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Constructions of Spaces of Music in Istanbul: Scuffling and Intermingling Sounds in a Fragmented Metropolis

Constructions d'espaces musicaux à Istanbul: sons désordonnés et entremêlés dans une métropole fragmentée
Volkan Aytar et Azer Keskin
p. 147-157


Les espaces musicaux d’Istanbul mettent en évidence la richesse d’une structure sociale hétérogène liée à des vagues successives de migration et à la fragmentation croissante issue de la mondialisation. Istanbul est un pont entre l’Est et l’Ouest mais aussi une marge que divers groupes - des modernistes aux islamistes - tentent de contrôler, transformant la rue en champ de bataille symbolique. Des styles musicaux variés provenant de la ville et de la campagne - et les combinant souvent - (arabesk et taverna - liés à la contestation des années 1960 dans les gecekondus, qui chantent la pauvreté des déracinés - fantezi et pop turque), des formes "engagées" de musique populaire (d’extrême gauche, nationalistes, voire islamistes), tout comme des formes globales revisitées localement (rock, jazz, hip-hop, salsa, techno etc.) ont créé des lieux d’écoute et de conflit. L’étude des liens entre sons, construction sociale de l’espace et identités urbaines permet de dépasser les oppositions faciles (traditionnel/ moderne, local/global) inadaptées à un pays non-occidental comme la Turquie. Les processus de "glocalisation" y sont plus fluides, complexes et interconnectés, et n’ont pas conduit à une homogénéisation culturelle car la musique s’est adaptée et remodelée localement. Le quartier de Péra/Beyoglu est l’exemple de cette progressive transformation, depuis l’occidentalisation du XIXe s., puis la volonté de la jeune République de créer un nouveau citoyen laïque dans le nouvel État-Nation, jusqu’au rôle de vitrine moderniste des régimes militaires néo-libéraux que joue la ville depuis les années 1980. Istanbul se fragmente et s’hybride et Beyoglu est devenu une constellation d’hétérotopies foucaldiennes juxtaposant en un même lieu des paysages musicaux incompatibles mais qui fonctionnent en relation à l’espace. Exclusion et ségrégation n’y ont donc pas disparu.

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"Did it start with Bergson or before? Space was treated as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile. Time, on the contrary was richness, fecundity, life, dialectic"
Foucault, 1980, in Soja 1999, p. 10

"Music is an omnipresent, almost atmospheric, property of public space in the city, in cafés, night-clubs, baths, brothels, shops, buses, taxis, and dolmus (shared taxis), providing a continual counterpoint to the rhythms of everyday life"
Stokes, 1992, p. 1

"[F]rom the moment the [Turkish] Republic was founded, music was given pride of place in policies relating to culture and art, a kind of ‘target’ as leaders sought to fashion a new sort of citizen and a new nation-state"
Tekelioglu, 1996, p. 196

  • 1 An earlier version of this paper is based on our conference presentation at the annual meeting of t (...)

1We claim that one needs to chart the symbolic meaning of Istanbul’s urban space as it stood on a complex human geography throughout its history1, by also taking into consideration short-term episodes, twists, ruptures and discontinuities, or muting the specificities and contingencies of human or social actors. This temporal/spatial approach will be complemented with a discussion of the major developments in economy, politics, culture and society both in Turkey and in Istanbul.

2The history of Istanbul does not stand as an isolated urban history, but a history of both an Imperial and post-Imperial experience, and a history of a marvelous social arena full of conflicting, diverging and converging symbolic meanings. To read Istanbul’s histories (or stories) provides us with powerful insights leading to many sub-stories and narratives and clarifying many of the prolonged cultural and symbolic rifts in Istanbul.

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1 An earlier version of this paper is based on our conference presentation at the annual meeting of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music – US, in Cleveland, Ohio in October 2002. The research upon which this paper is based was partially funded from the MEAwards Program in Population and the Social Sciences, the Population Council, WANA Regional Office in Cairo. Volkan Aytar would like to thank MEAwards Program for their support.

