The concert by the group Dolapdere Big Gang at the Jolly Joker Club in Balo Sokak, Beyoğlu, on March 1 was my first experience of attending a pop concert on behalf of Cornucopia. I should hasten to point out that my reluctance to deal with the popular music scene in these distinguished columns has nothing to do with snobbery. I do not share the prejudice against pop music that some classical music enthusiasts have, and do not presume to occupy a Parnassian pedestal as a bewreathed representative of High Culture. My reluctance to attend pop events is due purely and simply to the extreme amplification of the bass and percussion. The booming grabs you by the sternum and forces you back against the wall, where you are comprehensively beaten up by sound frequencies that can only have been designed as a form of warfare. Nevertheless, I braved the auditory assault, which was something similar to what Russian, German and other participants in the Battle of Kursk (the tank battle in the summer of 1943 that decided the fate of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union) must have had to endure during the Red Army’s initial artillery bombardment – an epic barrage by 3000 screaming guns and mortars.
As the taxi took my companion and me up the hill from Dolapdere to Galatasaray, I was moved to reflect how the Dolapdere area, which lies in a valley that extends from below the northwest side of Taksim Square to the Golden Horn at Kasımpaşa, has changed since I visited it regularly from 1980 onwards to buy fuel for my stove. I well remember the smell of the oak logs, brought from the Thracian forests towards the Bulgarian border, that were neatly stacked up in the woodyards, and the ‘tock-tock’ sound of the cut ends of two logs being smacked together to test the wood’s dryness or otherwise. Decisions on which of the vast woodpiles to patronise would be followed by the subdued thudding of my fuel purchases being thrown into the back of a lorry, the lorry’s huffing and puffing as it crawled, fully laden, up the hill from Şişhane towards Beyoğlu, and the exciting prospect of being apprehended and fined by the municipality’s watchmen for bringing an unsuitable vehicle into İstiklal Caddesi. At last the lorry would tip its hind quarters upwards so that the logs thundered to the ground outside Botter Han, and the men from the woodyard would carry load after load in wickerwork panniers on their backs into my woodshed, leaving it fully stacked and me ready for the winter.
Dolapdere used to be an unpretentious and not a little run-down place, bordered by gypsy quarters, regarded as a no-go neck of the woods for respectable citizens even during the hours of daytime. The first step in the process of gentrification was the building of a department of Bilgi University beside the main road, and spanking new multi-storey residences are now eating further and further into the tumbledown old gypsy neighbourhoods. It is, after all, a central location, and the wacky aspect is no doubt a selling point for estate agents on the lookout for trendy young customers. One luxury development at the head of a side valley that leads down to Dolapdere from Kurtuluş even uses the word ‘Soul’ in its title.
Our taxi’s progress, as we climbed up Ömer Hayyam Caddesi towards the side of the British Consulate, was arrested by the extremely slow movement of a car with diplomatic licence plates ahead of us. The driver may have been in his cups (here, I have respectfully refrained from any Cockney rhyming allusions to Brahms and Liszt), and therefore trying his best to be careful, but he nevertheless succeeded in mounting the pavement and running into a tree. I took this as a portent, and drank no more than half a glass of wine at our journey’s end – the Jolly Joker Club in Balo Sokak, which runs down from İstiklal Caddesi towards Tarlabaşı Boulevard on the Taksim side of the Flower Passage at Galatasaray.
After being frisked at the entrance for offensive weapons (they missed the pop-flamenco CD cunningly concealed down the side of my boot), we were most courteously welcomed by the club’s staff and escorted to our VIP stools at the front of the seating area. There we waited patiently until the group’s performance, which we had been told was due to begin at 10, finally got under way at 11:25. During the intervening minutes, the strafing by the Luftwaffe continued unabated as wave after wave of weaponised sound, emanating from a cluster of huge speakers suspended from the ceiling, thumped us in the area of the solar plexus. But my companion and I had been forewarned, and took it all with calm fortitude. A little conversation might have been welcome, but this was, of course, impossible. It was with relief that we eventually saw the members of the group descend onto the stage from a gallery running along a side wall.
The Dolapdere Big Gang group produced its first studio album, Local Strangers, in 2006, and since then has been performing oldie hits from Western rock and pop music with an arabesk flavour provided by instruments such as the clarinet, the kanun (an instrument that goes back to Ancient Egypt and Sumeria – it has strings of various lengths arranged horizontally in a wooden box) and the darbuka, a kind of drum – all these being associated with the kind of music gypsies play at weddings. It will come as no surprise to learn that many of the songs to which the group have made locally-inspired adjustments are in the minor key, which of course is what Turkish musicians are used to, but some are in the major. The additions they make to the original versions are usually in the form of distinctly Middle Eastern introductions to the song, extra rhythmic accompaniments from the darbuka and interjections from violins, the kanun, the clarinet and sometimes the oud.
A word on the arabesk style, with its melancholic curlicues and portando swoopings from shimmering violins punctuated by melodramatic posturings from other instruments. I have read that this basically Arab genre became popular in Turkey thanks to government prohibition during the 1940s and 1950s. Music of this kind was officially frowned on for reasons of cultural purism, and the TRT (Turkish Radio and Television) was not permitted to play it. The effect of the ban was the reverse of what was intended, however: it merely encouraged Turkish people to tune in to Syrian and other Arab radio stations, where they could find music to accompany their sniffling sessions (rakı-induced or otherwise) and indulge in self-pity to their heart’s content.
Here are some of the group’s videos – ‘Englishman in New York’, ‘La Isla Bonita’ and ‘Billie Jean’.
Whoever was responsible for the following arrangement of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ must have had their tongue firmly ensconced in their cheek.
My personal opinion is that the results Dolapdere Big Gang obtain from their cross-cultural ‘improvements’ are both novel and musically satisfying. Credit for this must go to Gökay Süngü, the keyboard player who is also the group’s musical director, and to Emir Yeşil, the vocalist, for his well-judged renditions of the songs in a slightly clouded voice that adds a touch of piquancy to the blend. (His English diction is remarkably good, by the way.) Whatever reservations purists may have, the quality of the musicianship is undeniable. We heard some truly fantastic solos from Aykut Sütoğlu, the clarinettist, and Yusuf Çalkan, the violinist. Mustafa Olgan, the kanun-player, is the only performer on this instrument I have ever heard add an atonal element to his cadenzas; there were snatches of Debussy, too. It was the first time I had seen an electrified version of the kanun, and the originality of his style certainly added an interesting element to the evening.
Here is a video of ‘Another Day in Paradise’ in which the group have come up with what I think is an entirely appropriate reinvention of the song, complete with oud solos.
The Dolapdere Big Gang group consists of seven people: singer Emir Yeşil, keyboard player Gökay Süngü, bass guitarist Elcil Gürel, kanun-player Mustafa Olgan, violinist Yusuf Çalkan, clarinettist Aykut Sütoğlu, darbuka-player Memduh Akatay and drummer Hüseyin Ceylan. In addition to their first album, ‘Local Strangers’ (2006), they have also produced a second (‘Just Feel’, 2007) and a third (‘Art-İst’, 2010).