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Hitting the Mother Lode of Jam Sessions in Istanbul – Two in One Night!

May 8, 2011

Istanbul pulled through again last night as it has in the past. Just as I despaired of finding a true open mic or jam situation in this most musical of cities, it all fell together in the most memorable night to date of any of my musical experiences in Istanbul.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that I had met a Frenchman at Molly’s Café who played the flute and who lived in Istanbul and who gave me a couple of leads on where I would find a jam session. Last night, arriving back in the city late from the race track, I went directly to my hotel, posted the post, then went and ate at a fast-food buffet on Istiklal Street – Borsa – which has excellent food cheap as hell, and wine.

I then looked at the instructions I had written down for the place the Frenchman had told me about. All he said was the place was called Kooperatif, and it was located in a back street behind the mosque at the top of Istiklal. I knew the mosque well, as I passed it many times on my way to Blues Live bar in the past.

So I finished my meal and headed over to the Mosque, turned right behind it, then took the road around to the left, and barely, but just, noticed a stairway leading into a bar in a basement of a building. I saw the name: Kooperatif. Inside I learned its full name is Kooperatif Art & Performance Hall.

It is a bar/club, performance space with several rooms, a low ceiling, a stage in one of the rooms, tables spotted about everywhere, and yet a very intimate and warm feel. So too was the reception I received as I walked in and headed toward the bar with my guitar on my back.

At a table in front of the bar sat a Turkish man, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, next to piles of instruments in bags and cases, and one or two traditional stringed instruments that were not in bags.

The rapport was instant, with him, and with a couple of men sitting at the bar, one of whom I would learn was German, but who has lived many years in Istanbul. I was almost instantly invited to show my guitar, and then to play. I didn’t even have a chance to order a beer or sit down before I was asked to reveal my instrument.

And because I had come to the bar specifically hoping that I would find a musical jam situation, an open mic or open jam, I pulled out the guitar and began to play with no hesitation. In fact, with great pleasure and excitement.

I will try not to make this post as long as yesterdays. Let me just sum it up by saying that Kooperatif is the bar of the young man I mention above, whose name is Şafak Velioğlu. Şafak loves music and he has turned the bar into a musical performance space, and he encourages jam sessions. In other words, it’s not a case only of a Monday night jam, or an open mic every Wednesday. It is a place where musicians can and do walk in and play any time they want. There is, however, a jam session on the Wednesday and Thursday nights, and one regular attendee told me it was quite experimental. Şafak also lets his friend’s bands rehearse there when they want. The vibe, in short, is completely music – and young and hip, like Şafak .

There were a regular stream of clients coming to take drinks, smoke and chat, and listen to the music in this genial environment.

I began by playing songs that I know – covers and my own – and Şafak played along with me on his strange stringed instrument from Iran. It sounds a lot like a banjo, and that is partly because it has a table made of skin, like a banjo.

Soon, I was joined by a man who does come from Iran, who is a local luthier who builds all sorts of instruments, and who joined us on a box drum that he had built. And then that German guy, who had been very encouraging and loquacious since my arrival, and who wanted to try my guitar – which he loved – became very enthusiastic and asked Şafak if he could get his saxophone and join in.

“Of course,” said Şafak.

So someone was dispatched to a nearby restaurant where the sax had been sitting, to pick it up and have the German join in. It was a soprano sax, a bent one, not a straight one, and the man said it was his travel sax.

I played “Crazy Love” because I thought it would be the easiest to start with that he could play sax to. As we progressed from song to song I thought this sax player is damned good. I would learn as the night went on that he is a professional musician, he lives in Turkey, and he has played all over the country, on television, with Turkish bands, has done CDs. His name is Herbert Koschmieder.

It took us a while, but between us, Şafak and I figured out what sort of songs and key would be best for him to play his Iranian stringed instrument with me on the guitar. It is quite a unique situation, that combination. It was the key of C, and it worked best with my capo on the fifth fret.

That was fortunate because that is exactly where I put the capo when I play my song, “Since You Left Me.” And so we played that one together, and then later with Herbert. It was amazingly fun, and the Turkish link in the song as I wrote it, played through well with the instrument. (If you listen to the recording I did of the song last summer, my friend Zarby plays a lead that sounds mid-eastern.)

We jammed for a couple of hours or more. Herbert said that Kooperatif was the best place in Istanbul for this kind of thing, and one of the rare places. I had hit the mother lode! And I had done it through Molly’s Café and the Frenchman.

Herbert later suggested that we go up the street to the restaurant of a friend of his where there was to be more music with some musician friends of his.

This was the Espira restaurant, and it turned out there was a wedding going on when we arrived, with two long banquet tables full of guests and a number of musicians sharing the stage. The restaurant usually specializes in Turkish folk music from the Black Sea region, and there were some such musicians on hand, particularly one who played a violin-like instrument.

I will have to do research about the name of these instruments to give this account a bit more weight. But for the moment, suffice it to say that not only did I find the wedding ceremony and its music fascinating, but as the wedding died out and Herbert played some very cool improvisational jamming with some of the musicians on the stage, the whole thing then turned into a jam session around the table.

Herbert asked me to get out my guitar, and we again did my “Since You Left Me,” just to show off to the other musicians what we could do with the marriage of the soprano sax, the guitar and the tarn or whatever Şafak’s instrument was – as he had now joined us from Kooperatif.

