«It was a Wednesday night down the alley in Badehane's, one of Istanbul's hidden soup kitchens for the soul, where a generation of artists and musicians have found refuge from the harsh political and crueller economic realities of Turkey. Istanbul does conspiratorial like London does damp. And the dark, smoky corners of Badehane's that night held a street acrobat, a writer who had spent time in jail for his beliefs, a couple of skint film-makers, and a moderately famous bellydancer slumming it with a man who wasn't her husband.
Just after 9pm, three men who looked like the last survivors of Al Capone's gang walked in with instrument cases, followed a few minutes later by a small smiling man in a bobble hat. This was Selim Sesler, one of the greatest clarinettists in the world, and he was playing for his supper.
This was the first time I met Selim, and his wife looked desperately worried. She was attempting to draw back on one of the eyebrows he had lost to leukaemia with a makeup pencil but he was gently resisting. His teenage son Bulent, who was even then being talked of as a musical prodigy, looked lost and Selim himself seemed already halfway to being a ghost. Only his music had its former strength. First the bobble cap came off, then he threw his head back and produced a sound from his clarinet that was nothing like I'd ever heard before, somewhere between a saxophone and a zurna – the wailing eastern pipe that announces weddings and wrestling matches from the Balkans to the Himalayas and beyond. He played through a kaleidoscope of styles that embraced Turkish, Greek, Jewish, Bulgarian, Armenian and Arabian music, and went off on a few jazz riffs just for fun. This man was the Coltrane of the clarinet, and he was dying of cancer unrecognised at 45. I left that night cursing every god in heaven.
But sometimes life does happy endings just to keep us on our toes. The last time I saw Selim he was 10kg to the good, his eyebrows had grown back along with a natty beard, and he was on his way to becoming the next Ibrahim Ferrer. A fairy godmother had appeared in the unlikely form of punk cherub Fatih Akin, the enfant terrible of Turkish cinema, and his rollicking breakthrough film Head-On. German-born Akin used Selim and his ensemble at the end of every frenetic act of the film, sitting in long shot in their dinner jackets on the edge of the Golden Horn playing a song introducing the next sequence. The music tore through audiences who had never heard a note of Turkish music before, and left Akin wondering if he should have been making a film about the incredibly rich but little-known music of Europe's biggest city.
Crossing the Bridge is that film, a Buena Vista Social Club of the Bosphorus, a typically passionate Akin tribute to the great crossing of cultures and continents that come together in Istanbul, and the amazing musical mix it has produced.
It was the strange chemistry developing between the understated Sesler and the madly flamboyant German alternative rock star Alexander Hacke (of Einstürzende Neubauten) while laying down the soundtrack for Head-On that convinced Akin that he should send the Berliner on a musical odyssey. The huge, blond and hairy Hacke tears through the narrow streets of Beyoglu finding pavement musicians, jamming with punks, hanging with local rave and rap stars, chilling with reggae masters Baba Zula and interviewing legends of the Turkish arabesque and classical salon scenes, before he dips down into the subcultures of arabesque, Kurdish, Laz and street protest music that are the real beat of this megalopolis of 12 million people.
After a few sessions in Mrs Sesler's front room, they board the bus to Kesan, Selim's home town near the Greek border, where the Sesler clan and the town's army of other Roma musicians are the keepers of a huge store of musical styles that mirror the old Ottoman empire at its widest extent, from the Adriatic to Arabia. […]
Head-On and Crossing the Bridge may have made Sesler a star but he is still doing weddings, circumcisions and bar mitzvahs. The Roma in him still worries where the next meal will come from.
The last time I saw Selim was a night in November. It was a big party in a warehouse in Thessaloniki, right in the docks from which his family were deported along with 600,000 other Greek Muslims in the disastrous exchange of populations between the two countries in 1922. At first the Greek crowd ignored him. Then they began to dance and cheer, demanding he return again and again after every encore. They didn't want him to go. History was turning a circle again. And this time it was at the end of a clarinet.» (Fiachra Gibbons, The Guardian)
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