Sunday 22 June 2008

Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005)

Written and directed by Fatih Akin, this really follows the narration and direction of Alexander Hacke, the bass player for Einstürzende Neubauten, a very interesting and influential group from Germany. I first encountered them through their connections with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Blixa Bargeld is a long term member of both), but then found them fascinating on their own terms. They're certainly an avant garde group, often playing custom made instruments, found objects and electronica, and Hacke, a sound engineer, joined at the age of fifteen. He obviously has a firm love of music, as evidenced by his immersion into it here even when he's not playing. He isn't just hearing it, he's obviously feeling it.

The title comes from Istanbul's unique place in the world. As the traditional gateway between east and west, it's a bridge that has been crossed by 72 nations in its long history as one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. It's part of Asia but also part of Europe and the contrast pervades everything about the city: old and new, traditional and revolutionary, beautiful and ugly. The film finds all these contrasts in music also, and it's a very effective documentary: one that both educates but also points us in new directions to continue learning.

The versatility is admirable. We begin with Baba Zula, a psychedelic underground band, then are introduced through some modern rock bands to Erkin Koray, the originator of rock music in Turkey. There's hiphop vocal contortionism from Ceza and others, which connects us to the streets. There we find traditional musicians, of various cultures, and modern buskers who are far from the amateurs I remember from the streets of Halifax. We meet some truly amazing musicians, 'amazing' being a word that comes into play more than once here.

Selim Sesler is an amazing clarinettist and whoever accompanies him on the oud is no less amazing. Aynur Dogan is an amazing Kurdish vocalist. Possibly most surprising is the discovery that famous musicians, those who are cultural icons through appearances in hundreds of movies, can also be seriously talented. It isn't just marketing. Orhan Gencebay and Sezen Aksu are Turkish icons but whatever their acting is like, their musicianship is beyond question. Many of these musicians speak to the soul and 'amazing' is a highly appropriate word.

One of the most obvious comparisons is with Buena Vista Social Club. Not only is it a musical quest made by a man who doesn't write or direct, but is continually part of the music being made (here Alexander Hacke takes Ry Cooder's role as Fatih Akin takes Wim Wenders's), but it delves way below the surface. One easy comparison is through the inclusion of Müzeyyen Senar, a film actress and musician who is now 86 years old and still able to perform admirably, even after 72 years of singing. Buena Vista Social Club was full of musicians of this age still performing with a skill that belies their age.

Most telling for me, like its Cuban comparison this film helps to shake our standard conception of music in the west. One of the street musicians in Siyasiyaband talks about not being understood by a western mentality and he wasn't talking about the style of music he plays. He was talking about music as a commodity, the concept that if something is appreciated, then it should be packaged it up, recorded and sold. It's a business and an industry and it has nothing to do with music, it has to do with money made through making people recognisable. These street musicians, as with many musicians here, make a living but are far from stars and we hear music played, not just on the street but on boats, rooftops and large stages; in tattoo parlours, front rooms and Romany pubs; at weddings and even in an 18th century Turkish spa. It'll be fascinating to see how far western music moves towards this concept as the music industry dies but music itself lives on.

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