I discovered the Kooperatif room in Istanbul last year, when I had a fabulous jam session with a few people sitting near the bar, including Şafak Velioğlu, the enthusiastic and cool owner and manager of this performance space/bar near Taksim Square in central Istanbul. But I had found the place a few days too late to take part in the official Wednesday night jam session. Last night, I not only got a taste of that jam, but thanks to Şafak’s encouragement, I got to take part despite being ready to leave without performing.
I had misgivings suddenly not because I did not like the jam or the vibe. On the contrary, I loved it so much and felt it was so different to the kind of music or role I could play in it that there was no place for me. I was telling this to Şafak after listening to at least an hour of the jam, when he insisted I take part.
The problem for me was that there were at some points six guitars or more, plus various wind instruments and brass, plus drumming, and vocals, and the feel was almost free form jazz at times, and some very oriental, mid-east kind of stuff at other times. And some sort of almost progressive instrumental rock. What place would there be for a song but not dance man like me? I just usually sing my songs and the other musicians fill them out – whatever.
“Just go and play, break apart the jam and they will follow you,” said Şafak.
I said, “Give me another beer,” and I returned to sit and think about how futile it would be.
Then suddenly on Şafak’s suggestion, certainly, one of the musicians got off the stage and approached me and beckoned me to go up and play.
“Okay,” I said immediately and without hesitation.
So I went up and plugged in and played my usual songs, and like Şafak said, the others joined in. I ended up with a drummer – two or three actually, who exchanged roles – and two lead guitar players and a bass player. I did four songs, including one of my own. I managed to record them. And I had the audience singing along with me, even on my own song, “Except Her Heart,” the lyrics of which they did not know. I received strong and enthusiastic applause and got off the stage walking on air and thanking Şafak for insisting and encouraging and telling me to break apart the jam with new stuff.
It was key to the mindset of this place and its owner. The Kooperatif is a young, cool vibe place designed for all different kinds of music and as a bar and meeting place. It has a beatnik feel to it, and it is open to new sounds and people. Oh, and what a small world, I ran into the sax player who had played with Leander Lyons and his band here at the Kooperatif, and in Paris at the Baroc a few months ago, as I mentioned on the blog.
World music you say????
I will try to do one of my podcasts with Şafak over the next day or two of my remaining time in Istanbul before I return to Paris. But for the moment, Istanbul, and especially the Kooperatif, once again did not let me down musically….
I started my evening feeling hopeless about the prospects of finding a place to place or having an interesting musical adventure. I finished the night having had a spectacular one, with musical discoveries and quite a long and gratifying personal performance.
Faced with choices about where to go and what to do to find a jam or open mic, and feeling desolate and desperate about it, I decided that I would make a first stop at Molly’s Café, near the Galatasary Tower. But on my way there, I decided to use my old tactic of stopping musicians on the street to ask if they knew of a place to jam or an open mic.
Walking down the packed Istiklal street, I sound a couple of guys with guitar bags on their backs and stopped them – they spoke practically no English, but told me just to continue searching that area. I continued toward Molly’s until I saw another group of musicians – they are all over the place in Istanbul – with guitars on their backs. In this group I found a guy who spoke better English. He told me he knew of a place, located in a gallery on a secluded street halfway down Istiklal.
He had a hard time telling me exactly how to find it, but he pointed out the approximate spot on my map. He cautioned, however: “It looks just like a house and you have to ring at the door.”
Crap, I thought, and his look portrayed doubt that I would find anything.
I found the street, found galleries, and it was all very atmospheric and cool and secluded. I got some nice video footage of the street. But no jam session, no music pouring out of windows. Just endless cats and dogs and the occasional local and dilapidated homes of another era, to say nothing of the dilapidated streets and sidewalks.
So I gave up and went on to Molly’s. I had discovered Molly’s Café in 2009 on my first musical adventure here, but I have never played there. I returned briefly last year to speak with Molly and have a drink. But my timing was always off, although Molly had offered to set up a gig for me in 2009, which I turned down because she was thinking of a period where I’d play for two or three hours, and I felt I did not have the material and no one would want to listen to that much of me and my guitar.
Molly is Canadian born, she married an American and lived for many years in the U.S. before coming to live and work in Turkey in education. Two or three years ago she quit her job and started her café. The concept is that Molly’s Café is just like Molly’s private home, where guests come to read, meet, eat, create and attend events, and just generally hang out. She moved from a small location near the tower to a bigger one, and now she is about to move to a yet bigger one, once again, just up the same street.
