A European Proposal

a column by
Francesco Martinelli

Okay Temiz
Okay Temiz                                                             Francesco Martinell©2007

For the past several years, I've been lucky enough to be invited to give lectures about the history of jazz and related subjects at Istanbul's Bilgi University. This has allowed me to get in touch first-hand with Turkish music and culture, which are deeply intertwined with European history. Yet, even though Turkey’s possible EU membership is frequently a topic of conversation among Europeans, they know little if anything about Turkish music and culture. Language is a powerful obstacle since Turkish is not related to any European (or Arabic) language. Turkish music’s widespread use of untempered tuning and modal playing makes it alien to the European ear, generally; but, it attracts listeners familiar with post-1960 jazz, and have made a huge impact on many jazzmen who visited the country: Dave Brubeck of course, and after that Don Cherry and Raphael Garrett.. One of the most striking recent examples of this is Jason Moran's speech-based piece “Ringing My Phone (Straight Outta Istanbul)” (The Bandwagon: Live at the Village Vanguard; Blue Note ; 2003), which I use in lectures to demonstrate the musicality of my Turkish students’ language.

There are other interesting historical connections. The percussive character, rhythms and instruments of Ottoman military music influenced the creation of “Turkish” percussion sections in European symphonic orchestras and the evolution of the present-day drum set, particularly its use of traditional Turkish cymbals. There is even a possible Turkish influence on the emergence on ragtime after the performances of of middle-eastern belly dance music at the1893 Chicago World Fair. But, that is speculation. The real contemporary relevance of Turkish Classical Music is its preservation of improvisation within the idiom. Any instrumentalist is supposed to be able to improvise a prelude to a tune based on a specific mode (Makam), introducing the pitches of the mode, their melodic disposition, and generally setting the atmosphere for the arrival of the melody. These improvisations can be also collective (usually duos and trios) or inserted within the piece, with an ostinato background. Their main derivation are the embellishments of Koranic reading, which we in the West perceive as singing, but which is not considered music by clergy in Islamic countries where popular music has been banned. The convention of Gazel vocal improvisation was a specific discipline in Ottoman music, one so popular that it turned famous Hafiz (reciters who know the Koran by heart) into popular recording stars during the pre-Republican era (great Hazans like Sirota became famous at the same time in the USA).

These improvisations have to be distinctive and personal to be appreciated, and this leads to innovation within a traditional framework: listening to descriptions of the differences between the styles of great neyzen (ney players) is uncannily similar to more familiar lineages and oppositions in the history of jazz tenor saxphonists. The evolution of improvisational procedures in Turksih music would naturally impress post-1950 jazzmen, so it not surprising that Miles Davis and Gil Evans, among others, checked out the belly-dance scene in New York in the ‘50s where musicians from Greece, Armenia, Balkans, Turkey, Lebanon etc. were working with each other in “exotic” bands (I suspect that there were additional reasons, too). The first attempts to a conscious blending of jazz with traditional Turkish songs took place in the USA in the 40's, by multi-instrumentalist Tarik Bulut, Local 802 member from 1957 until his death in 2006, who arranged among other things the belly-dance recordings by dancer Turkbas Ozel, a series of self-published Lps now actively sought by collectors, and performed on another oddity, the Arif Mardin/Richard Harris Prophet LP (with Barry Manilow as background vocalist).

On the other hand, generation after generation of Turkish musicians heard jazz live and on records, and were instantly changed by the experience, much like Django on listening Armstrong on 78 rpm records in France. Clarinetist Mustafa Kandirali was inspired by Benny Goodman, while Saaffet Gundeger, who can claim in his career to have played free jazz on clarinet with percussionist Okay Temiz and Egyptian classical songs accompanying on oud the legendary singer Om Kalsoum, said that listening to Coltrane in New York in the 60s changed how he thought about music.

In the 70s, factional violence – right against left, Maoist left agains Stalinist left, religious right against nationalist right – led to military rule, while a series of monetary crises made international exchanges more and more difficult so that music in Turkey in the 70s and 80s went through a rather dry spell. Okay Temiz, famous first for his work with Don Cherry and later for a series of leading experiments in fusion of jazz with Turkish traditions, especially with his Oriental Wind, was living abroad. The other personality that could have changed the scene, saxophonist Ismet Siral who gave up a successful career in commercial music to participate in Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio, tried to set up a similar center in Turkey buying a place in Marmaris, but it never took off, and the failure of the project in which he invested everything he had finally led him to depression and suicide.

Things started to change in the ‘90s. The end of Cold War helped stabilize the country and sped up reforms spurred by the bid to join Europe. Young entrepreneurs, schooled in the USA or Europe, started clubs, labels, radio stations, giving new life to the musical scene and a broader horizon to a generation of listeners and musicians. Prominent among them is Pozitif, the group who presented the era-defining, open-air parade of Sun Ra's Arkestra on the central Istanbul boulevard of Istiklal Caddesi in 1990. Pictures of the parade are still proudly on display at the Pozitif-run Babylon, one of the city's hippest clubs, the same group who organized the event, and a similar openness is evident in their programming of the AkBank Jazz Festival since the early ‘90s. Babylon is in fact among the new enterprises that changed the face of the Beyoglu district. Overlooking the ancient Galata harbour, this area was a low-class entertainment district for sailors and merchants in Byzantine and Ottoman times, but around 1900 became the residence of choice for the new cosmopolitan Istanbul society – businessmen and bankers, diplomats and spies, Russian emigrés and English travelers: the Orient Express era, replete with the luxury hotel Pera Palas to welcome European visitors with an adequately elegant ambience. After Independence, the capital was transferred to Ankara, many Embassies were closed, and the area became rundown, dangerous and polluted, losing its cosmopolitan environment due to nationalistic riots and a huge immigration from Anatolia – maybe one in ten residents of the city is now from a real Istanbuliote family, with all the consequences in terms of culture, language, cuisine, music.

