Songs for an Unfinished City (An Istanbullu’s Listening Guide)

Every great city has its own soundtrack, or at least, deserves one. If it doesn’t, you should think about moving somewhere else.
I think of San Francisco, crossing the Golden Gate for the first time. I was 21, and on a road trip with some buddies. As we crossed the bridge, with a hazy dawn breaking, we switched on the radio. Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop” was pounding over the airwaves.
It was a perfect sonic welcome, and I declared a love for the city that continues to this day.
Or when I arrived in Prague, many years later. I was walking along the Vltava, not far from the Charles Bridge, when suddenly I remembered that this was the river that Smetana had immortalized in his famous symphony, named after the river. There it was! Smetana’s rousing, romantic melody came back every time I walked by the river after that.

So when it comes to this great city, Istanbul, what tunes come to mind?
You most likely have your own songs — we all like to personalize, and there is more than enough vitality, as well as poetic emotion, to go around. But I’ve prepared a little mix-tape: let’s have a listen.

First off, some jazz. Really, jazz? Yeah. With its jumble of chaos, its endless syncopated rhythms, jazz becomes this city. You gotta be able to improvise, if you want to survive. So let’s start off with “For an Unfinished Woman,” by Gerry Mulligan. Follow the refrains of that melody, starting slowly, then accelerating into a frenetic explosion, as the dolmuş takes you along the coastal road from Kadıköy out to Bostancı on a cloudy day, or a mildly sunny one.
As you pass through the neighborhoods, you note all the apartment buildings that have been knocked down, rebuilt in recent years due to earthquake fears. Or even allow your eye to carry further on down the road, where a massive new park has sprung up, the trees still looking like they were just unpacked and dropped in the ground yesterday. Think of all the endless new shopping centers and high-rises, from Ümraniye to Ataşehir, and that’s just on the Asian side.
You reflect: Istanbul is, and probably always will be, an unfinished woman, an unfinished city.

OK, that was nice. What’s next?

Earlier, on our dolmuş ride, we passed Fenerbahçe stadium, and you noticed the Barış Manço bus stop. Of course! What Istanbul soundtrack would be complete without a little Barış? He is an old Moda boy, after all. There are many good ones. Dönence will always do, with its sprawling synthesizers, its East-meets-West strident rock. Technically, “Dönence” in Turkish means “Tropic,” but in the context of the song it has a deeper meaning, as if Manço is looking out at a distant horizon, betwixt all things dark and light.
Great song for almost any occasion, and should be listened in tandem with “Domates! Biber! Patlican!” The latter is a Manço lament about missed opportunities. It tells the story of the frustrated poet, who is on the verge of declaring his love for the unnamed woman, but at that ultimate moment, a street seller outside suddenly cries out “Domates! Biber! Patlican!” and it somehow gives him pause. The street seller’s voice brings reality crashing down on his romantic thoughts.
Where to listen? Out on the beach would be best, anywhere on that long wide stretch from Caddebostan to Suadiye, and even out on the Prince’s Islands. I know, some snobs say you can’t swim in Istanbul during the summer, the water’s too dirty. But what do they know? We can’t go to the South Coast every weekend. Trust me: As long as the wind is blowing out to sea, places like Caddebostan are perfectly fine, and a little Barış Manco helps carry the mood and tempo.

Since we’re on Turkish music, I may as well cover a few other favorites here and now. Sezen Aksu’s ode to her beloved Aegean, “Kalbim Ege’de Kaldı,” is a lovely, wistful tune, full of wonderfully bittersweet melisma. It goes over well on warm, summer nights, when you are sitting on your balcony — could be anywhere in the city, but a balkon is required — and it’s too hot to sit inside. So you sit on the balcony, with a bottle or two of wine, looking out at the deep, black night and the shining lights of the city, the traffic noises … Put this song on, and instantly you are transported to a quieter place, somewhere along the Aegean, where the gentle winds blow, and everyone could possibly be in love.
Oh, and just to deepen our melancholy, the obligatory “hüzün,” why not a little “Sensiz Olmaz” (“Without You”)? There are many versions of this famous song of lost love, but let’s fall back on the original, by Bülent Ortaçgil, with its sinewy, smooth bass and Ortaçgil’s deep voice. Open another bottle of wine, and travel even deeper into the night … And for a closer, I’d return to jazz. Of course, anything off of “Kind of Blue” will do, but my personal favorite is “Iris,” a modal ballad from Davis’ lesser known, but excellent “ESP” album.

By now, it’s getting near dawn. You haven’t slept. You’ve gotta go to work: Time to crank things up. That means let’s have some Guns n’ Roses. “Paradise City” will get the juices going, and there’s always “Sweet Child of Mine.” Many Turks, especially the young Turks, seem to have a thing for GnR. My wife certainly does, and at Zincir, this metal bar in Kadıköy where I used to hang out, you never let a head-banging night pass without a bit of Axl and Slash. “Of course,” as my good friend Berkin would attest. “Istanbul, after all, is about as rock n’ roll as you can get!”

Well, that’s about it for now. As I said, great cities have something to offer for everyone, and we all have our own private Istanbul, the one that we know best. There are many Istanbuls, about 15 million of them. Doubtless, you have your own soundtrack, and this one is mine. Perhaps you’re wondering why I included non-Turkish artists on my list. Hey, Istanbul is an international city. Get used to it.
P.S., feel free to list your favorites in the comments below — I’m always looking for new ways to listen to this great, unfinished city.

James Tressler is a writer whose books include “Letters from Istanbul, Vols. 1 and 2,” and the recently published “City Scherzos: New Stories from Istanbul.” He lives in Kosuyolu.

Featured image courtesy of author.

James Tressler
James Tressler is the author of several books, including Conversations in Prague and The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches. He lives in Istanbul.


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