When I arrived last night, I entered couscous party with some 40 or so people – it seemed – many of whom were French expatriates, in addition to Turks and others. The couscous, I heard, was fabulous. When I entered, people looked at me in expectation because I had my guitar on my back and there were a couple of spots in the various rooms where A4 paper signs hung up said something like, Give Money to the Musician. So some people had assumed that “the musician” had arrived.
I chatted a while with Molly, to find out her news, and then as she got distracted, I became involved in a conversation with the French people. I asked if they lived here or were tourists. It turned out that only one was here on a short trip, and he was the one I started by speaking with the most.
His name was Didier Labbé, and after a few minutes, he told me that he was himself a musician. A jazz saxophone and flute player. He lives in the south of France, in Toulouse, and he said he has recently begun to travel annually to Turkey, as he has a musical collaboration going with Turkish musicians. He plays modern jazz with Mediterranean folk music mixed in to it.
My feeling about the prospects of the evening, evidently, perked up. But he said he had to leave soon because he had been invited by a local Turkish saxophone player to come and listen to him play at a club up the road – up Istiklal street – called Nublu.
“I know it,” I said. “I discovered it two nights ago as I walked around looking for places to play.”
Nublu is one of the hottest music clubs in Istanbul, and it works in conjunction with one of the other hot ones called Babylone, which is on a street behind it, although I believe the two bars are back-to-back, possibly in the same building. And, by the way, there is another Nublu in New York City, on East Third Street (where I lived briefly one long ago time). But I will return to that.
I told him I would probably catch up with him there later, but I wanted to stay and talk to Molly. I never would talk that much more with her, as it turned out that I had been having people suggest since I arrived that I play some music. They had all finished their meals, they were in great spirits, and very much into the idea of an after dinner concert. And this, after all, was Molly’s. Part of what Molly does is have local musicians put on concerts and jam nights, although she said she has been doing the jam less these days.
So this fit squarely within my desired adventure range, and although I refused to play several times – I did not want to upset Molly, who was I to interrupt the party – eventually one of the people asked Molly if it would be all right if I played some songs.
“Of course,” said Molly, in her usual light approach. “Should I turn off the background music?”
Yes please, I said, and she turned off what I recall as being a Turkish music recording of some kind – but I might be wrong.
So I sang “Crazy Love,” just because I thought my voice would carry, as there was no mic. I received applause and people started requesting songs. I cannot remember all of what I sang, or the order, but as I was unable to respond much to the requests – oh I now remember, the second song was “Unchained Melody,” and a couple got up and danced to it – I told them that I mostly did my own songs and a limited list of covers.
“So do your own songs,” said one enthusiastic and kind listener – a French-born Turkish woman with whom I spoke mostly in French.
So began what would end up being nearly an hour of music, dancing, my songs, cover songs, and even at one moment – as you will see in the video – one of the other people taking my guitar and playing. I did the video to show a little of the atmosphere.
I would have stayed to play more, and that one woman, at least, wanted more – but I decided I wanted to go to Nublu to hear this saxophone player. In any case, three of the guests at Molly’s were going to do that too, so I thought it would be agreeable to go with them. They were three French women English-language teachers in Istanbul, if I understood correctly.
So began the second part of the adventure, which was the musical discovery of Ilhan Ersahin, who it turns out, owns the club in NYC too, so my discovery is nothing new to resident of the Village. Labbé described Ersahin to me as being the hottest sax player in Istanbul. Hearing Ersahin’s music, I would not be surprised if this were true. He plays a mean sax, with a very cool personal sound and a lot of power. It is very much modern jazz, but I can relate to it – it is not just the chopped up bizarre stuff that in my opinion goes so far overboard that it loses my attention.
In fact, I stood riveted to Ersahin’s playing – both sax and keyboards – for perhaps an hour, and lost contact with Labbé and the women, until the concert ended and we met up again outside. Ersahin played with a bass player and drummer, by the way, as you will see in the videos.
In all, the music and the venue were fabulous. I was surprised by how young the crowd was with music like this, by the way. But I suspect Ersahin’s personal look and apparent charisma has something to do with that too, in addition to the fact that the music was very much a kind of jazz-rock fusion, with, interestingly, a number of progressive rock echoes to it.
Christ, it made me almost want to forget about my last reservations about living in Istanbul…. What does this city NOT have? Ersahin, by the way, was born in Sweden. And he is a jam session specialist, having made famous his jams in NYC. So that fits in better than I could have imagined on this worldwide open mic and jam session adventure.
