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.