Few musicians active in Istanbul’s vibrant music scene blend in as well as the Greeks. Look at any calendar for a music venue and it isn’t hard to find Greeks playing Turkish music, Greek music or a blend of both.
Thanos Goutanos and Georgios Marinakis originally came to Istanbul to continue their musical education. Goutanos joined a band in Istanbul’s on Asmalımescit Street after becoming entranced by the music of both legendary Turkish musician and musical innovator Erkan Oğur and the country’s Roma.
Goutanos has since returned to Greece where he created the Baildsa Band, an Istanbul-inspired Balkan and Roma music group. Nonetheless, he occasionally returns to Istanbul to play with his former band mates and expand his musical horizons.
“Greek and Turkish music have very common things, but now I see them from a different point of view,” Goutanos says. “I now play like Turkish people do.”
Marinakis came to Istanbul to study the oud. In Greece, he had been a lauto (a type of stringed instrument) player but found no teacher who could help improve his playing level.
Noting that leaving one’s traditional environment is beneficial for one’s musical progression, Marinakis said, “It helps to go to another country, a strange country for you to meet different people [and] to have good musicians as teachers.”
Marinakis has a close relationship with his teacher, Ruhi Ayangil. The two have been teaching each other Greek and Turkish since Marinakis became Ayangil’s pupil.
Marinakis especially impressed his master during a December 2009 solo concert at Galata Club in Beyoğlu in which the Greek artist bucked tradition by playing works by living classical composers. Generally, classical musicians will only play works by the deceased.
“He tried to realize a new approach with this concert,” Ayangil said. “My ‘Giorgaki mou’ succeeded very well. I believe if he increases his abilities, he will become an eminent musician, not only in his homeland and Turkey, but all over the world.”
According to Celil Eldeniz, a friend of Goutanos and an opera singer in Greece for the past four years, said there is a difference between the musical environments of Greece and Istanbul.
“When I think of Greek culture, I always imagine a table. In the nights, they sit and we sing. Maybe this has its roots in Ancient Greek culture, this ideal theater audience with some people just silent,” Eldiniz said, noting that the Istanbul music scene has far more interaction between musicians and the audience.
The return of rembetiko
The rembetiko genre, which originated in Athens, İzmir and Istanbul in the mid-19th century, constitutes the largest point of contact between Turkish and Greek artists.
Tatavla Keyfi, Laterna, and Kafe Aman Istanbul, three rembetiko revivalists groups in Istanbul, feel their version of the genre is closer to the original than what is presently played in Greece, where it is often played with electric keyboards and equipment.
Istanbul’s music scene has many musicians who have learned to play from their parents and grandparents, according to Tatavla Keyfi frontman Haris Rigas.
He said the original rembetiko groups disseminated their music in the same peer-to-peer model that Turkish groups have always continued to use.
Tatavla Keyfi, which has one Greek member, two Turkish members and one Ukrainian, start their sets with songs in both Greek and Turkish. As the evening progresses, they play more obscure pieces.
Likewise, the all-Turkish band Laterna, which plays at the Beyoğlu dance club Araf, plays an eclectic and original collection of Armenian, Greek, Kurdish, Balkan, Alevi and Turkish. Like Tatavla Keyfi, their audience is mostly Turkish.
Though it eschews electronic enhancement like the other two bands, Kafe Aman Istanbul also has its own unique approach to rembetiko in mixing different Greek dances such as sirtaki, hasapiko and laika alongside Turkish music.
At the same time, the band generally performs at universities and schools while also holding the occasional seminar on rembetiko’s history.
Playing rembetiko music in Istanbul is very important for the city, according to Stelios Berberis, an Istanbul Greek and one of the Kafe Aman’s singers.
It not only represents Istanbul’s musical past but also reminds their audiences of themselves. “This town culture is a piece of Istanbul that has been lost,” Berberis said.
The seven-piece group of mostly Turkish musicians finds there is a demand for their music wherever they play. As with the other bands, the growth of groups like Kafe Aman Istanbul strengthens the city’s dynamic scene while helping chart the next evolutionary phase in the Istanbul’s music.