Tonight’s plan is clear: One of the other Frenchmen, an Istanbul expat, told me of two other bars in the Taksim area that sometimes had jam session or a kind of open stage. So I am about to go and check those out. Amazing the way we build our worlds by layering experience on experience – without my visits to Molly’s over the last two years, I would not have ended up there this time, or not with the rapport I had developed, and I would not have had the amazing musical evening and discoveries of last night.
Second day in Istanbul and I scored. Well, not really the way I was hoping, but it was an adventure, and it was playing my music in Istanbul, and it was with Turkish musicians. And most important of all, it was a learning experience.
Since I started this worldwide musical adventure in 2009 I have been saying that Istanbul was probably my favorite musical experience of the world. This is a crazy wild city so full of music that it has to take the record in my books for the most lively musical moment. And two years ago it seemed everywhere I stepped I was invited to play, including at a bar that had a jam session for musicians.
Last year I did not make as great an effort here, but nevertheless played in a restaurant. This year, though, my understanding of the jamming and open mic music scene in Istanbul is growing. But this goes along with a more complete idea of things happening everywhere – ie, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai had been quiet before, and on this trip they were the most active of just about anything I have experienced so far… so if Istanbul suddenly dries up from a jamming and open stage point of view….
Okay, I am getting wordy. To the point: Last night I was once again solicited into a bar that had a live band. As soon as the man outside the bar trying to get clients saw my guitar on my back, he gestured me in and indicated with his gestures that I could go and play some music with my guitar onstage. As this happened the night before with no stage experience subsequently being offered, I made gestures and asked in a way to ensure I had understood correctly. I had, I could play. (This had also happened in 2009, on one occasion I did not play, but on other occasions I did.)
In any case, I went in to this bar off Istiklal street and called Ekin Turku Evi, and ordered a beer. A biggggg beer. The moment I entered, a beautiful young woman at a table listening to the music also gestured to me to go up and play. I agreed with a nod, but pointed out that I would sit and have the beer first. Actually, I wanted to see what the band was all about. It seemed for a moment that I had walked into a karaoke. In fact, it was just the public making requests. Each table had pens and paper for you to request music from the band.
I drank, listened, recorded videos. The night went on. I began thinking I was NOT going to be asked to play. The band was good, lively, playing popular Turkish music, and the audience grew and many people got up to dance and sing along, and the atmosphere was fabulously festive and joyful. But I thought, where do I fit in?
But I kept on making eye contact with the band and beautiful singer woman – whom I would later say to her that she was “guzel” – and so I started thinking: Maybe I am being too shy. Maybe this city is an open mic or jam everywhere and it is normal to go up and play with the established house band. I am being too shy and destroying my own chances out of timidity. I thought about that for an hour, and then though, in any case, I will learn nothing at all if I do not make an approach, and I will lose my whole night.
So I approached the singer, and she put me on to the male singer, as his English was better. Basically what ensued was that he had no idea that I had been invited to play, he was not happy I had been invited to play, and neither he nor anyone else in the band wanted me to play. And I don’t blame them: It was not an open jam session, and they were doing a great job, and they had never heard me before.
They went back to playing, and then after nearly 2 hours, they took a break and retired to a back comfortable cubby hole. So I went over and tried to verify with the guy that he did not want me singing. After all, the mic was now free, I could do something.
My fear was confirmed. But we ended up talking and communicating as we could, and I went over and brought my guitar out and they wanted to see it. I handed it over to one of the musicians to play and I wanted to film him, but he didn’t want that. Then they asked me to play a song. So I played “Crazy Love,” as it was the only one that I could sing over the sound of the house recorded music and the voices of the other clients.
They sang along, clapped rhythm, and then applauded. They asked for another song. So I did “Mad World,” and the keyboard player began singing the chorus and drumming. He knew the song, despite them playing only Turkish music all night long. Then I went into the chords for “Just Like a Woman,” and the keyboard player started singing another song that he had thought I was doing….
Some of the clients at the nearby tables also listened and complimented me. I talked a little more with the band, then it was time for them to go back on stage. I listened to a couple more songs and then left – the guy who had offered me the time on stage asked me why I had not played, and I said the band didn’t want it…. In a way, this kind of chaos is a perfect reflection of the atmosphere of this crazy city itself. And however you look at it, I did manage to piss on my territory in Istanbul, and have an interesting musical experience at the same time. But I’m still keen to get on a stage again here.
