The deeper I got into the Balkans the more I began to feel the magnetic pull of Istanbul. As of Novi Pazar, everything started to tilt towards the Bosphorus. The food, the music, the language, the mannerisms, all began to assume a Turkish touch. I realized that if ever I were to unwind the knotty issue of the Balkans in my mind, I would have to seek the beginning (or the end) of the thread in Istanbul.

I wasn’t alone. Others had Istanbul on their minds as well: for instance, the film maker Fatih Akin, who, after his critically acclaimed Gegen die Wand (Head On) in 2004, went to Istanbul a year later to film Crossing the Bridge, what to my mind is one of the best music documentaries ever made, and the one film that Fatih Akin says, was, of all if his flicks, his personal favorite. In it he follows his protagonist, Alexander Hacke (bassist of Berlin industrial band Einstürtzende Neubauten) through Istanbul, as he makes sound recordings of an amazing array of artists, from greats like Orhan Gencebay and Sezan Aksu, rap star Ceza, to street musicians Siya Siyabend and psychedelic underground band Baba Zula. 

Not only does the film showcase great talent, but the cinematography is excellent, even considering the photogenic qualities of Istanbul. Through the film one really gets a sense of the city, from the teeming humanity on Istiklal Caddesi, to the high octane nightlife of Taksim, the squalor of Tarlabaşı, the grandeur of the bridge-spanned Bosporus, and the sun-parched Thracian hinterlands.

I was so blown away by the film I watched it three times during its one year run at Kreuzberg’s Movimento cinema, and it is partially owing to the film that in 2006, after a short stint in Bulgaria, I took the midnight train from Plovdiv to Istanbul, for a frantic week of pounding the pavement. In a sense, it was just a preliminary foray; a getting the lay of the land, as it were, in preparation for  a year spent in the city in 2012. And even then, after spending a year in Istanbul, and really making an effort to search out hidden nooks and crannies, I had the feeling that I only managed to scratch the surface of this amazing 20 million strong megalopolis.

But back to 2006. After drinking Bulgarian rakija (not to be confused with Turkish rakı) on the train with a Japanese tourist, I took a room at a B&B behind Topkapı palace and  hit some of the biggest tourist attractions: the Blue Mosque, but also the Süleymaniye Camii and the Laleli Camii, the narrow streets around the Kapalı Çarşı – the covered, or grand bazaar. Then Galata Bridge, crowded with fishermen, und up through Tünel to Istiklal Caddesi, where it was said between 3 to 4 million pedestrians strolled down weekends.

I have to say that Kolektif Istanbul was another reason I moved to Istanbul in 2011. Two years before I packed up and left, I caught a gig of theirs at Kreuzberg’s Ballhaus Naunyn, which was supposed to wrap up the theater festival, Diyalog. The band rocked the house with their brand of “Turko-balkanic progressive wedding music” that blended emotive brass with a breath of the Orient. After the show I caught up with the band backstage. Everyone was there, save their Bulgarian-Turkish tuba player, who was in jail for draft dodging.

Richard Laniepce (Kolektif Istanbul)We had a good time in Berlin for that show at Ballhaus Naunyn in 2009. Berlin was nice. Like London. Many musicians, artists had come to Berlin.  But I thought the next capital of art and music would be Istanbul.  Because everyone was coming there. Something was happening then in Istanbul.  In five years, in seven years, something would grow up there. I was sure of it.

***

Though I would never have imagined it – I ended up in Istanbul for a year, searching for material for stories, while teaching English at Berlitz. During this later stay I tracked down many of the protagonists of Fatih Akin’s Crossing the Bridge. I met with Murat Ertel from Baba Zula backstage at the Getto, who told me about the shamanic roots of his music. Ceza – said to be the fastest rapper in the world –  I had already met in Berlin; I had smoked grass with him in the basement of a Turkish café on Oranienstraße, together with his mate, fellow rapper, Killa Hakan. I talked with Alexander Hacke, who told me about his youth in Turkish flavored Neukölln, and how he had chosen to forsake Berlin for Detroit, as Berlin, in his opinion, was going through a profoundly uninteresting period at the moment. And I spoke with Brenna McCrimmon who had recently chosen to leave Istanbul after some very intensive years in the city, during which she learned all manner of Turkish, Roma, Thracian and Bulgarian music. In the end the city had disappointed her, and many of the things she had grown to love were gone now, in Istanbulu’s mad rush to acquire for themselves western gimmicks, gizmos and luxuries. Sadly I did not have a chance to meet Roma clarinetist Selim Sesler. He had heart problems and had retired from the stage; he died two years after I left Istanbul.

