Barakka continues the Tayoun musical legacy

For The Inquirer

Whatever music Billy and Joe Tayoun play - the authentic folk songs of the Mid-East Ensemble, or the modern ethno-rock of Barakka - their surname carries a legacy.

Through their two bands, the brothers are not only ambassadors for Lebanese culture in the Philadelphia area. They, along with brother-in-law Roger Mgrdichian, also are keepers of a family entertainment tradition that dates to 1959, when the Middle East Restaurant opened in South Philly at 10th and Ellsworth Streets.

Owned by Joe and Billy's father, the late Edmond Tayoun, and their uncle, former City Councilman Jimmy Tayoun, the Middle East became a hotbed of live art, music, and dance when it moved a decade later to 126 Chestnut St. in Old City.

"We were well before our time," keyboardist Billy Tayoun says of the restaurant, as famed for its belly dancers' gyrations as for its exotic menu. "In Philadelphia in the late '50s and '60s, who knew about the oud or dumbek, hummus or tabbouleh . . . ? Most of this was foreign until my father and uncle brought it here."

The Middle East played home to a nightly display of the extended Tayoun family's many musical talents. But it closed (in 1997) before it could rock to Barakka, which serves up a mix of its members' musical heritages - and metal. (Consider Mgrdichian, of Armenian roots, and his electric oud, a centuries-old lutelike instrument amped into the 21st Century.)

The group, on stage Saturday night at Ortlieb's Lounge in Northern Liberties, was formed in 2003 by front man Baris Kaya, a songwriter from Istanbul. At the time, the Tayoun brothers and Mgrdichian already had put six years into their Mid-East Ensemble, specializing in "the traditional oldies my dad loved," says percussionist Joe Tayoun.

Kaya met his future bandmates while gigging at the since-closed Turkish restaurant Konak, at Second and Vine Streets. They visited each other's shows, and started an open-mike night. They developed a bond, and soon, a band.

Barakka has played spaces like Mehanata in Manhattan and Philly's Painted Bride, and last year recorded a flavorful debut album, Uzaklardan.

"At first," Kaya says, "I wasn't sure how good the oud would affect my music until I realized the songs I was writing were something in between, not rock or Turkish."

When living in Turkey, Kaya did not play traditional music. After seeing Guns N' Roses and Metallica in Istanbul, he found his way, and the way was metal. He bought a guitar and formed the heavy Paradoks and the alternative-metal Insomnia.

No sooner was Kaya in the United States, though, than he began thinking about the music back home. "It's ironic that Baris came to America to start playing the traditional tunes that he always knew, but just didn't play" in Turkey, says Billy Tayoun.

The members approach their music not as separate ethnicities, but "as Americans," says Mgrdichian, who, like his father, played the classic oud at the Middle East Restaurant in his youth.

"Even Baris, born in Turkey, is American to us. It's our common ground."

Indeed, in even the Tayoun dynasty, rock-and-roll was held in high regard. "My dad taught us a real reverence for American rock," Joe Tayoun says. It "goes as deep as our passion for Lebanese culture, food, and music."

The family itself is an integral part of Philadelphia lore. Jimmy Tayoun, the onetime First District Councilman, pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering, mail fraud, tax evasion, and obstruction of justice, got three years in federal prison, was released in 1994, and eventually began publishing a newspaper, the Philadelphia Public Record.

Ed Tayoun quietly ran the Middle East, as well as other restaurant concerns. He died Jan. 30.

The Middle East wasn't solely a place for Lebanese music and culture, says Mgrdichian, but a blend of Arab, Greek, Turkish, Armenian, even Israeli - giving it "such universal appeal" in the city.

"Not a day goes by, honestly, without someone approaching me and commenting how much my father and uncle did, or asking, 'When you gonna open another place?' " says Joe Tayoun with a laugh. "Our heritage and legacy is something we take great pride in and strive to continue."

The percussionist teaches drumming at Independence Charter School and conducts workshops at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. His family holds court during Lebanese events at St. Maron's Maronite Catholic Church Hall at 10th and Ellsworth Streets, across from the Middle East's first location.

"My father was born on the property that St. Maron's Hall stands on," says Billy Tayoun. "He was an altar boy there. My parents got married there. It's a core part of our history, then and now."

The Mid-East Ensemble plays there, as does Barakka. The latter, though, has the legs, a greater diversity of potential venues. In its mix of dramatic songs and upbeat tracks, Kaya has found a satisfying form of expression.

He also has found, he says, an extended family in the Tayouns.

"We do not have a relationship like other professional band members," Kaya says. "We call each other, we celebrate things together, we share our laughter, and we share our bad days. And we always find a way to make this band, this family, bigger."

Music

Barakka

10 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Saturday at Ortlieb's Lounge, 847 N. Third Street. Tickets: $10. Information: 267-324-3348, or ortliebslounge.com.

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