Arif Erdem Ocak
"Arif Erdem Ocak is a Turkish percussion guitarist / songwriter (founder of the highly popular Turkish rockband Seksendört) who connects centuries-old Turkish melodies with modern percussion-style guitar playing. With his storytelling and melodic guitar tunes that lean into folk, he intimately unfolds personal narratives and universal topics such as (after) life, spirituality, virtue and our common humanity. His songs, melodies, and lyrics cover a gamut of emotions; sometimes a mellow contemplation, sometimes overwhelmingly raw or sometimes melodramatic. Arif creates heartfelt hypnotic songs that get under your skin and takes the audience a journey of reflection, silence and mindfulness".
Where are you from and what brought you to Budapest?
I'm from Turkey and I grew up in northern Turkey, in Giresun- Dereli. I stayed there until I was 6, then I moved to Istanbul and finally to Ankara where I grew up. I came to Budapest for love. My ex-wife was Hungarian, we met and got married in Turkey and I came here in 2010.
How did music become part of your life, were you inspired by your parents or siblings or was it your own choice?
I started with my sister's oud, she played it very well. At that time I didn't even have a guitar, it was expensive to buy one. Actually I think playing oud influenced my style. I don't know anyone in my family who is a musician, I think that maybe music in our family came from our mom, her voice is very good and she was singing but that’s it, there were no instruments in our family. But you know, I believe every soul chooses its life before we come here and maybe that was the deal for me. I first got a guitar when I was 13 years old and it changed my life. I spent my time just playing it, I was creating bands when I was 15, 16 and 17.
I never studied, I never really worked, I've been a musician since then.
How did oud influence your style?
Oud has no frets, in guitar there are 22- 24 frets, oud is fretless. Between the notes you have microtonal notes, the passage from one to another is smooth. There are lots of microtonal nuances that you don't have in the guitar. In the music of the East, in Arabic countries, also in India, Armenia you can hear this, sometimes in Balkan music as well. In Turkish music we have totally different scales than in other places. Maybe because I started with oud it helped me learn these scales.
Do you still play it sometimes?
To be honest no because it’s not an easy instrument and I don't even have one at the moment, but if I find one I would love to play it again because I love the sound.
When I first heard you play, you were playing traditional Turkish music. Was it the first kind of music you played?
I was playing rock music when I was a teenager, I was also playing Metallica, AC/DC and then Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I learned the important ones later, like Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones. I was very much into band music, I was playing in a band in Turkey, Seksendört, we played pop-rock and actually we became very famous, but I wasn't very happy with the pop genre. All that time I was into folk music. When I was listening to local instruments like bağlama or kemençe, other Turkish instruments, but also clarinet, for me the time was stopping. I have been listening to folk for around 15 years. But back in the days listening to folk music and telling this to your friends in a rock environment wasn't seen as something cool so I was hiding it. I started playing it actually when I moved to Budapest, first just for myself, I wasn't sure I was ready to play in front of others because these songs are a little bit hard to perform. First I started playing this music in front of foreigners. I was really afraid to play it in front of Turkish people because some of the songs are actually prayers that are really important in some regions of Turkey, so they are not just songs, more like a centuries-old form of meditation. Others don't go back so much in time and they are 100 or 150-year-old folk songs. I love this music would love to also share this with someone who would love to do this kind of stuff in their musical life.
And what are your other current projects?
Another project is a Turkish rock duo NasNas with Sly Juhas on drums. It’s modern music with Turkish lyrics and a bit of Turkish melodies.
The other band is Nasip Kismet, a Turkish psychedelic folk band, the drummer Cem Aksel is from Turkey, the bass player Marcus Lee Eged is from Hungary, Daniel Mester who plays the saxophone and clarinet is from here as well. I sing and play the guitar.
How did you connect with them?
