My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.
This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.
Because the last race that I attended was in Sochi, Russia, and it was the first time that I have been there, I did not have any material aside from my weekend’s experience there there year to constitute a part of the Worldwide open mic multimedia thing. So what I have done instead, is to take a race that used to exist, and where I have a lot of material, and which no longer exists. In that way, I have fit into the multimedia adventure a race location in the place of Sochi, and made use of a major part of the adventure:
I did all I could to make it to the Wednesday night open jam session at the Kooperatif in Istanbul last Wednesday because I wanted to see it, but also because I thought it could be my only chance of playing music in Turkey in the four nights I was there. That, as it turned out, was to misjudge the Kooperatif and its genial man-behind-the-concept, Safak Velioglu.
As it turned out, I dropped by on the Thursday night with some new friends, and when the band stopped playing, I asked Safak if I could play a few songs for my new friends – just sitting at my table. “Of course,” he said enthusiastically, “I’ll turn off the music.” (He had turned on a recorded background music after the band.)
I also told Safak that I wanted to interview him for a podcast for this blog, as I have been doing in every country I visit this year. He agreed, but preferred if I return on the Friday night. So I accepted happily, because I love the vibe at the Kooperatif. I also had one or two other venues I wanted to check out in the area on Friday, so I brought my guitar.
Almost as soon as I entered the Kooperatif on Friday, despite there not being a live band hired for that night – there usually is – one of the musicians with whom I had played on the Wednesday asked if I wanted to play later on. Of course I agreed. But first, Safak and I jammed at the table where he sat near the bar, with him on a traditional Turkish stringed instrument – a kind of lute – and me on guitar. Then, I did my podcast with him all about the Kooperatif – which you can hear here.
Then, at around 11 PM, I went up on stage with that musician, and there began nearly three hours of us jamming, and most of it was to me leading the songs with my music, and the others joining in on guitar, drums and other percussion instruments. This was pure bliss. I could not believe I would end my short trip to Istanbul in such a wonderful and open jam and environment. I didn’t even get to check out the music in the other venues. No need!!!
Can this really be classified as a lesson? Or was it a freak occurance? In any case, what happened on my last night in Istanbul seemed to go counter to every other musical lesson I learned in that magnificent city, so there might be a lesson there somewhere.
As I think I made clear in the previous entries in this blog about my musical adventures in Istanbul, the city is certainly the most music friendly city I have found in the world. As you walk through the streets with a guitar on your back you are importuned everywhere to take it off, enter a restaurant, bar, sidewalk cafe or wherever, and play music. I learned last year that most of the musicians who play in the bars throughout Istanbul – and it seems that nearly every bar has live music – are from a slightly different caste of people. There is something gypsy-like about them and the way they are regarded.
So is it in that fact that my lesson the last day may be learned? After the race I returned to Istanbul and with a friend and a couple of his associates had a drink on the terrace of a hotel overlooking the Bosporus. This friend likes my music and knows that I am on this musical quest around the world with the races, and he knew that I had not found or set up a venue for Istanbul on Sunday night. He decided to set up this meeting with his associates for fun and so that after the drink we could return to his associate’s nearby apartment and I could play a few songs for everyone.
It turned out that the apartment was a large penthouse with a terrace encircling the full floor – or at least most of it, from what I could see – and it too had a view of the Bosporus. In short, a beautiful apartment above Istanbul in a relatively luxurious building with a view. It was a kind of venue I had not played, and obviously it fit in wonderfully when you think that I’d played in a prison and in the streets, and last year in several different bars. Playing in a private home was one more link in the chain covering the gamut of possibilities in Istanbul.
So after hours of drink and talk at the hotel we arrived at the apartment and our host opened a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne, served us glasses and I was very quickly importuned to play – it was already close to midnight.
So I prepared my guitar, the three others sat on the couch and in an armchair, and I stood in front of them and decided to sing “Crazy Love” to start with, simply because I find it a good one to warm up my voice and my emotions and my guitar playing. I started tapping my foot and realized that I was tapping on a wooden floor – a thick, hard wooden floor – and I moved over a couple of steps to a thick carpet in order that the tapping not resound too loudly for my audience.
I finished “Crazy Love” and launched into “Just Like a Woman.” I got through a verse of that and I heard the doorbell to the apartment ringing. I kept singing, but I had a bad vibe telling me something was going to happen. The host returned and shrugged and said, “Sorry, we’re bothering my neighbor downstairs. We have to stop.”
That was it. One song and one verse and the woman who lived below had decided that the foot tapping was too strong and not to be had – at least that was the excuse I heard. But when you consider that the floors between the apartment were thick, and that this was a well-built, fairly luxurious building and that we were not yet past midnight and had done only one song by the time she set out up the stairs – it is all very surprising for any city, and even more surprising for Istanbul, where I people love musicians more than in any other place I have been.
The lesson? Was this neighbor a freak? Or was it to do with the lowness of having a gypsy like me playing and singing in a respectable Istanbul apartment rather than in the street or a bar or a restaurant? I don’t know if I will ever learn. But it was a situation that proved the cliché that Istanbul is a city of contrasts.
A musician usually has to have the stature of a Johnny Cash or a criminal in order to be able to play guitar and sing in a prison. Thanks to Vanessa and her guidebooks, I found myself with the opportunity to confront our Western preconceptions about Istanbul face on while performing some of my favorite songs in a prison in the country of Midnight Express.
While I was out at the race track working yesterday, Vanessa made her way around town with the help of a couple of guide books and the advice of the many people she met on the way. One of these people was a salesperson who recommended to her a restaurant in the Galatasary Tower area.
