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Like many excellent documentaries, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul begins with an amazing statement:

“Istanbul is a bridge 127 countries have crossed.”

It Isn’t Easy Being Alternative

Fifteen microphones capture the sounds of Istanbul
Fifteen microphones capture the sounds of Istanbul

Directed and written by Fatih Akin, this music documentary follows Alexander Hacke, a bass player in an avant-garde band in Germany who is so intrigued by the mysterious music and city of Istanbul that he takes 12 microphones on his journey there to “try and figure out” the city and its music. Hacke had recorded a few songs for a film made there and wanted to understand more about how the city’s position as the bridge between east and west influenced its music.

“That stuff about ‘East is east, west is west, and never the twain shall meet? That is bullshit,” declares one local resident. Hacke’s film reveals this to be true, exploring the ancient city’s music and the musicians’ complex relationships to foreign music and to their own traditional music. Many of the younger music fans interviewed admit they didn’t even know they had their own traditional music until they were 18 years old.

Erkin Koray, for example, is a Turkish rock star who plays to stadiums full of stylin’ Turkish kids and creative young music enthusiasts who are perfectly aware they have Koray to thank for their freedom to hear and perform any kind of music, in much the same way American rockers still feel they are in Jimi Hendrix’ debt. Koray admits that being alternative isn’t always easy: saying “I’m still a bit too extreme for Turkey.”

The Rough Guide to Istanbul

Hacke, our travel guide to Istanbul’s fusion of east and west and everything in between, hops and leaps from one Turkish musical style and genre to another as he meets a series of bands. (We also see him hopping and dancing around from time to time when he likes what he hears.) Mostly, he is not so much a pivotal character but rather the guy at the helm of the ship, the one keeping the meetings with musicians coming so that he can record some of their music and their stories, in that order.

This enthusiastic German bass player finds opportunities to play with some of the featured musicians. He trolls a busy boulevard to collect bands and musicians for his project, recording them as he goes. It’s great to see how, one by one, the musicians and their community crowd into the frame to tell how it really is for them.

“Hip hop is supposed to entertain with girls, money, and gangsta crap,” says one thoughtful songwriter. “That’s never even crossed my mind. My sound is similar, but my topics are more serious, serious things that concern everyone.”

“We’ll rap about anything,” unlike us in the U.S., say the guys wearing the oversized clothes, tattooed over most available surfaces.

“We’re political,” someone agrees. And when Hacke gives more glimpses of their bohemian aesthetic he reveals how this environment is especially fertile and tolerant, which is a great boon for its music, art, and culture.

Hacke and Akin take us to interesting places where we see different facets of the musical scene. In the district of Beyoglu, which used to be the exclusive territory of hard guys and other gangster types but is now chic among the young creative class, Hacke finds politically aware and earnest rappers. He also leads us to traditional Middle-Eastern music, and the music played in bars where people go “to get as drunk as possible.” He finds rock bands who cover western songs but is most inspired by the ones who sing in Turkish. He leads us to psychedelic rock bands, earnest singer-songwriters, drug-free breakdancers, and musicians who simply play because their families have been playing these tunes forever. “For me, music was when people sang,” says one middle-aged man of his own musical awakening, concluding, “I think hip hop is the music Turkey needs right now.”

Cities of the Air

As I absorbed the musical textures and influences in this documentary, I found myself wishing I could visit web sites where I could find similar stories about every city. I can imagine a Wenders-esque web ring of cities that would have that quality of footage and storytelling by and for everyday people. If you wanted to know who was playing at the Trocadero in the city you were going to visit this Saturday night, you could just visit the virtual theater online and find a link to one of the band’s songs or a short film someone made at the club or on the street outside. These sites would have a similar quality to the street-level view we get of one part of Istanbul through this film.

The variety of people and influences in Crossing the Bridge make my own environment look rather rarefied and provincial, my world views artificially circumscribed. What an opportunity this gives us to look at the contrasts between our own world and that of some other real people and their ideas. Akin achieves this snapshot by looking closely, through a transparent lens, to reveal a loose tribe in a specific moment in their history and musical development.

The Magic Mikes

Hacke’s many microphones mean that the sound quality is very good; the camera work is sometimes playful and occasionally even stylish. Usually, though, the focus is tight on the people, their music and their stories, with the occasional shot of Hacke in the foreground watching, tweaking sound levels, boogieing around the room, or jamming with a band. There’s little voice-over narrative; Hacke and Akin truly let the people and songs speak for themselves.

Crossing the Bridge: The Sounds of Istanbul succeeds as a music-based travelogue, my favorite kind of anthropology, but has some whiplash-inducing leaps from band to band and genre to genre. Even so, this film provides more insight into Istanbul’s fascinating cultural fusions than ten of those shoegazer biopics about Wilco or Death Cab for Cutie. Alexander Hacke deserves a lot of credit for hauling his gear there and making this film.

Often people’s commentary about westerners in this film contains the criticism that we do not look eastward to them for ideas and opinions. In this film, the Turkish stand at their eastern edge of the west, as if to say: “There’s a lot more to us and our views than you westerners understand or even pretend to.” They are right. But the unexpected and delightful thing is that they keep talking, playing, and telling us more. It’s worth hearing.