Montreal and Istanbul. The similarities might not be immediately apparent, but on reflection, it’s not such a strange pairing. Two traditional capitals, although both now supplanted, they share histories of unusually pronounced cultural interaction (francophone/anglophone and Asian/European, respectively) and both retain their reputations as diverse, cosmopolitan cities. And if you want evidence of shared attitudes, look no further than the recent protests in Istanbul — borrowing techniques and iconography from both the Occupy movement and May 68 — over civil liberties and secularism. Someone, at least, must have felt some affinity, because when Montreal-based Esmerine (chiefly Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Bruce Cawdron and Thee Silver Mt. Zion’s Rebecca Foon) toured in Istanbul last year, they were invited to stay for a residency and combined their traditional setup of cello, marimba, and other instruments with local musicians to produce Dalmak.
Dalmak is a Turkish verb, variously translated as “to dive into,” “to contemplate,” and “to be absorbed in.” It’s an apt title, as these different connotations show the different approaches taken by the band here. After the Arvo Pärt-like minimalism of “Learning to Crawl,” open-ended enough but sitting comfortably within their established style, and the water-testing “Lost River Blues I,” which gently introduces the Turkish instrumentation through a layer of Istanbul fog, “Lost River Blues II” constitutes a head-first plunge. Here, the local drums, saz, and meh suddenly predominate in a loud, energetic arrangement, and you’ll have to listen closely to pick up the contributions of the Montreal band at all.
The result is quite stunning — if you’ve never heard them before, the saz has a tinny, psychedelic tone, somewhere between the harpsichord and electric guitar, and the meh a beautiful woody vibrato — but here and elsewhere, Esmerine veer uncomfortably close to pastiche. Indeed, the stop-time breaks and descending triplets of “Translator’s Clos I” seem to signify little more than the idea of “Turkish music.” Like diving into water, the effect is only felt superficially, and the sensation too sudden, strange, and intense to really take in. Dalmak thus threatens to be one of those albums — dubstepper Mala’s Mala in Cuba is the most striking recent example I can think of — that, despite its best of intentions, ultimately shows more incompatibility than commonality.
Thankfully, the other approaches on display here do an admirable job of blurring boundaries and creating unforeseen connections. Both “Barn Board Fire” and “Translator’s Clos II” are much more integrated arrangements, with strings and percussion from both cultures passing around themes and solos with unforced grace. Better yet, both also bloom into sweeping, epic pieces in which the influences of Montreal’s post-rock and Istanbul’s dramatic folk music become indistinguishable. Of course, some of the minor-key melodies of bands such as GY!BE have always been described as “Arabic,” “Middle Eastern” or “Asian;” rarely though have these connections been clearer than they are here. (To get an idea of how tangled these roots really are, it’s worth remembering the influence of Turkish music on Western classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.) This is dalmak in the sense of absorption — the slow, osmotic process by which Esmerine appear soaked through, inseparable from the culture they have immersed themselves in.
The contemplative sense of the word is also reflected in tracks across the album. The central “Hayale Dalmak” (trans. “Daydream”) is the sound of a soul adrift, either pleasantly lost or dreaming of home. The final two pieces, meanwhile, illustrate the lasting effects of such cultural exchange. When the gorgeous “White Pine,” recorded at a later date with just the core band in Montreal, bleeds seamlessly into the Turkish-tinged “Yavri Yavri,” it suggests the working of memory and empathy. I’m reminded of David Byrne’s rather sweet statement on the worth of “world music”: “once you’ve let something in, let it grab hold of you, you’re forever changed.”
In this way, Dalmak becomes about travel and cultural exchange more generally, documenting not only the cultures in question, but also the progressing mind states of the travelers. While the concept is admirable and ultimately quite touching, its forays into disorientation, uncertainty and exoticism can make for a rather patchy album. It’s a shame, because at its most natural and intuitive, this particular exchange proves remarkably fruitful, creating some amazing music and unexpected connections.