I always wanted to do this project. I knew the Cem Aksel from before, I grew up with his music in Turkey, we know each other from Ankara and somehow he also moved to Hungary. Once he wrote to me he was in Budapest and we met. Then it was last summer when Sly was on tour so I asked Cem to play with me at Brody House, that was our first gig together but that was the rock music. And then he asked me ‘hey let’s do Turkish folk songs together’. I asked Daniel whom I knew from Amsterdam, we played together in Germany a couple times before. He studied in Amsterdam, he plays in a lot of jazz bands. And I found Marcus by searching for bass players and my sound engineer Matyas Varga gave his contact to me, so I sent him a message and he accepted my offer without knowing each other. Everyone in the band comes from a very jazzy environment and I am from the streets you know, I don't know anything about playing jazz. That's why the base of the band is a bit jazzy, but the top is Turkish and a little bit my style. It's a weird sound. We finished our EP, now i'm talking with companies and we are looking into possibilities for the future.
There is also an electronic project with the guys from Analog Balaton. My first solo album producer, Dexter, owns the Supersize studio. On the New Years’ Eve I played at a house concert in a flat in Andrassy street and Dexter was there too, he said he wanted to introduce me to someone who could help me with my music. He knew I was interested in electronic beats and there we met Aba from Analog Balaton, he invited me to play before their concert at Akwarium the following Friday. I had a concert in Vienna that time and couldn't cancel that, but we became friends and we have an idea to create a Turkish electronic trio NarDughan - it means “ Rising Sun”.
From all these which one is the one that has a very special place in your heart?
For me all the projects are ‘me’, even though every project is different. How I see it is that I do the solo project. NasNAs is rock, Nasip Kismet is my solo project with a band, while with NarDughan I am doing my solo music with electronic beats with additional musicians.
You said your band Seksendört got very famous in Turkey, do you miss all that fame?
Not really, it was nice back then. I miss the tours, the friendship and the professional network, all the PR-related stuff because as a musician you don't want to do this all the time really, it’s a bit boring. What you want to focus on is music.
And how are you dealing with the current situation and not being able to play gigs now?
I meditate, pray, read and play of course, but I'm very social, I like walking in the city and in nature, I go to Gellert Hill every day because I really need this, I feel connected, but I also need people - to watch them, to pass by. I create when I walk in the city, I cannot do this at home. On the other hand it has another side- a lot of our friends are doing live stream shows. That function has been there all the time but nobody ever really used it. On Friday I will have the first live stream show. Every Friday at ELLÁTÓház I organize the ‘Friday Live show with Arif’ and now I will do it on my Instagram for the first time and I want to do it a couple times a week. Also others, like Dennie Wander or Gabor Bihari have invited me to join their live stream shows. It’s really interesting because when I was doing the Friday shows at ELLÁTÓház I was obviously inviting people living in Budapest, but now for example next week I will join my friend in Australia or another one in London. It’s great that we stay connected, I'm very excited, we decided to do that from one day to another, it’s amazing. This is artificial though, I need to see people, I need this connection, you cannot get it from a live stream or emojis.This situation is brand new, we still don't know what will happen. Twenty days ago i had concerts and now it seems so distant and I know it won't end in 20 days. Will see, but I'm sure it will bring good things as well.
Was there anything you were planning for the next couple months, any bigger gigs?
In two months I was about to record an EP with a Hungarian local artist Maria Majda Guessous, she's a singer, she also sings in Turkish. Another one, NarDughan, I was planning to finish till May, I was also supposed to play at Ozora with this trio. But now the situation is very weird. I hope in two months everything will change and we can have live concerts again because we all need this.
Going back to a couple weeks back, I know you were on a tour in Vienna, Prague and Berlin, how did that happen?
It's so interesting because back in the day when I was touring with my band our manager was arranging everything for us, nice hotels, playing in great venues and now suddenly i have to start somewhere and i arranged this all by myself. It's very hard, but it was very nice because now I have a very good crowd in Vienna, all concerts were sold out there! Prague was my second concert and also full from many different countries, Berlin wasn't that easy because the gig was on a Monday.
How did you find the contacts locally?
I just wrote to people and told them what kind of music I played and asked them if they would be interested and they agreed! Also my friend in Berlin helped me with arranging it. I have very good connections there now, it’s really great. I have these three cities now plus Amsterdam and also Brussels, but I want to extend it.
