Those of you who know Arabesk, Arabic-style music created in Turkey, will be shocked by the title of this blog post. Defining Arabesk as the blues of Istanbul! Ridiculous! Arabesk is a genre by itself, with its own history and development, you can’t call that the blues of Istanbul! I know, dear readers. Still, the title perfectly explains what this blog post is about.
I went to the Istanbul Film Festival, to a film about Arabesk music called ‘Arabesk from street sound to mass culture’. A short film, only an hour. With not too much depth, as even I could see as a non-expert.
Arabesk started to be popular in the sixties, mainly among poor people with demeaning jobs. Dramatic music, even more dramatic text. Slowly it developed, influenced by urbanisation, economical growth and political turmoil. Unfortunately these factors were only mentioned, and not really explained, even though it raises many questions and awakens your curiosity. It was shown that in time, even the elite started to be interested in Arabesk, and we saw old Arabesk singers who used to sing for poor people, perform in a fancy Istanbul restaurant for rich Istanbulites. At the end of the film, a young modern Arabesk singer sort of jumped onto the screen. A Turk from Germany. He mixed Arabesk with pop music, and won a prize.
The director of the movie, Cem Kaya, was there after the film to answer questions. He didn’t even wait for the first question but immediately asked for the microphone and started to apologize for his product. He defined his film as a ‘Micky Mouse version’ of the documentary he would like to make about Arabesk. The film was made on order for German-French TV channel Arte and German TV channel ZDF. They had a week of programmes about Istanbul, and they needed music too. A pitch was written out, Kaya and two colleague film-makers competed with the idea for this film, and won.
‘They paid for the whole film’, said Kaya, ’so they had a big say in the final product. As soon as it went too deep, we had to switch back to the music. For example we couldn’t handle the influence of the 1980 military coup on the development of Arabesk, because the audience wouldn’t understand.’
And the Turkish-German younger singer at the end? Request from France and Germany. They wanted the East and the West to meet. So apparently this is how Kaya made the East and West meet. Kaya: ‘Yeah, life sucks’. And he mentioned the name of the movie as proposed by Arte and ZDF: ‘Arabesk, the blues of Istanbul’. The audience reacted with laughter and sounds of shock, and Kaya said he resisted that title. It would be beyond every reality to name Arabesk ‘the blues of Istanbul’.
Afterwards I asked Kaya why he sent the film in for the festival when he didn’t like the movie himself. Turns out not he, but the distribution company made that decision. And Kaya didn’t object. ‘On film festivals like this, you can discuss the process of film making, and of how it sometimes works. A product like this is a good start for a discussion. That’s an important function of a film festival.’
A great and honest approach. I hope that at least these commercial productions enable Kaya to make independent films, just the way he thinks a film should be.