2 See, for example, A. S. Çoruk’s Cumhuriyet Devri Türk Romanında Beyoglu (1995) where he presents good examples of this imagery. Seen as a highly westernized district, Beyoglu is frequently contrasted to "purely" Muslim and Turkish neighborhoods such as Fatih, Aksaray, Beyazıt and others. With its non-Muslim minority-owned enter-tainment and shopping establishments, Beyoglu is depicted as a modern, degenerate, and extravagantly "mondaine" part of the city. Consider the anxieties over the symbolic encroachment of modern lifestyles represented by Beyoglu, as well as cultural ruptures and rifts it supposedly brings forth in the following passages: "[…] He heard the foreign melodies sneaking out of the shop, and could not help but thinking […] how alien these were to his land" (from Peyami Safa’s 1924 novel, Mahser, p. 116); "You could easily come across with differences similar to those between New York and Kabul, between [Beyoglu] and [Fatih]" (from Peyami Safa’s 1931 novel, Fatih-Harbiye, p. 30); and finally, "Beyoglu is the unconquered Istanbul" (from Mithat Cemal Kuntay’s 1938 novel, Üç Istanbul, p. 44). This vision, however, is not limited to the conservative imagery. In one of the most striking examples, in 1928, Kemalist writer Yakup Kadri Karaos-manoglu wrote a novel about armistice years’ Istanbul, entitled Sodom ve Gomore (Sodom and Gomorrah). In left-wing imagery, Istanbul appeared frequently as a decadent space dominated by "aristocratic" and "bourgeois" interests. Former Socialist writer Çetin Altan famously called the city, "the Dukedom of Istanbul".

3 Here, we borrow from and extend Appadurai’s notion of various "scapes" as discussed in his Modernity at large (1996) to discuss the shifting and fluid humanscapes of music in Istanbul.

4 Later renamed Beyoglu.

5 Here, it is worth noting that Beyoglu, on September 6th and 7th 1956, was one of the fundamental targets of the Turkish nationalists and Islamists when a violent popular attack was carried on ethnic Greeks living in Istanbul, after an alleged vandalizing attack on the house Atatürk (the founder of the Turkish Republic) was born in Thessalonica, Greece, was "broadcasted" at chauvinistic Istanbul newspapers. Later, the incident proved to be an undercover plot reportedly planned by some agents of the Turkish government, to create a mob pressure upon Greeks of Istanbul, to forcing them to leave. This event is seen as signifying one of the important turning points that significantly transformed the humanscape of Istanbul. This assault signaled the beginning of massive displacement of Istanbul’s ethnic Greeks to Greece. Later, Beyoglu became a major target of a non-violent "moral" attack and economic boycott carried by some Islamists, in the years 1994-1995. The district was accused of becoming a source of "Crusade" as most of the shopping centers and restaurants were celebrating the New Year’s Eve. A concurrent and meaningful incident occurred in 1994 after the newly elected "moderate Islamist" mayor of Beyoglu decided to "clean up" the districts’ entertainment esta-blishments by banning and limiting service of alcohol. Following a media and public outcry the mayor decided not to go along with his plans (although we should note that the alcohol ban was instituted and still remains effective in establishments owned and operated by the Greater Municipality of Istanbul). All three instances, we believe, were symptomatic in explaining the particular durability and strength of the symbolic contestations of space in Istanbul.

6 M. Altun claims that alaturka entertainment was based in households, or male-dominated coffeehouses, and did not occur in outdoor, urban spaces as much. In religious holidays, special outdoor picnics were organized, and these signified few occasions when men and women gathered and entertained together.

7 See Çoruk, in ibid, passim.

8 Especially the "Republican Ballroom Dances" were to become highly symbolic events and spatial represen-tations of the new Republican cultural policies. Like in Ankara, in Istanbul, Taksim, too, outdoor ballroom dances were organized by the bureaucratic elite, and attended also by the newly emerging Turkish bourgeoisie.

9 Those symbolic limitations seem to be still in effect. In October 2003, during the celebration of the 80th year of the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey, a political crisis erupted after the President refused to invite to the Presidential reception the wives of those ruling (‘mode-rate Islamist’/conservative AKP) party legislators whose heads were covered. Turkish laicité seems to still hold determining power in deciding who is and who is not admissible to the official and public spaces including university and high school campuses.

10 It is interesting to note, in this juncture, how joining-in to the spaces of music acted as symbolic ‘rites of passage’ for the newly emerging Turkish bourgeoisie. Espousing western dress and behavioral codes as well as learning to enjoy westernized musical forms, Turkish bourgeoisie received an effective training in the officially-decreed cultural repertoire. Later, after the 1940s and 1950s when rural-based businessmen flooded into Istanbul for commerce, networking and entertainment reasons, their ‘crude’ behaviors were to be ridiculed in novels, newspaper articles and so forth. These ridiculed hacıa_a types (denoting their ‘devout Muslim’ [hacı=Mecca pilgrim] and ‘feudal’ [a_a=agha, feudal landlord of sorts] roots) were to be catered by new establishments called pavyon (a ‘night club’ of sorts) where more popularized, less ‘high brow’ versions of Turkish Art Music, or fantezi was played. These were escapist locations also providing female escorts. Pavyon and fantezi music were instrumental in the later formation of arabesk and its spaces. See below.

