Istanbul Abú

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It has to start in the street … or maybe in the pubwith the sound of crowds chanting … or perhaps the notes of a chanter … launched into the air … spiraling into an atmosphere … mixed with clapping … filled with anticipation … urging on whatever is to come … for what tune will come next.

Once the run of notes from the pipes takes flight, a few sthrums on the guitar grab hold; the melody pulls on stronger; the bodhrán stick picks out a rhythm of many beats and lifts and rolls it along; the melody runs on stronger still; and finally in comes a boost from the harmonica and a drone of concertina chords pushing it on; and off it goes. Like a thunder storm suddenly coming to an end, a change in the dynamic becomes apparent and the mood flips. The police have been pulled back, news spreads through the crowds and the tension disappears. People begin to celebrate. They move more freely and calmly. More cautious and less vocal supporters emerge and join in the mass communication.

While outside on the sun-dappled streets of Istanbul a nation is defining itself through the actions of its people, inside in the shaded Irish pub, piper and whistle player Eoin Dillon, singer and bodhrán player Cathy Jordan, harmonica and concertina player Rick Epping, and guitarist and bouzouki player Seanan Brennan are refining the music of another nation.

Though it feels a bit bizarre, being cocooned in here while such energy and uncertainty swirl about outside, it’s not our nation, not our battle, and the chance of being injured in a strange land so far away from our loved ones and families makes us all cautious. Instead we do what we came here for in the first place: play and listen to music. As Cathy says: We’ll have to play music anyhow because that’s what we came here to do. Let the protests carry on. We have all this shtuff that we’re mad to play.

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The musicians and I have been flown over courtesy of Culture Ireland and the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. We are here for a festival, the first  Celtic Sounds Festival, organised by Kate Fennell to try to introduce touring Irish musicians to the Turkish market and Turkish audiences to more trad straight from Ireland. Sadly, after a successful start at the Thursday launch event, as the troubles in the streets surrounding the festival venues became more and more serious over the course of Friday the festival became impossible to run and had to be cancelled.


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Host of the haven is proprietor Eamonn Lehane, originally from Co Clare but resident in Istanbul with his Turkish wife for the past nineteen years. Eamonn’s seven-year-old daughter is tapping out a simple beat from the tune on her father’s fiddle, hampering somewhat his efforts to stay with it. Eamonn is a decent fiddle player and has played music in his pub, the James Joyce, for some years now with a group of Turkish musicians known as CeltEast. They have recorded a CD together, Made in Istanbul (a copy of which he gives to each of the visiting musicians) featuring his own ballads and a number of tunes written in an ‘eastern Celtic style’ by band member Ayhan Ünal. (The other band members are Nilüfer Ketenci, Bilge Alntak, Feride Sofugil, but none could make it for this get-together. The CD sleeve notes explain that Galatia was a Celtic civilization settled in the centre of Anatolia (in today’s Turkey) in 278 BC and their kingdom survived for 250 years before being subsumed in the Roman Empire.)

Mostly a Turkish hangout, Eamonn runs a weekly trad session in the pub on Sunday nights. Some of the regular musicians have made it here through the city centre demonstrations for that session as usual, but getting a chance to play with a few of the very best is giving them an added thrill. (Eamonn is making sure to record the music for future reference.)

Jenny is from England and learned her trad in Liverpool many years ago. Her single-bowing playing makes the natural nerves show up when she is carrying the tune, but carry it she can, fair play to her, admirably and with determination. And someone is always there to share the load. Fergal is a newer-comer to the session, a lawyer with an international law firm in Istanbul. He joins in quietly with mostly first-position guitar chords and solid strumming, occasionally casting an eye on Seanan’s elaborate, all-at-once contributions to the rhythm, melody and harmony of the tunes. Such a situation offers a great chance for the amateur musicians to lean on the pros, and you can tell their playing improves and loosens up with that safety net under them. For the pros it’s a chance to play tunes they might not have heard in a while.

