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Lionel Beltrami – Asia Minor

Prog has always been about the fusion of genres, but Middle Eastern influences are rarely represented. Enter Asia Minor, forming in Paris in the early 70s and releasing only two albums before splitting in 1982. The Turkish trio brought fresh ideas to the genre and their sound, which included the flute, sounded not too dissimilar to Camel. While they received very little attention during their initial tenure, the advent of the Internet brought their little-known music to the attention of the wider prog community and their second album Between Flesh and Divine in particular became revered as an obscure classic. This, in turn, prompted a reunion which resulted in the group releasing a new album, Points of Libration, in 2020. Basil Francis has tracked down the band’s original drummer, Lionel Beltrami, for more information about this exotic group.

Lionel Beltrami at Studio Bleu

At Studio Bleu, Joinville-le-Pont, 7th April 2014

I read that Asia Minor was formed in 1973 by Setrak Bakirel and Eril Tekeli. When did you join the group and how did you find each other?

In April 1977 through the classified ads.

It took six years until Asia Minor released their first album Crossing the Line in 1979. What happened in the intervening years? Did you write a lot of music?

I only joined the group a year and a half before the recording of Crossing the Line. During this time, we performed some concerts in different venues in Paris and the suburbs, as well as in several venues in the provinces. There were also personnel changes within the group, on the bass and keyboards, until the arrival of Robert (who played both) in 1979 after the recording of our first album. The line-up of Setrak, Eril, Robert and myself stabilised shortly before a live performance of the group for a cultural program broadcast nationally on a public French channel in December 1979.

Asia Minor on a set in the "Studios des Buttes-Chaumont"

Asia Minor on a set in the “Studios des Buttes-Chaumont”, Paris, France, for the recording of the French TV show “Mosaïque”, 15th December, 1979.

Are there any ‘forgotten’ Asia Minor songs from those days?

As with the majority of artists, there are pieces from the group’s repertoire which were not selected to appear on the first album. However, there was a song from this period that we included on our second album: Boundless, formerly titled Paradise.

The official Asia Minor page lists King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Camel, Focus and Jade Warrior as the band’s influences.

It is more our former label than us which defined these influences. King Crimson is justified. Regarding Camel, only certain punctual sound atmospheres, more than the style of composition, the singing, or the instrumental style of each musician, can sometimes make one think vaguely of Asia Minor.

Apart from King Crimson sometimes, none of these groups has directly influenced us. Like all artists, we have had many unconscious influences in a wide spectrum of musical styles. It would be difficult to cite the names of all of them. We each have our favourite artists – not necessarily the same for each of us – but these artists have not often been a direct source of influence for our music; they have sometimes influenced us in a particular way of playing our instrument for certain musical passages. In all cases, I think that the music of Asia Minor is quite unique in its genre as well as in the general sound expression that emerges from it.

Lionel Beltrami at Maïa Studios

Lionel Beltrami at Maïa Studios in Bondy, France, for the recording of “Crossing The Line” in October 1978.

What were your own influences as a drummer? Any personal drumming heroes?

Like every musician who starts music, I have had and still have my heroes. Even if I am not strictly speaking a drum freak, my approach to the instrument is rather rare. I really appreciate keyboards and therefore the atmosphere of a song. For me, the drums are a vehicle that I use to express above all sensitivity, emotions, colours and contrasts, and images. There are many drummers or percussionists of whom I like the style or the sound, from rock to jazz to contemporary. If I have to limit myself to my very first major influences, those who made me want to play the drums, I would mention Mike Giles, Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Carl Palmer, B. J. Wilson, Alan White (especially on the album Relayer by Yes or with John Lennon on Instant Karma), Keith Moon, Ian Paice, Billy Cobham… there were undoubtedly others at the time, then new ones later in jazz mainly.

Did you ever listen to Pulsar? They were also French and I felt they had a similar atmospheric energy to Asia Minor.

Yes, I know some of Pulsar’s music. When I was young I had an album of theirs, The Strands of the Future.

To me, what makes Asia Minor so special is the blend of symphonic prog and Turkish influences.

