At a time when identity debates in the music industry are reduced to whether Rosalía or Alejandro Sanz can be considered Latino at an awards ceremony, there are artists and composers who believe in the permeability of borders when spoken in a universal language.
Alper Tuzcu is one of them.
Born and raised in Istanbul, the 29-year-old is one of those musical gems that still go unnoticed in the face of the streaming monopoly.
A composer, guitarist, and one of the world’s most unique baglama players, Tuzcu uses his multicultural compositions “to build bridges between cultures and cross borders.”
His career includes milestones such as being a Grammy voting member, working with the famous producer and composer Javier Limón, and graduating magna cum laude from Berklee College of Music in 2015 after winning a scholarship in the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy.
His upcoming EP called Migrante, which will be released on February 21st, is a tribute to all his influences, especially to Latin American sounds and to those poets who have changed his way of seeing the world forever.
An Indirect Path to Music
After arriving in the United States at the age of 17, Tuzcu did not always see music as his main career.
“I did my first degree here, which was not music because I was studying economics,” he recalls. “I did that for four years, but it was then when I started playing Latin jazz music.”
His interest in Latin American music, especially the fusion of jazz with Latin rhythms, had more to do with the discovery of percussion and a language that seemed natural to him.
“I actually started playing in ensemble groups and I also started taking classes while I was studying economics.”
“The Real Thing” Begins
It was his arrival at Berklee College of Music that would open the doors to an infinite universe of possibilities, not so much because of the academic offer but because of the direct contact with artists from all over the world.
“I actively started playing with people from Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela — there’s a huge demographic in Berklee — Ecuador, Chile… all over. And I actively started my classes like Afro-Cuban Lab, Brazilian music and a lot of Latin Jazz ensembles.”
Love at First Beat
When asked what most attracted him to Latin American music, Tuzcu does not hesitate to answer: rhythm.
“I originally wanted to be a drummer but my parents didn’t like it. But that love never died, and it showed up when I was 11 or 12 years old when I started listening to classic guitarists.”
“What I find interesting is the contradiction to the European style which is very harmonic, very melodic, like playing on the cool solos and all that which is cool, but it didn’t really speak to me as much as the rhythms did. And to realize that there is a culture that exists and that puts the rhythm so much to the front, it spoke to me directly.”
While that was the initial contact, the rest came naturally.
The young musician dedicated himself to knowing and studying everything that was within his reach — from literature, music and poetry — to get together with colleagues who could feed his music library.
Today he cites artists such as Natalia Lafourcade and Jorge Drexler among his most important influences.
“I started getting to know different musicians from different parts of Latin America to learn from them and to play with them to be accepted into the community and it felt like home. I think there’s a really interesting connection that I can’t really figure out how it works exactly but it’s not just the music; I can see similar things in the food, the people or the attitude.”
Migrante Takes Shape
Thanks to a collaborative academic project between Valencia, Spain, and Boston, the guitarist had what he calls “a miraculous moment.”
“When I was in Barcelona, I was Reading Strange Pilgrims by García Márquez, which is completely crazy because he wrote it when he was in exile in Barcelona”, he explains. “I was just reading it, very coincidentally, and then it just started clicking to me to approach this issue of migration from a musical perspective, but also from a personal perspective.”
Describing himself as a “migrant bird” — which explains the illustration on the cover of his latest production — Tuzcu says: “I wanted to do a kind of tribute to [García Márquez] but also to talk from personal experience and to see how I can go from a personal experience to the more universal experience, and I feel that there are a lot of people on the road that can relate to that.”
A “Borderless” Fusion
Migrante turns out to be a symptom of the artist’s personal experiences, but also an echo of his context.
“I would say it’s an attempt to connect to our basic humanity, the place where we come from,” he says. “To me it’s almost like a way of showing people precisely that, because if you look at the people that play in this project they come from all over the world. I love to bring people from Latin America to play but I also wanted people from other places like the United States or from Turkey.”
For Tuzcu, it is a symbolism of what we can do as a human community if we manage to get along. And music is the ideal language to achieve precisely this.
“It’s just a symbol of what we can do together as humans when we put all these seemingly cultural borders and old things aside,” he said. “And when we come together we can create this in a beautiful way that maybe words or something else might not just capture.” Hence, its categorization as “Latin American/Mediterranean” music.
From Fado to Bolero, passing through Flamenco, Tuzcu’s work turns the origin and Mediterranean influence in Latin American music around, creating a two-way dialogue that gradually transforms into an original language.
When the Secret is Collaboration
Since his first song came out naturally in a room in Barcelona, Tuzcu has been working with the tools and people he has at his disposal.
“The cool thing is everyone in this album is Berklee associated. So I went back and forth between Spain and here and that meant a constant circulation,” he explains. “A huge part of the recording process is that I give the musicians the freedom to bring their own ideas to the original melody. To me that’s super important because I want people to bring their own thing.”
“The result is that what you hear in the recording the exact manifestation of what we were feeling when we were collaborating,” he adds.
A Trifold Project
Migrante is part of a three-volume project that even contains a composition based on a poem by Pablo Neruda and was officially approved by the poet’s foundation.
As Tuzcu himself explains, his way of presenting the project to the public is through cultural connections, cultural memory, and 21st century multiculturalism.
Thanks to the support of Palma Records, this fantastic and unique mix of oriental, Mediterranean, and Latin sounds will see the light of day on February 21, 2020.