Sunday, June 07, 2015

Istanbul debut, or, twerk time for belly dancers

Since I arrived in Istanbul at the very end of April, people I meet have routinely asked me, out of curiosity or social obligation, "How do you like Istanbul?" It would be a lot easier to just show the pearly whites and say, "I like it a lot!" The more honest answer that I still don't know, and it's still overwhelming in many respects. I try to explain to the inquirer that I just came from four months living in a village in Bali, a place where I was (at the end) established and independent, a place where time seems to inch along slowly without anyone urging it to go faster than it needs to, a place where people seem "clinically happy" for how much they smile at each other without provocation. I arrived here still despondent about leaving the island and the fantastic experiences I'd had there, and also completely clueless about what to expect about life in Turkey. 
Seaside palace
As you may recall, Istanbul was not part of my original Watson project itinerary, but rather the suggestion of Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, with whom I had discussed the obstacles I was then facing studying music and living in Urumqi last fall. Instead of going to Azerbaijan, as I had originally planned ("It will be similarly difficult, but you won't be able to speak the language," he had pointed out), he suggested I go to Istanbul and Crete, and put me in touch with master musicians in both places. 

As my departure for Turkey drew closer, I was still completely unfamiliar with the culture and music I was about to experience. I generally try to strike a balance between avoiding preconceived notions and assumptions, and conducting exhaustive logistical research, about a new place—I find it so much more rewarding to learn about a place through experiencing it firsthand rather than trying to piece together a picture from third-party, biased, or filtered narratives. Going to Turkey, I tell you what I did know (or have in my mind)—I had studied Constantinople (now Istanbul) briefly in the context of of an art history seminar in my senior year of high school, so I gathered the place was (surprise) culturally significant. Given its proximity to, and/or inclusion in, that vague area we Americans label "the Middle East" and tend to only hear about in ominous or threatening news reports, all of my family members expressed concern about me going to Istanbul (especially as a white woman traveling alone—refer to the story of the murder of Sarai Sierra). They said they were unwilling to visit me in Istanbul and encouraged (at some times, begged) me to reconsider coming here. My only other context for Turkey was my time in Western China, where Turkey and all things Turkish are in vogue among the Uyghur people.
In Istanbul, beauty and poverty are often side by side
Galata Tower
Thus, as much as a I wanted to my first steps in Istanbul to be unmarked by assumptions about what Turkey and Turkish people were like, upon arrival I could feel the alarm bells in my head ready to go off at any moment. I won't go so far so as to say I was paranoid, but I was certainly uneasy and on my guard. (It didn’t help that a few days later, people were warning me not to go outside because Istanbul was erupting in mass protest on the anniversary of the violent government crack down on the Gezi Park protests in 2013). I had reached out to the Wellesley Club of Turkey before arriving to ask for advice on life in Istanbul as well as a place to crash on arrival, and in typical Wellesley fashion multiple alums came forward offering both. Their advice was unanimous: "Istanbul is like any other large city—there are some areas you shouldn't wander alone at night, but if you are street smart you will be fine." I ended up staying with an alum who had married a Turkish man and had two adorable young daughters, who were so enthusiastic about playing my violin after I let them try it that I had to start locking my case when I wasn't around (lest they start jumping up and down on my bed while strumming--I saw it happen). The alum was incredibly generous; in exchange for some babysitting, she hosted me for nearly two weeks while I viewed apartments all over the city—one was great but in a sketchy neighborhood, one was tiny but in a happening area, one was actual closet with a bed in it (and a window facing a wall). I finally tore myself away from her hospitality and moved into my current digs: a surprisingly spacious apartment with lovely big windows, musically tolerant neighbors, and an amiable Turkish master's student of studio art who is chronically gone--paradise! (She was actually around one day when I was practicing; when I came out, she said, "Do not worry about playing music in the house—I heard your voice. It is not disturbing.")

But back to battling assumptions about Turkeyone of my greatest concerns about daily life in Turkey was tested in my first week when I was lost and late on my way to a Wellesley Club gathering, and it seemed that the best option was to take a cab. After reading a multitude of travel sights that had warned about taxi scams, as I hailed a cab I braced myself for being taken for a literal and figurative ride. As soon as I got in and did my best to explain where I wanted to go, it was immediately evident I was a foreigner, and the driver began sizing me up in broken English: 

"Erasmus?" he asked, inquiring whether I was a foreign student on an Erasmus Scholarship.
"No, not business."
He was puzzled. "What are you doing in Istanbul?"
"I...I study Turkish music! I play keman [violin], and I want to study kemançe [Turkish bowed string instrument]!" "Kemançe?!" The driver's face lit up. "I am from the Black Sea [where kemançe is an integral part of the folk music]!" 