I thought I would start a new chapter in my life in Istanbul and also escape being stuck in a Berlin rut. While I was there I tried to see as much of the city as I could, but I only ended up scratching the surface of the city. They say if you spend 90 days in Istanbul, you will never be able to leave the city. And that has proved true with me, as I keep coming back every summer very nearly, hooked by this city’s various, and often contradictory charms. The Istanbul presented in Crossing the Bridge, a city bursting with music and youthful energy and poised to make its modern, creative debut on the world stage, seemed in the end  a distant dream now after the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and the failed coup of 2016 followed by intense government crackdown, not to mention a spate of deadly terrorist attacks. The city was more serious and hard-nosed now. Istanbul, a city that never stops, had also changed a lot in the intervening years. The quashing of the Gezi Park protests in 2013 had spelt the death knell of the Taksim scene that had nurtured a generation of artists and musicians. There was the feeling that the good times were indeed over.

Brenna McCrimmon: I do love Istanbul, but I don’t think I will ever want to live there again, honestly.

As a city it has really become too big and noisy for me. A lot of the things that I enjoyed about it are nearly gone. I started first going in the nineteen eighties. So I’ve seen things change a lot.  Some things have been for the better and some things I think have been for the worse, sadly.  I don’t enjoy the political climate all that much right now. I have a lot of friends who say that – well, they have been saying this for a long time – that if they could move they would.  It’s definitely a fun place to visit and I love going back there and seeing my friends and doing stuff with people. But I just find that any city that takes at least three hours to get from one side to the other – and then you are completely exhausted at the end of it – has got some major issues. I’d rather put my energy into being more creative or doing things, rather than with just coping with this huge ever expanding mass of people. I feel the unwieldiness  when I land. Just like the pressure of people all around. I’m sure that would be true of other big cities. I have never been to Mexico City or other places like that, but comparing notes with friends who go to India or friends who go to Egypt it just seems that those big, huge cities really have a kind of oppression about them.

Shantel: I remember back in the days, in the beginning of 2000, we were releasing also Baba Zula. So I did a collaboration with Murat Etel and Baba Zula once. That’s how I met Brenna McCrimmon, actually.

Murat Ertel (Baba Zula): Istanbul is immense. Like twenty million people live here and a lot of people are still flocking to Istanbul and in doing so, bringing with their cultures, their music, their lifestyles. We are living in Istanbul, and so its natural that our music comes from this city.  Istanbul is a big mixture of cultures and human beings.  Additionally, our music comes from our childhoods spent growing up in this city.  

When I was a child my family listened to lots of music. And a large part of the music was Turkish folk music done by aşiks, or troubadour style musicians, and also when I was a child there was this Turkish Anatolian rock genre, which was very popular at the time. People like Fikret Kızılok, who I really loved and told my family to buy his 45s. My parents were also listening to Western classical music and some jazz and some world music.  So it was a mixture and a balance of these sounds, in which Baba Zula is very rooted.

Actually, I am influenced by lots of disciplines of art – like painting, cinema, photography. All these come together in Baba Zula. We have a little bit of the avant-garde and we have a little bit of the traditional. We create new things out of tradition, and in doing so, we are pushing the limits. We feel that we are at the forefront, pushing boundaries. Therefore you can call us avant-garde. The thing is when you are labeled avant-garde you are considered not danceable or even  accessible. We are avant-garde, but also extremely danceable, not to mention enjoyable and ritualistic at the same time.

There is a specific sound to Istanbul, and I think it is the sound of the electric saz, or bağlama.  It’s the electrified, modernized version of Turkish culture. When you go around Istanbul you pick up on a great mixture of musical styles which is really one-of-a-kind in the world. You can hear traditional music; you can hear Arabic music; you  can hear the ezan [the call to prayer], there’s techno, rock and roll, Latin, fifties style music. You can listen to all this music in just a day of going round Istanbul. And don’t forget the sound of the street animals – the sea-gulls, cats and dogs. This is also  important. 

