Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 25, 2006

Crossing the Bridge: the Sound of Istanbul

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

"Crossing the Bridge: the Sound of Istanbul" is a terrific introduction to Turkish popular music and to Turkish culture in general. Directed by Fatih Akin, a 33 year old Turk who was born in Germany, it explores the way in which Turkey's connections to both West and East produce a synthesis of both cultures, defying Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis. Crossing bridges is an apt title for the documentary since Istanbul itself overlaps two continents across the Bosporus Straits. Imagine getting in your car from your home in Asia each morning and driving across a bridge to get to your workplace in Europe. That's Istanbul for millions of its residents.

Richard Hamer, the American saxophone player who is a member of the Istanbul-based band "Orient Expressions," dismisses the idea of a rigid distinction between East and West altogether. In one of the film's many insightful interviews, he states that the idea that the West starts at Greece and extends to Los Angeles and that the East starts at Turkey and ends at China is "bullshit." Indeed, the ability of Turkey over the centuries to synthesize European and Asian influences should indicate that there are ways to transcend the seemingly intractable conflicts taking place today.

Like Ry Cooder in "Buena Vista Social Club," "Crossing the Bridge" relies on an outsider's perspective to introduce the newcomer to unfamiliar territory. In Akin's film, that role is assigned to Alexander Hacke, the bassist in Einstürzende Neubauten, a German "industrial rock" band, who wrote the score for Akin's first film "Head-On". Hacke is a self-described aficionado of Turkish music and sits in during a number of sessions just as Ry Cooder did in Buena Vista.

"Crossing the Bridge" features interviews with fifteen different performers, who range from modern forms like rap to the traditional "arabesque" (or "arabesk".) It also relies on commentary from musicologists and the ordinary man and woman on the street, whose wit and charm are characteristically Turkish. Visually, the film is as rich and as fascinating as the music. Akin draws upon footage of Istanbul that is off the beaten track, as well as films of the city and the featured performers from decades past.

Although I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about Turkish music, the film was a real eye-opener. Ceza is a rapper who lives in Kadiköy, a neighborhood on the Asian side not far from where my in-laws live. (The suffix 'köy' is akin to the English 'ville', as in Smallville or Huntsville.) He raps in a rapid-fire, staccato manner but the rhythms are drawn from Turkish music rather than American funk. He also dismisses the gangsta posturing of American rap and prefers to address larger social issues, as this snippet from "Holocaust" would indicate (if you understand Turkish of course; the song is performed in its entirety in the film with subtitles).


As an expert points out early in the film, Western rhythms are based on groups of four beats, whereas Turkish music employs triplets. The typical Turkish rhythm evokes the chant of marching soldiers: "Left … left … left right left." Not by coincidence, Mozart and other Western composers incorporated this rhythm into their compositions after hearing Janissaries on parade. Although Akin's film focuses on Asian appropriation of American cultural influences, the process has been reciprocal over the centuries. Not only did classical European composers integrate Turkish sounds, there is strong evidence that Spanish flamenco derives from Middle Eastern traditions.

Much to the film's credit, it tackles the Kurdish problem head-on. Both in performance and in interviews, Aynur is a deeply compelling figure who uses her music to advance her peoples' cause. Singing in Kurdish, a language that was at one point illegal to speak in public, she embodies the new spirit of self-confidence that is gaining ground in Turkey. Over and above her role as a freedom-fighter, Aynur is a supremely gifted vocalist as the clips on this page would indicate.

The last three performers in "Crossing the Bridge" have long and honored histories. Orhan Gencebay, known as Turkey's Elvis, is an enormously popular film and singing star whose Arabesque music is beloved by Istanbul's working class. He plays the 'saz,' a long-necked lute that is as central to Turkish music as the oud is to Arabian music. You can watch video clips of his film performances at the bottom of this page. I recommend "Birde Sen Vurma" (Don't Hurt Me) in particular. This is a cheesy Orientalist fantasy that is saved by the power of Gencebay's performance.

Gencebay is followed by Müzeyyen Senar, an 86 year old who is still going strong. She can best be described as a Turkish version of Egypt's legendary Umm Kulthum. In a riveting performance with a glass of raki in one hand and a microphone in the other, she admits to a life of sin but offers up the refrain, "I don't care."

As Turkey's music became more Americanized, Senar was pushed to the fringes and finally stopped performing in 1983. In recent years, she has enjoyed a revival as Turkish superstar Sezen Aksu has invited her to perform with her at concerts. Aksu is beloved by Turkish musicians of all persuasions, including the rapper Ceza. Aksu is an extremely courageous artist who took risks in defending Kurdish rights:

The release of a new album by one of Turkey’s biggest pop stars has prompted a debate on how far Turks dare go in acknowledging their diverse ethnic and religious origins – especially when rebel Kurds are fighting for their own state and the secular establishment feels threatened by Islamic fundamentalism.

The album by the female singer Sezen Aksu entitled “Light Rises in the East” has sold nearly 500,000 copies since it was launched two months ago.

Accompanied by folk musicians of Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Arab and Gypsy origin, the singer has controversially attempted to fuse Turkey’s mixed ethnic heritage in music. Newspapers have called the album a political call for unity. Ms Aksu says she is hurt by the thought of “valuable parts of this country being broken into pieces”.

(The Guardian, September 13, 1995)

"Crossing the Bridge" is scheduled to open at the Angelica Theater in NYC on June 9th, 2006. Don't miss it!


  1. ı listened orhan gencebay bir de sen vurma and this is one of the most interesting music kinds ı think thanks for this .

    Comment by atakan turkmen — September 14, 2006 @ 12:12 pm

  2. :)wonderful

    Comment by sevil — December 28, 2006 @ 7:59 am

  3. […] enjoy this music, I urge you to rent “Crossing the Bridge” from Netflix that I reviewed here. Also, tune in WDR Turkish programming on Itunes. I promise you that you will really be knocked out […]

    Pingback by Turkish music on WDR in Germany « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 19, 2007 @ 8:27 pm

  4. every kind information about Istanbul for tourists pls visit http://magiccityistanbul.blogspot.com

    Comment by Okanasu — December 20, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

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