The restaurant, Vanessa was told, was not to be missed. Run by a Georgian couple, it was called Galata House, and it specialized in Georgian food. The couple consisted of Mete Goktug, an architect, and his wife Nadire, who we would discover not long after entering the restaurant, was a musician who played piano and sang. Throughout the first part of the meal we had as background music, her CD of popular and traditional music, with her on piano and singing. She often plays the piano live at the restaurant, but has been suffering a little tennis elbow of late and so did not play live last night.
We were warmly greeted at the front door of the building, and directed in to find an unusual series of rooms, the details of which I will get to in a moment. First, I would like to jump ahead to the food to say that it was indeed a fabulous experience, as we ordered the unique meal of Georgian and Tatar dishes. For the appetizer we took a mixed dish consisting of samples of several of the appetizers – chicken in yoghurt sauce, beans in another sauce, beets in another sauce, rice wrapped in leaves and marinated, and a slightly spicey walnut spread.
Vanessa took a veal stew with stewed potatoes and rice, while I was tempted for the first time in a while to not go with an entirely meat dish, and I ordered a pasta dish – although there was meat in the pasta. The woman said that it was her mother’s recipe, and that it was Tatar. Vanessa tasted one of my pieces of ravioli pasta – which looked like tortellini – and remarked accurately that it did not taste like Italian past.
“For once a pasta that does not taste like Italian pasta,” she said.
I agreed and said it tasted more like dumplings. It had some kind of light cream sauce in the middle of it that I chose not to mix up with the pasta but to dip the pieces into the cream.
We ate the whole with a Georgian wine that was not bad at all, and was the first time I have had Georgian wine.
For desert I had the biggest discovery of all: A chocolate cake with a meringue top to it. In fact, three quarters of the top of the cake was made of this fluffy white meringue with a little chocolate sauce on top of it. The chocolate part of the cake was also light and fluffy. All my life I have eaten Lemon meringue tarts primarily in order to have the meringue. But I love chocolate more than any other sweet, and this combination of fluffy white meringue with the light and rich chocolate cake was absolutely stupendous!
At the beginning of the meal, even before we began eating, Mete had asked us about our music. He was intrigued by Vanessa’s Portuguese roots and invited us to sing if we wanted to. We were both feeling a little shy about that, since there were not many people in the restaurant and it was not an open mic or jam situation, so it would mean that playing and singing would assume a certain amount of pretension to quality.
But throughout the meal as I listened to the music of Nadire, and later some classical music, I was bubbling and boiling and hot to sing in this restaurant. And that takes us back to the interesting physical aspect of the building that I mentioned. We had entered the front door and glanced to the left and thought at first that the restaurant was in the room to the left, which looked like someone’s living room, and indeed, I think it was the owners’ living room.
That we found boring, but we had looked beyond and down the hall to an exterior courtyard with a table, and we had wanted to eat there. But Nadire had told us we could eat outside on the terrace on the first floor. So we went up the stairs to find two more interior rooms, one in the front of the building overlooking the street, and the other in the back and with a piano, the stereo and photos of Nadire as a child and young woman sitting at the piano. The whole thing was very homey, but classy and restaurant-like as well.
Then we looked out in the back to see the horse-shoe shaped terrace that overlooked the courtyard. It had four or five tables on a narrow walkway around the courtyard, and the whole was surrounded by either dark brown brick walls or the wall of the building itself.
The windows everywhere on the building, I noticed, were covered with iron bars. I soon learned from Vanessa and the menu that the building, in fact, was built as a British prison, and served as such from 1904 to 1919. The Goktugs had bought it in 1999, at which time they made the restaurant out of it.
So it was that we ate our meal overlooking the building and the courtyard, where I could see and imagine the prisoners out for their daily exercise. The whole thing was frightfully small when you think about the amount of time prisoners must have had to spend living there, and there were some very strong feelings of the ghosts of the past.
Overlooking the courtyard I imagined myself playing my guitar and singing, either on the terrace into the courtyard and to the other table of guests, or down in the courtyard itself.
We finished the meal and began to leave, paying the bill and talking a little at the end to Nadire and Mete. Nadire said, “Maybe next time you come you can play your music.”
That was it, my queue. I could not let drop an opportunity to do a concert in a prison in Istanbul. I was shy, all right, and Vanessa said she did not want to join me singing. But the opportunity was just too great for me to miss. So I swallowed my fear, and said, “I could do a song right now. Would that be okay?”
So we went into the courtyard – where I saw that the cook was in a kitchen in a back room – and I pulled my guitar out of its bag and tuned it by ear, not wanting to waste time with the tuner. Mete offered me a chair, but I said I could stand. My feeling was that I would be most comfortable singing “Crazy Love,” and singing it to Vanessa with her in mind.
So I started with that. I received some compliments from Mete, and I began to put the guitar down. But I still had one regret, and that was that I had not recorded me singing the song in the prison. So as we spoke, and Mete told me they had had concerts in the restaurant and had done a lot to create festivals in Istanbul to help make it more culturally popular and vibrant – which worked, as I pointed out that Bob Dylan was playing the day I left, that Eric Clapton was playing the following month, that John McLaughlin had played in Nardi’s jazz club around the corner from the prison a few weeks earlier – and all the while I thought about how I should perhaps force another song on them and get Vanessa to record it. So this, eventually, is what I did.
We had spoken about “Just Like A Woman” over dinner, as we both agreed that some people might associate the women with the prison. So that is what I decided to do. Part of the song I sang in front of the barred windows of the main building, another part in front of what looked like a prison cell door. Occasionally you can hear Vanessa singing, as she held the camera and filmed, and occasionally you can also hear the classical music playing in the background. A true Istanbul mélange. And a great Istanbul experience in both food, environment and music – like none I’ve had before.