He reached into the glove box and pulled out a stack of Turkish music CDs, fanning them out like a poker player revealing his royal flush. He popped one in, cranked the volume to its maximum, and turned around to gauge my reaction to the sound of the tulum [Turkish bagpipes] blasting the car and passerby alike. 

This is not exactly what he played, but just to give you an idea of what was going on in the car:

In such situations, there is only one correct response:
"It's great! What wonderful music!" I declared, forcing my grimace at the cacaphony into an enthusiastic grin and some rhythmic head bobbing. Don't get me wrong—the music was excellent, but after a certain decibel level even Turkish bagpipes lose their charm, believe it or not.
Nonetheless, he was pleased with this response, and glancing at the road from time to time, sampled for me three or four more CDs from his collection while I affirmed for him my deep and undying love of pop versions of Black Sea folk songs played at stadium volume.

As we pulled up to my destination, I reached for my wallet—
"For you, who love kemançe, no charge!"
"No, come on, I must pay you!" I said, taken aback.
"Just give me two Turkish liras," he retorted, requesting less than one dollar compensation for the four-dollar fare.
We went back and forth, but he insisted I not pay him more than that. Then, he reached back into his glove box and pulled out a CD with an outline of a man‘s face on the front.
"Do you know who this is?" he asked.
"No, I'm not sure…"
He lowered his voice for dramatic effect. "Atatürk," he said reverently, referring to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern-day Republic of Turkey and nationally venerated quasi-god figure in Turkey. "For you!" He handed me the CD, a compilation called "Ataturk's Beloved Songs."
"No, no, I can't accept this!"
After a lot of back-and-forth and many heartfelt thank you's, I left the taxi with a radically altered stance on Istanbul's cab drivers (and Ataturk's Beloved Songs, of course—there was no way to refuse).

My good fortune continued even after I left the cab of the very generous and nationalist cab driver. As I mentioned earlier, Kayhan connected me with a nationally renowned master musician in Istanbul, Derya Turkan, a kemançe player who specializes in Ottoman classical music. Given that Derya is in high demand as a performer in Turkey and around the region, he has been extremely giving of his time and concerned about my well-being in Istanbul. In his words: "If Kayhan sent you, you must be special--I will teach you for free, and present to you many musicians, and luthiers, instrument collectors." In my first week in Istanbul, he made good on his word and brought me to his rehearsals for an upcoming concert series with musicians from Greece. The ensemble included a soprano sax player, a singer, a percussionist, and a Cretan lyre player (picture the harp-like instrument Orpheus used to subdue the forest creatures in Greek mythology, complete with turtle shell) performing a mix of improvisations on Ancient Greek songs and American jazz standards alike. Conveniently, the common language between the players was English, so I was able to follow the dialogue during rehearsal.

I was at the final rehearsal before their concert the following evening when Derya announced that he would not be able to perform with the group because he had been called early to Belgium for his tour there. He left to prepare for his departure, but I stayed to listen to the rest of the rehearsal because I enjoyed it, the Cretan lyre player was borrowing my amp for balance purposes, and, frankly, I had nothing else to do. On a break, the players started talking among themselves in Greek, and then suddenly turned to me:

"Audrey, we were thinking, maybe, if you would like, you could play two or three songs with us."
I was stunned and delighted that they would ask me to join themt hadn't crossed my mind that the possibility would even be on their radar. The only problem—I didn't have my violin with me.
"Maybe we could borrow one for a few hours from a nearby music shop," they suggested.
And so, that is how I ended up playing a dilapidated child-size violin (more box than instrument) with Vassiliki, Aliki, and friends. I warned them that the sound was going to be awful, and assured them that my own violin would sound much better. I also warned them that I did not know anything about Greek or Turkish traditional music stylesI could improvise, but it more than likely was going to sound like Chinese and/or Indonesian music. 
"Even better!" they exclaimed. 

Long story short, they really liked my playing, and I ended up playing the entire concert with them (and singing a song in Ancient Greek as well)! They were really pleased with how the concert went, and hopefully we'll have opportunities to play together again in the weeks to come. (I also have an open invitation to Athenswe'll see if that can happen before it is time to come home!)

