Consisting of Michal Elia Kamal, an amazing female singer and lyricist of Israeli-Iranian origin, Metehan Çifçi (santour) and Julien Demarque (guitar), Istanbul-based group Light in Babylon interweaves oriental sounds in a fresh and fascinating manner. From the streets of Istanbul, where it started giving concerts back in 2010, to renowned music venues and festivals throughout Europe and beyond, Light in Babylon gradually rose to international fame, taking its diverse audiences by storm. Its popularity was further “cemented” with the release of its debut album Life sometimes doesn’t give you space in 2012. On the occasion of the band’s gig during the course of the Balkan Square Festival in Thessaloniki on Thursday 3rd of September, we talk with Michal Elia Kamal.
Being an Israeli citizen of Iranian origin, have you ever faced any discrimination within Israeli society?
Being an Israeli Iranian is not a simple thing indeed, especially because of the fact that I couldn't visit Iran and meet people from there of my generation, but you have to remember that Israel is a country of many cultures, almost everybody has roots elsewhere- whether in Europe, Asia or Africa. The different thing about me is that my origin is from a country that is considered to be an “enemy”, according to the government, but in Israel, like in other places, it’s very important to separate the society from the government, as I didn't get any discrimination from Israeli society because of my Iranian origin. In Israel you can find Iranian restaurants, and concerts of Iranian music, and Iranian films. People do not forget the days of Iran before the revolution, when culture was not limited. My parents do live in Israel for many years now, but this didn't mean that they had to stop being Iranians, because it’s simply not possible.
How did you “sculpt” this fantastic voice of yours? Were you properly trained as a singer?
Actually, I never learned specifically singing. I learned music from a young age, I play the piano and all kinds of percussion, but singing for me is a whole different process, which comes through emotion and through connection to my inner self.
How, where and when did the three of you decide to form Light in Babylon?
This project began when Julien and I met Metehan on Istiklal street in Istanbul in 2010. We then decided to give it a try and play a few songs on that same street. We had a big feedback firstly in social media and then in other kinds of media in Turkey and Europe. Ever since, we play together and have enjoyed doing so in well-known performance halls in Istanbul, as well as at world music festivals in Europe, and, yes, also on Istiklal street. One of the things that brought the three of us together was that we chose to follow our heart and take the path of making music. This path is not as easy as it may seem and carries with it much judgment and risks, but I guess it is this life that is choosing you, and you are not choosing your life.
What does the choice of name reflect?
There are two reasons why we chose the name Light in Babylon as our band name. Our first stage was the street. On the street, people are walking home, going to or back from work, nobody looks, and nobody smiles. The moment you put music on 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 only in one direction. At the moment you put any kind of art in the system you create light, making the people also look into a different direction. The second reason is the story about the Babel tower, the time when cultures were separated and people started to speak different languages. Moreover, in our band we are from different places and speak different languages, but, despite that, we have a common culture and language, music.
Tell me about your relationship with Istanbul.
Istanbul is a big center for music, especially for the Middle East. You can find a concert every night, from jazz to Gypsy music, passing through flamenco, reggae, Turkish pop rock, Indian classical music and more… Being part of this cultural hybrid makes you lose yourself and find yourself each day over and over again... Istanbul is a very special meeting point of East and West, you can see it also with tourism, for example: you see tourists from Europe, USA, Australia and also from Dubai, Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon. All these people, cultures and art is a great thing and I’m very thankful for being part of it, but Istanbul is a very big city with around 20 million people, and this has its price- the pollution, the noise, the crudeness, and mainly I miss nature, forests, trees, parks. For example, there is the sea here and is very beautiful to look at, but the water is not so good for swimming.
Does the diversity and richness that dominate your music, this mélange of sounds, also characterize your individual attitudes towards life?
Coming from different cultures was always an advantage for us, because we choose to see things that way. The moment someone is limiting himself only to one behavior and one style of food/music/habits, he is closing his mind and heart. Our heart is open, we want to learn, and the best way to learn and develop, and not only in music, is first of all to respect humans, to respect different religions/cultures/languages/philosophies. This is what we do have in common, respect. Our music is not folk or traditional, it’s a new kind of music, which is inspired by our different roots and the one having a new spirit, carrying new hopes.
From the streets of Istanbul you have risen to international fame. Has that changed you at all? Why performing live on the street is so essential for you? And how do you relate with your diverse audiences?
We are always changing, we are always developing, as persons, as musicians- yes, playing on the street affects the way we look at things, at music, at people, at ourselves as musicians. Today we do play on big stages and at festivals, and we have lots of fans and followers, but still, as long we have the chance, we still play on Istiklal street. I guess one day, maybe soon, we will not be able to do it, and we might accept the changes in life, but by playing there we are actually preparing the space, the culture, for more musicians to give inspiration, to share their music in a public space. Playing on Istiklal street is more than a concert, it’s a symbol, a symbol of freedom of art and culture, especially when it’s a woman musician with men together in a city, which is half Europe half Asia.
When are you visiting Greece again for a concert?
We will play in Greece in Thessaloniki on the 3rd of September at Balkan Square Festival. We are very happy to come, Greece is the neighbor country to our home base, we listen a lot to Greek music, full of pain, happiness and emotions, and we get lots of inspiration.
Light in Babylon appears at the Balkan Square Festival in Thessaloniki on Thursday 3rd of September. More about the festival’s program on http://visitthessalonikigreece.com/balkan-square-festival/
I would like to thank Michal Elia Kamal, the band’s singer, for taking the time to respond to my questions on behalf of the group between concerts.
The official website of Light in Babylon is http://www.lightinbabylon.com/
A small “taste” of their wonderful music can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKJvbTEnp0I
Band’s photo credits: Gültekin Tetik Photography (http://www.gultekintetik.com/ )