My first night in Istanbul reacquainted me with the fabulous sounds of the downtown quarters of this most musical cities of the world. Everyone talks of Phil Spector creating the so-called wall of sound, but I bet it was invented in this city that traverses Asia and Europe with a brilliant cacophony of musical mixes all splashing into each other from one café and bar and restaurant doorfront to the next throughout the night.
But if I easily found several places to play in the past, this year I fear that I am heading into a less than fabulous opportunity to find an open jam or open mic situation. The owners of the Blues Live music club where I played before told me they no longer ran their official Monday night jam, but the stage remains open when musicians and the right vibe come together. They still run a band on the weekend too. But I did not feel very positive about my own chances of getting up as last night there were only two people in the place when I was there.
But my musical journey around the world has ALWAYS been about shifts from desperation to success and ecstasy as the weekend progresses and I suddenly fall into an unforeseen musical situation. Last night, in fact, I was ostensibly invited into a bar to have a beer and play some of my music, when the man outside trying to get clients saw me with my guitar and offered that I come in and play on the stage where he had a musician already. I had the beer, but I did not end up being invited to play. Nor did I insist.
Did I ever find a wonderful vibe throughout the city, however, and mostly in the Taksim and Beyoglu areas, and down near the Galatasary Tower. In fact, I decided on several occasions to do turn my handheld, Q3 HD video recorder, as I walked down the street to show you how full this place is of music. But with on musician in almost every single restaurant and bar, I suppose that is partly why the open mic and jam session mentality is not as big here as in some other cities where musicians are less often employed….
But music just fills the air everywhere here, and it is of every style imaginable, from the Blues Live rock of the Hendrix, Clapton, John Lee Hooker and Stevie Ray Vaughan style to the local rock and the traditional and classical Turkish music. Oh, I even made a brief stop in Nardis jazz club, but elected not to pay the cover charge and go in and listen. I also found some new places with local rock and jazz. I even passed a music shop without clients where the workers were involved in a jam session, and music is so well loved that they didn’t even blink when they saw me enter and film them. My hotel receptionist upon check-in wanted to see my guitar – he being himself a guitar player.
I just keep my fingers crossed that I will finally find some place for myself to play in this music-loving city.
I mentioned earlier that we would go to the BluesLive bar in Beyoglu on Friday and possibly Saturday. I had found this cool basement bar last year over the Internet because it appeared to have a jam session. In fact, it did have a jam session, but unfortunately that was on Mondays, when I would leave the country. But Mohammed Saad and his partner – whose name I am afraid I have forgotten or never learned – allowed me to play with the band and the band then invited me back again. It was a fabulous success.
I was excited after we dropped in on Wednesday after arrival in Istanbul and both Mohammed and his parter recognized me. She invited us to come on Friday and play a few songs before the band – called Mustang – played their first set at 10:30 PM. Vanessa had found a fabulous restaurant near the blue mosque, called, Balikci Sabahattin, where we ate a wonderful dinnner outside on the hilly terrace that was no more than a sidewalk. (The restaurant is well known as a place where the intelligentsia eat, and I can see why: The beautiful setting amongst old Istanbul houses and much greenery made it feel as if it was in the countryside, and the food was fabulous – I had sole and Vanessa had sea bass.)
So we rushed off in a taxi to BluesLive and arrived at 10:00 PM after the taxi dropped us off far from the destination and required that we walk nearly a kilometer up Istiklal Street. Upon arrival, BluesLive was empty of clients and a video showed on the screen in front of the stage with the drum set and amps. We were both really hot to play, and Vanessa suggested we set up and try the mics and sound system. But I told her this was not an open mic and that the jam was on a different day and that Mohammed and his partner were just allowing us to play out of kindness. IE, I didn’t want to push the matter with them, despite our being invited to play.
To make a long story short, the band did not start until probably 11 PM, but by then we were so tired of waiting that we finished our drinks and went to a neighboring bar to pass the time with chicha, which will probably be the last time I do it, since it is poisonous for the lungs, voice and head. We then returned to BluesLive to find the band playing, and it was not as good as last year’s. The singer had a fairly unappealing voice, although he played guitar quite well.
I had told Mohammed I had a blog now and that I had a cool Zoom Q3 video camera that I used around the world to put up videos of my musical journey on the blog. He thought it was interesting when I showed it to him. This I had shown him at around 10 PM. So finally, now that the band played, I decided to start doing a few videos. I did one of their first song, which I forget. Then I did one of a Hendrix song, “Little Wing.” I was very careful to keep out of the way of the view of any of the people watching the band – and the bar was now quite full of clients – and I took several different angles of the band, each time making sure that I did not obstruct anyone’s view in the audience.