(It turns out that Jenny plays in the Istanbul rock scene, with Scorpio Rising, fronted by Sean Parker; and that Fergal is actually an experienced guitar and banjo player who nearly ‘went pro’ a few times, and it’s just that he isn’t used to playing guitar in sessions and has yet to get his banjo and bouzouki from home. He learned his music from the likes of Brian McGrath, Jack McAuley and Mick O’Connor. In Galway he played with Vesuwave, an Italian-focussed group led by Vincenzo Donnarumma. Together he and Jenny play in an Americana-Old-Timey group called Cupboard Creek String Band alongside Bob Beer on 5 string banjo.)

Rina Schiller, who is not a regular but was here before, has come all the way from Belfast. Speaking with the remains of a German accent, she asks me to take a photograph of the group with them all playing. I oblige and she hands me a SLR film camera. I’m surprised and excited to be taking a photograph with film for the first time in about eight years. I make sure it’s wound on, I find my angle and press the shutter release. The action is smooth but requires more pressure than I’m used to, and I think the picture will be blurred. I go to check it on the back only to find a piece of cardboard, the top of a Kodak film box showing the number of frames and the ISO etc. Ha! I take another just in case, holding more firmly. It’ll be some time before the results are known.

(PS Rina writes: ‘You will be glad to hear that the two photos you took with my camera came out nicely: nothing was blurred at all. It would have been better though to have moved back a little bit more for taking the photo, as I only have a standard wide-angle on the camera, but apart from that they are fine as fine can be. And thanks so much for taking them.’)

An ethnomusicologist, Rina has written a book about the connections between the bodhrán and Lambeg drums, but her current research is into Irish music being played in overseas settings and how it is interacting with other traditional musics: hence her interest in this session in Istanbul. She actually travelled here last year too to meet the local group, but when the session players were not around she decided to come back again this summer. She joins in, on mandolin, on tunes she knows.

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Other visiting musicians joining in are Ali and Ben Zilker, a couple whose life together gives new meaning to the idea of alternative and alternative ideas for the meaning of life. They are travelling the world, going wherever music and friendship takes them, busking to make enough money to eat, sleeping in the open or under roof when invited by friends. (Their adventures have included taking a lift from a Turkish arms dealer, and being put up by a senior Mexican Government official.) Ali is a musician from Peterborough and met Ben while travelling in 2007. They have been together ever since, and married in 2010 so that Ben could get his residency and make sure no immigration bureaucracy could separate them. Ben is from Ashdod in Israel but has rejected and left his country because he couldn’t stand its policies. He just about managed to avoid the military service by feigning an extreme form of madness.

They learned their trad from a Sean Flanagan of Menlo while living in Galway a few years ago. In fact, Ben was a percussionist up to then and only had one scale on the flute, which he played over everything. Sponge-like he began soaking up all the tunes he could while in Ireland and now plays remarkably well, with a hungry sense of rhythm. Ali, too, acquired the necessary wrist-flicks and speed to be able to play trad in Galway. Her difficulty was more fundamental: fingering. She has the most flexible ‘double-jointed’ fingers imaginable. She can bend and fix them at all kinds of mesmerizing angles, making letter-like shapes of her fingers. Such disobedience in her fingers used to present a problem for her playing the fiddle, until she discovered the spiral metal rings she now wears that span the joints and keep them straight enough for fast triplets and cuts.


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D_____ is an expat teacher, living in Istanbul for many years. He tells me about a Turkish trio who played in another Irish bar not far from here called the U2 Istanbul on Bekar Sokak. They’re fucking legends, these guys, he says. They’ve never been to Ireland. They play the bodhrán, tin whistle and sing. They’re wonderful. They’ve learned songs in Gaelic. They don’t know what they’re singing, but you’d never know.

That area was all going nuts last night in the early hours of the morning, he says, and we were in the pub with running battles right outside, tear gas canisters flying by. They’re building a tunnel near by to bypass Taksim Square, and police were in there protecting it and shitting themselves probably. Tear gas canisters flying out, helicopters above them, fires everywhere. It was just nuts, absolutely nuts, like a Apocalypse Now.

Then right at the door of the pub a canister landed and the place filled up and gassed us out of it. We turned on the fans and it actually disperses quite quickly.  I have asthma and I got a full blast, was on my knees, eyes totally gone, breathing slowly trying to avoid an attack, completely immobilized for a few minutes.

