Written for Yabangee.com
“There has always been Reggae here,” began Come Again drummer Mehmet, disagreeing that something like SirenFest – Istanbul’s premiere reggae music festival on Baykuş Beach, could never have occurred before now. “But”, he conceded, “we can say it is much more popular now”.
Like most reggae fans in Istanbul, I have been revelling in the atmosphere on the scene this year, which has seen an explosion of activity unheard of in my short years here. The Wailer’s performance at Küçükçiftlik Park, Lee Scratch Perry’s Babylon set, and local group Sattas’ wave of media acclaim having produced the country’s first reggae album along with the organising of the first SirenFest in three years this summer, have been just some of the most momentous moments I can think of.
But along with most of the music press in Turkey, I had neglected how long the music has had a presence here, in lieu of a scene like this weekend. According to Mehmet however, reggae had been present since the first radio show/group Version Favourite, came on the airwaves in 1993. Back then, “To buy albums, you had to go out of the country. They never used to sell any records here.”
|Fans with Congo Natty (Photo by Harun Kurum)|
Everything changed with the internet, however, and a short twenty years later reggae is incredibly accessible, and in demand. Looking around, the average profile of festival-goers definitely casts most in the copy-paste-and-share generation.
Unlike shows in Europe and the US, there are not many veterans looking for a taste of their youth here, Turkish reggae fans are not ‘carrying the flame’ of their rudeboy or skinhead forebears. There is no talk of nostalgia for the old days, this is it – from scratch – and it is pretty exciting.
Most artists were pleasantly shocked that SirenFest organisers decided to hold a second festival in one year when it was announced last month. But it didn’t take long before word got around that the line-up would be even more star-studded this time, with Dawn Penn and Congo Natty performing a DJ set.
One of the DJs mixing on Saturday afternoon, Akansel Piskin (alias Boss DJ), who has a knack for performing ska, dub and ska-punk sets at special club nights around the city, claims that Congo Natty stole the show on Friday night, and he was not the only one to think so.
Other main headliners on Friday night were Sattas, delivering as confidently and tightly as ever. They have had enough practise by now, gigging non-stop since early June. Judging from the Basit-hound eyes of most festival-goers on Saturday morning (or, late afternoon to put it more accurately), the opening night had been raucous.
Saturday saw a number of DJ sets playing until 6pm, while most of the crowd was busy sun-bathing on the sand. At that point the first bands got up to play. Maskaya have been doing well, playing in Nayah and few other raggae-friendly joints in the city. They don’t have the fan base quite yet, but still deserve a later slot, having played a good set that included a cover of ‘Time Bomb’ by everyone’s favourite American ska-punks, Rancid.
Come Around definitely showed great finesse on stage. Singer/trumpeter Kelly has a voice that could melt the pants off a nun, which only increases your appreciation of his trumpet skills. Mehmet’s proficiency on drums should also be noted. In any case, the whole group perform well as a unit whether playing their own material or covers like Gregory Isaac’s ‘Night Nurse’. The crowd loved it.
After their set ended it was back to the bar for most for a 7TL beer or, if anyone was feeling peckish, a 7TL plate of chips or a 7TL sandwich. Stuff like this adds up, and with the closest village a 15TL taxi ride away, the festival has a pretty tight monopoly. Aside from these extras though, it is worth 40TL for the day (and night), and 15TL for a ready tent is not extortionate considering how vital one is.
Dawn Penn’s early arrival had been confirmed by the mid-afternoon. Some said she looked pissed-off, and sure enough when I interviewed her before her set started at midnight she looked ready to vent about everything. It turned out the artist, who has been recording hits since the very first days of ska, is keeping more than busy. She had just come from Japan, and with brief spells in her North London home, had spent most of the year visiting different cities in the US.
It turns out Dawn has been promoting a new book, entitled, ‘The Story of My Life’. I have a feeling that for anyone interested in how reggae developed from the early Studio 1 years of the 60s to the present day, it could be an incredibly eye-opening account of the intrigue surrounding the old guard, and their fights over rights and royalties violations. It turns out the early scene has been dogged by bitter disputes leaving almost no-one untouched. Has anyone from those days remained pure? I interjected, to which Dawn gladly rolled out a few names including Ken Booth, which restore my faith a little, at least.
As her band prepared for the set, we were treated to a spectacle of Capoeira. Capoeira is a Brazilian mix of martial arts, dance, hypnotic chanting, traditional instruments and, judging from the dropped jaws of every woman in the crowd, softcore-porn for anyone with a soft spot for flexible hippies.
