Istanbul was Constantinople

Istanbul was Constantinople

November 16, 2014

Written by:

Dragoș Rusu

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A turkoholic idea

‘’Istanbul was Constantinople. Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople. Been a long time gone, Constantinople. Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night. (Oh) every gal in Constantinople, (Oh) lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople (Oh), so if you've a date in Constantinople, (Oh) she'll be waiting in Istanbul.’’

I see this short poem of Jimmy Kennedy, from 1953, on the first page of a tourist book, while waiting in a hostel for our buddy Bilinç, to get some beers from a shop nearby. It’s Monday evening and we are in Istanbul, in the nostalgic month of October 2014. Alcohol here it is quite expensive, even in local shops and cheap supermarkets. Not to mention clubs, bars or cafes. If you came here to drink, you might want to prepare financially for this. But in the meantime, you can have amazing street food for very cheap prices.

But let’s start with the beginning.

I’ve been fascinated by Turkish music for some good years. The last five years saw a revival of the psychedelic disco and traditional Turkish music from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. And the credit for this goes to a small number of different international record labels and a few local contemporary musicians and DJs. We can mention the two volumes of ‘’Turkish Freakout’’ compilation released on Bouzuki Joe Records, the ‘’Anatolian Invasion’’ series of albums re-issued on Finders Keepers, some re-issues on Pharaway Sounds (for example Erkin Koray), the two volumes of the compilation ‘’Bosporus Bridges’’ out on Twimo Records, and, of course, Istanbul 70, a three discs LP, compiled by Turkish DJ and musician Bariș K. If you dig a little bit deeper, you may find local record labels such as Türküola, Türker Prodüksiyon, Yavuz Plak, Evren, Sayan, Kalan Müzik or Șah Plak, who licensed most of the rock, disco, jazz, folk, traditional Anatolian music and newer ethnic fusion styles.

I came to Istanbul for five days, in search of Turkish traditional music. We didn’t have a precise target. We would try to find music anywhere was possible: flea markets, on the streets, record stores. After getting in touch with some local guys owning a record store (called De-Form) and a nice bar located in the Asian side of the town (Arkaoda), we started to make preparations for the trip. Since Turkey is not in EU, I even had to renew my lost/stolen/forgotten passport.

We found on Couchsurfing a host named Fatih, who gladly introduces us into a beguiled world of Turkish and oriental traditional music. We have just arrived in his house, after 8 hours on the road, by bus. While drinking the black tea of friendship (such a common habit for all turks), Fatih tells me about his music archive of traditional music. He owns more than 100 GB consisting in tones of albums, compilations, singles and recordings. Afterwards, when I got home with a borrowed external hard drive, I discovered some amazing musicians and bands, which I will try to mention in the following.
I'm on a long and narrow road, I walk all day, I walk all night, I cannot tell what is my plight, I walk all day, I walk all night. (...) I walk in sleep - I find no cause, To linger, whether dark or light, I see the travelers on the road, I walk all day, I walk all night. (...) Sometimes it seems an endless road, The goal is very far from sight, One minute, and the journey's o'er- I walk all day, I walk all night. - Așik Veysel

Lights and confussion

For a European, Turkey may seem an exotic destination; especially Istanbul. The Taksim square is hugely crowded all the time, no matter if it’s day or night. Kebaps. Street musicians playing on different instruments, such as baglama, saz, guitar, harp, santur. Trams. Taxi drivers shouting. Everybody is selling something to somebody. Everyone negotiates. Almost nobody speaks English, but everybody understands it. Lights everywhere. Confusion. Bairamlar. Too many boys, few girls. Cars everywhere. Shops everywhere. Cheap jewelry. Antique shops everywhere. But, first of all, music everywhere. It is so vivid, that every hour spent in the center of the city leads to a form of social exhaustion. At some point, it is too much; you just need a little break. But for a Romanian, I felt a place very similar to my home country. Since we share a common history, I could discover many similarities. But to be honest, in five days you don’t really get to discover too much, even if you have local acquaintances. The city is way too big and the cultural life can become overwhelming for a first-time visitor, trapped in the tourist condition.