11 Raki is a highly popular, anise-based Turkish alcoholic drink similar to Arak and Ouzo. It is customarily consumed as an aperitif, or it accompanies dinner and it is usually a staple drink for ‘nights out,’ or long feasts and banquets.

12 M. Stokes in his 1992 study also discusses new spaces of music such as the dernek (club/society/association and their lounges) and dersane (informal places of [music] learning). Signifying music education establishments stemming from the ‘civil society’ many of these were in line with the official cultural/musical policies, and were usually localities where one would learn the ‘Turkish Folk Music,’ as opposed to arabesk and to play Turkey’s most ‘Turkish’ instrument, the ba_lama (a long necked lute, somewhat similar to buzuk and bouzouki). It should be noted, however, that some of the dernek and dersane since the 1970s became politicized spaces where leftist activists reclaimed Folk Music and ba_lama as ‘people’s music and instrument’. This may partly have to do with the strong association of ba_lama with Anatolia’s Alevi (a heterodox and politically progressive Islamic sect) culture. Alevism is usually seen as a ‘left wing’ formation, as a suitable breeding ground for progressive, left wing ideologies. For a further discussion, see below, under ‘Protest music’.

13 In arabesk lyrics, the theatrical drama usually pits a ‘poor guy’ up against a ‘cruel world,’ a ‘heartless’ woman, oppression, poverty and alienation, situations which the person has no easy way out. For a very good anthropological and ethnomusicological study, see M. Stokes’ 1992 work.

14 Kıro reportedly connotes a pejorative and deformed use of the word, ‘kurdish’. Gıro, a Kurdish word that possibly served as an ‘inspiration’ for kıro means ‘brother,’ ‘a good guy,’ or ‘man’.

15 For a very good study of the power of humor in constructing and representing urban identities in Istanbul, see A. Öncü’s 1999 work.

16 We should note, however, that not the entire clientele of those events or establishments could be defined as ‘globalizers’.

17 High-skilled and educated individuals, find employment as high-paid music and entertainment workers or entrepreneurs. Turks with some experience in studying and living abroad, high-skilled foreigners, and others are among those individuals. Istanbul’s ‘night-out,’ high-society, and lifestyle magazines such as Time Out Istanbul and Istanbul Life (note that the titles of those two Turkish-language publications are in English), as well as Sunday supplements of major daily newspapers such as Sabah, Milliyet, Hürriyet, Radikal and others already frequently feature stories about African-American blues and jazz musicians, American, Asian, European and highly skilled and innovative Turkish restaurateurs, DJs, bartenders, chefs, diet advisors and personal trainers working in that sector. Located on the top of the sector, they form the crème de la crème of Istanbul’s entertainment and musicscapes. We should also note that on the bottom of the same laborscapes, migrants, legal and illegal immigrants as well as longer-time ‘minority’ residents, are employed mainly in low-paid jobs. Although those jobs mostly require low qualification and human capital, this is not necessarily the case for all jobs concerned. For instance, Turks, Kurds, those recently coming from former Socialist bloc, as well as the Roma (who historically were making up an informal entertainment labor force) are employed in establishments as caterers, entertainers, and as support staff.

18 It should be noted that the rise of ‘world music’ went hand in hand with the proliferation of restaurants and cafés serving tastes from all around the world. Multiplication of various ‘ethnic’ cuisine restaurants which usually carry expensive menu items is most emphasized in upper income neighborhoods such as Te_vikiye, Ni_anta_ı, Etiler, Akatlar, Ye_ilköy and others. Istanbul’s ‘night out’ magazines and liberal daily newspapers frequently present articles on ‘Sushi-mania,’ ‘Bagel-eating as a new trend,’ or the newly ‘-in’ or ‘out’ ethnic food items and mixed drinks.

19 Indeed, in 1998, left-liberal daily Radikal lauded Asmalımescit as “Istanbul’s SoHo” (in A. _nce, 2002, p. 109).

20 It is worth noting that during the 1980s and 1990s conservative residents launched a campaign to drive the transvestite employees of Beyo_lu’s then numerically dominant night clubs (pavyon) out of their Cihangir apartments. Resident not only managed to ‘clean up’ the neighborhood by forcing most of them out, but also effectively pressed the local government to rename some hitherto ‘notorious’ streets to do away with the ‘past’. However, new tensions seem to have surfaced since mid-1990s when Cihangir became one of the top destinations of the new gentrifiers, such as those employed in the media, educational institutions, or the globalized sectors of the economy.

