«We always like to consider ourselves as the ‘world people’. We see ourselves and others before religion or nationality, first of all as humans»
Light in Babylon
Today we are going to travel to the East. First stop: Istanbul, a land hanging between Europe and the Middle East, between land and sea, between dreams of freedom and uncomfortable truth. In the ancient district of Pera, actually known as Beyoğlu, there’s a street that Atatürk renamed 'the Avenue of Independence'. İstiklal Caddesi, its name in Turkish, is not just a street. Churches, synagogues and mosques coexist with ateliers, dancers and street musicians, making it the most multicultural road of Istanbul. This street was in 2010 the birthplace of a musical group that reflects the multiethnic soul of the ‘second Rome’. They are Light in Babylon, a musical trio followed by million fans around the world, praised by fRoots Magazine for being 'A celebration of the cosmopolitan traditions of both Istanbul and the Sephardi Jewish community and another example of the great music that is coming out of the eastern Mediterranean right now'. The band is composed of the Israeli singer from Iranian roots Michal Elia Kamal, the French guitarist Julien Demarque and the Turkish santur player Metehan Ciftci. In recent years, the trio has also worked with a Scottish drummer and an Iranian bass player. A multicultural mix that wants to pay homage to the colors of life and give us the vision of a Yeni Dunya, a New World, full of diversity, freedom, peace and light.
Michal Elia, what does it mean ‘’Light in Babylon’’?
There are two reasons we chose the name Light in Babylon as our band name. Our first stage was the street. In the street, people are walking home, going to or back from work, nobody looks, and nobody smiles. The moment you put music in the street, it makes people stop, to listen, to smile, to cry, to dance and to communicate with each other. Babylon is a name for the system that forces us to look in only one direction. At the moment you put any kind of art in the system, you create light, making the people also look in a different direction. The second reason is the story about the Babel tower, the time when cultures separated and people started to speak different languages. Also, in our band we are from different places and we speak different languages, but despite that, we have a common culture and language: music.
Your story began in an avenue that has a great history: İstiklal Caddesi, not just a street, but a meeting place for arts, languages, religions and ethnicities. What did İstiklal Caddesi represent for you and what value does it have for the people of Istanbul?
We performed in Istiklal street in our first years as a band. I must say that Istiklal street is not just an avenue. It is not like any street but a very special place. in that time (2012) it was a place where people who passed by there were searching for something. Something to happen, some music or art. It was a place of diversity: different people, different cultures, religion and opinions, all passing there and listening to our music and feeling something. The reaction of the people was amazing. They wanted to get close, they cry, or smile, or dance. To put something like our music in the middle of someone day, just like that, live with no boundaries, create a strong impact and touch deeply the listeners, but not only them, also us, we learn a lot from it, how to understand people, how to respect people, and how to be modest and humble, now that we become more famous and we play in all kind of big stages, we still remember what we learned from our time in Istiklal street. Of course, we do not play anymore in Istiklal (or any) street, we did it for some time and it gave us so much but since then we moved forward to the next step. Just passing by Istiklal street today takes lots of attention from peoples who ask photos (which we always happy to meet), having a performance there will be a mess and also in general many things changes in this place since our time performing there, we were hoping to inspire new young group to continue this culture and go out there and share their music.
Metehan is Turkish, Julien is French and you are Israeli from Iranian roots. You live in Istanbul, a cosmopolitan bridge between Europe and Middle East. You play in very different countries like India, Finland or Greece. What does 'home' mean to you?
For many people a Home is the place where they were born or grew up or living at. We have been in so many places around the world and we met so many people, and we also made music everywhere we went, for us home is the stage, home is our concerts, home is our music. Home for us is not a physical place but a moment in space and time. After each of our concerts we always give the time to meet with our listeners, to see their eyes, give a hug, take a photo... in every single place we performed if it is Russia or Mexico or Italy or Germany or anywhere, we met always the same reaction from people, the same spark in the eyes and the open heart, the same positive human core - that moment exactly is the most home we can be.
One of your most important projects is Yeni Dunya. What does "new world" mean?
"Yeni Dunya" is the name of our last album which means "New World". We believe we are representing a new generation of people who want to reconnect, a generation that comes to acknowledge that wars and separation belong to the "Old world" and we are here to create something new who takes the good things from the past and uses them to build something better for the future.
I, you, we, them. Finally, everything is One. Why are diversity and complexity scary to many people?
We think that more and more people are not scared from diversity and complexity and the proof of that is that there are more and more forms of Art (not only music) with a message of Multiculturalism.
During your performances, your body is always in motion. What is the relationship between body and soul?
I always say that my body is my instrument, I am not only singing from my mouth and throat, I am not only drumming by my hands, it is my full body. It is almost like a mystic experience, when I perform I feel like I am becoming another person, another woman, and my body becomes an instrument who transforms some sort of energy which passes through me.
Many of your videos are set in nature, for example Cappadocia or Sahara. What role does nature play in your musical philosophy?
Nature was always a source of inspiration for us, usually we go to all kinds of places and we write our songs. I believe that some places contain some sort of energy, for example when I arrived in the Sahara Desert, tears started to drop from my eyes, till today I still can't find the words to describe the feelings I had in these moments and I can't explain the exact reason. It is like I arrived at a place which part of my soul belonged to.
November 25 was The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. There are many types of violence against women, not just physical. For example, in Iran it is forbidden for women to sing. What do you think about it? What role does music play against violence and gender differences?
We believe that music is not only entertainment, not only for passing the time, music has a meaning and affects our life. Light in Babylon brings not only music, but also emotions. In a world, where peoples need more and more to hide their emotions, where television become more cynical and the pop music more artificial, people are hungry for something real, they want not only to hear music but also to feel it! The music we make says something, there is something honest in it. For me, as a woman coming from the middle east, the use of music to empower other women has a huge role and meaning in my life, I know that in our band this subject is not just important to me because i am a woman but it is a subject who touches us all the band members.
Do you believe that travel, understood as an exploration not only of a place, but as the rediscovery of a set of human heritages, can be a good tool to build and cultivate the concept of Humanity? Why is traveling important?
We believe that Multiculturalism is important. In a way, we all are multicultural and we all are exposed to different cultures every day (by food, by music etc.…). We are living in times where you can travel to the other side of the world just by pressing a button on your phone. There is a strong voice of a generation who wants to know more, who wants to reconnect, to travel, to meet new people and new ideas, our music represents this voice. In our music there are many messages but we are not telling people what to do or how to live but we are sharing our own story and dreams and we let them travel among many people far beyond us. For example, I am Israeli, I write my songs mostly in Hebrew. I have an Israeli passport so there are many countries I am not allowed to enter (Tunisia, Bangladesh, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and more.) my physical body cannot be there, but my voice... My voice flies far away to every place, people listening to our music and writing to me from many countries I cannot visit, writing to me how much power it gave them, that our music helped them to come through difficult times, or helped them to understand many things. Music can travel, music has no borders.
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I thank Light in Babylon for their willingness and generosity to talk about themselves. If you want to follow the projects and performances of these great artists, visit the official website.
In the next interview we will meet Gennaro Spinelli, president of UCRI, to find out everything you don't know about a millenary people: the Roma.