But once you actually put your feet in Istanbul, everything changes. You forget anything you knew before, because the contact with music is totally different. It’s alive. It’s not like when you get lost until 6 in the morning on discogs, browsing through various LPs, or when you find an interesting youtube playlist from a Turkish guy, or some nice mixes made by Turkish people. This is actually real human contact. You see the musicians. You hear them playing. Anywhere. You connect to the vibrations of the city and you feel it. And once you’re in, you’re in for good. The way for finding music and understanding different cultures can be very adventurous sometimes, but the most valuable one is when there’s a physical human contact involved. And of course, the irresistible known Turkish hospitality.

In Istanbul

It seems that Turks have their own way of making things. You get to meet friendly people everywhere. Or at least, we got lucky on that. On Friday night we checked the Minimuzikhall venue, a small bar-club known in Istanbul as one of the cool places to get out. Located in the European side of the town, the venue is a small room with a very good sound system. During years, you could find here local musicians such as Bariș K - who actually recorded here a few live sessions together with other Turkish musicians (such as Cem Yıldız, Alican Tezer, Hogir, Dr. Sinan Tansal), under the project name Insanlar. What actually didn’t quite convince me was the price of the drinks. When we arrived, the place was packed and there were four Swiss techno producers lined up - Canson live, Gill & Gill, Ander live, Dada live. The music was not so interesting (I could call it digitalized techno, which of course, sounded cool, but that was not the reason I came here for), so soon enough we were just wandering the streets. Since men overpopulate Istanbul, the bouncers from the clubs don’t let in too many male groups in; especially on weekends. So you need at least one girl with you.

The next day we went to Deform-e record store. Despite the fact that many good record stores are located on the Asian side, this one is hidden in the European side of town. The store is packed with good stuff from all over the world, and, of course, some shelves filled up with Turkish records. There’s also a huge amount of 45s, so once you’re in, you better open wide your ears and forget about time. Tayfun, one of the owners of the place, seems kind of fed up with everything that’s happening now. He tells us about a so-called punk scene of Istanbul from the ‘90s, which lately vanished. Together with Ozan, Tayfun is running a place called Arkaoda, a bar-club with a nice terrace in the back of the building, located in the center of Kadikoy, in the Asian part of town. This seems to be the place where most of the artists gather and where you can join intimate events with great music from different areas. Tayfun also plays music, together with Ozan, under the same name, Deform-e.

Sunday night we were to Arkaoda, for a very special performance of Turkish musician Okay Temiz, the Japanese jazz and improv drummer from Tokyo Sabu Toyozumi and Japanese musician Fumihico Natsuaki – Hico. Okay Temiz brought some of his customized instruments and, all together, they improvised for about an hour or so. Some moments really blew my mind, musically. Okay Temiz is a legend of Turkish music, combining Turkish folklore beats and rhythms with free jazz. He’s a unique performer, musician and teacher. Throughout years, he worked with Maffy Fallay under the name Sveda, collaborated with legendary musician Don Cherry and done a lot of solo recordings. He’s the Santa of Turkish music, one of the Daddy’s, a living legend.

This is what I’ve recorded from that evening, although the sound quality is poor. I owe you a beer for that.

And HERE is a recording from a protest concert by local Turkish musicians, to stop the war in the Kobane territory.

Night talk on full moon

Back home, we have long conversations with Fatih and Bilinç about the Turkish music, Turkish habits, the Islam religion. Fatih plays on his mini laptop from the kitchen, the song ‘’Haydar Haydar’’ (Haydar is also a very common name in the Alevi religious cult), by Ali Ekber Cicek. This song took approximately seven years to master. It is said that Ali Ekber asked himself, regarding this song, "What did I do!" The song is often considered the pinnacle of symphonic Turkish folk music. "Haydar Haydar" is the only song that sounds like it is played by two baglamas.

