Istanbulive 2012: A Historic Night at Lincoln Center
Last night’s Turkish Woodstock, a.k.a. Istanbulive night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was probably the closest in spirit to the original Woodstock, meteorologically speaking: with the rain, gently cool and comforting as it was, the sight of empty seats in Damrosch Park was surreal to the extreme. This year marked the fourth annual festival of Turkish music put together by Serdar Ilhan and Mehmet Dede, the brain trust behind Drom, the downtown world music mecca: as usual, the concert was brilliant, with a special historical significance. This show was especially notable for the American debut of legendary Turkish chanteuse and freedom fighter Selda Bagcan. It took her til age 64 to get here; she sang for almost two hours as the rain picked up and then abated, and got stronger as she went along. Dressed in her native Anatolian colors of red and white (and waving a Turkish flag during one song, to thunderous applause), she’d often sing a verse and then turn her mic to the crowd, or even let the audience open a song after a familiar intro. Known for her clever, satirical, politically-charged Turkish lyrics (which resulted in her imprisonment by the junta there in the early 80s), she frequently ad-libbed them to reference current events, which further energized the audience. Watching a circle of young people pushing their way to the front, linking hands in a circle, then spinning and bouncing to a psychedelic folk protest song that had to be at least 40 years old was heartwarming to the extreme: this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Bushwick, at least not in the trendy areas.
Much of the psychedelic rock that came out of the non-English speaking world during the 60s and 70s makes the American and British stuff seem sober and timid by comparison, often because the Peruvians, and Koreans, and Estonians and so forth used a broader sonic pallette. Bagcan was backed not only by electric guitar, keyboards and drums but also by saz (Turkish lute) as well as clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski and kanun virtuoso Tamer Pinarbasi, who comprised two-thirds of the evening’s extraordinary opening act, the Secret Trio. Microtones and overtones flew from the Turkish instruments as the rock band held the center, acoustic guitar and saz frequently blending together for an intoxicatingly, glimmering river of jangle and clang as the kanun flickered in the upper registers and Lumanovski added tersely plaintive washes of sound. With her minutely jeweled, muanced melismas, Bagcan sang like a woman forty years younger, as subtle as she was undeterred and defiant.
Yet a sense of longing pervaded much of what she and the band played. Big, sweeping anthems were bisected by quiet, tense interludes where the crowd quickly filled in the empty spaces with their voices. Hearing these many of these songs done as relatively straight-up, Pink Floyd-style art-rock was quite a change from the woozy textures (synths imitating a ney flute and tinny guitar without much sustain) of many of the original recordings. Bagcan has been called the “Turkish Piaf,” and there’s some truth in that considering her unwavering support for the working classes and her occasional penchant for drama: one of the evening’s best-received numbers was a torrent of lyrics, Istanbul cabaret style. As the end of the set neared, she and the band reached back for a more starkly acoustic, traditionally Middle Eastern flavored vibe, kanun and saz taking centerstage on an undulating, Egyptian-tinged anthem.
With grey skies overhead, the Secret Trio’s dark intricately pensive instrumentals set the tone perfectly and never let up through their abbreviated three-song set, Pinarbasi and Lumanovski’s lines grounded by oudist Ara Dinkjian’s terse countermelodies. Opening with the clarinet stark over a moody, neoromantic theme that could have been Ravel, or Morricone until an even darker detour into Arabic mode, they took it down even lower and more elegaically over a hypnotic web of prickly pointillisms. Then tenor saxophonist Ilhan Ersahin’s Wonderland treated the crowd to the most night’s most hypnotic moments, clarinetist Husnu Senlendirici spinning magical, ominously microtonal spirals in tandem with Ersahin over the ringing backdrop of Pinarbasi (who was doing triple duty tonight) and an electric rhythm section featuring a trance-inducing goblet drummer. Ersahin’s signature sound is swirling and dub-influenced: maybe because he and the band kept getting mixed signals about when they were supposed to wrap up their set (everybody seemed to be expecting a cataclysmic storm), there was a welcome edge and gypsy-flavored bite to the music along with the pulsing, shapeshifting atmospherics.