Only a few times in my career as a music reviewer have I experienced the Barbican shucking off its cool yet relatively formal façade and getting downNdirty. One was a 24-hour concert, where any sense of decorum flittered away by about the 7th hour. The second time was Turkish superstars Mabel Matiz’s first London performance. An evening of culture, dancing in the aisles, and a showstopping white glittering suit.
Matiz (real name Fatih Karaca) started releasing music in 2008 on myspace (where all the modern great start). He is four albums deep and slowly pushing his influence outside of Turkey. Drawing international support and some internal pushback for his vocal LGBTQIA+ activism and his recent song “Karakol” (a sweet gay love song that has been banned from radio and television in his homeland).
This thankfully hasn’t dampened his following as a good chunk of London’s Turkish population is in attendance. Dressed to the nines, my evening date and I feel very underdressed, very seated and very northern European. We gaze throughout in awe at the pivoting wrists, hands raised to the ceiling, and the energy and passion in the music reflected on over 1000 beaming faces.
Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself. Out glides Matiz, looking like a Turkic Elvis (younger years thankfully). Stark and handsome facial features, in the above-mentioned suit with matching white boots, sequins and tassels a-flyin, embroidered hearts spanning his back. Quite a sight, interestingly for such a statement look (every inch the rockstar) his vocal presence is demure and softly friendly. Explaining (mainly in Turkish with brief translations in English) his excitement at being here and his hope that we will all sing along, “songs can be like prayers”. The evening takes on a semi-religious air and off we plunge into his back catalogue.
Musically his style is a glorious blend of maqam, campy Eurovision, rocky indie, traditional Anatolian folk, and thumping euro trance, can you imagine it? No? shocking! It’s quite the experience! All this comes with a dynamic if not overly energetic stage presence and a rich, gravelly voice (helped not hindered by a current cold, most likely from our sad damp city).
Karakol starts with the trilling pipes thought of when Turkish folk is mentioned—supported throughout by Sönmez Ceren Deniz and Buğra Uğur deepening backing vocals. However, the fiddling that quickens the pulse in this song is expertly picked by Semihcan Çelikel. His frantic fingers dart along the violin’s strings, like small minnow swimming up a fast-flowing stream. Given the chance for a truly breathtaking solo later Çelikel’s ability exemplifies the high level of musical talent throughout. Mehmet Emin İnal’s wide-ranging piano and synth skills, Tunç Berke Köymen’s pounding drumming ability, and Bahadır Kartal’s rocky guitar sense are a divine blend of old and new.
Fan, the single bursting with twanking guitar (one of his most famous) gets us onto our feet even if we don’t want to. It is at this point where my friend and I are strong-armed by a strangely powerful girl into the aisle, joining hands and leading down and up the steps again in what I have later learned is the Dabke, a traditional wedding dance. Never have I been lifted out of my seat in the Barbican, yet I hope it becomes a regular occurrence.
Speaking of matrimony and heritage, songs Matiz grew up with are mixed into the bubbling pop ballads, getting everyone up and swishing their arms, the room thick with nostalgia and bangled wrists.
Old hits from his 2012 album aşk yok olmaktır are another favourite with the audience, and a wonderful start to a night reveling in the past and dazzling future of this young singer!
Canki from the 2018 album Maya has a dancy underline that is then overlayed by the classic Matiz traditional funkiness. It performed with such honesty, power, and surprising candor by our white-clad star.
This evening is a glimpse into a country in the grips of great change, and the talent of an artist who embodies that complexity. Turkey has always been a crossroads of East and West, old and new and I believe Matiz and his fans embody that wonderfully. We felt like a family, swaying as one to the semi-spiritual sounds, together united, supporting freedom of expression in whatever form it takes. It that’s not something to get you out of your seat I don’t know what is!