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!!!
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.
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.