ’Fidayda’ [a love song from the central Anatolian Turkmen]."

On Jan. 19, the music of Turku will continue to expand it’s reach, though not via men on horses, but through musicians traveling by plane to share their exotic songs, and perhaps cultural understanding, with Brooklyn.

 

Turku will perform "Nomads of the Silk Road" on Jan. 19 at 8 pm at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College’s Walt Whitman Theater (one block from the junction of Flatbush and Nostrand avenues). Tickets are $30. To order, call (718) 951-4500.

Turku’s CD "Nomads of the Silk Road" (Hittite Sun records, $12-$15) is available at Amazon.com.

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