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JakuziPhotography Deniz Ezgi Sürek/Zero

How Istanbul’s music community is making sense of terrorism

With many international acts refusing to perform in the Turkish city, the local scene has started to fight back against the negative perception it’s receiving on the global stage

While news reports tend to focus on the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack – the death toll, the manhunt for its perpetrators – what’s less frequently acknowledged is the long-term psychological effects that it can have on a community. Not only does terrorism claim the lives of innocent people, it disrupts the livelihood of a city, creates fear and insecurity, increases political instability, and has knock-on effects on local economies and industries. In recent years, Istanbul has suffered a number of such atrocities and fought to keep up a regular flow of life, with the city’s creative industries, musicians, and live music promoters having had to adjust to this changed landscape.

While Istanbul was once a rising star of the international live music circuit, the city is finding itself increasingly off the map for many touring artists. In particular, attacks at Ataturk Airport last June, a twin bombing on police officers outside a football stadium in Besiktas last December, and an attack at the Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve left lasting damaging effects on the city’s image. Turkish singer Gaye Su Akyol reports that at least seven of her shows have been cancelled or rescheduled over the last year, while Murat Abbas – executive director of Zorlu PSM, Turkey’s equivalent to the UK’s Barbican Centre – provides more numbers. “In our case, eight out of ten artists we approach refuse outright to play in Istanbul, while one asks for fees that are way above what they normally charge,” he says. “We can only carry out a normal conversation with one out of the ten artists we approach.”

For veterans of Istanbul’s music scene, this is a familiar fight. Ahmet Ulug, co-founder of iconic music venue Babylon, has been trying to bring international musicians to the city since his company first started organizing events in 1989. “At the time, artists didn’t want to play in Istanbul because they didn’t know what to expect here,” he says. “When the Gulf War erupted, they were scared to come. After 9/11, they were scared because Turkey is a Muslim country. Around the time of the attacks to HSBC and two synagogues in 2003, they got scared again. We’ve been dealing with this for years. It’s always been part of our lives.”

This isn’t to deny that terrorism in Istanbul is a valid threat – that’s why Ulug says that he’s no longer trying to persuade artists who have reservations to come and play – but from where they stand, the whole world seems to be in chaos, not just Turkey. After the mass shootings at The Bataclan in Paris and Pulse in Orlando, the international music community stood in solidarity against terrorism, yet there’s a general feeling amongst the people in Turkey that they have not been awarded with the same generosity. “A lot of other places in Europe have also suffered from terrorism, but some of the artists who refuse to play and cancel their shows in Istanbul are still playing there,” says Murat Abbas.

Gaye Su Akyol, who has grown from local popularity in Istanbul to play festivals across the world, similarly sees terrorism as an international concern. “We’ve heard that some people who get confirmed to play in Istanbul have received anonymous emails – warnings against coming to Istanbul, some sort of dark propaganda,” she says. “This terrible violence that takes place in Paris, in Berlin, in everywhere else in the world, has long gone past being the problem of a specific geography. In order to prevent these atrocities, we need to stop dividing the world into areas and nations, look at terrorism as a threat against humanity, and take action collectively.”

“Turkey has suffered from a negative image for a long time, and perhaps people find it easy to just label the country as the ‘problematic Middle East’” – Alican Yuksel

“It’s of course understandable that artists have concerns about their safety,” adds Alican Yuksel, who has been running the Indigo nightclub for five years. “On the other hand, people have been asking us silly questions, like whether we’re travelling here with camels or not, for years. I’m exaggerating, but you get the gist – Turkey has suffered from a negative image for a long time, and perhaps people find it easy to just label the country as the ‘problematic Middle East.’”

This line of thinking has unfortunately taken hold in western media coverage around terrorist attacks. Writing for the Independent last year, Matt Ayton called out the “simple but politicised cognitive bias: we (Westerners) are killed in terrorist attacks, and it’s a tragedy; they (Arabs, Turks) die in terrorist attacks, and it’s an unfortunate norm in a destabilized region. It is a casual assumption, informed by lazy generalisations about the Muslim world – including Turkey – that violence is and will always be, an intrinsic part of life in the Middle East.” Many of the people I spoke to within the Turkish industry talked about the feeling of isolation, of being singled out and punished, for something that they didn’t cause. More importantly, many of them believe that one of the most effective ways to fight radicalism is through art, and that they can use their platform to stand in solidarity with those who’ve suffered or died due to terrorism. They can’t help but feel let down.