Compared to all those places, what makes Budapest so special?
I don't believe in reincarnation, but somehow I feel I have a deep connection with Hungary. Also, a lot of Hungarian people have a connection with Turkey because of our common history, many Hungarians speak Turkish actually. Maybe that's why it's a good place for my music.
I've tried to move to Amsterdam three times, but I was always coming back, it’s kind of a home for me here. In Amsterdam people are very busy and they are more individual. It's easy to be social in Budapest, I feel alive here. I really like compact cities, with one center, it makes it easier to meet with friends or other artists.
Sometimes we all complain a bit but it's still home. I can still feel the communism side effect, but I understand what the people were facing. Hungarians are a little bit shy at first, but when you're a foreigner you need to prove yourself more so that they can trust you. Now I'm arranging events, hosting, introducing people, but two years ago I couldn't even say my name on the microphone, I wanted to go home, I was making excuses. But when you are persistent it makes you powerful and others respect you.
What I love about Hungarian people is that they read and dance a lot. We are living here, but we cannot talk about Hungarian literature or painters and that’s something I want to improve. Last month I went to the museum at the Castle and I saw Hungarian paintings, they are fantastic! I also like that the people are not noisy, the only noisy ones are tourists.
How has it changed since you first came here?
Compared to 2010 Budapest has changed a lot, because of expats and artists living here. They've changed the environment, there are a lot of concerts, exhibitions. In places like Lampas or Szimpla there weren't many foreigners and I couldn't really find my place in that community. The guys from Painter's Palace helped me a lot to become more open, there are people from all over the world there, really colorful. But back then we couldn't find each other with the artists individually to start any cooperation.
Was it difficult to get established here without speaking the native language?
It was, yes. Let me tell you this way, in 2017 I went to my first open mic with my sister. I signed up and listened to all the guys singing in English and everyone singing with them. I thought nobody would care about my music, I'm a Turkish guy and I'm playing centuries-old songs so I thought they wouldn't like it and I wanted to leave. But my sister forced me to stay and that's how I started playing. You see that little decision changed my life actually. It's not easy at first but when you prove you're trustworthy it changes everything. I also have a film company with my sister and we have a big network of directors, producers and actors. I was lucky because my business partner, Robert Maly, had won an Oscar, he arranged everything, he was our face so it was much easier.
I think people also appreciate when foreigners are interested in their culture. I remember hearing you play ‘Tavaszi Szel ’ at a gig in Budapest and the people's reaction was amazing.
Oh yes, and another story is that when I was recently playing in Prague we had a little break and I heard a group pf around 15 people outside speaking Hungarian. I started to speak to them in Hungarian to them and told them I was going to play a Hungarian song and asked if they wanted to join me.We sang ‘Tavaszi szel’ and ‘Indulj el’ together and everything changed. The other guests weren't expecting that, we almost cried, you know, we were sharing something. I feel connected with Hungarian people and Hungarian culture and the language, it touches my heart.
Is there anything you learned from Hungarian musicians?
Yes, the traditional Hungarian style of singing, especially female voices like Maria, it’s a very special way, a very specific different rhythm. I would like to learn it. They have different instruments, playing on different scales, different rhythms, something that I haven't heard anywhere else. I also love when people sing and dance at the same time.
So I guess Budapest is where you want to stay.
Yes, don't wanna go anywhere now. I have good plans. Also, we are all here, when someone is leaving we are all sad, even if we don't see each other very much. We don't want to lose it, it is also us who make this city beautiful, not only the locals. We have to stay here for a little bit. Amsterdam is very friendly and open minded, you can do whatever you want there, I hope Budapest will also be like this because of the multicultural artists.
What do you hope for your future?
My hope is to get a good booking agency that would understand my music and I would like to play not just in small places but also at festivals and good venues, with professional equipment and professional people.
And what advice would you give to creators coming to Budapest?
Come were, it's a really beautiful city, you will open your heart here. As London or Paris had this period I think it's now happening in Budapest.