The  sound of Istanbul is very cosmopolitan and very chaotic.  It’s absolutely unique in this regard, no matter if you are in  the East or in the West. In the West they all play American music or their music; in the East they play their music, sometimes they play Western music. But Istanbul brings East and West together in a very immediate and natural way. This is I think the power of Istanbul. Baba Zula is a band from Istanbul, playing the music of Istanbul consciously.  We are not from one side or the other. Just like Turkish people living in Germany who are seen both as Germans and Turks, our identities as band members from Istanbul are complex. We Istanbulus are “in-between people”.  I like to call ourselves the “Bosporus people” going in and out between Asia and Europe. 

Richard Laniepce: Istanbul, when I first arrived in 2000, didn’t exist on a  world-wide scale yet; it still wasn’t globalized.  It was on the border; border-straddling.  There were no chain shops and just a couple McDonalds.  A handful of  Burger Kings. It wasn’t easy living in Istanbul then. I remember I had a difficult time finding sun cream; you had to go to a pharmacy for that.  When I arrived in  Istanbul, a Turkish friend of mine brought me to a shopping mall. It was the sole shopping mall in Turkey. This guy was so proud of it. It was really pathetic. He wanted to show off to me that Turkey was a modern country. And me – I just couldn’t give a shit.

Another thing was nobody was riding bicycles on the seaside. Nobody was riding skateboards or rollerblades. Okay, maybe there were ten people. In this whole crazy city of twenty million, just ten people with skateboards. I met them all at that time. The ten guys with skateboards.

Aslı Doğan: Now, in Istanbul you have practically every fifty meters a coffee shop and ten or twenty different ways of branding it.  Three years ago all we were drinking was Nescafé. Now wherever I go there is a guy who can talk my head off for two hours about why this or that coffee at this or that café is special and one-of-a-kind. I don’t believe it. I don’t buy it. I’m not taking it.  These last couple of years we’ve become immersed with trends.  And this is sad.  It’s becoming more and more like the rest of the world. In fact, Istanbul in many ways is the leader in this trendiness. Not even Europe is trendier than Istanbul. If it keeps going on like this, we are going to end up like Japan. Something becomes viral and people just  lap it up; they suck it really quickly.

The neighborhoods have changed as well. Before, if you wanted to meet someone, you had to go to Taksim. There was no question. I mean people from our social network, you could live anywhere – you could even live on Büyükada (one of the Princes’ Islands), like us – but the place to meet was Taksim, no question.

Jean Trouillet:  Bucovina Club paved the way for Shantel‘s logical next step: he went into the studio with artists to record original material, remixed and conceived new songs for some of the most popular bands. At some point between the two phases, a good friend of his wrote to his buddy Ahmet Ulug, the impresario of the legendary club,  Babylon in Istanbul, and asked him if he didn’t want to invite this guy, Shantel, who seemed to have an interesting approach,  and was the only conceivable German musical export which could appeal to Istanbul. 

And then the magic happened: While he was still having a hard time of it getting European audiences to let their hair down and shake their hips, Shantel found in cosmopolitan  Babylon a concentration of creative potential:   a jubilant crowd of underground musicians, avant-garde artists, fashion designers, intellectuals, party kids and bohemians, eager to celebrate. 

The nights were long, and  after dancing, one moved on to the Meyhanes of Galata or Kadıköy to continue the revel, drinking, discussing, eating  – enjoying the first rays of sunshine over the Bosphorus in the early morning with coffee or çay. It was in this atmosphere that the first ideas for the legendary “Disko Partizani” video, the title song of Shantel’s 2006 chart hit album, were born. 

Istanbul  adopted and naturalized Shantel, the album was released on Double Moon, the label of the Babylon club. It went double platinum as the best-selling work by a foreign artist. Disko Partizani was selected as a jingle for the broadcast of football games on the country’s biggest TV station and was played for years before all games in the first as well and second leagues. 

It was as if the city had been waiting for a new soundtrack, the driving force of which was fueled by electronica, traditional music and Shantel’s own Bucovina-style sound hybridization. Fatih Akin, a regular guest at Babylon, became aware of Shantel and invited him to write music for his films. After Paris, Tel Aviv and Athens, Shantel took up his second home in the Istanbul district of Kadıköy. Istanbul always gave Shantel more love than his hometown Frankfurt.

