The strategically crucial Eurasian city now called Istanbul (population: 13 million, and growing by 700,000 a year) has had its share of upheaval over the centuries. It was conquered by Alexander the Great, torched by a vengeful Roman emperor, attacked by armies of the Islamic and Bulgarian empires, sacked by Crusaders, and overwhelmed by the Ottoman hordes of Sultan Mehmet II. All that happened before 1453; there's no point even talking about the Crimean War, the Turks' fateful decision to side with Germany in World War I, or the massive earthquake that devastated a huge area east of Istanbul in 1999.
Still, the great metropolis at the mouth of the Bosporus survives, constantly reinventing itself. In a compelling and beautiful new documentary called Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, multi-instrumentalist Alexander Hacke (of the German avant-garde band Einstürzende Neubaten) and writer-director Fatih Akin (Head-On) seek to unlock the secrets of the city once known as Byzantium, then Constantinople, through a wide-ranging survey of its music. Fueled by a Confucian aphorism ("Music can tell you everything about a place"), the filmmakers insinuate their cameras and microphones into Istanbul's salons and clubs and back alleys, where they reveal a boiling stew of cultural history that, by comparison, makes New Orleans seem as bland as Salt Lake City.
One of the two Turkish DJs who, with an American tenor saxophonist, make up the group Orient Expressions reminds us that Istanbul lies at the nexus between East and West: "When you live here," he says, "your ears are open to everything." So, too, are Akin's. Born in Hamburg to Turkish parents, he personifies the diversity of a city where a neo-psychedelic band called Baba Zula by its own description, musically conflicted combines jazz, rock, and the myth of the Arabian Nights while, a few miles away in the neighborhood of Beyoglu, an 86-year-old balladeer named Müzeyyen Senar, who made her first stage appearance in 1933, preserves the fading art of classical Oriental salon music. It's a place where the Istanbul Style Breakers, a loosely organized community of teenagers obsessed with breakdancing, coexist with Mercan Dede, a whirling dervish who married modern "club" sounds to Sufi religious tradition and summarizes the Dervish social code in one useful word: "tolerance."
For the European musician and sound engineer Hacke, Istanbul is an unknowable treasure trove. "I don't understand the city," he concludes at the end of Crossing the Bridge. "I only managed to scratch the surface." Maybe so, but his receptivity is as admirable as that of his collaborator behind the camera. In the Asian district of Kadikoy, Hacke opens his mikes and his computer on a Turkish hip-hop icon called Ceza, who seems to be channeling Eminem and the ululations of Arab mourners, fused by a dose of realpolitik. Hacke has recorded the ethereal Kurdish singer Aynur, whose haunting dirges are the soul of a musical genre called Dengbejen, from Arabic, Mesopotamian, and Jewish sources. Persecution of minorities has often been a theme of Turkish life, and it's worth noting that from 1980 to 1990, even speaking the Kurdish language was forbidden in Turkey. Enjoying a new liberty that could once more vanish, the lovely Kurdish singer asks plaintively of the world: "How can you call us enemies?"
Part intimate travelogue, part geopolitical mystery story, Crossing the Bridge also gets up close and personal with Orhan Gencebay, the so-called "Elvis of Arabesque music" (who became a romantic leading man in low-budget Turkish action movies back in the 1960s, has sold millions of albums, and remains an icon on Turkish radio), and with the edgy metal group Duman (Smoke), which covers Western punk tunes in Turkish and leads Istanbul's ongoing rebellion against musical tradition. At the age of 21, the band's lead singer immigrated for a few years to the grunge capital, Seattle, laying the foundation for a musical minirevolution upon his return.
For his part, the aging legend Erkin Koray remains unsatisfied with his nation's social structure. In the 1960s, Koray became one of the first musicians to electronically amplify Turkish music, and he was labeled decadent for covering Beatles and Rolling Stones tunes using traditional instruments. "Even today," the godfather of Istanbul rock laments, "I can't do what I want." We hear no such complaint from a group of bold-faced Istanbul rockers called the Replikas. No matter what anyone says, they revel, as Hacke says, in "civilized noise."
Add the extroversions of improvised Romany music at an unfettered gypsy drinking party and the respectful adaptations of Turkish folk music by a Canadian archivist/singer named Brenna MacCrimmon, and this extraordinary documentary becomes an embarrassment of riches the musical chronicle of a place and time that all but swamps the boat. "There is pain but also joy in [Turkish] music," MacCrimmon points out. "These flowers have to see sunlight again." To that end, Fatih Akin and Alexander Hacke have dedicated themselves without stint. They may have only scratched the surface, but what a glorious surface to behold.
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