When American folk singer and activist Joan Baez cancelled her Izmir show last summer, she issued a statement describing how she’d been advised against playing in Turkey. “Never has the advice of all my risk-taking activist colleagues been so adamant that I do not put myself, and my band and crew, in the heightened danger of the nightmare which is sweeping Turkey,” she wrote. “Of all the times I’ve gone into war zones, countries under dictatorships, or any other civil strife, I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like the immense and unpredictable danger which presents itself in today’s Turkey.” Baez’s comments left many people feeling upset. Pelin Opcin, director of Istanbul Jazz Festival, believed it was an irresponsible statement coming from such a veteran activist. “I understand that you have concerns about your safety,” she posted in an open letter on social media, “but I cannot understand why you would be so quick to decide that the country is a war zone, and that you would use words such as ‘unpredictable danger’ and ‘nightmare.’ You made us feel isolated and punished. You’re an inspiration so please encourage us instead of saying how bad it is here for us because it’s not.”

Indeed, promoters have had better luck with agents and artists who actually know Istanbul. Deniz Kuzuoglu, co-director of central Istanbul venue Salon IKSV, says, “The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, the administering establishment of this venue, has a 45-year history. Although things have slowed down a little after the Besiktas and Reina attacks, we’ve received a lot of support from live agents and artists, the majority of whom we’ve previously worked with. It’s much more difficult to explain the situation in Istanbul to someone who has no idea about what they’re going to encounter after they step out of the airport than it is to someone who has already been to Salon. Artists seem to relax once they enter the venue because they see with their own eyes that everything works as good as any other European city. It’s understandable that they’re worried, but once they see that people lead their lives as normal and go back to their countries with positive feedback, it helps significantly.”

Alican Yuksel adds: “There have been a few names who didn’t want to play at Indigo, but in the five seasons we’ve run this club, we’ve managed to create an intimate community of DJs who we’ve become friends with. We’ve kept them updated about the situation in Istanbul, so knowing what to expect made it easier for them to come and play. In our case, most of the cancellations stemmed from our side – at certain times we felt like it was the right thing to do.” The Away Days, an indie rock band hailing from Istanbul, also say that nothing is really as it seems: bands they’ve supported, like Wild Beasts, Local Natives, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, have all noted how Istanbul is nothing like how it looks from the outside. Similarly, there are other artists who are choosing fight over flight. In-demand German dance music act Âme were booked to play at Indigo on the night of the Besiktas attack; after the duo’s Kristian Beyer heard about it from his hotel room, he persevered and played to a sold-out crowd. And Weval, whose show that same night was cancelled, are set to return to the city for its upcoming first edition of Sónar Festival.

“The reluctance of some international artists to play in the city has opened up space for local acts to flourish... the revival of the local underground wasn’t by choice, but out of necessity”

Elsewhere, the reluctance of some international artists to play in the city has opened up space for local acts to flourish. Deniz Kuzuoglu notes that this coincided with a bigger demand for exciting new local talent, as in the case of Istanbul-based band Jakuzi, who recently signed to City Slang after their A&R jumped on a plane to Istanbul to catch a live set. The band themselves point out that the revival of the local underground wasn’t by choice, but out of necessity: “Venues had no other choice than to book local bands. International artists didn’t want to come here. It’s a shame that it had to come to this for local bands to finally be on the stages that they deserve and play with the sound systems that they should play on. We don’t think that it’s a real and long-lasting platform.” Ah! Kosmos, another producer hailing from Istanbul, feels that venues and artists have come together in support of one another in order to preserve their existence, forming an even stronger creative community under not just the threat of violence, but new rules and regulations that limit the proper functioning of the cultural industries.

Ultimately, it’s clear that the threat of terrorism and political instability hasn’t stopped people from going out and having fun. Promoters report that attendance has only dropped by 10%. Shows are still being put on, tickets are still selling, a lot of venues are still full and Istanbul is still an inspiring city with a vibrant nightlife, an impressive culture and a passionate arts scene. Istanbul has gone through a lot, but you can still hear the sound of music echoing, loudly and proudly.