For Shantel, Istanbul has always been more than just a sure bet for a good show; he liked to immerse himself in the local culture, and actually  he had been thinking already for some time about how he could do homage to local music scene.

Sultan Tunç: Berlin is mostly DJ culture. But you could find more live music in Istanbul, and all in one place – in  Taksim. When you went to Taksim there were thousands of places.  In Berlin I have to go from one place to another looking desperately for good live music. In Taksim it was there in your face.

Aslı Doğan: I mean Taksim was the place of cultural life for hundreds of years. Not only for just a couple of years. Where we are sitting now, here in Kadıköy, this place was a village when Taksim was the place for the newest plays, books, artworks. Taksim was the place for the whole history of Turkish cinema. Whatever intellectuals and arty people did, they did it in Taksim. People were meeting in cafés where all the actors hung out with all the script writers and movie producers. The same thing for the music. Whenever we had a concert after our soundcheck we could listen to the soundcheck of other bands or go to the same bar before the gig or go to see another friend’s gig. Taksim was a real melting-point. Sitting next to you were the best writers, the best poets who had ever lived in Turkey. They were sitting at the table right next to you.

A lot of us musicians are nostalgic now.  Because it was fun back then, in Taksim. All the clubs were like one next to the other, back to back.  That’s how we met all the musicians in Turkey. We met them in Taksim.  We were all doing our rehearsals in the same buildings.  We were doing our concerts in the same buildings.  We were drinking in the after parties in the same places. The soundchecks were just next to the other one. 

Richard Laniepce: And Taksim was symbolic. It was a symbol. It was the main center. Okay, in Istanbul there are many centers. But this was the main center. When I first arrived at Istanbul, Ataturk airport, the bus let me off in Taksim. That’s why they have to put this big new mosque there. Just so that when you arrive in Istanbul you know this is the new Turkey. It’s a symbol. It’s a very important thing. Taksim is still the place with all the consulates, all of the diplomatic places. Maybe it‘s not the center of cultural life of Istanbul anymore – of alternative cultural life of Istanbul – but it‘s still the symbol of Istanbul. It‘s the main square, the main center.

Gaye Su Akyol: They killed it, yeah. Taksim is now just rubbish trying to become something from its dust. Because it was the center of the Turkish Republic, kind of. There were so many symbols about the Republic. This was one of them. So I think this is something they did knowingly. It’s not something that happened by surprise. By killing the symbols you also kill the history. Who killed it? The ideology. Not to get into too much details about it. I talk with symbols. Also in my songs.

Richard LaniepceWhat we are missing now is an alternative Istanbul. Now Babylon and places are expensive to get into. You need a lot of money to go to such places. And there are now security guards at the entrance. Now everything is high profile. Everything revolves around money. The places are losing their souls. We can’t go to Babylon anymore. Not because of the money. Okay, we are not rich, but we can still afford it. But the atmosphere, people showing off. We feel stupid at the same time. We are old people —

In some parts of Europe you have some streets where they have had the same shops for fifty years. But here in Istanbul you come and you don’t recognize the street after three years.

Sultan Tunç: During the putsch night in 2016, like a lot of people, I thought the left-wingers and the normal people would go out and take to the streets and unite. We were in the hotel in Taksim drinking and preparing for a concert during the putsch night.  And the TV was on, and we saw what was going on, holy fuck, that the Bosporus bridge was blocked by tanks. At the moment I wasn’t thinking I’d have to cancel the concert the next day because of the putsch. So we went out on Istikal Caddesi and then they started shooting. I turned around and I saw that someone had been shot dead twenty, thirty meters away from me.  They were undercover cops, or I don’t know what, who did it. That was around the time that the tanks were deployed on Taksim  and blocked off the area.  We turned into the side streets and reached the hotel in  Cihangir.  The whole night long there were street fights and gunfire.  Since then there have been countless arrests of people who had nothing to do with the putsch,  a lot of left-wingers.  And this has been going on till today.  So most of my Istanbul concerts have been cancelled.  And just now a festival I was supposed to appear at was cancelled because something is happening every week.  I can’t go on TV anyway. 