Dawn’s set was incredibly enjoyable, and showed how seriously underrated her Rocksteady material is, overshadowed by her later number one (‘No, no, no’), not to mention the sheer quality of slower numbers like ‘Night and Da’y (“That’s not even reggae – that’s R n’ B,” she cried, ridiculing the crowd’s applause).
Without a doubt though, ‘No, No, No (You Don’t Love Me)’, is what propelled her to mainstream fame. “People think I’ve only got one song”, she said between songs, “Personally, I think they must be joking”. However, just before the finale, word went around the crowd that the police had arrived. Although there is no sign of civilisation for a 15TL drive, someone seemed to have neglected the fact that the building next door was a large police academy, and we had over-ran our fun.
Within five minutes, a hugely disappointed crowd disappeared back to the bar, where the lights were swiftly cut, leading to an exodus to the beach. Any group of people who had had the foresight to make a fire there soon found themselves hosting various wandering groups of raggamuffin refugees, peering out of the darkness prompting drunken sing-a-longs.
All in all, a great evening. Anyone interested in going next year should keep informed via this facebook link.
It started as good a time as any – on a dolmuş to Hasankeyif with a crate of live chickens on my lap.
I had spent most of the ride defending another box of small chicks from a group of curious toddlers on the back seat. It’s hard to appreciate the magnificence of the south-eastern countryside under such conditions, but I remember the distinct feeling that this chaotic scene was underpinned by something far more stunning. Amongst the fluttering and children’s laughter, a mesmorising sound emanated from the driver’s cassette player – “Gelmezsen, gelme” (I implore you to listen whilst reading) the singer warbled emphatically, with playful stringed accompaniment. This was my introduction to the wonder of Ibrahim Tatlıses.
Tatlıses, or ‘Ibo’, as he is affectionately known, is the ultimate cult figure in Turkey, especially in his Eastern homeland. Every death-defying dolmuş ride in that region feels as though the singer is serenading the mountains by your side.
It all started in the unsuspecting town of Adana. Ibo was a regular young guy making ends meet, when something happened that would instill him with a determination to succeed spanning decades. In the singer’s own words:
“I was getting 20 kuruş a pot selling water at the cinema there, yelling ‘Get your water! Ice cold water!.’ One day, a guy suddenly got out of his seat and slapped me across the face four times. ‘Shut up you idiot, you think any of us are here to listen to you?!’ he barked. Well, those four slaps got me where I am today…”
It was not long after that incident when, whilst singing folk songs at a nearby construction site, Ibo was over-heard by a local club owner, who immediately recognised his talent and invited him to perform at the local clubs and bars. The rest, as they say, is history. Since 1965, Ibo has released an incredible fifty-two albums, with countless hit singles. Some of his most popular hits include Sarhoş (Drunk), Yalan (Lie) and Bir Ayrılık Şarkı (A Break-up Song) to name but a few. Although a musician and song-writer of undisputed talent, Ibo has never strayed far from the “Arabesk” genre which his emotive tenor is best suited for.
Arabesk music is characterised by its raw emotion. The lyrics, invariably about some misfortune, undying heart-ache or unrequited love, are accompanied by a combination of Anatolian instrumentation and silky, Arabic-style violins with makam ornamentation. Orhan Gencebay, Müslüm Gürses and Ferdi Tayfur, are just some of the genre’s most popular exponents, but Ibo’s unrelenting success over the years has made his image synonymous with Arabesk itself.
However, today one finds that to many young, hip Istanbulites, the mention of Arabesk music evokes a cringe and a look of relished disapproval. This owes partly to Arabesk’s over-the-top, self-immolating lyrics and morose style, of which Ibo is as good an exponent as any:
Every night I’m drunk for of my troubles,
I’m a vagabond pacing the road of love,
This is my fate, My summer turned to winter,
I’m a lover trapped in a raging storm…
And that is generally considered an upbeat number! Arabesk, however, suffers from a crude, classist, stereotype directed at its most ardent followers – the prayer bead-swinging, mullet-topped, open-shirted “kıros” of the wretched dolmuş-driving class. But after a couple of rakıs, even the staunchest of the ‘modern’ brigade are requesting Arabesk classics.
For all its dramatics, Arabesk relishes in getting carried away with a dramatic, suppressed and irrational definition of love, therefore tapping into a very core characteristic of Turkish culture, where, as Elif Şafak points out, love is elevated to something to be revered.