Fatih tells us about Kul Nesimi, a Turkish poet from the 17th century, who was writing a lot of protest songs and eventually got killed by the government from that time. He was an Ottoman Alevi-Bektashi poet. ‘’In Alevi songs, or traditional Turkish songs, you always feel pain. Because of this. Anatolia was full of aristocrats. Sometimes there are big rebels there, but the ottoman government, because they are stronger, kills them. For example, in the golden age of Ottoman, they killed 40.000 Alevi people in Anatolia. So, for 200 years, there was only pain. ‘’ After that, Fatih plays a track by the brothers Hüseyin & Ali Rıza Albayrak featured on a compilation of sacred Alevi music - Kizilbaș (‘’redheads’’). Alevism is a religious interpretation of Islam, only that it has some links to Sufi elements of the Bektashi and some points in agreement with Quranism.

From the top of an old building, in the center of Istanbul, I could see a huge and splendid full moon, reflecting on the river channels in front of us. While we drink red wine, our host tells us about Așik Veysel, a Turkish minstrel and highly regarded poet of the Turkish folk literature from the first part of the 20th century. A bağlama virtuoso, Așik Veysel was blind for most of his lifetime. His songs are usually sad tunes, often dealing with the unavoidability of death. However, Veysel used a wide range of themes for his lyrics; based on morals, values, and constant questioning on issues such as love, care, beliefs, and how he "saw" the world as a blind man. Then we play Cemalim from Erkin Koray. This is actually a traditional Turkish folk song, originally recorded by Ürgüplü Refik Başaran in 1930 and covered by Koray on his second full-length album, Elektronik Türküler. The song, which translates to “My Cemal,” is about a martyr named Cemal (a common Turkish name). The same night I found out more about like Ruhi Su, (a Turkish opera singer, Turkish folk singer and saz virtuoso of Armenian origin), the pioneer of fretless guitar - Erkan Oğur and Mikail Aslan.

The time is 5 in the morning, and we just got back from the supermarket, with a strong taste in the mouth from the lachrymatory gas that we just inhaled a few minutes ago in the Taksim Square. The streets are very busy, especially because of the Bairam, a Turkish national holiday which lasts 4 days in October. Now, on the big boulevards, everybody is somehow drunk; they’re all shouting, yelling and singing loudly. Police is everywhere. After the protests of 2013, Turkish police is much more aware of any attempt to protest and becomes very aggressive, stopping any form of protests that could lead to a potential rebellion. But as our mate Bilinc says, if there’s no risk, there’s no fun. He was also in front of the protests, in the Taksim Square in 2013. I ask him how it was. He recalls about an amazing feeling of liberty and unity within Turkey. History proved that revolutions made people believe more in themselves, made them think that they count in the world, as singular human beings. Their national consciousness wakes up.

Meeting Batikan Manco

In our last day, we met Batikan Manço, one of Bariș Manço’s sons (he had two sons; the other one is a DJ and dance music producer. We had a long and pleasant conversation at Starbucks about music, about Turkish habits, and, of course, about his father Bariș Manço, one of the most loved people in Turkey. Batikan works in Istanbul at a company involved in the production of library music. He has to cross the entire town everyday, from the Asian part to the European part, and back, in order to get to work and back home. He stayed in Florida for a few good years, after his father died. He returned to Turkey a couple of years ago. ‘’When you’re a tourist, Istanbul seems much fun. When I look back I realize that I lived and studied in three different countries. I was born in Belgium, 9 years in the United States and the rest in here. But for me, Istanbul it’s really tiring.’’

‘’We always had that pressure of being Bariș Manço’s sons; since our birth, maybe. I suppose the family of Michael Jackson suffers the same things I suffer. We were known everywhere, and after my father passed away that doubled and tripled. That’s why we went to US when we were young, in 2001. His fans love us too. Bariș Manço was not just a singer, but also a TV host; he was a people’s person, a symbol. His songs can go for any kind of people.''

''Every January and February we have commemorative events, because in January was his birthday and February the month when he past away. During those times, it’s just crazy. If you ask me about memories, the only things I can tell you it’s the vacation times. He would travel to one continent for about a month, just go to country to country to country, for his TV show, and then he would come back and do the editing, the montage and anything by himself. I could see him rarely. He always had to do something. If he didn’t do any composing or editing for the TV show, he would just…clean the antiques from his collection.’’

