Like some kind of giant organism Istanbul spreads over the hills by the sides of the Bosphurus seething with life. The streets are a full on hussle of energy with endless shops selling everything you can think of tumbling towards the sea. Driven by one of the most youthful populations in Europe this is a city that’s reinventing itself daily with a huge influx of deeply traditional Turkish peasants mixing it with the super modern open-minded Istanbul locals in a vast melting pot.
This is one huge super city with 16 million people and counting. All human life is here somehow co-existing in a crazed gamut of ideas both modern and ancient. This is a city where skyscrapers stand next to 1500 year old buildings, a city that straddles two continents where the locals talk of the ‘European side’ or the ‘Asian side’. In what other city can the 5 O’clock in the morning call to prayer blast out as the bars are just emptying, what other city can a devout religious love of god stand shoulder to shoulder with an expressive nightclub culture and a huge band scene. If in 2009 Berlin is the coolest city in Europe, Istanbul is catching up. And fast.
I’m on the European side in a packed club. Onstage the band are soundtracking this stunning city with its fusion of ideas and innovation. Baba Zula are mashing deep dub grooves with Turkish melodies played on the triangular Saz. There are two belly dancers and a whole gamut of melodies that make the group sound like they have one foot deep into a fascinating melodic history of their home country but also an experimental nous that matches prime new York noise twisters.
Istanbul is full of life. In its astonishing sprawl with a fast forward of 21st century human culture from deeply devout Muslims to hip youth, the Hijab and the mini skirt walk side by side and all points of view seem to tumble down the endless streets. Some of the woman have the Hijab decorated in all colours- twisting the meaning of the head covering into new directions.
Istanbul comes with a diverse mish mash of styles from gypsy musicians to hi tech electronics played by an endless sprawl of local musicians. The music can be deeply traditional or bang up to the minute, there is a big rock scene, a fierce rap scene and clubs and bars that play all styles from elctronica to indie, the bars shut late and the Turks have a real lust for life.
Being the former capital of a massive empire, Istanbul-formally Constantinople- was built on top of some long lost smaller towns that in turn were built on top of other towns that date back 8000 years making this one of oldest inhabited areas in the world in the 4th century by Constantine who converted the empire to Christianity before moving his capital from Rome to the east. After the fall of Rome Constantinople rose even further as the capital of the rich Byzantine Empire before falling to the Ottomans in 1453 in one of the key conquests in European history. This brief summation of its history give you a sense of the innate grandeur of the place- a city that may no longer be capital but still retains the faded grandeur of an imperial past that was a magnet for an endless musical influences that comes from being at the heart of a sprawling empire. The musics roots vary Islamic roots to the Byzantine’s deeply devout court music and religious devotional chanting whose melodies still infiltrate the modern folk bands to the strange new melodies that the Turks and the Ottomans brought to the city from their far away homelands.
Through its various rulers Constantinople old town which was centred on what is nowknown as Sultanahmet famous for the old 6th century church of Agai Sophia and the remarkable neighbouring Blue Mosque was famous for its opulent court life, amazing buildings and passion for knowledge and learning. For centuries this city was the peak of human civilisation and only fell behind in the last couple of centuries of the Ottomans before they faded out in the early 20th century and were replaced by a republic instigated by Turkish national hero Ataturk.
This leading position meant that it was a magnetic point of focus for all kinds of cultures. With Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman music all being the key providers of those melodies that define Turkish music to this day. The city lies at a crossroads of culture the meeting point between Russia, Middle East, Europe and this crossroads is a busy junction of cultures and music mixing up and creating new flavours which like the local food are an amazing and never ending series of taste laden surprises. The music was further enhanced by the multi national communities that have lived in the city from the Jews to the Gypsys and Armenians to Poles and Greeks.
In the past ten years there has been a rush of new bands and ideas as a whole new modern Turkish music has arrived but it would a mistake to think that this was the while story. In the late sixties and early seventies Turkey had a great psychedelic guitar scene that has recently been rediscovered. Fusing the drones of psychedelic rock with the drones of the countries traditional folk sounds which they rediscovered made for an intriguing and highly effective mix.
The gypsy musics of wedding bands and local dances has become very popular and is a strong part of the musical landscape and this is a city where you can hang out in all night bars grooving to bleeps or check out the Whirling Dervishes- the deeply spiritual dancing troupes who dance in circles to the mesmerising, hypnotic music played by the small folk orchestra behind them. It’s spellbinding stuff.
Later that day in the maze of streets and bohemian bars and cafes behind Taksim Square there is a folk club on the fourth floor of a run down looking building. On stage is Selmer Selek and his band playing this amazing gypsy folk music driven by a wild clarinet- the band are in their mid fifties and sit in their suits looking oddly detached from the mayhem that is going on around them. The packed club is belly dancing in various states of drunkenness as the band’s clattering percussion and mystic melodic power fire the room. This is typical of the gypsy music that is very much part of the Turkish musical panorama.
Contrast this with the Turkish hip hop scene that has its roots in the Turkish immigrant community in Germany where the 3 million strong Turks voiced their frustration with their outsider position in the nation with raps exporting them back into Turkey with a powerful impact.
The westernised Turkish rock and indie groups still mange to twist their music with homegrown sounds giving them a highly distinctive air that makes this city one of the fast upcoming European musical powerhouses.
As I sit in the lobby of the Hotel des Londres near Istiklal Street in Beyoglu. Hanging out with Baba Zula enjoying the faded grandeur of the best hotel lobby in Europe with its dusty chandeliers, huge ornate mirrors and talkative African grey parrots in cages we marvel at this cities sheer energy and capacity to surprise. Looking out through the lobby window and over the never ending rooftops of the city both of us sigh at the fierce energy and grandeur of one of the best cities in the world.