I have seen tears flood the eyes of grown men listening to Ibo’s bitterest songs, but on the other hand, I’ve also seen children hang out the windows of buses waving handkerchiefs in the air in typical Kurdish celebration style, singing along to his dance anthems. When the Kurdish language was legalised in the 1990s, it was only a matter of time before Ibo would make a Kurdish classic recognisable not just to Kurds, but also liked by the Turkish public at large, in the form of the Halay dance anthem Şemmame. Bridging this kind of cultural boundary is a feat, perhaps no other singer is capable of pulling off with such finesse.
If James Brown claimed to be the hardest-working man in show-business, he must not have been to Turkey. On top of selling millions of albums, Tatlıses has also enjoyed a successful film career, starring in thirty-two movies and at least two TV series. If that wasn’t enough, for the last nineteen years, his weekly chat-come-music programme – The Ibo Show, has received some of the highest viewings on Turkish television.
With Tatlıses secured as a house-hold name, it was only a logical step for the tireless singer to extend his brand into the business world. Anyone who travels between cities by coach regularly will have probably used Tatlıses’ namesake tour company, and a whole host of other travel services. However, the singer has regularly been on the receiving end of rumours that all is not quite above board in his business dealings, and his reputation as a client of the mafia is assumed as a fact by most.
For many, this was confirmed in March last year, when Turkey woke up to the shocking news that the singer had been shot in the back of the head, by Kalashnikov-armed assailants in a drive-by shooting in Istanbul.
The singer was sent by helicopter to receive treatment in Germany, where he recovered and returned to Turkey to continue his career triumphantly – all this, at the age of fifty-two. Thus, not only harder working than James Brown, but tougher than 50 Cent.
With a decade-spanning career, a host of businesses, a string of scandals and a personal life as compelling and complicated as one of his romantic melodramas, Ibo holds a place in Turkish cultural life that not many others can claim. Love him or hate him, he has yet to give up the limelight.
Nothing quite makes me want to commit a violent crime like an encounter with the Turkish police.
I need about two months extra on my residence permit here, so that I can both pick up my first salary and get in and out of the country to attain legal working status from the consulate in London. This is a laborious process as it is. The problem is, that the ability to do this rests on one gentleman in Bakırköy police station who sees it as his mission to annoy every single foreigner within his jurisdiction into seeking residence elsewhere.
The guy in line in front of me screamed a beautiful, heart-rendering array of Turkish insults at the officer, as he and his Kazakh wife had been waiting for three hours, before they were told to come back another day.
With a shrug of the shoulders the officer said “What do you want me to do? I can't do anything”, “I’m going to come back with a friend” the other man implored, “give me you name and surname.” Without a care in the world the officer said “It’s my right not to give you my name or surname, go get your friend and see what happens,” and as he continued to defend his position to the other officers in room, the poor man who had been waiting could be heard slamming several doors, each echoing louder than the other as he left the station in a rage.
My own process has gone on for several days now, being hampered at every single turn. The officer refused to give me a day over one month despite a call to my university and anyone else who can prove how completely kosher my stay will be in return for just six weeks. "Why are you making this hard for me?" he keeps imploring.
The criminal thoughts have only increased. Whilst waiting in the lobby between small chats, I frequently consider whether being in a cell for the night for having defenestrated an office type-writer or nipple-twisted a uniformed clerk would harm my application, or be treated by a separate department unaware of my pending trial.
Apparently, I’m not the only one with such thoughts, but I’ve learnt to restrain myself after reading this holiday’s bunch of police scandals. It had been a particularly eventful summer for the police even before I went down to Izmir to see some old friends for Eid, so I was frustrated I wasn’t able to write about all this sooner.
No matter however. For bloggers with a knack for complaining about state violence, the Turkish police are the gift that keeps giving. In the last month or so there have been several scandals involving police brutality, which Hürriyet journalist Emre Kızılkaya says has “become a norm for the AKP government”. I’m not convinced brutality hasn’t been a norm under previous governments either, considering Jitem and the post-coup era. This view is echoed by social affairs blogger Gözde Görür, who states that although it is widely viewed as increasing, police brutality has always been there.
Comparisons aside, the police are certainly enjoying immunity and freedom under the government’s tutelage.
Firstly, Kurdish protests have gone from being tolerated as a matter of maintaining order, to becoming full-blown battles on the streets of Diyarbakır when so much as a child throws a stone at by-standing police, already loading their tear gas grenades. “We have to protect ourselves”, one policeman I spoke to who was serving in Diyarbakır cried, when I doubted the wisdom of trying such minors as ‘terrorists’ under draconian laws.
