Unstructured Time in Istanbul

During our biggest chunk of our unstructured time in Istanbul, we all
went across the Bosporus straight to the golden horn side of the city.
Some of the group went up into the famous Galata tower for a 360 degree
view of the city, while Michael, Julia and I decided to wander the streets in
search of nothing in particular. After stopping in a couple shops, we
stumbled upon a music store. We walked in and saw a rare species of
Turkish guitars, known as balimas, hanging from the ceiling. A tall Turkish
man with long black hair tied in a bun welcomed us and offered us seats
in the back of the room. He then pulled a beautiful balima down from the
ceiling, with a rounded, gourde like body and a thin neck. The instrument
certainly looked traditional. He didn’t speak much English but we learned
that his name is Boulan. He radiated a sense of genuine trust and
friendliness, traits that I’ve come to find as common among musicians.
This was a much different kind of friendliness than what we had been
receiving during most of our time in Turkey. By this I mean that most
places we went, we were the tourists and everyone else was trying any
“friendly” trick they could to sell us something. Boulan never tried to sell
us anything during the entire time we spent in his shop. He sat us down
and treated us like guests. He started playing what he told us was
traditional style Turkish folk music that could have dated and developed
form as far back as the creation of the balima itself. His style of playing
used a long and thin pick and his fingers made many hammer-on motions
that looked just as they sounded. Soon his voice accompanied his hands
and wavered in a chanting style with each hammer-on, varying warmly in
pitch from phrase to phrase. We three sat there in awe as he played and
sang and watched as another man came to join in on a popular middle
eastern style drum. He would play a song all the way through for us and
then pause and explain the meaning and significance of the melody and
the lyric. I found it interesting that much like you hear in western music,
the singing will match the melody, traveling up and down with it, and this
traditional style Turkish music was the clearest, most dramatic example I
have heard of that to date. The acoustic balima is a rather quiet
instrument and his range of loud to soft voice complimented it very well.
That instrument was culturally tailored to the songs he was performing,
through centuries of the development of what is now considered Turkish
folk music. He played for us a traditional wedding song that sounded so
lively and stood up and demonstrated the huge line style dance that
everyone attending the wedding would dance to this song. It is very interesting to consider the origins of this style of music after looking at the
history of Istanbul and the different occupations and convergences on the
city.

Turkish music includes many diverse elements ranging from Central
Asian folk music to influences from Arabic music, Byzantine music, Greek
music, Ottoman music, Persian music, Balkan music, as well as aspects
of more modern European and American popular music. In simply
thinking about Turkey’s location, it is easy to see how so much influence
has reached the country and been traded around, just like the trade of
goods passing through Istanbul. The roots of traditional music in Turkey
spans across centuries to a time when the Seljuk Turks colonized Anatolia
and Persia in the 11th century and contains aspects of both Turkic and
pre-Turkic influences. The origins of Turkey’s modern popular music can
be traced to Turkey’s 1930s drive for Westernization, especially in urban
centers like Istanbul.

Boulan showed us more songs and then passed the balima around
the circle and brought out drums, finger cymbals and wooden spoons so
that we could all try each instrument. We laughed as we all tried to
recreate the intricate Turkish rhythms and melodies, and struggled to do
so. Nonetheless, this meeting with Boulan was eye opening in a way that
allowed us to read Turkish culture through a live musical experience. This,
however, was not the end of our encounter with Boulan as you’ll see by
reading Micheal’s post on Taxim Square, just right up the street from the
music store.

-Eli Archer

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