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‘Crossing the Bridge’

Sounds that bridge two continents

by Giovanni Fazio

Amusic “scene” tends to arise out of a number of like-minded musicians operating from the same cultural starting point. Think San Francisco psychedelia, Detroit techno, London punk or Kingston’s reggae and dub — all scenes full of musicians sharing the same cultural ferment and arriving at similar sounds.

But something more is required: the pixie dust of hype, with labels to get the music out there, writers and critics to give it shape and identity, photographers and filmmakers to document the scene, render it iconic and take it to the next level. Would Jimi Hendrix have been quite so mythical without 1968′s “Monterey Pop,” which captured his possessed, guitar-burning set at that festival? Or would L.A. punk ever have registered on the cultural radar without Penelope Spheeris’ documentary “The Decline Of Western Civilization?”

Director Fatih Akin — who also made “Head On,” No. 1 on this critic’s Top Ten list for 2006 — attempts to perform a similar feat for the current Istanbul music scene with his documentary “Crossing The Bridge.” Clearly inspired by Wim Wenders’ “Buena Vista Social Club,” the Turkish-German director returns to his roots and clearly likes what he finds.

The movie is a bit of a cheat, in the sense that there isn’t a music scene there in the usual sense of the word — no single sonic identity unites the myriad musicians and styles on display here. Rather, Akin finds much to admire in this diversity, a city that is nourishing such a panoply of sounds. There’s a wide chasm indeed between the mystical Sufi-inspired electronica of Mercan Dede, the clearly American-derived hip-hop of Ceza and the frenetic Gypsy-tinged folk music of Selim Sesler, but Akin seeks to highlight the breadth of this city that straddles East and West, Oriental and European.

If “Crossing The Bridge” has a mission statement, it’s given by sax player Andy, from the Turkish-electronica group Orient Expressions, early in the film: “The idea that the East is the East, and the West is the West, and never the twain shall meet — that’s bulls**t!” Istanbul, located on the Bosphorus Straits, with a past history as Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire (which took over where Rome left off), has long been a cultural crossroads, but like many a country living under military rule (or the threat of it), had seen its artistic freedom stagnate for several decades.

Crossing the Bridge
Rating
Director Fatih Akin
Run Time 92 minutes
Language Turkish/English/German

Now is apparently a good point in time for Turkish music, as Akin captures it in his film, with long-lost or suppressed strands re-emerging alongside brand new hybrids, delicious renderings of what is possible when old connects with new. “Crossing The Bridge” is a free- form journey through the sounds (and streets) of Istanbul, set up as the meanderings of one musician — Alexander Hakke, Akin’s Ry Cooder, a former member of noise-band Einsturzende Neubauten and Turkish- German himself — as he tours the city’s sounds, interviewing and recording the artists in evocative locations.

The most interesting bands Hakke finds are those that are successfully melding traditional Turkish stylings with new instrumentation and approaches. Two of the best are Baba Zula and Orient Expressions, both artists who record for Istanbul’s hippest label, Doublemoon, which has done the most to break this scene internationally (and also released the soundtrack of “Crossing The Bridge.”).

Baba Zula are filmed, appropriately enough, on a boat out on the Bosphorus, neither here nor there, just like their dub-drenched take on traditional Turkish folk music. [See interview below.] Orient Expressions, meanwhile, produce club-friendly electronica full of rippling darbukka percussion and smoky, modal jazz sax, which interplays with more traditional licks on the saz, a long-necked, trebly instrument with extra strings that leave a droning resonance under the melody — the fusion sounds perfectly natural. DJ Yakuza, who produces the band, grew up as a teen in Tokyo, where his many nights listening to local artists like U.F.O. at clubs such as Blue and Yellow obviously shaped his sound.

Also on Doublemoon is Mercan Dede, a DJ/producer/flutist who is captured here with the same whirling Sufi dervish dancers who wowed the crowd at Bunkamura at his gig there last October. Dede, who spent a spell in art school in Canada, where he got into DJ-ing, also mixes electronics with the spectral, breathy sound of the ney flute and some sparkling qanoon (an instrument somewhere between a dulcimer and a harp), but to much more mystical effect. One of his dancers — and in a radical break with Islamic tradition, she’s a woman — describes how she can keep twirling for what seems like forever: “What I look for is the stillness that happens in the center. It’s like the eye of the hurricane, where it’s easier to continue whirling than stand still.”

Traditional artists are also well-represented. There’s Orhan Gencebay, the “Elvis of Arabesque” music, who demonstrates what a rock ‘n’ roll instrument the saz can be with an astounding, fret-smashing, string-bending solo. Gypsy music has a huge following these days, and clarinetist Selim Sesler is perhaps the best such musician that Turkey has to offer. He nails it on the head when he says, “Gypsy music is different from other Turkish music; you can’t just sit there watching, you have to get up and dance to it.”

Then there are the vocalists: Aynur Dogan, with a soaring, powerful voice that makes you want to lie down, die and go to heaven right then and there. Hakke takes her to a reverberant hamam, a cistern-like Turkish bath, where the lament she sings is soaked in some gorgeous natural echo. Aynur sings in Kurdish, which was banned in Turkey until recently — due to government repression of the independence-minded Kurdish minority — and her rise as an artist is emblematic of new freedoms.

Older-generation singers are also represented: Sezen Aksu, the queen of Turkish pop since the ’70s, is captured in an intimate, living-room session, with just guitar and keyboards backing her. And Muzeyyen Senar, at age 86, is the grand dame of an earlier generation, who once reportedly even dated Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, in the ’30s; her performance of classical oriental salon music is impressive for both the fire in her eyes and a certain sauciness — she ends by throwing her glass of raki offstage with a flourish.

Less interesting are bands like Duman (punk) and Ceza (hip-hop), who sound like they could be from anywhere. Both genres rely a lot on verbal content, though, so it’s good to see at least that the genres are being made local and used to express thoughts, not just aping American slang. It’s interesting to note, though, that even the rockers and rappers, those most indebted to Western styles, all mouth off about how sick they are of the hegemony of American pop culture — further evidence, as if any were needed, of how bad the Bush years have been for America’s image abroad.

There’s way more in here than can fit in one article, but many readers who rarely stray from the comfort zone of their favorite music genre will still be thinking: “Turkish music? I dunno . . .” About the best compliment I can give the film is how memorable the music here is, full of hooks and passion. Whether it’s Baba Zula’s delicate ballad “Cecom,” or Selim Sesler’s “Penceres Yola Karsi” — in Turkey’s signature 9/8 rhythm, much easier to feel than count — the songs here will stick with you. If you don’t get it the first time, try the soundtrack CD, and by about the fifth listen, it will all be making sense. Pour yourself a glass or two of Yeni Raki, and by the 10th listen, you’ll be on the Web checking the cost of airfares to Istanbul.

See related story:
Baba Zula: from the belly of the beats