Friends and readers have asked what type of music I went to hear during three weeks in Turkey. The honest answer is “none.” The country indulged my ignorance of where to go for music, and graciously accepted my time constraints given the acres of ruins, landscapes and markets to experience. Despite not attending any concerts or clubs, despite never seeking out music, Turkish music found me.
One night it was a fast and furious zurna over popping darbuka drums, seducing me into crashing a Turkish wedding party. One anthropological lesson I’ve learned is that every culture has a dumpling (or manti in Turkey), and every culture knows how to get down. While I was disappointed to find that the horns and drums were courtesy of a whirling dervish of a keyboard player, his acrobatic fingerwork and the happy couple’s dance moves allowed me to learn how one culture celebrates with music. To give the reader some idea of that evening’s musical program, here’s video of other Turkish newlyweds enthusiastically dancing the Kolbasti:
A more subdued, educational experience occurred heading up the stairs to the Galata Bridge in Istanbul, which crosses the Golden Horn and connects Istanbul’s “new” section to its “old” section (take those terms with a grain of salt: Istanbul’s “New Mosque” was built in 1597). I was greeted by a breathy yet powerful wisp of melody, which grew in volume as well as melancholy as I followed it back down the stairs. Underneath the bridge, alongside the water, a flute player was intoning a sad, archaic song amidst the bustle of the city’s seventeen million inhabitants.
I dropped some Turkish lire into the man’s hat, listened to him finish the tune and we started talking, or at least I attempted to talk to him in my best Turkish. Since I couldn’t look up the Turkish words for “key, register, soprano, alto, etc.,” I relied upon just two words to inquire about the nature of his instrument: ney (the name of the traditional Turkish reed flute) and ne (what). Translated phonetically, our conversation went something like this:
Depending on how they heard it, locals passing by either heard “Flute? Flute.” or What? What?!” Eventually language took a backseat to gestures and curiosity, and the gentleman proceeded to show me the soprano and tenor versions as well as the alto version he had been playing, and even managed to ask me if I was a musician! When I mentioned playing the clarinet, he wrote down the names of some popular Turkish clarinet players to check out.
That’s right, Turkey has popular clarinetists, just like the United States (around seventy years ago). I haven’t had a chance to listen to the CD’s by Serkan Cagri or Yasar Cakirlar, but I look forward to hearing them play the G-clarinet, a model apparently only used in Turkish music and which I attempted to play for some chuckling instrument sellers in Istanbul. It could have been mine for just six hundred Turkish lire (about $344.00), but the lessons needed to play this much larger, largely key-less horn made for a much larger investment. Still, the shop staff laughing at my attempts to play “Summertime” with the wrong mouthpiece and a B-flat model’s fingering was priceless!
Yet my most rewarding musical as well as cultural experience actually had nothing to do with “Turkish” music, “American” music or any other national designation. The little coast town of Kas in the Southwest hosts an underwater film festival where local filmmakers present photographs and movies shot under the Mediterranean’s cool, sapphire waters. The fifth and final entry in the short feature category told the story of a seasoned diver’s final voyage, which according to legend, is when a diver earns his “golden fins” and gets to talk to the ocean life before departing this realm.
What music did this filmmaker choose to accompany a man’s final moment of peace and clarity before death, as he learns lessons from the beautiful creatures of the sea? What else, but a recording Louis Armstrong made not long before he left this Earth:
I didn’t understand any of the Turkish subtitles in that film, and I don’t know how many people in the audience spoke enough English to understand Armstrong’s lyrics. Yet we all knew the song.
The vivid colors of the wildlife, the graceful movements of the diver and the singer gently shaping the words over caressing strings spoke to all of us. Critics despise “What A Wonderful World” as a trite pop bauble, but for those of us in the audience, it was music without borders, poetry transcending translation.
As for which town or city contained that music, or it being American music in Turkey, all that ceased to matter for the duration of the film. I never imagined I’d hear Louis Armstrong five thousand miles from home, but I didn’t really hear Louis Armstrong: I heard an artist inspiring another artist, who in turn touched an audience.
More dumplings, please.