Sami Baha has had the same dream for the past three nights. “I’ve been riding a dinosaur, and I’m really good friends with him,” he says. “He’s like my horse. It’s the Medieval age. I’m wearing armor, and fighting my enemies and weird monsters; shooting them with my big gun.” He can barely get to the end of the story before he starts giggling. If his manner had a title, it would be “positive lounging”: chilling in a red robe in the sunlight, with his shocks of black curls framing his wide grin. It’s hard not to laugh along with him. “I love dreams because I don’t have bad dreams,” he says. “I haven’t had them for years. When I’m in a dream, I sometimes feel even more alive.”
Baha is half Turkish, half Egyptian, and recently moved to London from his longtime home of Istanbul. He’s also the latest signing to incendiary British electronic label Planet Mu, and released his debut EP, Mavericks, this month. The title also functions as a vocal drop that splatters across his terse beats: a loving refrain to the abrupt and spacious mechanics of US trap instrumentation, a prominent influence throughout. Mavericks exists in a less certain and familiar environment than a club dance floor, though. The minutiae of how it operates owe a lot of Baha’s personality, and how he describes his affinities with those around him.
“Mike Paradinas is a really special guy,” he says of the Planet Mu label head. “I’m a Virgo and he’s a Virgo, so I have a good sense of who he is. I totally believe in astrology, and a Virgo is obsessed with detail. I love being a Virgo. It helps me make my sound what it is.” It would be easy to call someone who works second-by-second a perfectionist, but Sami refuses that. “When I write my melodies on the keyboard, I’m trying to make as many different melodies out of each loop as I can. I’m trying to find a perfect loop so that I can break it apart as much as possible.” It’s a process that is, quite literally, a reaction to what he sees every day. “A loop cannot be perfect. When I look in the mirror I see mistakes on my face, and I can’t change them. But I can change what I don’t like about music by making my own. I don’t like straight rhythms anymore – they’re everywhere in Turkey right now, so I want to escape from them.”
Baha grew up in a heady sonic environment. His most recent day job was for Turkish CNN, working as a producer on a TV show about gaming called Multiplayer and absorbing the second-by-second sonics of the game soundtracks. After hours, he put on a few dozen parties with like-minded friends in the Taksim Square-based Peyote Club, and describes the crew as “warriors” trying to blaze a trail in a scene currently in the grip of commercial deep house. Baha struggled to hit on what he was looking for until he met the L.A.-based DJ Total Freedom, who Baha describes as a “musical genius, leader and friend” after spending time together in Istanbul around four years ago.
Absorbing himself in the style of Total Freedom’s club-orientated blends, Baha came home high one night from a party and listened Fade To Mind-affiliated producer Kingdom’s 2011 track “Hood By Air Theme” for the first time, and was shocked by it. “I felt like I went into a sound tunnel. I shut all of the conversation out and let the music totally into myself,” he says. Convinced of the sound’s hold over him, he quickly brought Total Freedom, Nguzunguzu, Lotic and other similar high-energy producers to Peyote Club.
Baha doesn’t just look outwards, though. Back in Istanbul, he’s got a large collection of Anatolian pop and Arabesk music, mostly on cassette. They’re styles that have been woven into his identity from an early age, but he’s also seen them mutate in real time, informing how he thinks about the progression and power of sound. “The thing that I like most about Anatolian pop is the arrangement,” he says. “It really surprises me. It has a very wavy style of drums that makes me feel like I’m in a tiny boat on a huge ocean. Anatolian pop feels extra wavy because it combines Arabic and Western drumming patterns. When you calibrate something like that, it feels bigger.”
“When I hear a Juicy J track from the ’90s, I think it’s the same as Arabesk. It’s basically the same lyrics, but in different contexts.”
Here, though, he strikes a rare critical chord. “The people who run everything in Istanbul have started pushing new Anatolian pop as a kind of ‘fusion electronic music’ – a meeting of East and West – but it’s not electronic music,” he insists. “It’s just Anatolian pop samples with some drums added in. It’s using the culture in a bad way. It’s so basic to me.” The culture of Turkish music is a subject that Sami riffs on passionately. He sees Anatolian pop as the upbeat and melodic counterpart to the most current form of Arabesk, a depressive and politically charged sound that Sami relates to southern US rap. After the coup d’état of 1980, in which the Turkish military facilitated boiling conflicts in the streets, Sami insists that the violence was a multi-faceted one: “cutting off the musical head of the culture,” Anatolian pop, “because it was getting bigger, and Turkish people were making connections with Western influences.”
Surprisingly, Arabesk was pushed as the new populist choice. “The really strange part is that I think Anatolian pop is so political and revolutionary, and that to have the powers that be insist on such a depressive music instead is so weird. It’s all mafia violence, death, legends of war – Turkish people are so emotional, so dramatic music and lyrics are our shit,” he says. “When I hear a Juicy J track from the ’90s, I think it’s the same as Arabesk. It’s basically the same lyrics, but in different contexts.”
The shock of Arabesk and the complex arrangements of Anatolian pop have been fed into Baha’s own sound. It’s often at its most confrontational in his side project, Messiah Chain, where he breathes in the doom-laden sensibilities of Kyuss and Sleep and riffs on his electric guitar inside those broken melodic loops. Even though it’s not explicitly designed for the darker recesses of the dance floor, it has a brutal effect on the bodies assembled in front of him. In these moments, Baha is most sincere. “People aren’t open to supernatural vibrations from the universe,” he says. “Most people live in frustration. If you have an open heart to human or musical vibrations, if you’re brave about your passion, I think that spirit is open to you – but you have to cross that border.”
Listen to Sami Baha’s Choice Mix on RBMA Radio here.