He described to me the scene in Taksim Square: chaos, cars on fire, tear gas everywhere, smashed ATMs. Originally people were running away, but they are just going over and picking up the canisters at this stage and chucking them away. They’re not afraid anymore. That’s a turning point.

It’s been a long time coming, this protest, D_____ believes. It will get bigger before it ends.

It’s going to really kick off tonight. A lot of the people protesting are from other places. They don’t know this area. They were asking me where the Park is.

He tells me the Government has been attempting to shut down Twitter and Facebook, but they’re so useless they can’t even do that. They tried to shut down the phone networks too. They raided a TV channel last night that was broadcasting live what was happening, they turned off the signal. In fairness, it’s only this morning and that BBC and the Guardian have it on their front page. For the last three days there’s been absolutely nothing. This morning, finally something came up. I was telling people in Ireland that this has been going on for days. What the fuck is going on with journalism in this world. Did September 11 happen on September 11 or did it happen on September 8th.

I am getting a bit tired of it [the country], he says. It was better than this years ago. This is not the peak of Turkey. There was a sense of enjoyment in the country that just doesn’t exist anymore. Because of this conservative Government over the last seven or eight years. They were very clever. They never did one big thing that everyone would object to. They made decisions and did little things in stages. And while the economy was doing well, everyone put up with it. Now everyone is realising that suddenly we’re living in a different country. I can’t see it getting better. It was a much more Western, European, liberal mindset to the whole place before and now it’s more conservative, Islamic, backward. This has destroyed whatever chance they had to get the 2020 Olympics.

When you successfully repress a nation for generations they get used to it and come to know it as just the norm. This is the world. But with travel being so cheap and social media, people are saying in fact no this is not the world. This is Turkey and we’re not having it anymore. The way things are now has always been, there has been repression, you do what you’re told, there’s no dissent allowed, no freedom of speech really in the media. They have a law here which is very vague but which means you can be prosecuted for saying anything bad about the country, even if it’s true, just for bringing the name of the country down. There are a lot of prosecutions.


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Eoin, arrived in from a walk around the streets, tells us he has heard that seven O’Clock is the time that has been agreed to restart the protests tonight. That’d be good craic! says Seanan. And everyone laughs.

D____ & I discuss the possibility that we might have to leave before then, miss the music and the craic in the pub. The police could close off all the routes through the city. Rick thinks we should enquire before going anywhere.  D____ understands the Metro is closed, and that 40,000 police are in a cordon around the city, and the bridges are being closed down. The police are not trained properly to deal with these things.

When D_____ describes some of the liberties that have been withdrawn, such as the ban on drinking outside bars, Eoin points out that such liberties are being eroded in other countries too, including America where gathering in groups is treated as an offense. D_____ points out that it’s more about accountability than liberty, but Eoin suggests the accountability is appalling in Ireland too. We realise that though it may not be in the name of religion as much, there are plenty of reasons to be worried about the erosion of liberties in other countries too.

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Eamonn arrives in buzzing and excited saying the atmosphere up in Taksim is great, unbelievable, fantastic. The police have all gone. They all withdrew. Bang. Pulled out. Everyone and their mothers are out.

O great, says Cathy.

Does that mean we’re safe?

Yep. They’ll be there, now, partying for the night.

Lads, that’s where we should do the gig, up there in the Square, Cathy declares, and suddenly there’s hope that the whole thing can be salvaged. Momentarily I picture the four musicians up on top of a barricade of rubble, firing off some fantastically, ecstatically trippy reels for a wildly excited crowd. And, now, all the way from Ireland to wish the people of Taksim well, we bring you … the … Spectacles (one of the names they tried out for this ad hoc ensemble). But Eamonn points out that they wouldn’t be able to hear anything, and there’s a joke about calling for Cuinas, another about hijacking the riots for commercial gain and Seanan adds in a stage voice: Don’t forget we’ve a new album out! … My wee dream of a salvaged festival is dashed!

We should go up, anyhow.

And go up we do.


