Esmerine: Colchester Arts Centre

Esmerine, with the full 8-piece Dalmak band. Thanks to Toutpartout for the photo.

Back in 2012, Bruce Cawdron and Rebecca Foon’s chamber rock ensemble Esmerine decamped to Istanbul to take up an invitation for an artists’ residency in the city. No strangers to collaboration – until relatively recently Cawdron was drummer for Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Foon is a founder member of Thee Silver Mount Zion Orchestra – the band wasted no time hooking up with a gaggle of local musicians, writing a host of material which resulted in Dalmak, released in September of this year.

The record’s fluid combination of Turkish rhythms and melodies with Esmerine’s widescreen soundscapes makes for a haunting, pulsing wonder, Foon’s cello integrating wonderfully with Baran Aşık’s mey – a kind of Turkish oboe – to carve out melodies that sound both timeless and contemporary.

Given that their time in Istanbul had such positive results, it’s no wonder the band wanted to take this material on the road. They’ve expanded their usual line-up with a selection of musicians from the Dalmak sessions – when I see them they’re a gang of six, with Baran Aşık taking care of violin, mey and occasional bass guitar and Hakan Vreskala on percussion and occasional vocals.

Work deadlines, family commitments and general pre-Christmas chaos mean that I’ve made a pilgrimage to Colchester to see the band, even though  they’re playing just down the street from me in Hoxton the following night.

I roll into Colchester just in time to catch a rare set by Harpoon Group – none other than Mr Robin Alderton from the Dead Rat Orchestra – whose collage of unsettling drones, field recordings and percussion helps me kick out the traffic jams and get my head in the zone.

Esmerine’s set tonight draws heavily on Dalmak, but its none the worse for that. The record’s shimmering, organic feel translates seamlessly to a live setting.

The expanded group displays mutual warmth and respect on stage, resulting in a convivial vibe. They’re loose enough for us to imagine we’re sitting in on an after-hours jam session in Istanbul – often swapping and changing instruments as the pieces require – but tight enough to nail the record’s closely weaved arrangements.

The uneasy drift of ‘Lost River Blues’ is a master class in ensemble playing, its searching mey and cello lines soon giving way to Cawdron’s bubbling marimba, before resolving itself into a bustling, propulsive cacophony.

Colchester Arts Centre is rightly acclaimed for the breadth of its programming  and there’s a good turn out of local heads, indigenous music fans and other cultural cognoscenti tonight, although they’re somewhat reserved in their appreciation at first.

In particular Vreskal, seated front and centre and  surrounded with an impressive array of hand drums and other kit , looks somewhat nonplussed by their politeness.

Nevertheless the twangy saz chug of ‘Barn Board Fire’ – deftly handled by double bassist Jamie Thomson – and Vreskal’s polyrhythmic grooves on ‘Translator’s Clos’ do their best to rouse us from our Sunday night torpor. And on ‘Yavri Yavri’, Vreskal takes the microphone for a rendition of this traditional tune, his soulful vocals rising above the naïve xylophone melody to bring a little part of the Bosphorus to this cold winter’s evening.

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