Memories of Istanbul

German Documentary Unearths Turkish Musical Treasures

by Brett Leigh Dicks

When Alexander Hacke arrived in Istanbul to produce the music for Fatih Akin’s acclaimed film Head On, he had little idea where this cinematic journey would inevitably lead. Least of all did he expect it to take him back in the city and place him in the midst of another film. But as the famed bassist from German proto-industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten leads the world on a magical exploration through Istanbul’s rich musical landscape in Akin’s new documentary Crossing the Bridge, we discover that just like this musical maverick’s own wanderings, Turkish music is also oblivious to political and cultural borders.

Did you have much experience in Turkish culture prior to working with Fatih Akin? I was born and raised in Berlin Neukölln, which is the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey, and I had the illusion of knowing something about Turkish people and culture. But when I arrived in Istanbul I soon realized that I really had no idea.

What was your first reaction to Istanbul? It was certainly a cultural shock. It’s a very inspiring place as there are so many different ethnic groups there. The city is boiling with different influences and it’s very culturally fertile, but there’s a great respect there and that’s what this movie is trying to show.

What were some of the musical surprises for you in Crossing the Bridge? The real surprises actually came from who recommended whom. It was astonishing how someone like Sezen Akzu is respected by experimental rock bands or how somebody like Erkin Koray — the grandfather of Turkish rock music — is referred to in such high terms by hip-hop musicians. There is a great sense of solidarity in Istanbul between musicians of completely different backgrounds and social standings.

Is that because music is so apparent within Turkish culture? Music has a different value. It’s such a big part of Turks’ heritage and culture in a much more direct way. I can’t talk very fondly about German folk music. But that music has influenced American music in a big way and comes around to me through that. And music is such a huge part of people’s everyday lives in Turkey. They buy music like we buy milk and bread.

In emerging from West Berlin during the ’80s, I imagine your experiences in Istanbul were far removed from your own musical heritage. West Berlin was a little village that was completely removed from the rest of the world. It was very removed from reality, while reality is very apparent in Istanbul. West Berlin was more like being on an oil drilling platform than being in a city. It was a vacuum. And when you ignite a spark in a vacuum you get an explosion. People would invent a band and tell everyone about it before they could play instruments. So people were running around striking matches and trying to create their own cultural explosions.

Your latest recorded undertaking — Sanctuary — is something of a musical journey, too, I understand? I took the same portable recording equipment that I use for the movie and traveled the world visiting musician friends. I tried to make a record like a road movie. I would go from place to place and record with musicians and in between I would rearrange and destroy-process the recorded material. Italian pop singer Gianna Nannini plays with the New York free jazz percussionist Michael Evans, while on the same song there is feedback guitar from metal legend Nils Wohlrabe from The Leather Nun. Like Crossing the Bridge, it too is about cultural clash.

4•1•1 Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul screens at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, April 12 at 7:30 p.m. Call 893-3535. Sanctuary is out now on San Francisco’s Koolarrow Records.

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