Did you come from Istiklal?

“Did you come from Istiklal?” The phrase has become a refrain in our conversations. Every time we meet, one demonstration or another is in the process of being broken up along Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s famous pedestrian drag and a main site of the summer’s Gezi protests. Protests have continued for various reasons under different banners and with slightly less fervor into the rainy winter months; the government, meanwhile, has become increasingly efficient at stamping out these spontaneous displays of dissent. The police and their panzers waiting along the street – fewer on calm days, more when an especially contentious bit of legislation is passed or new details of a corruption scandal come to light- are now as much a part of life here as the city’s traffic and penchant for tea.

This particular evening, people gathered in response to the proposal of a new internet censorship law that promised to further restrict access to information and infringe on user privacy. And this particular evening, I had avoided Istiklal’s normal crowds intentionally and its surprise slogans, tear gas, and water cannons quite accidentally as I rushed through the area’s deep, tangled side streets. I’d had no intention of being late to see Sibel Köse, a talented vocalist known as the first lady of Turkish jazz.

So, did I come from Istiklal? No, Sibel, I took a different route. No, I was not tear gassed. Yes, I’m ready for some music.

Sibel started singing jazz with a student ensemble while studying architecture at Ankara’s prestigious Middle East Technical University. After graduating, she continued to sing and began attending workshops in Turkey and abroad to perfect her craft. Sibel quickly gained a reputation for professionalism that helped to propel her clear, powerful voice to the forefront of Turkey’s jazz world, where it has stayed ever since.

She and her quintet, consisting this evening of Deniz Dundar on drums, Volkan Topakoğlu on bass, Engin Recepoğulları on sax, and Kürşad Deniz on piano, breezed through impeccable renderings of jazz standards, touching on the Great American Songbook, French influences, and a little Bossa Nova. Over dinner before the show, they mentioned that although they all knew each other and indeed had played together in various capacities before, this evening marked the first time they had worked together as the “Sibel Köse Quintet.” Sibel, Engin, and Kürşad are permanent fixtures in the quintet, while Deniz and Volkan were filling in for two members who couldn’t be present that evening.

Such instances are common; jazz ensembles are fluid in Istanbul, and populated by a small but dedicated community of musicians. Volkan estimated, and his bandmates for the evening agreed, that there are roughly fifty full-time, top tier musicians that play regularly between a handful of venues devoted to jazz, tour domestically and abroad, and act as guardians of the genre- a rather large responsibility for fifty people in a city of 15 million. The responsibility is even heavier than the numbers would suggest: How does one make such music matter to an audience that may not know the music’s original social or political context, or the language of the lyrics?

A story Sibel told suggests that perhaps experiencing the warmth of the genre is as significant for the new global listener as understanding the lyrics or history behind it.

“I was very moved, for example- we were playing one time on the street for the architectural organization, and on the street there’s everybody. And there was a guy who gave me flowers with a note. It said he was a shepherd, and it was the first time he had listened to any western music, and he was so moved and that’s why he wanted to give me those flowers. It was so touching for me; to be the first experience for somebody means that your service is well done. After a while, music is first something you want to do, then you want to prove yourself and be recognized by people, and the stage I’m in now is that if you serve some purpose, make people feel something- feel good, feel sad, feel happy- get in touch with their feelings, that’s the thing that makes me the most happy now.”

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