We’re ready for a brand new beat. Bring on the göbek atmak!
Early in 2014, my cousin – an Istanbullu through and through – invited my friends and me to a concert in Beyoğlu, the beating heart of the city’s art scene. He assured us that the neighbourhood, with its alleys lined with dozens of bars and performance spaces, was the best place to spend a dreary February night. Removing a stack of tickets from his coat pocket, he added that Kolektif Istanbul was playing at the Babylon nightclub. ‘No one puts on a better show’, he said
We got to Babylon at around nine or nine-thirty, when the other concertgoers were still having private conversations over drinks, and checked our coats before walking to the stage. Some minutes later, the energy in the room shifted. People left their posts at the fringes of the dance- floor and congregated in the centre, turning away from one another to look up at the six musicians who had just taken the stage. With their instruments in hand, the band must have felt that the room could not wait any longer, and, seconds later, launched into an infectious brass melody. After two hours of dancing to songs we had never heard before – at least, not in a 9/8 time signature – I had become a follower of Kolektif Istanbul.
My story is not unique amongst fans of Kolektif Istanbul, who released their fourth studio album, Pastırma Yazı (Pastrami Summer), this June. Two of the group’s co-founders – vocalist and trumpet player Aslı Doğan and her husband Richard Laniepce, a multi-instrumentalist French transplant – began building their fan base in 2006 at such joyous live performances, in which traditional Thracian melodies meet the band’s jazz and funk sensibilities. The group’s other members include the Bulgarian-born brothers Tamer (accordion and keyboard) and Talat (clarinet) Karaoğlu, Ertan Şahin (sousaphone), and jazz drummer Ediz Hafızoğlu.
A typical Kolektif Istanbul concert spans every genre, from Turkish oyun havaları, or, highly danceable folkloric numbers, to French chansons and Western alternative rock. Their influences range from Bulgarian clarinetist Ivo Papazov and accordionist Peter Ralchev to Snarky Puppy and Farmers’ Market, a Norwegian jazz band specialising in Bulgarian folk. ‘We don’t rehearse too often’, Doğan said. ‘Our sound is a product of all the gigs we’ve played [over the last decade]. Everyone in the band experiments with different sounds.’ Laniepce added that ‘All the work of arranging a song happens live in a concert. Before the gig, someone will have an idea [about a particular song], and we’ll all just go with it.’
This ‘just go with it’ mentality has yielded interesting musical hybrids over Kolektif Istanbul’s ten-year existence. Funky tuba bass lines run through Turkish folk songs; jazzy, syncopated drum beats undergird traditional Bulgarian wedding tunes; slow, lyrically driven French chansons are rewritten in an upbeat 9/8 time signature. If you thought you couldn’t dance to Joe Dassin’s L’Été Indien (Indian Summer), think again. ‘We never arrange a song with a particular sound in mind,’ Doğan said, ‘and as a result, we haven’t been able to come up with a good label for our music. One of our friends called our sound “progressive wedding music”, and we really like that.’
Somewhat ironically, Kolektif Istanbul initially formed inside a studio. In 2005, Kolektif Istanbul was just that – a collective of 21 musicians who had gotten together to record traditional Thracian and Balkan melodies at the request of Laniepce, who eventually produced the group’s 2006 debut album, Balkanatolia. A luthier by trade, Laniepce – who hails from Lorient, a small town in Brittany – spent much of the late 90s tracing the origins of various wind instruments such as the gaida (Bulgarian bagpipes). He set out for the Balkans in 1997, and divided his time between the peninsula’s young republics. When he wasn’t speaking with or recording local musicians, Laniepce purchased vinyl records and developed a small collection of musical instruments. By 2000, he had made his way around the Balkan peninsula and was Istanbul- bound. Although he had originally planned a three-month visit, he has now lived in the city over 15 years.
Doğan, who had studied film and television production in university, was living in Istanbul at the time. In the early 2000s, her primary interest lay not in becoming a musician herself, but in producing documentaries about music. When Laniepce arrived in Istanbul and needed to be introduced to local musicians, Doğan acted as his guide an interpreter. ‘We travelled all around, everywhere from meyhanes [Pers. mey-khaneh/‘tavern’, Turkish dining establishments that typically serve rakı liquor and mezze] to very traditional weddings out in the villages’, she recalled. The duo’s various interactions with Turkish musicians yielded the original 21-person Kolektif Istanbul, and Laniepce arranged for studio time with all of his new collaborators. It was in the studio that Doğan learned that she too was a member of the collective. ‘I would say that I was forced into it’, she said, laughing. ‘We were in the studio, and [all the other musicians] urged me to sing on a track. I made them promise to erase the recording if I didn’t sound good – but of course, they never had any intention of doing so.’
Despite her initial reluctance, Doğan remains the group’s vocalist (along with Laniepce), and also plays the trumpet, which she learned soon after her first studio experience. In fact, the present ‘core’ group of Laniepce, Doğan, Hafızoğlu, Şahin, and the Karaoğlu brothers emerged after Balkanatolia’s studio sessions had concluded in late 2005. Doğan added with a smile that the name ‘Kolektif’ stuck even after their original group had whittled down to just six members because the remaining ones ‘liked the way it sounded’. Since 2006, the group has played hundreds of shows across the Middle East, South America, Africa, and Europe, including the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in 2011. It should come as no surprise that they have also become a staple in their hometown music scene.
