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Busking in Istanbul, Turkey

The Turkish love street musicians.

‘Excuse me, while I kill myself!’ My new Turkish friend apologised to me as he walked to the back of the airplane to refill his glass of whiskey. His dry sense of humour reminded me that we would soon be arriving in Istanbul and I got ready for a change of continent. He came back to his seat and gave me a crash course in Turkish.

With the sounds and smells of Kathmandu still in my head, I got off the bus from the airport and stood in the middle of the city, dazed and confused. Cars and buses roared all around me and I sat down on my bags and counted my money. By some terrible oversight in my budget it turned out that I didn’t even have enough to get a bed for the night.

I’d been carrying money in three different currencies and had got my sums wrong. I´d invested too much of my spare cash in 20 kilos of incense that were even now on their way by boat to Israel – I hoped to meet them there and set up a stall in the street. But that was still a month or more away and right now a cold March wind was blowing reality in my face. I began to shiver. It was time to either lay down in the gutter and wait for the onset of hypothermia or else consider my options.

Although I´m not all that proficient at either, I carry a guitar and a clarinet around the world with me. I´d lugged them sweating or shivering through every kind of climate and stuffed them into a hundred baggage compartments. The time had come for them to give me something back in return.

I climbed the hill to what looked like the trendy part of town, an area called Taxim. The main drag was a long, cobbled street for pedestrians and where only a tram ran intermittently down the middle, street kids hanging onto the back for kicks. Perfect territory for a busker.

After about twenty minutes of banging out old Beatles tunes on the guitar I evaluated my progress. The coins that had been added to my hat could almost buy me a packet of chewing gum. Worse than that I´d been singing so hard that I could feel nodes already forming on my larynx. I just couldn’t make myself heard above the noise of the street.

Completely disheartened I laid my guitar to the side and took out the clarinet to blow my blues away. I no longer thought about the money and just closed my eyes to be with the melody, trying to understand just what I was doing here.

But after one rendition of Summertime my hat had begun to fill with Turkish lire, the passers by genuinely appreciatiing m music. I was too hungry to go on playing just now but at least I had the cash to buy bread and kebab.

I found a small courtyard just off the main drag and sat down on a bench to make my lunch. The lawns were full of cats who were tended to by a gentle old man called Turhan and he came over to sit beside me. His hobby was to sketch pencil portaits of whomever drifted into the park. In a few moments he had etched a pretty good likeness of my face and handed me the finished work.

‘You can throw it away if you like!’ he cheerfully suggested.

While I was protesting a young couple entered the park with a guitar and a saxophone. Turhan beckoned them over and I met Kat, a young French woman living with her boyfriend, Ahmet. It turned out that Kat and I knew each other from some years before in England and we soon decided to go busking together.

While Ahmet was changing strings, Kat and I began to play call and answer with our respective melodies. We were soon interrupted though by a Turkish man who dropped the equivalent of $30 dollars into our hat. We stopped playing at once and held the banknote up to the light in disbelief to check for the watermark.

‘Thank you!’ we cried in unison.

Now confident of eating and drinking well this day we renewed our jam with gusto. But Ahmet had barely played his first chord before two plain clothes policemen marched up and told us:

‘No.’

There was something in their tone that didn´t invite discussion and so we packed our instruments away pronto. Kat told me afterwards about what happened to a friend of hers who made the mistake of asking questions.

‘The Turkish police are like fascists, Tom! Someone I know was playing guitar just around the corner from here and these same guys told him to stop. He asked what law he was breaking and they picked his guitar up by the neck and smashed it against the wall. It was only good for firewood after that.’ We winced at the thought of such a fate occurring to our instruments.

Kat and Ahmet had somehow been given for free the use of an apartment for a month or two. It was natural for them that they invited me to stay also.

There was just one catch. The flat was located on the outskirts of Istanbul, a city that sprawls on for ever like any other metropolis. It took us more than two hours in a crowded and claustrophobic bus to get home that night. Every ten minutes Kat got paranoid that we’d missed our stop in the darkness.

The apartment was nice enough but it overlooked a wasteland that spread into a featureless horizon. All around us sprouted from the ground other concrete towers and so we didn’t look out the windows much. But at least we could cook real food here and hey, a home was a home.

It took us so much energy to return from the city each time that we always stayed for at least two days. Then the money would run out and we´d have to trade jazz for lire once again in Taxim. We started playing later in the day though to avoid the police who lost interest in the street when the shops closed.

One night when I was playing a well-dressed man approached me with an excited expression on his face. Fortunately a Turkish friend happened to be on hand to translate and I learnt that this man was conducting a dinner party at his home and the musicians had failed to arrive. Would I mind taking their place?

Obedient as ever to the whims of fate we followed our new employer along to his apartment nearby. The guests were already waiting by tables laden with wine, olives and Turkish delight.

I began to play and everyone listened so intently that I became quite nervous. But at the end of every piece they all applauded loudly and I pretended that I was used to such rapturous attention.

After about five tunes my repertoire was all but exhausted but they were quite satisfied with my rather modest performance and handed me an envelope with my pay. In accordance with good custom I put it straight in my pocket without checking the contents and later found that it amounted to what I might make in five days on the street.

I now had enough cash to be on my way, hitchhiking through Turkey and Syria to meet my incense in Israel. I spent the last day alone in the apartment, scribbling down notes from the last fortnight´s events. The hours were punctuated by the resonant calls to prayer from the neighbourhood mosque.

I left behind a few bags of groceries for Kat and Ahmet and again squeezed into a hellish series of buses, bearing me out of the city until the first motorway headed south.