Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Crossing the Bridge: The Music of Istanbul

There is no question this documentary celebrating the joyous meeting of Eastern and Western musical traditions lands differently now than when it first screened nearly twenty years ago. It would surely have a very different tone were it produced today, after almost ten years of Recep Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Much has changed since Hamburg-born Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin visited the homeland of his ancestors with German Industrial-fusion bassist Alexander Hacke, almost all of it for the worse, but most of the music still holds in Akin’s Crossing the Bridge: The Music of Istanbul, which premieres on MUBi this Friday.

As Hacke explains, while he was scoring
Head On, the previous film Akin shot in Turkey, he fell in love with the music and musicians he encountered in Istanbul. He subsequently became a sort of ambassador, who introduces viewers to many of his friends and musicians he admired, but only knew by reputation.

By far, the richest and catchiest music prominently features Turkish and Eastern instrumentation, such as ouds and tablas. Perhaps the exception is Roma musician Selim Sesler. Yet, his distinctive clarinet often sounds like an exotic woodwind, such as a pungi. Interestingly, Sesler and musical colleagues are referred to as “gypsies” throughout
Bridge, even amongst themselves, rather than Roma or Sinti, at least according to the translated subtitles this review is based on. Regardless, it is nice to see their culture celebrated.

The same is very definitely true of the Kurdish music championed Aynur Dogan, who performs an arresting Kurdish “lament” in an acoustically pristine 18
th Century Hammam bathhouse. It is a lovely scene in all respects.

In contrast, the segment on Turkish rap is a big nothing. Their claims to aesthetic superiority due to their politically charged rhymes is also dubious. We have plenty of abrasively didactic rappers here as well. Yet, there is an image seen in passing, of graffiti reading “No hip hop yes Muslim” that feels like a portent of things to come when seen from the vantage point of 2024.

Regardless, it is fun to watch the proggy Baba Zula jamming on a barge, after practically making Hacke a full member. It is also cool to see clips of revered saz-player Orhan Gencebay’s cheesy soft-core potboilers, as well as an appealingly intimate and laidback performance. Fittingly, Sezen Aksu, “the Voice of Istanbul” closes the film in proper diva style.

Throughout the film, Akin and Hacke use the Bosphorus Bridge as a metaphor for the music that connects East and West. One of the interview subjects colorfully disputes the notion that the twains of East and West can never meet, but would he be so insistent today, after Erdogan has so clearly turned towards the East and against the West and secularism? It is also rather annoying to hear one talking head take a cheap potshot at then Pres. Bush that has not aged well.

Regardless, the music is richly sophisticated and often quite beautiful, except the rap segment, which underwhelms. Yet, viewers shoould wonder, how long can that metaphorical bridge still stand? At least Akin and Hacke preserved a time-capsule of Turkish culture before the Erdogan chill. Recommended for the rhythms and the nostalgically romantic vocals,
Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul starts streaming Friday (7/5) on MUBi.