The Road (Not) Taken: Jazz in Europe’s 2010 Cultural Capital — Reporting on the Istanbul Sounds
By Alison Rogers ’12, Staff Writer
We are as the flute, and the music in us is from thee;

we are as the mountain and the echo in us is from thee.

Translated excerpt from “We are as the flute,” by Sufi poet Rumi.

The Turkish language is rife with tricky blends, but this week’s column is about Istanbul’s soundscapes beyond the droning chatter I struggle to comprehend. It’s about 8 a.m. and just now the call to prayer has passed. For those who have never visited a Muslim city, it’s really gorgeous music. If I hang out my window, the closest mosque is visible rising above the sprawling streets of Istanbul. The cry rolls over the hills and across rooftops as all the müezzin work to be in sync. For a moment before the first of many repetitions there is a pause, and the city seems to settle and quiet. The cars don’t intend to stop honking, though, and for most residents it seems life continues unhindered. Soon the sound will be an everyday passing, and it is worth it for one to pause and absorb.

Of course, referring to the call to prayer, or ezan in Turkish, as music is a bit of a misnomer. The words are translated: “God is great, I testify that there is nothing but God, I testify that Muhammad is the prophet of God, come to prayer, come to salvation. God is great, there is nothing but God.” The morning ezan has an extra line added: “Prayer is better than sleep.” For Meryem, a Muslim Belgian Turkish student at Bogazici University, it is important to pause, turn away from the distractions of homework or the computer and listen. It’s wrong to hear any noise above its sound. Strictly speaking, the ezan is read, not sung. Nevertheless, with my jazz-trained ear I can’t help but hear the musical scale the muezzin plays off of. As the role of music in religion has been widely debated in Islam and tends to be universally controversial, music in Turkish society plays an important role in the cultural skirmishes bubbling up around the proper boundaries of the country’s secular and religious spheres.

When I referred to the ezan as music one day, Meryem laughed. “It’s not music, you know. But I’m glad you like it.” When asked if she found my association of ezan and music as offensive, she replied, “No, I don’t consider it offensive. It gives away you are clearly not a believer, but I appreciate that you respect it. Everyone can enjoy the ezan in their own way.”

Meryem’s attitude works well in Istanbul, where tolerance for different lifestyles in exchange for respect has become essential for peaceful neighborly relations. In Turkey, but especially so in such a cosmopolitan, populated and international city as Istanbul, the battle to establish traditions, practices and beliefs about the proper way to live life as a Turk, a Muslim and an international citizen is intense. Whether sitting in class with unphased young women in headscarves listening to a professor lecture over the ezan, attending a folk music student club meeting or late at night in the club and bar district (Taksim), it is apparent that the youth of Turkey have a particular challenge in comfortably establishing an identity. American students, who are known to attach suggestive labels such as “emo” or “goth” to peers based on dress and musical preference, should not be unfamiliar with the idea that the music we listen to (or don’t listen to) makes up an important characteristic of our identity.

Don’t be mistaken: Turkish culture isn’t stagnant, but full of the unmistakable sounds of Turkish pop music, sufi rock, polka, Disney music, Justin Bieber and jazz. There is a certain national pride that comes with famous pop musicians like Rafel el Roman, but more often than not the hippest clubs blast Eminem remixes. While everyone knows the Backstreet Boys’ relatively benign “I Want It that Way,” the arenas of politics and music don’t stray far from one another. If a student here doesn’t have a favorite Turkish musician, it’s clear she doesn’t really appreciate Turkish culture. If they are westernized and modern, on Thursday night the girls and guys will dress up in sexy clubbing outfits and sing along to “Love the Way You Lie” as they gulp down Red Bull and vodka (usually the drink of choice for Bogazici students). The generally-accepted culture of alcohol strikes many visiting international European-Turks, including Meryem, as surprising and somehow jarring; Turkish teenagers living within the immigrant Turkish enclaves of Belgium, for example, expect Turks to shun alcohol or at least hide their habits from their parents. Though the drinking age is 18, the Turkish government has high taxes on alcohol, and under the AKP party the debate over alcohol has become increasingly public.

It isn’t hard to find live music venues around the city, but being a jazz connoisseur, my favorite venue is probably Nardis, a classy jazz club near the Golden Horn Bridge. It lies in the center of Galata, a district located where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus. When Theodosius (408-450) rearranged city districts of Constantinople, the arbor settlement of Sykai (the name given to the proto-Greek fishing town) was included in the borders of the city. The area included a church, a forum, hamams (Turkish baths), a theatre and later on a synogogue. Today, the prominent Galata Tower peers over the crooked rooftops of Galata, even visible from across the river, giving modern-day visitors a chance to take panoramic photos on its top floor. It was constructed by Genoeses, who held special privileges in the important arbor during the 12th century, though he lost this economic right to Venetian merchants in 1204 during the Crusade invasion. Emperor VIII Mikhael (1261-1282), who conquered and reestablished Byzantium administration, had granted rights to Genoeses to establish trade guilds, palaces, houses and shops; the region flourished under free trade. The rich history of lost possession and desire can be felt down the cobblestone streets and crooked alleyways of the area, and wanderers can’t help but sense the romantic atmosphere in its contemporary cafes and boutiques.

Nardis music spills out into the lamp-lit streets at night. It hosts only the best musical talent from Turkey and the international community and sponsored events at the Istanbul Jazz Festival this summer as well. One might expect that its New Orleans-style architecture and design would seem out of place, but somehow it just blends in. Sitting in its intimate setting, listening to renowned bass player Kamil Erdem, the best Turkish trumpeter Şenova Ülker and the fresh young Turkish jazz artists Çağdaş Oruç, Kürşad Deniz and Ferit Odman, it suddenly hits me why sound and music are such an essential part of humanity. Through music, both listener and musician gain a kind of freedom of expression. In conversation and debate, yelling, ignoring and disrespectfulness tend to dominate the field. But, though disrespectful murmurs or outright audience walk-outs are ways in which opponents can express their distaste and disapproval of a musician’s ideas, more often than not members of the musical community find that in the moments of its sounding music cannot be sullied by counterargument, and that in fact empowerment can be found through such expression. We tend to process music more slowly, and it forces listeners and performers to contemplate and reflect before passing judgment.

The other day, a young student visiting from Williams College, Dorothy MacAusland ’12, expressed the concern that she had not yet learned enough Turkish pop music. “I have to go back home with good music to show my friends or no matter how fluent I get in Turkish language, no one will really believe I learned anything about what it means to be Turkish. You know what I mean?”

As a student abroad, learning how others uniquely experience life and understand history, politics and religion become important ways of understanding one’s own culture and identity and challenging one’s own unique way of interacting with the world. Any traveler can be overwhelmed in this challenge. Undoubtedly, taking the time to respectfully appreciate someone else’s favorite music and the soundscape of a place is a good place to start.

Issue 07, Submitted 2010-10-29 20:04:10