After that, we did another jam around the table, as I played some base chords for Herbert and then the other guitar player, Safak and then two different kinds of violin-type players and a drummer to play along with. We jammed for another hour or so until nearly 3:30 AM, at which time I had to excuse myself, saying that I had to go to the track for a full day of work the next day.

I was sorry to leave, but they stayed on and continued to play, and I was at least happy that I had apparently not interrupted the jam session. In any case, it was a musical experience of the open jam session in Turkey like nothing I’ve ever experienced. And I felt that I grew out of the experience – my fingers were falling off, in fact, so much time had they spent playing chords in the jam.

From a feeling of near depression in my early couple of days in Istanbul, suddenly I had climbed bit by bit towards a conclusion of pure joy and a goal achieved of jamming with the locals. Ah, but there’s still tonight left!


  1. Hi Brad

    I came across this blog entry when searching for Herbert Koschmieder. I first met Herbert in 1996 when I spent a year teaching in Germany whilst I was a student. He was a regular at a local bar called the Klimperkasten. A real character. Do you have any way of contacting him?

    Sounds like you had a great evening! I had the pleasure of listening to Herbert jamming a few times at various sessions that ran late into the night!


    • Hi Chris, he DID give me his email address. But I don’t know where I put it, I’m sorry. If I find it, I will pass it on to you… I’m glad I could provide you with news of him, at least. Yes, he’s a very cool guy and a wonderful sax player. I was just looking a couple of days ago at more footage I have of him from that evening.

  2. Pingback: Into the Moon at the Baroc – and a Couple of Istanbul Connections « Brad Spurgeon's Blog

  3. I can’t believe it. I’ve been to Istanbul twice since reading this post and didn’t have time to visit Kooperatif either time. I arrive today, look up your blog again, look up Kooperatif and find it has just closed down!

    • Yes, that’s bad luck! I have heard that he might be trying to open it up again somewhere else in Istanbul. But that won’t help for this trip of yours. Thanks for the (bad!) news….

  4. Hi Brad. When searching for Herbert again to see if there was any more info on him, I discovered that he sadly passed away in 2013. Thank you for writing this post and giving me the chance to see him playing again all those years after I’d first met him in Germany.

    • Thanks for this message, Chris. Herbert was a real one-of-a-kind original. I learned of his death in around 2015, probably in a similar way to how you did. I had received a phone call from him in perhaps 2013, and he sounded kind of strange or ill, but he did not tell me anything about that. I wonder if it was a last contact he had done on purpose. Really sad. But I am happy to have met him and got the videos of him that I did. In fact, I have lots of videos of him from that year, playing in a couple of different places in Istanbul. I am hoping to use them in a documentary I am making of my worldwide open mic travel. Thanks again. Under what circumstances did you meet him? In one of his early bands in Germany?

      • I met Herbert in 1995. During the school year of ’95 to ’96 I was a language assistant at the secondary school in a small town in North Germany called Rahden. I was studying modern languages at university and it was normal to spend the third year abroad working as a language assistant – it worked well as you usually stayed with a local family and had a small salary from the German Ministry of Education. Rahden was a very nice place, but very small with not much to do and I was a bit lost when I arrived there from the UK. Then I discovered this crazy place just outside of town called the Klimperkasten. It had been a popular music venue in the 80s but was pretty run down when I started going there. It was run by a charismatic hippy type called Georg, who was great fun. He had a bizarrely mixed clientele who would drop in from time to time. Sometimes I’d be the only person there from 8 at night to 8 in the morning, other times it would be quite full. It had a stage and sofas and chairs all over the place, but we all used to sit around the bar. Georg had a generator that barely worked, but the winter was very cold, so the drinks were cold and a few lights stayed on. It was the kind of place where it didn’t really matter who you were or what you did, no one minded as long as you weren’t annoying – you just chatted and argued and laughed and hopefully didn’t mind the fact it was pretty dirty and dilapidated. I was definitely the youngest there and not German, but was always made very welcome.

        Herbert used to be in quite regularly. My understanding is that he’d come by when he was travelling from one gig to another. I think he used to sleep on the sofa for a night or two. I’m not sure where Georg lived, but I expect sleeping at the Klimperkasten was more comfortable than staying with him, even if the Klimperkasten didn’t have a shower or even toilets that worked properly. I remember Herbert as being very friendly and unpretentious. A few times we all jammed together (I can strum a few chords on the guitar). I remember him annoying me just the once when he told me I couldn’t be a real musician as I didn’t have my guitar with me all the time. I was put out as I had never tried to pretend to I was a real musician!

        Given the life most of the people lived who went there, I’m not surprised that Herbert has gone now. I never saw anyone eat anything. Georg and Herbert seemed to live off pilsner and cigarettes and the occasional espresso.

        Here’s a picture of me attempting to play the bass whilst Herbert played his saxophone, taken in 1996, sometime between December and May. Herbert is wearing his trademark anorak.

        • Wow! Fabulous story. Thanks. And this sounds exactly like the Herbert I met in 2011! In fact, when I heard of his death, I had exactly the same thought as you: All those cigarettes, all that alcoholic, a life living through the musical ether. But little care for the body. So, yes, that he died in his early to mid-sixties, was horrible, but maybe not a surprise. That said, I am probably wrong about that, and maybe he had some other problem unrelated to lifestyle!

          • Either way, he certainly lived life to the full and did what he loved! I’m so glad you wrote your original post with the videos. Thank you.

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