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Through the cheering and shifting throngs, one side of the road flowing towards Taksim Square and Gezi Park, the other flowing away, we float along (Rick head and shoulders above everyone), taking it all in. Shop fronts, especially the international brands, have been damaged, windows broken, walls and glass scrawled on with angry messages of all sorts, the screens of bank machines have been smashed in. While the graffiti can be seen as a kind of understandable attempt to communicate, the vandalism is not a good sign, at best suggesting misguided anger and at worst opportunistic elements among the demonstrators. But there is no sense of danger now that the police are gone, nothing threatening about the people, and apparently there has been very little looting and the damage done to shops has been selective and targetted. Though I reckon mostly made up of young males, the crowd includes plenty of women, some older folks and even some youngsters. Some have clearly been there from the start and chant confidently and loudly, others are just observing quietly like us and photographing and sussing out. Some are still wearing protective masks, others have them hanging from their neck or lifted onto their heads. There are Guy Fawkes masks about, bandanas, Turkish flags, but one thing I don’t see here that I have seen elsewhere in the city is women wearing the hijab headscarf. This is definitely the secular minority doing whatever it can to have its voice heard. Sadly that seems to have brought with it considerable damage on the main street, all of which will have to be fixed up, cleaned up and paid for with taxpayers’ money.

(PS Rina disagrees with me somewhat on this and I think it’s a fair point she makes: ‘you say … that you did not see any women on Taksim Square/Gezi Park wearing the headscarf. Well, I did see some, and I thought it quite nice that they all mixed and tolerated each other. After all, one does not have to be non-religious to protest against the erosion of people’s rights. So … calling these crowds ‘a secular minority’: Firstly it is mixing religion and politics, which is what politicians do, but not the people themselves. And secondly I was told by some of these protesting Turkish people that they found being called ‘a minority’ ridiculous and offensive, given the massive turnout for the protest.’)

We make our way towards Taksim and enjoy the celebratory atmosphere, the good vibes we get from the people when we enquire about the meaning of various chants and graffiti, but once we catch sight of the dense crowds between us and Gezi Park itself, Rick and I decide to turn back, content with a glimpse and a taste. Rick reminisces about demonstrations in California in the sixties.

We regroup back in the pub and inevitably immerse ourselves in music late into the night. We do the same the following night and though the audience numbers are small due to the troubles on the streets, a good number of Turkish people visiting the pub, whether to eat and drink or just for a drink, hear the music and pay close attention to the tunes. Job done? Kate, who has been quite traumatised by the collapse of the festival and by the terrible things being done to the demonstators, among whom are some of her Turkish friends, is relieved that at least some music has been played and some connections made. Before she leaves to prepare to join her friends in Gezi Park the next day, she praises all the musicians for playing on regardless, thanks them warmly and hopes that they will come back again at a happier time in Istanbul.

(An old travellers song that Cathy got from the Fermanagh singer, Rosie Stewart.)

For me the music ends when Cathy sings the ‘Green Fields of Canada’ and the entire pub is as quiet as an empty room, listening to every rise and fall of her word-magic voice –

So it’s pack up your sea stores and consider no longer,
Ten dollars a week isn’t very bad pay;
With no taxes or tithes to devour up your wages
When you’re on the green fields of America.

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I take a final photograph of the group (minus Rick, who has wisely gone to bed early to be ready for a very early flight the next morning) giving a revolutionary salute, musician-style, outside the pub and then I walk back to my (most excellent) hostel through the debris-strewn streets, all so quiet now, filled with an air of anticipation for what is to come next and what might have been …

Kardeş Türküler ‘den ‘tencere tava havası’

Enough with inconsistent remarks and bans
Enough with headstrong decrees and commands
Oh my, oh my, we’ve had enough
Oh my, oh my, we’re really fed up
What arrogance! What hatred!
Come slowly, slowly the ground is wet.

O beloved Istanbul,
Lying ill-starred,her beauty ruined.What woe, what gas,What grief is this?Everything is levelled to the ground.What did ever happen to you,Tell me, tell me.Don’t want you this way,No I don’t.

(The penguin footage is a reference to the fact that while the riot police were brutally attacking a group of Turkish citizens the national CNN station were broadcasting a documentary about the flightless birds.)


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The only stage performance (a sound check) of the barely-formed and now disbanded super group, The Acoustruments!


Like some kind of dream, the whole thing reminds me of the Dervish performance (no, not that Dervish, the other Dervishes) we saw:

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“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.”
― William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream



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