Known here if at all as the accompaniment to belly dancing, Turkish music has a long and fascinating tradition that combines influences from many cultures. Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul offers a rock-biased but still very entertaining introduction to some of the kinds of music you are liable to hear in Turkey.
Alexander Hacke, the bass player in the German industrial noise band Einstürzende Neubauten, first became interested in Turkish music while working on the soundtrack to Head-On, director Fatih Akin's last feature. Wandering through the streets and clubs of Istanbul, he is an enthusiastic guide whose tastes skew towards the heavier side of rock. (Hacke is also responsible for the film's outstanding, if bass-heavy, sound mix.)
The first groups showcased are the closest to Western traditions. Members of the psychedelic band Baba Zula play long instrumental jams, the Replikas specialize in "civilized noise," and the two DJs who make up Orient Expressions broadcast late-night grooves on the radio. Hacke, who plays with some of the bands, seems the most engaged early on. He can be intrusive, but as the music turns more ethnic, he slips farther into the background.
In short interviews, musicians explain how Turkey, situated between Europe and Asia, borrowed for its arts. Songs built around a 5/8 or 9/8 beat (the "Turkish accent") could have antecedents in Egyptian or Moroccan music wedded to European-influenced lyrics. Archive clips show Erkin Koray, a singer-songwriter popular in the 1970s, taking Jimi Hendrix's style and turning it into something distinctly Turkish. Ceza, a hip-hop artist based in the Craze tattoo parlor, uses speed and amazing glottal control to build incantatory raps. The Istanbul Style Breakers, the world's least threatening posse, offer to combat drugs through break dancing.
About a half-hour into the film, the gypsy influence becomes apparent. The music turns amorphous, the instruments are no longer readily identifiable, and even the whirling dances are unfamiliar. The excellent clarinetist Selim Sesler shows Bulgarian and Romany strains in traditional songs. Entertainment for a wedding banquet on a rural village street is almost too foreign to comprehend.
The film steps gingerly around Turkey's Kurdish problem. A journalist explains how the Kurdish language was banned until 1990, and in the film's most carefully photographed sequence, Aynur performs a Kurdish song in a church. The street performers who make up the folkie Siyasiyabend also discuss politics, but for the most part Crossing the Bridge is firmly music oriented.
Akin saves the best for last. At eighty-six, Müzeyyen Senar is still belting out raunchy drinking songs, while 1970s pop goddess Sezen Aksu comes out of retirement to sing a hit from her "Istanbul Hatirasi" album. And Orhan Gencebay, the "Elvis of Arabesque," absolutely slays all competition. Singing and playing the guitar-like saz, he is a delightful revelation. Judging from his performance, and a montage of his film clips from the 1970s, he is ripe for a career retrospective. Crossing the Bridge could have used more identifying captions, and a little less Hacke, but it is an exciting introduction to a worthy musical world.
Cast and credits
Featuring: Alexander Hacke, Baba Zula, Orient Expressions, Duman, Replikas, Erkin Koray, Ceza, Istanbul Style Breakers, Mercan Dede, Selim Sesler, Brenna MacCrimmon, Siyasiyabend, Aynur, Orhan Gencebay, Müzeyyen Senar, Sezen Aksu.
Credits: Directed by Fatih Akin. Screenplay by Fatih Akin. Produced by Fatih Akin, Klaus Maeck, Andreas Thiel, Sandra Harzer-Kux, Christian Kux. Director of photography: Hervé Dieu. Edited by Andrew Bird. Sound by Johannes Grehl. Music and sound mix: Alexander Hacke. Music consultant: Klaus Maeck. Co-producer: Jeanette Würl. A Strand Releasing presentation of a Bavarian Film International production, in co-production with Corazon International, Intervista Digital Media, and NDR, in association with Pictorion Pictures, supported by Film Förderung Hamburg and Nordmedia Fonds. In Turkish, Kurdish, German, and English with English subtitles.