Soundtrack to the streets of Istanbul is loud - and conflicted

Despite Istanbul's conflicted sentiments towards its musical traditions, the love of very loud music crosses all class and ethnic lines.

Bono, left, and Larry Mullen Jr. of U2 perform during their 360 world tour stop at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

It is a point rarely mentioned in the guidebooks: Istanbul has a deafening soundtrack. There is no respite from the noise here - electric guitars mingling with car horns, cats shrieking in the alleyways, the din of hammering and tapping and drilling, men shouting in the street, car alarms and jackhammers. Pumped into every store and restaurant, with the volume turned to 11, is some of the worst music that western culture has ever produced: vapid techno with no melody. It is an eternal mystery that these sounds are considered pleasing to anyone; it is an even greater mystery that this musical form should be so popular among Turks, whose indigenous musical tradition is unusually rhythmically complex.

How you feel about this music depends on your mood. On a summer evening, there is no livelier or happier place in the world than the maze of narrow streets behind the Çiçek passage off of Istiklâl Caddesi, a densely packed alley with hundreds of taverns, restaurants and outdoor cafes. The musical assault involves Turkish pop, all manner of jazz, nu-jazz, faux-jazz, East-meets-West psychedelic, Arabesque, traditional soulful fasil music, funk, oldies, house, indie and electronica. Teenage buskers strum guitars in the streets below live jazz clubs that cater to more sophisticated crowds. For live music the ne plus ultra is Babylon. There is no telling what will be on the stage: it could be Cuban rap, it could be Turkish folk, but the club will definitely be packed. If you've still got it in you, finish your evening with a meander up Istiklâl Caddesi, where you'll jostle through crowds of couples, packs of slightly louche young men and cops packing some heavy-duty heat, with blaring record shops providing a soundtrack.

The love of very loud music crosses all class and ethnic lines. Ortaköy, Kuruçesme and Bebek are famous for pleasure yachts, Bosphorus views and super-clubs for the super-rich with super-loud amplifiers. These sophisticated Turks would cringe at the thought of crossing the Bosphorus to Anatolian Üsküdar for the nightlife, but they need to lighten up. It's guaranteed that on the boardwalk someone will be playing a guitar or a saz, and everyone around him will know all the words to the song.

Istanbul's classical music scene is certainly no rival to London's or New York's, but it's loud nonetheless, with three major symphony orchestras, two opera houses and three conservatories. This year, as part of Istanbul's European Capital of Culture festivities, there will be a series of concerts called the Music of Istanbul's Architecture in such settings as the 19th-century Dolmabahçe Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus. The International Istanbul Music Festival will feature the world premiere of Adam's Lament, commissioned by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Other scheduled events will focus on the city's Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities, with folk concerts on the Princes' Islands. The Istanbul 2010 Balkan Music Festival will showcase the musical traditions of neighbouring Balkan countries.

It is revealing, though, of Istanbul's conflicted sentiments towards its musical traditions that the most widely anticipated musical event of the year is the arrival of U2 in September - the crowning triumph, supposedly, of Istanbul's Capital of Culture festivities. What U2 has to do with Istanbul's culture is unclear, but no doubt the concert will possess the common trait of Istanbul's music scene: it will be loud.

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