It was now after midnight and we still had not been approached about playing, and the band was still playing. But I figured it would be good for BluesLive and good for my blog to have some video footage of the band. But when I stepped outside to the terrace to have a sip of my beer, Mohammed said, “When you take a picture, don’t go near the stage because it’s not good for the spectators.”
This was the first time I had ever had any comment made to me about my handheld camera, which is slightly bigger than a cell phone camera that people use all the time at bars to record bands. And suddenly I felt very unwelcome. Maybe it is a flaw of my character, but I simply said, “okay.” Then I asked for the bill and Mohammed told me to wait for his partner to ask for that. So I did, and then paid for the drinks. And she said, “Aren’t you going to play some music?” I said, “No.” And we left.
Temperamental? Maybe. But I did not feel welcome, and it was already after midnight – would we be there until 1 AM before we played? In any case, there is no way I will put up on this blog the videos I did of Mustang at BluesLive….
My ears, eyes and nose were again last night invaded by the massive sounds, colors and smells of one of my two favorite locations for a Formula One race as I arrived in Istanbul for the Turkish Grand Prix this weekend.
This time, however, I have the additional pleasure of revisiting my musical territory of last year with Vanessa. So last night upon our arrival I took her around to the main places where I played and sought out music last year in what was also one of my favorite locations for the musical adventure.
There is no way to describe the invasion of the senses, really, without being there. I occasionally think of it as like a trip on LSD where all your senses kind of blend in together and you’re hit from several different directions and dimensions with emotional vibes that you find hard to categorize. Walking through the Taksim area and Beyoğlu at night all the bars have different kinds of music at full volume and it blasts you from all directions and you cannot really make out the sound of any one group. Ninety percent of it is live music, and so Istanbul is a fine place to be a musician. (That sounds like Hemingway. Remember, “fine.”)
We took a walk around last year’s places, so I dropped in and said hello to Mohammed at the BluesLive bar where we were invited to play with the band – and separately – on Friday and Saturday. I’ll write more about it and the other places as we re-live them more fully. The BluesLive bar was hosting film club night last night, however, so there was no music.
We went to Molly’s Café for a while and spoke to Molly and found she had moved to bigger quarters, across the street, and she invited us to come along to the musical evening on Saturday, and perhaps place. Molly is of Canadian origin, but lived in the United States to raise a family, and then came to Istanbul to run a school – and then she started her homey café near the Galatasaray Tower.
Because last year I visited Istanbul in June the Jazz Café, off Istiklal Street, was closed for the summer. It was one of the few places that has an official, occasional, open mic. So I dropped by there hoping it would be open – but it was again closed for the summer, relocating to some beach bar somewhere.
We dropped by, walking in front, of a couple of the other bars I played last year, but I made no attempt to play in them. Walking in front of another bar in Beyoğlu, however, I found myself being solicited as I was last year to enter and play some music myself, although there was already a Turkish musician playing. I would have to buy a beer, at least, of course. The bar was empty, however, and we had much walking and tourism to do, so we elected not to go in and play at this one. I’d have done it had I been alone, but I had no qualms not doing it while preferring to discover Istanbul with Vanessa.
Finished the night by going to one of the chicha bars to do the comparison between the chichi in Paris and the chicha in Istanbul that we had planned to do since smoking the pipe in Paris a few days ago. I will not make a habit of this, as I quit smoking 20 years ago and do not want to start again, particularly not with the lung destroying chichas…. We tried an apple chicha, and it was a lot rougher than what we had in Paris. Hit me in the head immediately. We were served at the bar by a rock and roller in his 20s with long curly locks and a beard and a black T-shirt with guitar necks on it and torn denim black pants with chains. He showed me his electric guitar – as he saw I had a guitar – which was an imitation Stratocaster. I let him play my Seagull acoustic, and he loved it – as is the usual way. He then played a couple of songs for us to listen to on his portable phone with Vanessa and I each using one ear bud. It was Turkish rock music. Kind of soft metal ballads.
I also revisted two times the place where I spent a couple of hours busking last year with a gypsy off Istiklal, but I did not see him or his friends. In any case, I had no desire to start busking again. But I will always remember the beautiful voice of the gothic woman violinist named Meltem, who came that first night last year and sang a few songs and listened to mine. I remember particularly also how I discovered afterwards the sound of the birds singing along above us.
I kept the recording I did of Meltem last year and present it here for you: