A German musician intrigued by Turkish music visited Istanbul in 2004 with Turkish-German film director Fatih Akin behind a movie camera to explore the city’s music scene.
The result is this lively and interesting 90-minute documentary. It reveals a diverse and sophisticated music community with broad influences and deep roots, from legends like an 86-year-old salon chanteuse to folkies, rockers and a rapper who could cut verbal capers around most auctioneers.
Alexander Hacke, the German musician, is bassist for Einstürzende Neubauten, a Berlin-based ‘industrial’ band. Hacke said his interest in Turkish music stems from his work on Akin’s 2004 feature film Gegen die Wand [Head On]. He is an earnest and open xenophile.
Akin’s films range from serious drama to light comedy; his work succeeds because he knows how to make a camera tell a story. His narratives feel inspired by an enlightened curiosity about people and the world, and infused with a spirit of fun.
What Akin and Hacke have accomplished here is to engage a variety of Turkish musicians in a conversation about their lives and work. The documentary provides a wealth of information on a topic little-known in the West, without becoming a lecture.
It opens with an apt though likely apocryphal Confucian ‘saying’: ‘In order to understand the culture of a place, you have to listen to the music they make. Music can tell you everything about a place.’
Akin brings us into Istanbul and takes us out at the end with Sertab Erener’s pop cover of Madonna’s Music. Next—and next to last, with recurring appearances and comments throughout—we hear Baba Zula, a rock/jazz band that plays Turkish-inflected psychedelic music on electric Western and traditional instruments, what it calls ‘Psychebelly Dance Music.’
At first, the beat trots freely in the streets of the formerly tough, currently hip and gentrifying Beyoğlu section of the city, sampling everything from a violin in a sidewalk café to a tenor saxophone, drunks in doorways, moons on trees.
Hacke and Akin get an intimate reception into Istanbul’s music community. Several of their subjects even invite Hacke to sit in at bass; though by the end of the movie, Hacke admits that as far as ‘figuring out’ Istanbul and its music, he ‘managed only to scratch the surface.’
The rockers Duman (Smoke) and Replikas, the street musicians of Siya Siyabend, and rappers Ceza and his sister, Ayben, are among a score of musical groups, individual artists and record label producers with whom the filmmakers meet and record impromptu sessions.
They also speak with women vocalists Aynur Doğan, a Kurdish folk singer-songwriter, and Brenna MacCrimmon, a Canadian folk singer fluent in Turkish who has released three albums of Turkish and Balkans folk music. MacCrimmon appears with Baba Zula as well as with master clarinetist Selin Sesler, with whom she has toured.
The versatile Sesler is from Keşan, a town about 40 miles from the Greek border in Thrace, with a large Roma (Gypsy) population. He took Akin and Hacke with him to his home town where they filmed him playing a fasıl—a musical narrative that sounds like klezmer—at a Roma drinking party in a tavern. Sesler later played a local wedding.
The crew also meets several of Turkey’s musical legends: singer-songwriter and film star Orhan Gencebay, diva Sezen Aksu, and Erkin Koray, the country’s first rocker.
The octogenarian is Müzeyyen Senar, who sang ‘Haydar Haydar’ (translated ‘Outrageous Outrageous’ in the subtitle), a traditional drinking song, with an orchestra and half a glass of raki. Akin added film footage of Senar, Gencebay, Aksu and Koray in their salad days (all four are still going strong).
There is a temptation to try to match Turkish musicians with roughly analogous American performers, but these artists arise and draw their forms and inspiration from their own very different sources.
And though American popular music is an important influence, the musicians interviewed here take it more as a point of departure than an objective.
Hacke and Akin encourage viewers to listen closely to each of the artists in their sampling for his or her unique voice.
One way to gain perspective on these voices is to consider the origin of American surfing music, which took its fast scales from some of the same kind of music that has inspired Turkish musicians in different directions.
Gencebay said that while Western octaves exist in Turkish music, what Turks call a ‘Turkish accent’ is a beat succession that goes 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3 (the Turkish numbers, bir-iki, bir-iki-ooch, bir-iki, bir-iki-ooch, sound more euphonic said quickly).
Sesler later concurred, quickly fingering an imaginary clarinet as he counted: ‘1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3: you split them up into ninths.’
Dick Dale used the same ‘accent’ to create the distinctive sound of surfing music in Southern California in the late 1950s. His Misirlou, first recorded in 1962 and revived thirty years later as the blazing opening theme of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), is based on a melody created by an Anatolian Greek band and first performed in Athens in 1927.
Dale’s guitar mimics the sound of the bağlama, a traditional, long-necked, stringed instrument also known by its Persian name, ‘saz’ (ساز). The documentary credits Gencebay, a master bağlama player, with having ‘brought the instrument to the city’ in the 1960s, sophisticating a sound which before had been region- and even town-specific.
This music became known in Turkey as ‘arabesque,’ but Gencebay said this is a misnomer. What he did was to update and refine ‘a certain technique from Egyptian music similar to our own, originally from the West, that was not very common in Turkish music,’ he told Hacke.
‘We wanted to enrich our music and we experimented,’ Gencebay said, despite the resistance of ‘conservatives’ who accused him and other young musicians at the time of wanting to ‘destroy’ the tradition. ‘We didn’t destroy anything, we protected it.’