Shantel: Istanbul is an anarchic microcosmos. The subculture and most of the artists don’t care anymore about daily politics. The scene has become fluid, just flowing only underground. If there are no spaces,  they build little secret circles and off-spaces. There is a general sub-code of how to act & behave as a secret subculture. Imamoğlu [the present Istanbul CHP mayor of Istanbul] is a clever cat without teeth completely blocked by Tayyip. His own CHP party are a bunch of nationalists. But most of the scene doesn’t give a shit. I guess the people are hopeless and depressed. They never drank as much as they do now. And they have a new drug called “bonsai”.

Now everyone has moved to Kadıköy, to the Asian part. I found this community  quite interesting, you know. It’s a very freaky, hipster, more underground, more subculture. 

Gaye Su Akyol: I was born in Kadıköy, so this is my mother land, kind of. I’m 33 years old, and this is the only place where I lived that much. I’ve never been to another place much more than two years probably. So I feel like I belong here. 

Aslı DoğanSo now we are living in Kadıköy. Kadıköy is a secular ghetto for white Turks. It has always been like that. There’s no Ramadan in Kadıköy. During Ramadan life just goes on oblivious. 

Gaye Su Akyol: Of course Kadıköy is much better than a lot of other places. You know, you are in a world full of chaos. You have it on the internet. So it’s impossible not to see it. And you know there are lots of problems going on here too. It looks very peaceful now. But things are changing very quickly. So if anything happens we will take to the  streets. Just like we did in Gezi. Kadıköy seems like the most peaceful and civilized place right now in Turkey. There is not a lot going on here now, and that is a good thing.

Aslı DoğanHere, too, in Kadıköy life has changed. We remember when we used to come at night fifteen years ago to Kadıköy and it was so quiet, so silent. Just a few bars in Kadife Sokak. 

It’s a nice place to live, but — and I like it because of these places where we are now, and I like it because I have a dog, and there are places you can bring your dog to. But the problem is I don’t like it when people say it’s the new cultural base. It’s artificial…You need time to develop a scene. You cannot just proclaim that it’s going to be “the” place. The cultural production needs some more roots, I think.

Richard Laniepce: What I like about Kadıköy is it changes.

Ceza: Kadıköy is one of the biggest districts of the city of Istanbul. So you can compare it to Kreuzberg, in Berlin [sister districts] in a way. It’s quite youthful. We’ve got between 1.5 to 2 million people living in Kadıköy. And it’s mostly a progressive, left-leaning people who live there. So, there’s a lot of subcultures living there. You’ve got punks. You’ve got metal people, a rock scene and obviously hip-hop scene as well. And it’s also a very multicultural place. We’ve got churches and synagogues and mosques next to each other. It’s one of the most important places on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. 

It’s mainly that there is a progressive population and this provides for more freedoms for alternative ways of living. Like if you are a foreigner or if you are tattooed or if you dress in a weird way then it will be much easier for you to live in Kadıköy than in other places in Istanbul. The other thing is you have a great infrastructure. You get everything on a great scale. Restaurants and alternative clothing. 

Hip-hop started evolving in Turkey in the 1990s, and I was one of the pioneers, so I think I am on the safe side when I say that most of the people who were rapping were in Kadıköy. A lot of the kids who were doing graffiti or break dancing were on the European side of Istanbul. But the rap was going on in Kadıköy.

Kadıköy is one of the cultural centers of Istanbul. It’s one of the places that people would go to hang out. It’s a different concept of space as we have it in Berlin. In Berlin you have the kiezes[neighborhoods], so you can find a local center in Schönleinstrasse, in upper Neukölln, Kreuzberg and so on. But in Istanbul you really have a few cultural centers and then a lot of neighborhoods where people basically just stay to sleep, where there is family life going on, but the going out and being engaged in cultural things is what you would have to do in Kadıköy, especially when I was growing up. You had the music studios there. You had the cinemas there, most of the cafes were there. So naturally most young people would just go to gather there. 

Aslı Doğan: I like Kadıköy as a residential district. Sometimes I don’t go out of Kadıköy for months. All my friends are living here now. My sisters are living here. Everyone has moved here. For me it’s a  bubble. I feel secure in it of course. It’s comfortable, it’s nice, but it’s like I’m living in another country. Too much out of the context of the rest of the country.

Richard Laniepce: We are not in Turkey. We are in Kadıköy.