A few excerpts from the concert:

 A few of the musicians also invited me to watch their concert on Prince's Islands a few days later—here are a few photos:

A view of the city from the island

An oud player on a hilltop taught me this piece on the islands:

Derya also invited me to his concert with Erkan Oğur, inventor of the fretless guitar and Turkish living legend. It was good I didn't realize how famous he is until after I met him, we had a very pleasant dinner, and he and Derya performed an incredibly moving concert in a packed concert hall. It came up that they were traveling to Cappadocia in central Turkey to play in a festival forty-eight hours or so later; Derya asked if I wanted to come. I eagerly accepted the invitation, booked flights, and a few days later met up with Erkan and their manager to go to the airport. In the cab to the airport, I asked Erkan if he was really the inventor of the fretless guitar.

"Yes. 1976." He told me he had started as a violinist, studied to become a physicist, and then created the fretless guitar so he could have the flexibility to play microtonal makam-based music.
"Did anyone think you were crazy when you invented the fretless guitar?" I asked him.
"Yes; my own teacher thought I was crazy," Erkan said, telling me his teacher had passed away before he could see Erkan's success with the new instrument. 

When we got to the terminal, I saw that the Beşiktaş soccer team was sitting at the same gate, occupied by the hordes of fans asking for photos. Then, the fans saw Erkan, and soon he too was surrounded by people complimenting his music and asking for photos. I saw that one of the soccer coaches was eying Erkan; after a few moments, he strode up to him holding a phone.
"Would you say hello to my mother? We are huge fans!" I just tried played it cool—since, you know, Itravel with celebrity musicians all the time (joking, sort of...)

I had been told that Cappadocia was visually stunning, but it wasn't until I was met by a canyon of man-made caves and a veritable cave-castle from thousands of years ago that I understood why everyone was raving about the place. After passing Mount Erciyes and gentle empty rolling hills, the vivid canyon colors and rock formations come out of nowhere. Derya and Erkan's concert venue capitalized on the scenerythe stage was perched on the side of Uchisar Castle, which is basically a huge rock into which an entire fortress has been carved, and which overlooks a cave canyon. The best part is how hands-off the local tourism bureau apparently is. I didn't see any guides or rangers monitoring the area, and there are no barriers around the caves, and so while Derya and Erkan had their sound check, I trekked and scaled my way into the caves with my violin in tow (hoping to duplicate the cave sound experimenting I had done with my friend and flutist Agustian in Sumatra). Let me just tell you (and humor me while I wax poetic for a moment), there is nothing really quite like playing violin while perched in the ledge of a cave hundreds of feet off the ground and overlooking hundreds of miles of central Anatolian landscape, nothing quite like hearing your own sound bounce off and respond to the walls of a centuries-old Byzantine fortress. Derya and Erkan’s performance was fantastic (especially since the night of the concert, high winds threatened to topple the stage equipment off the side of the castle cliff).

Cappadocia photo interlude

See the person at the top of the fortress?

I had stopped in Madrid on my way to Istanbul to see my friend Rebecca (and mostly mope on her couch after leaving Bali); she more than reciprocated by cheerfully coming to hang out with me in Istanbul. It was great to see her; while I wasn’t completely emotionally settled with my change of locale, I was far less depressed than the last time I saw her and relished the chance to have a partner-in-crime with whom I could be a total tourist. We went to the Grand Bazaar one day, and giggled at the ludicrous tactics the salespeople use to get shoppers’ attention: “Hey sexy angel, let me show you how to spend your money!” I also received a marriage proposal from a salesman and the business card of a fur and leather merchant who asked if I would be interested in modeling for his clothing line. “We have many Russian customers. You would be good for this. You have face like baby.”
Marriage and fur modeling aside, I had recently made friends with Feyza, a Turkish student in my neighborhood studying environmental engineering, and invited her to join Rebecca and me as we went to see the sights. A note to would-be tourists: everyone and her grandmother wants to see the Hagia Sophia on the weekend—just don’t do it. The lines were Disney-World-meets-visa-line-at-the-U.S.-Consulate-in-China long, and yet we powered through, elbowing our way through the crowds at the dazzling harem at Topkapi Palace and the eerie Basilica Cistern. By the early evening, Rebecca and I were exhausted, but Feyza had a surprise for us:

“My friends have a boat, and they are fishing. We can eat dinner on the boat.”
At that moment, I was so tired, and the last thing I wanted to be doing was socializing with strangers trapped on a dinghy, but at Feyza’s insistence we made our way to the pier. Imagine our surprise to see a yacht waiting for us. Stunned, we greeted Feyza’s friend Acilay, a girl our age with perfect makeup and a dream of becoming a Turkish Airlines flight attendant one day, her middle-aged cousin, and his business partner. They offered us tea, blankets, and a delicious dinner of the fish they had just caught. Rebecca and I got a second wind, and just in time as Acilay turned to me—
“Feyza says you are a singer. Will you sing for us?”