21 Pita bread served with ground meat, spices and other ingredients. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Turkish pizza,’ and now a staple food item, it was initially usually associated with the Kurdish Southeast, or the ‘half-urbanized’ culture of the migrants.

22 A. Akay (2003), for example connects the wider acceptance of Arabesk to more general societal trends, and to what he calls the emergence of an “Arabesk bourgeoisie” since mid-1980s (p. 183).

23 Etiler is an upper-class neighborhood located on the European side of Istanbul that house many taverna establishments alongside European and American-style cafés, night clubs, and upscale restaurants.

24 Kumkapı which is in the historic peninsula is a neighborhood usually associated with its colorful nights-out industry dominated by many meyhane, and taverna,

25 Legendary leftist urban guerilla executed in 1972 after the military coup.

26 Socialist actor and director well known internationally for his Cannes award winning production, Yol.

27 Perhaps the most famous Turkish Communist poet, died in exile in Moscow in 1963.

28 The new constitution promulgated in 1982 brought forth strict limitations on rights to free assembly. Local and central authorities as well as security forces were given wide powers to permit, ban, postpone or change venues of marches, manifestations, or other sorts of open air activities. Frequent, mostly random, and at times targeted ‘identity-card checks’ by the police on the streets added to this officially-instituted atmosphere of fear.

29 We should note that similar campaigns have had a long history in Turkey. Labor campaigns of what some people called ‘workers’ spring’ in mid to late 1980s was organized with quite creative and colorful methods as well. However, the Saturday Mothers’ became one of the key, most visible and most high profile campaigns that deserve to be noted as ground breaking.

30 Note that after the capture of A. Öcalan, the leader of the separatist PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a new group took to the streets briefly, calling themselves the ‘Friday Mothers’ (Cuma Anneleri) to draw publicity to the plight of those members of the Turkish security forces killed, disabled or wounded fighting the PKK. Through the 1990s, Islamist women also launched outdoor protests against the official ban on headscarves strictly instituted in high school and university campuses as well as government offices. Concurrently, feminist activists organized marches to fight violence against women, asking gender equality, and reclaiming urban spaces fearfully closed to or limited the participation of women, among other things. In May Day and other parades gay activists become increasingly visible, although some reportedly observed ‘uneasiness’ on the part of some leftist groups and individuals. In few instances, left-wing and Islamist groups managed to come together to defend “everybody’s human rights” regardless of political orientation.

31 Government officials and security forces frequently banned, postponed or changed venues of concerts “due to safety and security concerns”. Most of those banned were ‘political,’ protest music concerts, but many other non-political events faced frequent difficulties as well. Some limitations on rights to free assembly have recently been lifted or relaxed as the Turkish government seeks to institute democratic reforms on their path to seek membership to the European Union.

32 Remains of the fortress on a section by the European shores of the Bosphorus built by Mehmet the Conqueror prior to the capture of the city by the Ottomans in 1453.

33 Gülhane is a recently renovated public park in the historical peninsula, near the Topkapı Palace and Sultanahmet Square.

34 A. Düzkan notes that especially Kurdish weddings in poorer neighborhoods are “as entertaining as a fest, as enthusiastic as a political demonstration” (2002, p. 110) Note that singing in Kurdish (since Kurdish was banned until recently) in weddings provided one of the few opportunities to cultural expression.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Les différents quartiers d'Istanbul
Fichier image/png, 20k
Titre Figure 2: Musiques du monde et musiques turques dans le café "On the Rocks"
Fichier image/png, 293k
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Référence papier

Volkan Aytar et Azer Keskin, « Constructions of Spaces of Music in Istanbul: Scuffling and Intermingling Sounds in a Fragmented Metropolis », Géocarrefour, Vol. 78/2 | 2003, 147-157.

Référence électronique

Volkan Aytar et Azer Keskin, « Constructions of Spaces of Music in Istanbul: Scuffling and Intermingling Sounds in a Fragmented Metropolis », Géocarrefour [En ligne], Vol. 78/2 | 2003, mis en ligne le 05 juin 2007, consulté le 16 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/geocarrefour.238

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Volkan Aytar

State University of New York at Binghamton
TESEV, Bankalar Cad n°2
Minerva Hankat: 4. Karakoy, Istanbul 80020 Turquie

Azer Keskin

State University of New York at Binghamton
Binghampton, NY 13902
E-mail: akeskin(at)binghampton[point]edu

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