Birol Topaloglu | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Birol Topaloglu 

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The ongoing struggles of Turkish Kurds to retain their ethnic identity provide a dramatic and highly visible example of the conflict between regional cultures and nation-states. But the plight of the Laz, though far more obscure, is no less compelling. The Laz are a small ethnic group clustered along the Black Sea in northeastern Turkey and southwestern Georgia. Though they've had a distinct culture for almost 3,000 years--including a period of Byzantine rule and a forced conversion from Christianity to Islam during the Ottoman Empire--until recently their language only existed in spoken form, which has contributed greatly to their marginalization. Multi-instrumentalist Birol Topaloglu was born on Turkey's Black Sea coast and grew up playing Laz music, which reflects both Balkan beauty and Turkish sorrow; by the early 90s he'd abandoned his career as an electrical engineer to pursue his interest in his native culture. Over the past decade he's committed himself to preserving and reviving Laz music, traveling from village to village to collect ancient songs. This year the Turkish label Kalan released Lazeburi, a lavish two-CD collection for which Topaloglu compiled Laz field recordings from the 70s and today; it's packaged with a lovely book that explains the history and meaning of the songs, including when and why they might be performed--but almost all of the text is in Turkish. On his own discs, Topaloglu balances his preservationist bent with a global ear: The Best of Heyamo & Aravani (7/8 Music Productions), a U.S. compilation of his two Turkish albums, sets some of the traditional material in tasteful pop-flavored settings; acoustic guitar and synthesizer subtly cushion the zigzagging melodies, played on folk instruments like the kamanche (a spike fiddle) and the tulum (a bagpipe). And he pushes ethnic boundaries as well as stylistic ones, collaborating with polyphonic singers from Georgia and playing instruments used by a related Georgian ethnic group, the Megrel. Topaloglu is on his first U.S. tour; he'll be accompanied by fellow Laz musician Selim Bolukbasi. Thursday, November 8, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630. Saturday, November 10, 7:30 PM, Polish Highlander Hall, 4808 S. Archer; 773-284-0978. Monday, November 12, 7 PM, Coulter Lounge, International House, University of Chicago, 1414 E. 59th; 773-288-1538.

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