I tried to explain that I was first and foremost a violinist, but at the urging of everyone on board, I sang two of my own songs. My performance was met enthusiastically, and soon everyone was sharing a song. It came out that Acilay is a talented belly dancer, and we begged her to demonstrate. She was fantastic, and she insisted we all get up and join her as the yacht continued sailing down the Bosphorus. 

All of the sudden, the music stopped—
“Now,” Acilay declared, “it is twerk time.” 
And indeed it was. Lest you think that was the end, I assure you we also had Black Sea dancing time and Balkan dancing time, and are looking forward to a reprise next week when Acilay graduates university.

Classic Istanbul sights photo interlude—prepare yourself for a lot of tiles

Blue Mosque
Palace rose garden

Hagia Sophia

Basilica Cistern

Blue Mosque
Despite how wonderful it was to explore Istanbul with Rebecca, as I frequently have over the course of this year I found myself once again plagued by doubts about my project. I worried that I wasn’t doing enough, and that the Istanbul iteration of my project wasn’t unfolding quickly enough. It had been useful to meet with Derya when he was available, as he took the time to break down and and explain the rules of makam in Turkish music. In such music, the makam determines the set of pitches from which a melody is derived as well as the rules for how it develops. One thing that is quite striking is that some pitches in the makam are not fixed, but flexible, changing position within a microtonal range depending on the direction of the phrase. For instance, in rast makam starting on D, the third degree if the phrase is ascending is more or less an F#; however, if it is descending, the pitch has glissando, sliding down from a pitch lower than F# but higher than F natural. And, if the phrase teeters around that third degree before descending, the first time it is close to F#, the second time it is slightly lower, but still higher than the third time, when it has the glissando to a lower pitch (still higher than F natural). You see?! It’s actually pretty intuitive in a way—the pitches of the melody conform to its shape.

Coming back from my tangent on Turkish music theory, Derya’s crash course on makams was useful to help me start to listen more critically; however, beyond talking about the music I knew I needed to play it if I wanted to internalize it. Luckily, promises of future music-making have started to arise. I reached out to Tolgahan Cogulu, a classical guitarist and professor at Istanbul Technical University’s Center for Advanced Music who has invented his own microtonal guitar with adjustable frets; he says he is happy to play makam-based music with me and is interested in arranging some pieces using alternative tuning systems from China and Indonesia for us to play together. Feyza’s friend Egesu is a guitarist and conservatory student who brought me to an experimental open music session—that’s where I met Sumru Ağıryürüyen, a prominent vocalist and conservatory professor who specializes in traditional and improvised music alike; she is interested in collaborating with me on a music project, and also went out of her way to connect me with Turkish violinists.

And so that is how I came to meet Baki Kemancı, a violinist whose name means “Baki the Violinist” (he was literally born for this). I had been baffled listening to recordings of Turkish violinists, as the timbre they achieve is so different that I would sometimes wonder whether they were even playing the same instrument as me. Balki gave me exactly what I had been searching for as he broke down and demonstrated the technique—a slow, womp-womp vibrato combined with precise patterns of sliding into pitches. The effect is relaxed and vocal, but very difficult for me because in many ways it is opposite everything I’ve learned from practicing Western classical music. I’m really excited—Balki is detail-oriented and has high standards as well as the high intensity I need to learn a lot in a short time. At the same time, he seems really friendly, and according to Feyza, he said, “You and I, although we don't speak the same language or come from the same music tradition, we understand each other’s music-making.” (Did I mention he doesn’t really speak English? Ah well, as usual I’m putting my faith in the language of music.)

It has felt slow going in these past weeks, and for the first time I am starting to feel pangs of readiness to be home. But, I have seen in this year how much can change and develop in just a few weeks, and I am optimistic that there is still time for my project to take a few more interesting turns before it’s all over. As always, I will keep you posted—
Minaret sunset

No comments:

Post a Comment