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World Music Features

Oojami

By Tom Jackson
Published July 2, 2007

Not content to rehash traditional tunes as their own, or play up their ethnic roots for a tiny audience of beard-stroking neo-colonialists, Oojami is shaking off the Turkish bellydance tag to become a proper, clubby dance act who just happen to groove to the ciftetelli beat.

Blame it on Gogol Bordello. Or Ojos De Brujo. Or any one of the other younger world music acts not content to rehash traditional tunes as their own, or play up their ethnic roots for a tiny audience of beard-stroking neo-colonialists, but who actually want to give their audience a good time with beats, excitement and—above all—songs, shifting major units in the process. Oojami is attempting to join the party, shaking off the Turkish bellydance tag to become a proper, clubby dance act who just happen to groove to the ciftetelli beat.

The shift is possible because Oojami is essentially one man: Necmi Cavli, a former schoolteacher from the coastal town of Bodrum who abandoned Turkey’s liveliest resort for the UK twenty years ago. He writes the songs, sequences the electronic elements and then surrounds himself with a cabal of musicians to bring the tunes to life. Three albums in, he’s on a mission to drive his Oriental grooves slap-bang into the mainstream, his aim to transform Oojami into Green Lanes’ answer to Brixton’s eclectic dance music innovators, Basement Jaxx (who’ve been dabbling in Balkan brass themselves of late). Cavli’s ready, armed with a bazaar-load of North London Turkish spice to intoxicate the toughest crowd.

Sitting in the basement of a Moroccan restaurant on a wintery London morning, over a Turkish coffee, we chat. Cavli has a downbeat, occasionally hangdog air, as if ground down a little by the trials of keeping a band going across six years and three albums. But he’s persistent, and as he explains, Oojami’s third CD release sees a few key developments from the previous outings.

“Basically my understanding of the music keeps changing all the time,” he says. “I feel like it’s evolving in a positive way. I’m moving away from project-based albums to a more song-based approach. On the new album, Boom Shinga Ling, all the vocals are in English. I tried to make a hook so that people can remember the song after the concert or after they listen to the album. That’s what I think being an artist is about: to be remembered for your song rather than for your idea or project.”

Cavli’s interest in good songwriting and developing Oojami into a unit who produce “music that stretches beyond tradition” is partly about survival. He’s seen many bands who started out at the same time fall by the wayside, victims usually of nothing more than fickle fashion. To avoid a similar fate, he has a powerful ambition for the band and himself. He puts it plainly: “If you don’t appeal to a big crowd, it doesn’t mean that what you are doing is good.” He takes no pleasure in elitism. Thrilled by playing in front of an audience of 10,000 in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2006, he is working hard to give his music wider appeal, beyond world music.

“I decided to understand what ‘crossover’ is,” he explains, “why it crosses over. Everybody was saying ‘Why can’t we do what the Chemical Brothers did with that bellydancing tune?’” (In 2005, the UK dance act scored a top ten hit with “Galvanize,” a big-beat stormer with a rap by Q-Tip and a catchier-than-velcro hook sampled from a record by Moroccan singer Najat Aatabou.) “Well, it’s because they know how to write a song. They know how to write the harmony and the hook line and when you listen to the song it catches you and stays in your head.”

Whether or not Cavli nails the elusive cocktail that injects certain songs into the public’s musical bloodstream—and “Wake Me Up” and “Boom Shinga Ling” are probably the catchiest tunes he’s penned to date—his stock-in-trade, Arabic and Turkish bellydance rhythms, have been good to Oojami.

“Fantasy,” from his Istanboogie album, was featured in the film Dirty Pretty Things, and “Chicky,” the same disc’s opener, has been compiled promiscuously. Oojami was also there at the start of Miles Copeland’s Bellydance Superstars troupe—the idea for which grew from