I ask Batikan about the music in their house, when he was a child. ‘’I remember that I used to listen to my father since I was 2 or 3 years old. My father loved classical music, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi; he had a big collection on CDs - he loved the new technology, with CDs and stuff like this. I loved movie soundtracks; it helped me think differently. Then I started to listen to new age music, rock music. I don’t like Turkish pop of the past 15 years. I don’t like any way of arabesque music. They are so emotional, in a sad way. Most of the lyrics of folk music or arabesque music are about loss or a sad love. It’s always sad. Of course, I listen to my father’s music as well. I feel that I have to, because there are some songs that still I don’t fully understand. Some lyrics seem cryptic to me; the meaning of the words is so heavy that actually I can come up with ten different answers to what he says. That’s the thing with Bariș Manço’s songs. He says something, you can understand it in one way, I can understand it in a different way.’’

Bariș Manço's generation of musicians they were all friends, since the beginning. They started something new in Turkish music. ‘’I remember seeing a couple of times Sezen Aksu in our house, I’ve seen Cem Karaca, from Mogollar. I don’t know if Erkin Koray and my father really liked each other, because, they were almost in the same kind of music, but Erkin Koray style was more psychedelic. And his lyrics were sometimes strong, so not many people would say that they really liked it. He was more rebellious in his time, which made him unique, of course. In the ‘70s, things weren’t that simple in Turkey. Erkin Koray must had some courage to have an album with him being nude and just holding a guitar in front of his private. Back then, this was very controversial. As for Cem Karaca, not many people would like him as well, because most of his lyrics were political. Many of the musicians, including my father, suffered from censorship. Cem Karaca has gotten into some political ideas; back then there was the left and right sides. He was so strong about it, that he got exiled to Germany for about ten years or so. Later on, he returned, after all the political stuff stopped, but for him was too strong. His lyrics were actually speaking the truth. When I listen to his songs today, they can’t really synchronize into today’s Turkey. It seemed that Turkey had never changed for the past 40 years. Mogollar were in their own style, they didn’t go into any direction, they were fine on their own. And then, they didn’t disband, but they stopped at some point. But my father kept going.’’

In the 80s television came to Turkey, CDs came to Turkey, and a big change has happened. ‘’My father started to work in television and his style of music changed, after me and my brother were born. Because in his music of the 70s, the music was psychedelic as well, because he did it with instruments and synthesizers that he brought from Europe. Back then, there weren’t this kind of instruments in Turkey. His lyrics were cryptic and deep. And then he got married, we were born, and you could see in his music that instruments changed, the style changed, he has become more like a public figure. He started to go for all ages, musically. That’s what made him more popular.’’

After high school, Bariș Manço went to Belgium to study the Academy of Fine Arts. He used to sing as well, but in the weekends, to earn some money. ‘’My uncle told me that Bariș was singing at cafes from Brussels and Liege. He started his professional music career in Belgium, with a band called Les Mystic Rive, they were all Belgium and they had their first record. His style was like American rock and roll of the 60s. He looked like early Elvis Presley. He had short hair, no moustache, nothing. And then, some of his songs were like covers of American rock and roll. Then, he came back to Turkey and he tried that style inhere, but it was difficult for the people to understand. Back then, the music was either traditional, folk or even arabesque, maybe. Then he changed his style; he wrote Dağlar Dağlar. That was his first breakthrough. It was very emotional, very deep; it is a song of sadness and homesickness and that’s where he hit the hearts of many people.’’

In all his career, it was always Bariș Manço and somebody. He was never included in one band or in any other way; it was always like this. ‘’In the mid’ 70s he formed Kurtalan Ekspres, a Turkish Anatolian rock band. That band had so many formations; many people came and left that band. Until today, the band changed its members 14 or 15 times.’’

‘’In Istanbul, we had two houses, both on the Asian sides. One of them is now a museum. That’s where he composed most of his songs. Whenever he was thinking of something, he was writing notes in an agenda, which he was always carry it with him. In one interview he spoke of how he composed some lyrics. Sometimes I used to see him compose at home, but that was rare, because I think he preferred to be alone when he was composing, writing. Some of his lyrics are also proverbs from the Turkish literature. You think you understand it, but you also know that is so deep.’’


AUDIO BONUS: Hello? This is Turkish Music mixtape
About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

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