I have to say that Kolektif Istanbul was one of the reasons I moved to Istanbul in 2011. A year or two 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.
“Berlin is nice,” conceded Richard Laniepce, the French sax player, and the guy around whom the band more or less revolved – him and his wife, the vocalist Aslı Doğan. “Like London. Many musicians, artists are living in Berlin. But I think the next capital of art and music will be Istanbul. Because everyone is coming there. Something is happening now in Istanbul. In five years, in seven years, something will grow up there. I’m sure of it.”
In 2011, believing very much what Richard said, I finally moved to Istanbul, thinking that I would start a new chapter in my life and also escape being stuck in a Berlin rut. While I was in Istanbul, I looked up Richard and Aslı. We had a nice time on Büyükada, one of the Princes Islands, an hour’s ferryboat ride from Kadıköy, where Aslı and Richard resided, beginning the day at a German-run boutique hotel and continuing on to a restaurant at the peak of the island under the terracotta roofs of a Byzantine chapel, where we ate fish and drank rakı with a spectacular panoramic view of Istanbul.
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. After not having seen Aslı and Richard for seven years, in 2018 I was back again in Istanbul and decided to look the couple up. In the time being they had moved from Büyükada to Kadıköy. 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 Aslı and Richard. There was the feeling that the good times were indeed over.
I met the two of them in front of a trendy Kadıköy bar, where I had just wrapped up an interview with Gaye Su Akyol. Not willing to set foot in such fashionable hipster environs, Richard insisted we proceed to a bottle shop and from there walk to a swath of grass overlooking the water, where the Kadıköy youth were sprawled out drinking beer till three o’clock or four o’clock in the morning. It was like a small festival every night, there, with people playing music, dogs. There were sausage sellers on bicycle and peripatetic alcohol sellers, from whom you could buy a bottle of whisky with your credit card.
Richard: This also is the Turkish way.
Aslı: There’s one guy with pizza. They sell you chairs. They sell you some things you can sit on it. They sell you everything. It’s really the Turkish way.
Richard: In Istanbul things change quickly. When I came here in 1999 there was really nothing here.
Aslı: There was no Starbucks. No H&M.
Richard: Istanbul didn’t exist on a world-wide scale; it wasn’t globalized yet. It was on the border. There were no shops. I mean, when I say no shops, no chains, like Mango, no H&M. Just a couple McDonalds. Some Burger Kings. But very few, and nothing else. And it was not easy. 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 one and only shopping mall in Turkey. This guy was so proud of it. 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 just ten people with skateboards. I met them all at that time. The ten guys with skateboards.
Right now where we are sitting nobody was hanging out drinking beer. The only people were the traditional people with their samovar tea pots, barbecuing. I remember seeing a couple people who were drinking beer on the seaside. They had to conceal their drinks in black plastic bags. Just like in New York. Now everyone’s sitting around on chairs, they are bringing their rackets, they are bringing their guitars. They are drinking bottles of wine.
Aslı: Now there are twenty different brands of beer to choose from in Istanbul.
Richard: But back then, no trendiness, no blah, blah, and this is why I liked it.
Aslı: It was more real, yeah.
Richard: Real. Real life. Real people.
Aslı: Not only trends. Now everything is about the trends. Trends spread like a virus. Like this café stuff. Now, in Istanbul you have like 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 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. 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.
Richard: Turkish people are fast. It’s partially because of social media.
Aslı: Everybody is on social networks. Everything just goes so quickly. And artificially. Superficially. Not deep.
Aslı: 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, like us – but the place to meet was Taksim, no question.
Richard: We hung out in Taksim like crazy.
Aslı: I was happy in Taksim. I feel like an old lady now with my nostalgia. I’m only 37. It’s a little early to feel that nostalgic. But it’s just that I have lost all my hangouts. Not only my hangouts. But there were places where I felt I was a part of it and I have lost all of it. I don’t have any connection with Kadıköy. But I had so much of a connection with Taksim.
Richard: Taksim was the place she grew up.
Aslı: Not when I was a kid. But just after. After I was 18. I lived there for like seven, eight years. And then we were living on the island.
Richard: The first Kolektif Istanbul gigs were in Taksim. Babylon was there. But for us the most important place was Badehane.
Aslı: She’s in Berlin now, the lady who was running that bar…But I mean Taksim was the place for 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…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. Because it was fun back then. 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 sound checks were just next to the other one.
Richard: It was very centralized.
Aslı: Now it’s not only in Kadıköy – everyone there are different places where people are hanging out..
