Bosphorus Phosphorus

THE SPARKY MULTI-ETHNIC MUSÝC OF MODERN TURKEY IS ON IN NORTH LONDON, SAYS RICHARD MORRISON IN THE Green Lanes area of North London, where the kebab is the luncheon of choice and the coffee flows like treacle, the excitement is mounting. Türkfest, Britain's first jamboree of contemporary Turkish music, is imminent. But it would be a terrible waste if this revelatory event was enjoyed only by London's teeming Turkish community. Based at the refurbished Hackney Empire and running all next week, the festival premieres a dozen recent Turkish works. It also brings over some of the most exciting artists from a music scene which, though virtually unknown to mainstream audiences here, is exploding with energy and imagination - as I discovered in Ýstanbul last month. Sadly I didn't get to meet the sensational, raspberry-coiffured chanteuse Candan Erçetin, Turkey's answer to Kylie Minogue (except that this legendary pop diva is also a trained archaeologist). Her July 2 concert will probably be the festival's hottest ticket, for more than musical reasons. But I did talk to members of the group that will open the festival on Saturday in a blaze of politically charged song and dance. It's the catchily titled Boðaziçi Gösteri Sanatlarý Topluluðu (or BGST if you prefer, which you almost certainly will). Roughly translated, the name means “performing arts ensemble of Boðaziçi”, the Ýstanbul university where its founder-members were studying in the early 1990s. Ýnfused with youthful idealism and angry passion, BGST's fervent reflect perfectly the change that has come over Turkish culture - at least of the progressive variety - in the past decade. A repressive lid has been the reverse of what has happened in Eastern Europe, Russia and China. There the repression was designed to keep out Western influences, In Turkey, by contrast, the European, the Arabic and the Persian have always mingled, even in the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. If anything the new republic proclaimed by Kemal Atatürk in 1923 swayed the balance even more towards the West. In everything from written script to calendars to music, there was a powerful pressure both to distance Turkey from her Arabic neighbours, and at the same time to standardise, or nationalise, “Turkishhness”. That had a lamentable effect on, for example, the collection and preservation of folk song and dance. Governmentbacked scholars were expected to iron out the myriad cultural and ethnic differences within the new Turkey's b####s. The ancient performing traditions of Kurds, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians and a multitude of others in the ancient Anatolia and Mesopotamia regions were assimilated or simply swept away. It is this 80-year cultural suppression that BGST is resolved to overturn, first by accurately collecting and recording material from these regions, and secondly by transforming it into highly charged song or dance cycles.”A political message? Yes, the very act of bringing together these songs and dances - the not-Turkish bits of Turkish society - is a political statement,” says Bedirhan Dehmen, of BGST. “We want proper recognition for the multicultural nature of Turkey, and we try to bring that about by giving voice to all the different ethnic groups. “When we started, nine years ago, this was much more controversial. Today, with Turkey trying to join the EU, there is more official support for us. But there are still many difficulties for Turkey's ethnic minorities.” Seeing how BGST transform these beautiful folk songs and dances into something fresh and dramatic will be one revelation for Türkfest audiences. Another will be the variety and vitality of new Turkish symphonic and chamber music. Until a few years ago the scene was dominated by the “Turkish Five”: five composers who came to prominence in the mid-20th century by cloaking Turkish folk material in the drapes of Late Romanticism, rather as Kodaly did in Hungary and Vaughan Williams in England. The most famous was Ahmet Adnan Saygun, and his colourful, big-boned music is prominently featured in Türkfest, notably in the English Chamber Orchestra's concert on sunday. “He's the Turkish Elgar,” says Gürer Aykal, Turkey's most distinguished conductor, who directs that concert. “It's beautiful music. Wherever I go, I try to champion it.” But since Saygun's death 13 years ago the picture has been transformed. The new generation of Turkish composers is as likely to draw inspiration from Californian minimalism or British thrash-metal as from the courtly music of the Ottomans. Typical of their eclectic attitude is 44-year-old Kamran Ince - a dynamite personality who emigrated to America at 20, when the military took over Turkey. He returned six years ago to found Istanbul's first American-style graduate music school. “I'm completely bicultural,” says Ince, who features as pianist and conductor in Türkfest, and whose music will be played by the Michael Nyman Band in the closing concert (July 3). “From Turkey, I guess, my music gets its twisted modal melodies and wild Black Sea rhythms. But when I was wowed by so many other things. New Romanticism, Louis Andriessen, Elliott Carter, minimalism. “Then I spent time in Rome. So my music developed another contrast: very extrovert, in-your-face passages versus very still, spiritual stuff.” The personable Ince is nothing if not epic in his choice of subjects. His first symphony was called The Fall of Constantinople, his third The Siege of Vienna, and he is now composing a symphony for voices, Turkish instruments and Western orchestra to celebrate the centenary of Istanbul's most famous football club, Galatasaray. “I really believe in all these young Turkish composers,” says Oliver Butterworth, the former English Chamber Orchestra violinist who has put together Türkfest. “If you heard any of them in, say, a London Sinfonietta concert, they would shine.” What I found fascinating about the new Turkish music I have heard is that it manages to proclaim the time and place of its composition without being overtly nationalistic. It is somehow both exotic and cosmopolitan, thoroughly contemporary yet redolent of modes and inflections that have echoed round Istanbul's old markets for millennia. “Our position should be different from rug-sellers,” says Ozkan Manav, another young composer, whose Wanderings will be heard on June 28. “We are not here to make tourist merchandise. But I hope that, in our music, you can grasp the passions in our society, and sense that it's a society that is changing quickly for the better.”