06 May, 2010

Eskişehir / Electronic and folkloric

I'm so used to typing these posts, but tonight i have to write on paper for a change. 2 AM, and i've stepped into Haci Baba family teahouse across the street from Eskişehir Station to pass an hour before my train leaves. Ah, 3 AM train. A long, complicated story... losing my cellphone on campus and failing to make contact with a couchsurf host.

I took the Yüksek Hızlı Tren from Ankara at six last evening. It was a mad dash, leaving class early to catch the campus shuttle to AŞTI, the subway to Tandoğan, and run the last kilometer to Ankara station with eight minutes to buy a ticket. All six economy cars were sold out. But sometimes, with a student discount on your side, being forced to travel business class is not such a bad thing. After clearing Sincan station on the outskirts of town, the train accelerated to its top speed of about 250 km (157 miles) per hour. The Anatolian landscape sped past - tiny villages, wheat fields, rock outcrops. In American terms, imagine equal parts Badlands NP and Nebraska agriculture with the occasional mosque and poplar windbreak thrown in. Late afternoon, people fishing in a series of irrigation ponds turn their heads as the train blurs by, casting a long shadow in the setting sun. On a hillside a herdsman riding a donkey watches the train go by; goats frisk behind him. I wonder what he's thinking. And in a brisk 1.5 hours, we've disbarked at Eskişehir Gar.

YHT, all dressed up for Yunus Emre Week

(Only a year old, YHT is the first of several planned high speed trains. A leg from Eski to Istanbul is under construction, and plans call for lines from Ankara to Kayseri, Bursa, and Izmir. As Turkiye urbanizes, such advances in public transportation provide an important economic stimulus and build important infrastructure with an eye toward EU membership. I wouldn't mind seeing such advances in the U.S., though i'm guessing sprawl in the northeast limits the availability of corridors for such a system.)

Eskişehir has an ironic name. Literally, it means "old city" - but as home to two of Turkiye's largest universities, it has perhaps the largest proportion of college students in the general population. This, at least, is what the grapevine tells me, and the city's youthful energy bears the rumors out. Compared to Ankara, with its surfeit of smaller universities, the college influence in Eskişehir is palpable (though in a larger city, the transient atmosphere that characterizes Orono is happily absent). A canal runs through the downtown, the presence of water bringing a liveliness that Ankara lacks. Even after midnight, pedestrian streets flanking it are a popular place for dog-walkers. It's also a well-designed city; the central artery, named Atatürk Bulvarı as usual, runs straight as an arrow from its terminus at the train station past my destination, Atatürk Stadyumu. I didn't actually come to see the city.

This week, Eskişehir celebrates Yunus Emre Week in honor of the famous Sufi poet (1240-1321?), one of the first to compose works in the Turkish language. And as part of the festivities, i was excited to learn  there would be a free public concert by the Mercan Dede Ensemble. Last fall a friend introduced me to Dede's unique blend of electronica and traditional music, with which i promptly fell in love.

Dede's bio is a fascinating one: traveling to Canada to exhibit some photographs, with little knowledge of English, he wound up staying, and among other artistic pursuits becoming a DJ in Montreal under the stage name Arkin Allen. Later he returned to Istanbul, fulfilling a lifelong dream when he learned to play the ney, a traditional reed flute common in Sufi music. Today his career spans east and west, based part time in both Montreal and Istanbul, and his music has a similar span.While music is forbidden among the most conservative Muslims, it is an indispensable part of the Sufi tradition. Strong rhythms carry Sufis to the ecstatic state of sama, familiar to most westerners as the whirling of dervişler, and Dede's music carries this tradition forward, adding a driven base of trance techno beneath a palette of traditional instruments. To put it in Dede's own words, "the future is both electronic and folkloric."

He performed with a five member ensemble: Ney, clarinet, trumpet, bağlama, kanun, an erhu-like instrument, darbuka, didgeridoo, and Dede spinning loops and sampling, occasionally adding his own ney and hand percussion to the mix. Here are links to two tracks, Ginhawa and Napas; the latter was stunning performed live and extended long beyond the recorded length as the musicians delved deep into its texture.

Sitting in the rigid plastic stadium seat, bass vibrated through my body as the ney wailed its breath-song of separation from God. Clarinet improvised a rising, falling chant against a hip-hop throb. In one of the set's most electric moments, the talented young drummer played an extensive call-and-response with Dede that melted into a duet between the organic thump of the darbuka and a slipstream of his own sampled, distorted beats echoed back, the basis for a piece nearly ten minutes long.

For two numbers, the musicians were joined on stage by dervishes, most clad in white except for a single red costume. Because the dervish has become all too familiar - an advertising image for Turkish tourism, a curiosity - i haven't gone looking for them, and as they whirled on stage, i contemplated the sama ritual as a modern showpiece, stripped of its aspiration to divine ecstasy. In my brief reading on sufism one idea was painfully clear: that sama is intended only for those pure of worldly intent. Yet as i sat, the music carried me to a certain unworldly distance as well.


The performance was part of a double-bill stadium show stretching nearly four hours, and best of all, free! With periodic spatterings of fireworks and Eskişehirspor futbol chants during the set breaks, it was a public party only the Turks could throw. So grateful for the music, the smooth ride, and the opportunity to run away for an evening, explore a new city, and hear one of my favorite artists live for the first time.

Now i await the train. If i never make it back to Eskişehir, the few hours i spent here were good ones. Looking ahead, it's a feeling i should get used to. I've begun, better late than never, checking into visa requirements for a trip that would circle the middle east. I'll keep you posted!

04 May, 2010

Update: blog backlog

It's 4 AM and i love academic buildings open 24/7. Still awaiting a replacement screen for my macbook, i'm writing when i can snatch time in the computer labs away from coursework, gym, and sleep. Apologies for the month of lax updates; i have just about finished writing the Istanbul posts but don't look yet! I'll need to pair them with the appropriate photos when i can beg some time on a mac.

Likewise Yolagzi posts await fact-checking and editing from my host... but in a few days, they should all be up - and you, dear readers, shall be forging onward.