Aslı: Why did Taksim stop being attractive? They did something conscious. They tried to destroy the cultural life there. And they succeeded. So in the end now Taksim is a big shopping mall especially for Arabic tourists. Now you go there and you have H&M and you have all the lokum shops. The Arabic tourists love it.
I think the shutting down of Taksim was partially conscious. Yes. There was big pressure from politicians being put on places that were kind of symbolic places. Gezi was the thing that started this closing down.
Richard: It first started when they began to clear out the chairs.
Aslı: That was 2011 or something. I think it began like this. Like it was the center of many things, it was the center for many political waves especially for the opposition.
Richard: And it 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 there. That’s why they have to put this big mosque there. Just so that when you arrive in Istanbul you know we are living in 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.
Tarlabaşı – that project is a dead end. They really fucked it up. They just kicked everyone out and began these big construction projects. And of course they are selling the apartments for a lot of money, because it‘s the center of the city. But nobody wants to live there. You can’t sell it to the conservative rich families. And none of the rich bourgeois, bohem people want to live there, either. The bourgeois bohem people don‘t want to go there because it symbolizes the rape of the cultural life of Taksim.
Aslı: It‘s going to be better when this mosque will be opened. It‘s better than a construction site. When the buildings in Tarlabaşı are ready people will live there.
Richard: It will be better.
Aslı: It cannot be worse.
Richard: What 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 there 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 the same shops for fifty years. But here you come and you don’t recognize the street after three years.
Aslı: It’s not only Istanbul. It’s the exact same everywhere in Turkey. Even places that we were going on holidays. Like fifteen years ago we were going to Olympos. Back then it was just a couple of wooden houses on the sea. Now it’s become a clubbing place very nearly. So we never go there. And then we were going to Karş and it became something else as well. Turkey’s like this. You go to a place, then it becomes popular and everyone eats it out, eats the shit out of it, basically, and it becomes like everywhere else.
Many of our friends, even many of our Turkish friends, are gone. Those were the days when Istanbul was very charming for European people. Every year we had like, ten friends coming from France, Germany, from everywhere. Now, no one is coming to visit us in Istanbul.
Richard: People used to constantly come visit us in Büyükada.
Aslı: Now you cannot even take the boat there anymore. There are far too many people. And again, it’s the arrival of the Arabic tourists. They love to go to Büyükada. Not the other islands. But Büyükada is one of the main places. And then there are thousands and thousands of Turkish tourists. You can not take the boat.
Richard: I remember when the boat was empty. That was in the winter time. Aslı was complaining about it. It was too cold. Just maybe twenty-five people in the boat. And we were freezing when we were coming back to the island. Now the boat is never empty. It’s always full. We went there a few months ago and it was hard to find a place to sit on the boat. It was Monday morning in wintertime.
Aslı: It’s just another place to milk.
Richard: Turkey is not like Europe. The changes are so fast and so radical. So 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.
Here, too 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.
Aslı: 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. I don’t think so at all. 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: What I like about Kadıköy is it changes.
Aslı: 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: We are not in Turkey. We are in Kadıköy.
Aslı: In a way it’s good. But it’s not inspiring. Not for producing.
Richard: For you. But for the youngsters it’s perfect. I was giving some classes to some little guys, and they are now 26 years old and they think they are in the middle of life, that something is happening. And for them it’s fantastic. It’s just wonderful. For us it’s just —
Aslı: Maybe it’s because of our age. Another thing I liked about Taksim is it was really a mixture, I mean, a melting pot. Here it’s not.
Richard: Here it is more of a ghetto.
Aslı: And this is not something that inspires me to create. I can’t get anything out of Kadıköy. Here it is like a loop.
Richard: And if you talk to these people, talk about politics with them you will be very disappointed. They are usually quite conservative people. A little bit with some kind of center-left. Not radical at all. They have the good looks, they have the tattoos, they have the piercings, but talk politics with them, you will be surprised at how conservative they are. Not in the religious way, but in the nationalist way yes.
Aslı: No, not in the religious way, not at all.
Richard: No, not in the religious way. But in the nationalist way they are. Dogmatic.
Aslı: In the CHP style, but not in the MHP style. You really smell that narrow vision. Not in the look. They have the whole alternative look. But the alternative look doesn’t permeate inside.
Richard: They are cool in the look but not in the mind. And Taksim was not that way at all. It was really all kinds of people. All kinds. Every kind of people.
Aslı: But here, you just look at the horizon and a hundred years ago it was just a couple of wooden houses. Fifteen years ago it was just like small buildings. But now, all of these buildings are like five years old. This is too much. Istanbul has lost its charm, I feel.
Richard: You try to start a business here and everyone is just lining up behind the money, squeezing Istanbul like a lemon.