The eight members of Nefes. In the foreground the two vocalist Özen Erdinç (left) and Yonca Ermutlu. In the background (from the left): John Millar, Kai Olander, Pekka Nylund, Christer Hackman, Murat Ermutlu and Panu Helke.

Turkish folk band Nefes has been performing ancestral rhythms in Helsinki for over 20 years now.

While Turkish food has made itself known through the widespread abundance of kebararies and eateries around the country, what about the rest of the original, authentic Turkish experience? Offering this is Nefes, a group of eight professional and amateur musicians who joined forces a long time ago to delight Finland’s inhabitants with the hypnotising melodies of the country where the Oriental and Occidental worlds melt together.

“We always try to shape
ourselves to the Finnish
audience because we want our
music to be meaningful for them.

Made up of a mix of Finns and Turks, as well as a New Zealander thrown in for good measure, Nefes continue to serve up the sounds of Turkey across the country. Evolving from a four-piece that got together to perform at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival some 20 years ago, the band soon grew to incorporate gypsy, Sufi and classical to its Turkish folk template. As the line-up evolved over the years, the band has collaborated with musicians from Turkey and Africa to create a winning hybrid of rhythms and influences.

With the recent launch of their new album, Kehribar Meripihka, SixDegrees sat down with co-founder, vocalist and university administrator, Yonca Ermutlu to hear about the memories accumulated onstage over the past two decades, the modest influence of ethnic music in Finland and the future projects for the band itself; a deep conversation that will take us to previously undiscovered corners of musical and cultural imagery.

What does ‘Nefes’ mean?

Nefes means ‘breathing’, and the word is also related to the name wind instruments are given in Turkish. The idea for it came during the time we were learning Sufi music, the mystic music of Islam. In this style the composer doesn’t try to make a piece of art, and the lyrics are rather more important than the melody itself. The songs talk about the love for the creator – whichever name you give to it. They almost always involve humanism and good morality. Some of them are also rebellious against the existing governance systems and critical towards all kinds of injustice. The pieces can date back to 1100, even earlier in Azerbaijan and Persia.

Kehribar Meripihka is out now.

What can you tell us about the creation of your new album Kehribar Meripihka?

The Global Music Centre, a non-governmental organisation that supports ethnic music, is the organism behind the production and distribution of the album. They have been organising the Etnosoi festival for more than 20 years now. In order to be produced, the CD requires an investment of between 10,000 to 15,000 euros, because you have to rent the studio and the sound technician for a couple of days to do the recording, and then you have to rent it again to do the mastering. You also have to pay for the graphic design and then the cost of printing the actual CD. None of the Nefes people got paid for this, all the work force we have put into this was for free. Furthermore, the money we get from album sales goes back to our shared budget and is invested in inviting new musicians to perform with us.

The big difference between Western and Oriental music is that the latter has a wider range of micro-intervals, so the pieces for this album have been selected according to their suitability to be played by the Finnish instruments we were planning to use (kantele and jouhikko). The reason why Oriental music has richer melodies is because it imitates the human voice, which has no limitation. Western music, meanwhile, has richer harmonies, as there are different voices involved: first voice, second voice etc. In Turkish music everybody plays on the same tune, because the melody is already rich enough.

Are some of your scores and lyrics original creations?

Nefes is an ethnic music group, and we mostly play authentic and composed Turkish music. We interpret what has been already created and belongs to the Turkish folk music tradition. For instance, in the new album we have a piece whose lyrics are from the 1500s. We don’t try to give a modern touch to it, we take the tune and play it as well as we can. We are an acoustic group, there are no electronics involved. We only do small arrangements. Some critics would say that the music should be modern and relevant so that the youth of today can also feel more tempted to listen to it, but we don’t carry such concerns. If a piece of music is good it can be good for over thousands of years.

What are the main differences between folk music and other styles?

Folk music is created by regular people, not educated musicians. Music is an innate part of human beings, people sing about everything related to their daily lives, their bigger emotions and the happenings on their village. They also have dances telling about all these stories. Most of the pieces are anonymous, and the music is not very complicated. Turkish classical music is mostly created by skilled composers who try to imagine pieces of artistic value. On the other hand, gypsy music, though not present in our latest album, is a kind of folk music as well, most popular in the area of the Balkans. Finally, there is also Sufi music, which can follow two different traditions: one uses classical music instruments – such as ney, ud and Kudum, and then there is another trend that uses folk instruments.

I have seen you perform in a special “showtime outfit”, what does it consist of?

We have different kinds of outfits. One of our custumes comes from the Trakia region, the western and most European part of Turkey. It looks pretty much like the Greek or Bulgarian custumes. The vest is 100 years-old now, it belonged to my grandmother and its embroidery has been hand-made. Because of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has a very rich mix of cultures, so almost every village has their own different garments, with many particular styles depending on the region.

Which kind of surprises are waiting for us on your new CD?

For the recording of the new album we invited four other professional musicians, two Finnish (Timo Väänänen and Ilkaa Heinonen) and two Turkish (Göksel Baktagir and Neva Özgen). The idea was to bring two countries closer through the similar instruments they share and find out if they can play together. On the one hand, there is the idea of rhythmic resemblance and even to a certain level melodic resemblance in some the pieces. So, it proves that it is possible to make very catchy and original combinations melting Finnish and Turkish music together. Both styles have been successfully integrated, and I think that can be a good surprise! Then, in every piece the musicians make improvisations, like in jazz, in the middle of the melody one of the musicians starts making tunes of his own and the others support him. Those are like micro-creations of that moment; originally they were unique, they couldn’t be re-made. That it’s why concerts are very important, because during a life performance the musician gets a lot of energy from the audience and that gets reflected on the improvisations. So this kind of music is not suitable for massive concerts but rather to be played in cafés for small-scale audiences that become engaged, dance and sing along to the music.

I know little about Turkey, but I’ve tasted high quality baklava and I have met some of its people - both experiences being extremely sweet. Finland, on the other hand, likes salmiakki and salted liquorice, and is renowned for being reserved and direct. How do you deal with the contrast in cultures?

In Turkish music you start playing and you continue for two or three hours, and there aren’t many breaks: you combine the songs one after each other. In Finland, on the contrary, we had to change the structure of the music so that it makes sense to an audience that doesn’t understand the meaning of the lyrics. Now we stop after each song and tell a few words to introduce the following composition. That way it’s easy to connect with the audience. However, it is difficult for people here to show any kind of emotion, even if they enjoyed the performance. When the show ends, they clap and then they leave. When there are Turkish people in the audience, especially some friends that I recognise, I ask them to sing along with me and also I ask some people to come and dance. We always try to shape ourselves to the Finnish audience because we want our music to be meaningful for them.

Eva Blanco