I can’t speak for the other members of the group, but when I was young I listened to a lot of classical symphonic music, contemporary music, and organ music. That marked me in the way I conceived my parts and the way I had in Asia Minor to help with the structure and rhythmic interpretation of the songs from the group’s first two albums. I also helped to build the entire rhythmic structure, not to say the rhythmic composition, of the song Oriental Game on the album Points of Libration. I often play the drums in Asia Minor like a conductor leading a work of symphonic or contemporary classical music.

Turkey is not known for making progressive rock, but the three of you met in Paris. Did you only discover the genre after moving there?

I think Eril and Setrak were already listening to prog rock in Turkey, while I was doing so in France.

Most fans seem to agree that the group’s second album Between Flesh and Divine is better than Crossing the Line. Would you agree with that? Did the band have a different approach for the second album?

Between Flesh and Divine is a more Western and rather Anglo-Saxon progressive rock album, with a more classical style. It also benefits from a more accomplished production than the first album. It is immediately pleasant to listen to the wonderful and reassuring sensation of a peaceful musical atmosphere, undoubtedly more conducive to letting go and dreaming.

Crossing the Line has a more raw sound, and the oriental influences are more obvious and predominant when listening. For my part I find the group’s first album more powerful in the atmospheres it conveys, and more captivating than the second album, The oriental soul is more omnipresent, and it is more worth listening to. It is a complete album from A to Z, from its conception to its production. There is not the slightest concession in it. For me, it is like a rare little jewel, unique in its kind.

What do the album titles mean?

I recommend posing this question to Setrak.

Do you have any favourite songs from this era?

I really like all of our songs, even if Dreadful Memories is the most dispensable piece, a bit of a weak link. But it has its effectiveness on stage.

Funnily enough, Dreadful Memories is a song that tends to pop into my head every so often and I have to listen to Asia Minor all over again. Which song do you consider the hardest to play on the drums?

I reckon the whole of the intro to Nightwind.

I read that the group split in 1982. What caused the split?

A certain weariness in the face of too little success compared to what we hoped for, especially after the release of the second album. It was unfortunately a very difficult period for this type of music. The fatal blow was dealt when Eril departed for Turkey indefinitely.

Lionel Beltrami on stage at the "Centre Culturel des 7-Mares"

On stage at the “Centre Culturel des 7-Mares”, Élancourt, France (5th February, 1982)

What caused the reunion in 2013?

Eril was the initiator of our reunion in July 2013 in Paris. He previously contacted us to suggest the three of us play music from our two albums. In the beginning, the process of making new compositions together was not on the agenda. After our lengthy separation, we weren’t sure how it would go. There was some fear that we would not be able to reproduce our old music live.

According to ProgArchives, you don’t play drums on the 2020 album Points of Libration. How come you weren’t asked to play?

That’s not true, I was in the band, which was obvious as I began recording the album with them. Unfortunately, my health decided otherwise. If the band had waited a few more months to find out if I could be operational, the album would undoubtedly have had lengthy delays due to the pandemic. So it was only right that I stepped down.

Are you still involved with the band in any way?

I am no longer an active member at all.

What do you think of the newer drummers Julien Tekeyan and Camille Bigeault?

Julien is a professional drummer known in the musical world and well-recognised. We knew him when he was a teenager and already playing the drums.

I have not had the opportunity to listen to Camille’s interpretations of the songs. I don’t know much about her role with the group, I only know that she occasionally replaces Julien when he has musical commitments with other artists.

Lionel Beltrami on a set at Bry-sur-Marne, France

On a set at Bry-sur-Marne, France, for the recording of the French TV show “Mosaïque” (19th June, 1982)

What’s next for you?

I have never touched a pair of drumsticks since my last concert with Asia Minor in Milan in December 2018. I had a shoulder injury and I have painful memories of this concert where I gave a bad performance. So honestly, it seems difficult to envisage a next step for me, even if some good musical ideas and rhythmic compositions are in my head or recorded somewhere.

I’m so sorry to hear that your health problems have impacted your ability to play, but I’m really grateful for your time to answer these questions. Thank you so much for speaking with The Progressive Aspect!

Lionel Beltrami in concert at Théâtre Clavel

In concert at Théâtre Clavel, Paris, France, 16th June, 1991

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