Beginning in the 1990s, the area was restored and now the main boulevard is a pedestrian-only street where literally millions of Istanbulites stroll on the weekends, and the center for movie, theatre and music entertainment. A few seedy small side streets still house colourful transvestites, but the sex trade largely moved elsewhere, while nearby Cihangir, a maze of streets steeply descending from Istiklal Caddesi toward the Bosphoros, their dark entrances leading to breathtaking seaview terraces, is becoming a sort of Rive Gauche, with movie stars, writers, and musicians rubbing elbows in tea gardens and antique shops. The once thriving linguistic and cultural minorities – Greek, Armenian, Jewish – are dramatically reduced, or live behind closed doors; a new cosmopolitanism however is emerging thanks to Turkish youth coming back from study or work abroad, and to the quick rise of foreign students: more than 5000 now, their presence obvious all over the center of the town.

Ricky Ford, Baris Erkan
Ricky Ford, Baris Erkan                                               Francesco Martinell©2007

The new openness attacted musicians like Butch Morris and Ricky Ford, whose extended residencies in Istanbul provided a much-needed boost to the scene, as their ideas, suggestions, procedures definitely contributed to spark new groups and projects. Morris' Istanbul 1992 conductions (included on New World’s Morris box set, Testament: A Conduction Collection) are milestones in this road, brilliantly negotiating the uneasiness of two different traditions of improvisation sitting side by side. Unfortunately, Ford's Saxophone Orchestra has not yet found a record outlet; their performances, which Ricky openied by leading the band into “In A Sentimental Mood” on ney flute, are for now just cherished memories like, Many seeds were sown by mostly unsung musicians and groups: Dutch saxophonist Theo Loevendie and his regular Turkish visits, pianist Emin Findikoglu and his legendary jams with visiting musicians and leading Turkish jazz players, composer Ilhan Mimaroglu for the first Turkish book about jazz and his compositions with Freddie Hubbard or Janis Siegel.

All of these seeds are now sprouting new projects, but the initiators of the scene themselves do not seem as adventurous as they used to be. Their programs and publications are successful in terms of sales and popularity, but the innovative content tends to decrease with the number of original productions. Due to the vagaries of private education, the jazz program at Bilgi has been drastically reduced, and there isn't anybody now like Butch Morris or Ricky Ford enlivening the scene. However, the talents and ideas are there, and they will find a way or another to express themselves. In the past two years, several events dedicated to improvisation in music and dance took place in the city have begun to build an audience for such collaborations. There are improvisation groups regularly meeting and performing in fringe spots like Galataperform or Istanbulgarage. The legacy of Ismet Siral was celebrated in July with a Summer Meeting which plans to be an annual event; original thinkers like fretless guitarist Erkan Ogur and pianist Ayse Tutuncu carry on their work, regardless of changing situations and concentrating on the music.

The full range of Turkish, or rather more properly Anatolian, musical traditions includes a bewildering array of historical contributions, whose earlier strata date before the rise of the first European civilizations. Hittites represented guitar-like instruments in their sculptures 14 centuries BC, and the use of the lyra in Greek poetry is associated with an Asia Minor foundation myth. Celtic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, and finally Ottoman Turkish civilizations succeeded one another, and for the last six centuries music – like the rest of society – kept a closer and closer relationship with West European developments, so that the golden age of Ottoman music discarded several Asian characteristics. In the past century, the interaction with jazz has been more and more intimate, so that even musicians that operate in strictly traditional fields are feeling its influence in the key areas of personal expression and improvisation, either creating new musical styles or reinterpreting the past.

In the “new Rumelian” music of quartet Ince Saz, in the Balkan and zeybek dances of accordionist Muammer Ketencioglu, in the fusion of folk and art music by ney master Suleyman Erguner, in the acoustic world created by the tambur and ney duo Yansimalar with their new Mirabin Nefesi project, in the new folk music of the Kardes Turkuler ensemble or singer Sabahat Akkiraz, in the concert/chamber performance style of saz virtuosos Erdal Erzincan and Erol Parlak, just to name a few, the spirit of jazz is stimulating the musicians to strive for a unique, personal approach, a fertile element of jazz's legacy that tends to get lost with the institutionalization of genres.

Recommended listening:

Okay Temiz: Zikir (Ada)

Ayse Tutuncu: Panayir (Blue Note)

Ince Saz: (Kalan)

Kardes Turkuler: Hemavaz (Kalan)

Ozel Turkbas: Alla Turca (Traditional Crossroads)

Mustafa Kandirali: Caz Roman (World Network)

Erkan Ogur: Telvin (Kalan)

Muammer Ketencioglu: Ayde Mori (Kalan)

Sabahat Akkiraz: Seyran (Akkiraz)

Raphael Garrett/ Zusaan Fasteau: Memory of a Dream (Flying Note)

A note to our Turkish readers: As HTML is not kind to Turkish characters, their use was avoided to prevent wild distortions by various browsers.

Francesco Martinelli©2007

> back to contents