Xenopolis, an Ode to Istanbul
Iclal Akcay: Being an immigrant is a strange thing. The schools at which one has studied, the favoured music, certain political views and qualities...Once uprooted, none of these matter any longer. Moving from your country of birth to a foreign place defines you as a person for the rest of time. Even if you are from a country like Turkey, which is not too far away from Europe and relatively easy to visit frequently, voluntarily or involuntarily, adaptation to a foreign place becomes the most dominant, determining point in one's life.
Unlike many other Turks I befriended here in the Netherlands, who did time in military jails, went through torture or innumerable other forms of oppression until they finally managed to run away from a military apparatus that attempted to wipe out any form of left wing activism during 1980s, I sought refuge in the cultural richness and freedom Europe offered to women. Perhaps because we were raised looking up to a Western model of modernity under the overly protective shadow of the army, there was a certain degree of naivety about what to expect from being "European." We were only disappointed by our own countries then. Listening to Western music, dressing up fashionably, being armed with a university degree, a foreign language and a job, with a knowledge of and taste for literature and politics, it never occurred to me that I would be seen as, and reduced to, the image of an exotic, non-European Muslim woman when I stepped into European life, ready to embrace it fully and expecting to be embraced in return. I could have not known then that I was putting myself into a culture of prejudice, one that did not favour me or the many others with whom I would later connect and share a marginal existence of loneliness and refusal.
Some two decades on, what could be more heart warming than hearing a song from one's childhood, reflecting the deepest sorrows and worries of women from the outskirts of Istanbul? A song of a gypsy woman, who had climbed the ladder of fame from the bottom, only to attract a deep hatred from her jealous husband when her voice earned her a well deserved audience of admirers and wealth. If you think acid throwing is an act of cowardliness only committed in backward countries far, far away, you are mistaken. Bergen continued singing with an ever-touching voice, covering her half deformed face with a rich lock of hair, until the same man gunned her down outside a music hall in the back streets of the city.
It is a nice surprise to witness this vibrant young petite Turkish singer on stage at the beautiful Bimhuis. She reanimated these stories of pain and sorrow, injecting a new life of her own into these familiar tales, scattered around the unfashionable back streets of Istanbul to be forgotten in our tired, collective memories. Being hip and daring, Ceylan Ertem is not conservative in letting her energetic voice reach high pitches and come back down again, aligning herself with the harmony of the musicians from different backgrounds. Together coming up with a new sound that blends with tunes from the past in the process. From multi-instrumentalist and singer Behsat Üvez, to percussionist Sebastian Demydczuk, from the brilliant funky cello player Ernst Reijseger, to guitarist Jeff Sopacua, and reed player Steven Kamperman, the Barana group crosses over time and place to pay its jazzy ode to Istanbul with the Xenopolis project.
Group leader Behsat Uvez also sang a song in Turkish he wrote in memory of his friends who were killed during the street clashes between right- and left-wing groups in the late 1970s. Sitting in a Dutch concert hall, I have seen other Turks burst into tears with the sudden emergence of old feelings from our youth.
One of the most vibrant cities on earth, Istanbul never falls short of drama. A gypsy quarter within the historic peninsula Sulukule recently faced destruction under a grand urban transformation project. Ceylan, the singer of Xenopolis, was not only there to document the demolition of houses with her camera, she also wrote a song, which she sang and danced to with extravagant humour, carrying the gestures of gypsy men and women to the stage. "Come see me now, not a speck of dust is left, If I ask why and how, no words remain."
A friend of mine from Israel, Maayan Spiegel, once said, "If you go to the River Ganges in India, from birth to death, you can witness all stages of life at once, within a few square meters, and that's what India is about." The Xenopolis music project was a reminder that Istanbul too, is a place of totality. A place where you experience life to the fullest, with its dramas and joys, laughter and tears, all in the same place, at the same time.
Crossing Over with Music and Tales
Xenopolis, an Ode to Istanbul
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