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Istanbul’s İKSV: An Intensity Beyond Cool

Arthur R George By

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An increasingly prevalent environment of conflict and migration suggest that culture will have a much broader impact on our future —IKSV Guidebook
It would be easy to get breathless, even giddy, about the range and schedule of cultural events organized by İKSV, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (in Turkish: İstanbul Kültür Sanat Vakfı). One individual could not possibly keep up with its jazz and classical music festivals and everything else that's offered by İKSV. It brings under one organization something like the variety and aspirations of Lincoln Center in New York, the National Endowment for the Arts, commercial promoter Live Nation, and the trend-tracking of National Public Radio.

Once pronounced a capital of cool, Istanbul deserves the title. It is impassioned and creative; there's great shopping, great food, fantastic sights of mosques and bazaars, and as much of the exotic or deluxe as one might seek. İKSV's central building at Sadi Konuralp Caddesi No: 5 sits just below the main pedestrian-only boulevard Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), in a neighborhood of hotels, small clubs and restaurants, opposite the hilly streets winding through the old Galata district and its shops and music stores. İKSV has its own performance venue. Firuze, a rooftop restaurant and bar, presents a view as dazzling as any: across the Haliç, one finds the Golden Horn, mosques on hillsides, ferries across the Bosporus, the waterway which is the geographic demarcation between Europe and Asia.

However, everything İKSV undertakes occurs amid reports of authoritarian national politics, reports of thousands of persons from professions, academia, journalism, purged or imprisoned; with others suffering worse fates. Writer Suzy Hansen has tracked events in Turkey for more than a decade for the New York Times Magazine and other publications. She observed in December that young people in Istanbul seem more concerned about politics, about the long and convoluted history of the region, and seem to have a greater belief in democracy and human rights, mostly because they still have to fight for those things.

The goal of İKSV is to turn Istanbul into a major center within the international culture and arts community. It does that by bringing Western musical and other talent in, and showcasing Turkish styles for exposure to the West. It places itself as "progressive," using the arts to open communications; there's an earnestness to İKSV. İKSV is a non-profit with significant corporate underwriting, and 7% government funding. With that source of support, İKSV's calendars remain remarkably broad. Recurring themes are identity amid change.

Directions For Identity

For example, this autumn İKSV used its performance venue to create Salon, where Mashrou' Leila from Beirut played September 28. Its lead singer and lyricist Hamed Sinno is openly gay, advocates LBGT issues in the Middle East, and has spoken frankly about his own struggles with mental illness, topics which are often taboo in the MENA (Middle Eastern—North Africa) region. Their song "Three Minutes" repeats the refrain "Tell me who to be, please," seeking firm ground, yet mocking the illusion of finding that in the span of a three-minute song.

Another Mashrou' Leila song challenges the imposition of "Roman," or Western, constructs: "Before you lay me to rest, tell me what cost I came at." In its video, a veiled female dancer but with face exposed, amid other women veiled and not, busts out modern dance moves, fracturing preconceptions. The group has toured the United States the past two years, and been profiled in the New Yorker magazine on the intersection of culture and politics in the club scene.

Turks are not Arabs, by nationality or ethnicity, although both are largely followers of Islam, and that distinction has been historically volatile. Nevertheless, ElMorabba3, a Jordanian Arab rock band, plays Salon October 5 and 6. Their name means "the square," as in public forum; their most popular song "El Mokhtalifeen" ("Different / Boxes") questions differences that separate.

Loosely translated, it asks: "What if I came closer to you and challenged the isolation that is in you? I have the same thing. What if I come closer to you and try to make my presence felt to you? Maybe it won't be allowed, maybe it's not how you were taught. What if I intend to reach you, even if you appear far?"

Much of emergent Turkish-based music finds its heart in indigenous antecedents, transformed, often through electric instruments. Turkey's borders touch Greece, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Armenia, and lie directly below Ukraine, and Russia, across the Black Sea. All of those regions and others contribute their own approaches to improvisational music, and endless talents.

Altın Gün ("Golden Day"), at Salon November 23, is a Dutch rock band singing in Turkish. The group came together in discovering a shared interest through Facebook: bassist Jasper Verlhust and other members came across Turkish folk idioms (türkü) and became so enamored that they learned the language, studied what had gone before, joined with Turkish musicians, and brought the music forward. Lead singer Erdinc Yildiz Ecevit plays an electrified baglama or saz, a three-string round-backed Turkish instrument similar to the Greek bouzouki, the middle-eastern oud, Russian balalaika, Western lute.

Neşet Ertaş, a Turkish folk musician who was a virtuoso on the baglama, now deceased, had become famous, then forgotten, then rediscovered. Selda Bağcan, Barış Manço, Cem Karaca, Erkin Koray are names unfamiliar in the West, but there was a period of psychedelic folk or Anatolian rock that these figures led in Turkey forty years ago, which is now being revisited. Altın Gün brings these influences all to the present time.

Mario Batkovic, a Swiss accordionist of Bosnian descent, plays Salon November 17. He can make his instrument sound like a baroque organ; with a string quartet, he creates a soundtrack for an interplanetary space program.

Sons of Kemet is a British band led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings on top of a tuba and double drum quartet over dance rhythms culled from calypso, New Orleans brass, and West Africa. They play Salon November 21, after touring the United States, where they have already sold out their appearance at SFJAZZ Center, the San Francisco Jazz Center, on October 10.

Cross-Currents

Cross-currents are everywhere. İKSV's Salon scheduled Okkervill River for September 19, a Texas indie rock band that draws its name from a Russian short story by the great-granddaughter of Tolstoi. La Luz, an all-female surf rock band from Los Angeles by way of Seattle, plays October 10. The YouTube videos of La Luz and Altın Gün on the İKSV Salon site both come through Seattle's KEXP public television. Mashrou' Leila has done an NPR Tiny Desk session.
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