Impunity is the main watchword when one talk about the police. Especially within the bracket of citizens I unfortunately fall in to – the suspicious, probably up-to-no-good, twenty-something-year-old males. With this in mind, one major exception stood out in July, when the son of the deputy for Hatay got into an argument with a cop at a police station in that city.
Ömer Uzun, who is also the head of the AK party’s local youth wing, threatened to have the officer “exiled” when a deputy inspector intervened telling him not to speak to a police officer like that. One thing lead to another, as it tends to do, and by the end of the day in a remarkable scene, several officers were lined-up before Uzun and the ‘offending’ officers identified. Both officers were reassigned to different districts after being laid off for a number of days.
Satirical comic Le Man had a field day with this story. On the front page (pictured) it shows a number of frightened police in a line-up, wondering what the charges against them were. The first cop says “I confess! Yesterday I hospitalised three protesters!”, the second cop: “Me too, I killed a youth in custody”, the third one adds that he “used undue force against a couple of marching students and fired tear gas at them inducing an asthma attack on both”. The officer in charge barks “Shut up all of you! We’re here to identify who had an argument with the AKP governor’s kid!”.
There is no doubt that Uzun’s connections enabled him to do this. When one looks at what happened in a suburb of Izmir a few weeks later, one sees all too clearly how helpless the rest of the general public are in the face of the police when issues far more serious than a dining-hall argument occur.
It was the 13th August when Emrah Barlak accidentally knocked their car into a traffic police vehicle. The police officers began filing a report (as though it was a crime and not a simple matter of insurance damage), however Emre’s case probably wasn’t helped by the fact he didn’t have his licence on him. Izmir’s police are particularly famous for their obstinacy, and I experienced this several times first hand when I lived in the city, so I can imagine how rude and difficult they were, especially judging from Emre and his three passenger friends’ reaction – he went to throw a chair at the officer.
Watch the video below. It is difficult, just to warn you, but it is important to see first hand. There was not a split second between Emre’s raising of the chair and the officers – yes, that is a plural – decision to release four rounds that would kill him and injure three others, some of whom can be seen running to calm him down before things before the first bullet was fired. One by-stander shouts “he didn’t even fucking do anything” at the police, standing calmly by whilst others cry for an ambulance.
I was staying with my adopted Izmirli family at their holiday home in Çeşme that week. The home is in a small village for middle-class urbanites on their summer breaks. As it was Eid, all the local families took it in turns to do the rounds of the village and pop in for tea at each other's houses swapping “Bayram mübarek olsun”s. One gentlemen came onto the porch with his family and a series of the usual cheek-kissing formalities ensued. With the appropriated self-censorship of an Izmirli, one of my family whispered to me, “He works in Iran as a security attache for the government. He used to be the police chief of Erzincan”. At that point because it was a holy day, I decided to keep my trap shut about the events I’d read. Luckily, however, it wasn’t me that brought up the shootings.
“The media is always completely biased against us”, He said, “Take another example – this gentleman who blew his own brains out [ah yes, another thing – a mentally ill man who tried to stab his neighbour and was subsequently arrested, managed to take a cop’s gun into his cell and shoot himself in the head], not one of the newspapers mentioned he had tried to stab a cop in the leg – in my opinion that’s suicide”.
That’s what I heard him say. I don’t know whether the death was suspicious or just the result of negligence – who is to say if that is even a question, in any case, the attitude is the same: the media are against us, it’s not our fault. Although that was an informal gathering, many officers even higher in rank have felt free to lend support to Izmir’s boys in blue in more public ways.
A few days after the incident, the Antalya chief of police wrote a message on Facebook saying “Helal olsun. Sokak ortasında dayak yiyip de üniformayı rezil etmediniz. Ölen ve yaralanan köpeklere Allah'tan rahmet dilemiyorum”, in other words, “God bless you. You didn’t shame your uniform in the middle of the street. I don’t wish God’s mercy on those dead or injured dogs [that you killed or injured]”.
According to Kızılkaya, “there were hundreds of reader comments in Turkish news websites to support the police and not the victim. These reactions may also have roots in the latest Usual Suspects Incident". The perception that the police are ‘having a hard time of it’evidently finds some sympathisers, amongst those both pro and anti government.
But the point is, one blogger puts it, “If the police are here to protect us from harm, who is to protect us from the police?”
I have to go back to the station tomorrow. I certainly won’t be throwing any staplers around, knowing what I know – but if my views are just a microcosm of what the rest of the country is feeling, then things are going to get worse, and the police are going to run out of excuses.