Artist Profiles: Istanbul Oriental Ensemble

Istanbul Oriental Ensemble

The Istanbul Oriental Ensemble led by percussionist, vocalist and string player Burhan Ocal includes a number of Turkey’s leading Gypsy musicians who are dedicated to preserving the all-but-forgotten heritage of 18th- and 19th-century Gypsy music from Istanbul and Thrace (the area where Europe and Asia meet that today includes parts of Bulgaria Greece and Turkey between the Aegean and the Black seas). The diverse character of this music which celebrates a full range of life experience is influenced both by the Gypsies’ love of nature and by their great migrations.

Gypsies have played an important role in shaping the music of the region around Istanbul Edirne and Izmir (Smyrna) since the 1th century. Their talent love of music and undisputed technical virtuosity have allowed them to assimilate a highly divergent range of folk and classical forms. They have long been bearers of an important musical tradition especially in Turkey where Islamic disapproval of music made it the preserve of the Greek Jewish and Gypsy peoples.

In the course of their constant travels the Turkish Gypsies acquired a wide repertoire adopting those elements of Turkish classical music that provided the best vehicle for their vitality and temperament such as the solo improvisations known as taksim. The daily life of these musicians in fact centered on musical improvisation. When they were not performing at a concert wedding or some other gathering they would get together to improvise late into the night. One musician would begin to develop a theme to introduce the makam (one of the modes or scales that are the basis for Turkish classical music) which would then be picked up and lavishly ornamented by the next musician.

The main instruments of the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble are the darbuka (drums), the kanun (zither), the ud (lute), clarinet (successor to the zurna), and the keman (violin or fiddle). The ensemble’s recordings Gypsy Rum and Sultan’s Secret Door have both won the Deutsche Schallpattenpreis (a rare honor for consecutive albums) while Gypsy Rum also received the Musique de la Monde prize as the best world music album of 1998. In 2000, the group released its third recording Caravanserai which was dedicated to its original clarinetist Ferdi Nadaz who died shortly after the recording was made. The recording tells the tale of a band that arrives at an oasis and play at the wedding of a wealthy camel dealer. It includes Ya Kerim! which features Nadaz’s muezzin-style vocals the only known recording of his voice. Members of the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble were featured in the 1993 film Latcho Drom (Safe Journey) which tells of the Gypsies’ migration across Europe and Asia through song and dance.

The members of the band are:

Burhan Ocal – leader

Ekrem Badi – darbuka

Yasar Sutoglu – clarinet

Muzaffer Coskuner – ud

Alaattin Coskuner – kanun

Cuneyt Ertan Coskuner – violin


Gypsy Rum ̺(Network Medien, 1995)

Sultan’s Secret Door ̺(Network Medien, 1997)

Caravanserai ̺(Network Medien, 2000)

Grand Bazaar ̺(Network Medien, 2006)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.


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