Being a musician in Turkey and finding the motivation to make music have been really challenging in the past four or five years … But our music is ultimately rooted in happiness
Countless appearances at well-known venues in Istanbul have allowed Doğan and Laniepce to witness the changes that have been occurring in the artistic community over the past decade firsthand. Doğan said that she has been particularly struck by the proliferation of massive concert halls, which are often housed in shopping centres. Similarly, several mid-sized venues, including Babylon and Hayal Kahvesi, now operate on a franchise model. However, Doğan has observed an emergence of alternative venues in other parts of Turkey as well. ‘I grew up in Malatya, a small town in eastern Turkey’, she told me. ‘You couldn’t see a show there on a regular basis. We’d occasionally have very famous musicians play in stadiums or sports centres … but we were totally at the mercy of mainstream popularity.’
At home, Kolektif have brought their signature sound to rather unusual venues, from tiny village celebrations to the streets of Istanbul. During the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the group even played an impromptu set in Taksim Square with the Breton pipe band Bagad Penhars. ‘Needless to say, the city cancelled the official event as soon as the protests broke out’, remembered Doğan. ‘But we approached Bagad and said, “We still want to play – will you join us?” We didn’t know how they’d feel … especially since Istanbul is chaotic enough on a normal Saturday night.’ To Doğan and Laniepce’s delight, all 30 Bagad members agreed to join. On June 8, the newly formed Gezi Bandosu (Gezi Band) grabbed their instruments and marched towards Taksim Square, surrounded by throngs of cheering demonstrators. ‘I had goosebumps the whole time. [Taksim Square] was one of the best stages we’ve ever performed on, without a doubt’, Doğan said.
Regardless of setting – at home, abroad, a festival, a small bar – a single phenomenon unites all Kolektif Istanbul performances: göbek atmak, a Turkish phrase that refers to the sort of improvised, joyful dancing that one usually observes at weddings. ‘I think [facilitating] göbek atmak is our band’s most important skill’, Laniepce said with a laugh. ‘This sort of dancing … can erase differences in age, socioeconomic status, life experiences, [etc.]. None of these things matter once you start dancing’, Doğan was quick to note. The duo told me that nearly all of their live shows devolve into göbek atmak, even if it takes some crowds a little longer to warm up the idea. ‘It’s certainly not the case that everyone … starts dancing as soon as we get on stage; we have to put a little work in, too!’ Doğan said. ‘This is exactly what happened at the Globaltica Festival in Gdansk’, added Laniepce. ‘These people were all sitting – they were very serious and quiet – and then, out of nowhere, they were on their feet.’
Unsurprisingly, while giving me an overview of the band’s history, Doğan and Laniepce seemed most eager to recount their live performances. As a group that relies on audience feedback to develop and modify its often-improvised repertoire, Kolektif Istanbul’s two bandleaders admitted that replicating the energy of its live performances in a studio environment could be difficult. ‘It’s taken us 10 years, but I think we’re much closer to replicating our concert sound in the studio than we have ever been’, Laniepce noted, referring to the new Pastırma Yazı album. ‘We never took our time in the studio seriously prior to this album. I think we had recorded one of our other albums in just two or three days.’
Their fourth album, which follows 2013’s Kerevet and 2008’s Krivoto, features French chansons and covers of songs by Farmers’ Market and The Meters alongside Turkish longas and köçeks (varieties of instrumental Turkish folk music), all with a Kolektif Istanbul twist. The album itself got its name from the Turkish equivalent of Dassin’s L’Été Indien, which Laniepce and Karaoğlu rather spontaneously transposed into 9/8 time during a sound check. Doğan noted that about half the tracks had already featured in Kolektif Istanbul’s live shows prior to the recording. Acımadı Yine (It Doesn’t Hurt Anymore), while new, has now grown to become one of the group’s biggest hits. Its music video – which debuted just a week after the failed military coup of July 15 – features friends and relatives of the band dancing enthusiastically to the song. ‘[Singer-songwriter] Ceylan Ertem’s lyrics lined up perfectly with the mood in Turkey after July 15’, said Doğan, adding that the song conveyed a message of hope. ‘Being a musician in Turkey and finding the motivation to make music have been really challenging in the past four or five years’, she explained. ‘There’s always something [tragic or frightening] happening – but our music is ultimately rooted in happiness … We were nervous that we would receive backlash for releasing such an [upbeat] video right after July 15.’
Their fears were unfounded. The song’s catchy, göbek atmak-inducing melody and timely message – along with a few celebrity cameos – propelled the music video to over 260,000 views on YouTube in less than a month. ‘It turns out that everyone [in Turkey] just needed an opportunity to smile’, Doğan said. With a laugh, she also remarked that the song would undoubtedly feature prominently in their concert set-lists during their autumn 2016 tour.
Never ones to make long-term plans, Kolektif Istanbul remain focused on the fundamentals. Playing more gigs in distant corners of the world (Japan and North America top Laniepce’s personal wish list) and eventually collaborating with their musical idols Farmers’ Market and Ivo Papazov would be wonderful, they told me; but, they would be happy if the six of them could simply continue making music. ‘To be honest, we never really focused on becoming a high- profile band, and I’m guessing we’ve passed up on certain opportunities or made decisions that other musicians might consider strategic missteps’ said Doğan. ‘But all we want for the future is to continue playing shows. We’ve had great opportunities up to this point, and we’d like that to continue for as long as possible.’
Cover image: Aslı Doğan (courtesy Dominik Gruszczyk).