A forty-year love affair with the gramophone

One of a handful of gramophone repairmen of our day, Mehmet Öztekin is a collector to boot.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. The Lütfullah entrance... Music rises from an old RCA Victor gramophone (‘His Master’s Voice’) and fills the Coppersmiths’ Market. These are the strains of a song in the segâh mode, ‘Dönülmez Akşamın Ufkundayız / On the verge of an evening without return’, composed by Münir Nurettin Selçuk to the words of a poem by Yahya Kemal (1884-1958). My ears perked up to the music and when I stepped inside I found myself in the shop of gramophone repairman, Mehmet Öztekin, a tiny space filled with dozens of gramophones waiting to find new life in Öztekin’s skilled hands. Some with a broken winding mechanism, some with broken needles. And others, abandoned by their listeners, had simply wound up in this repairman’s shop. But all have a common hope, to rise again with a part from a scrapped machine that finds its way to Öztekin’s shop.

A LABOR OF LOVE AND PATIENCE
Öztekin, who practices the trade he learned from his father, has forty years in the business behind him. And over that forty years his main concern has been to find, even at great pains, parts for gramophones that are no longer produced today. “My father was a gramophone repairman before me and I started out in his shop,” explains Öztekin. “Every useless old gramophone that’s nothing but scrap in Turkey somehow find its way to me. And I buy it, because a part from that gramophone might just bring another gramophone back to life. The common problem of 1960s gramophone repairmen and those of today is the sheer impossibility of it all. Because gramophones are no longer produced. Nor their parts either. “I’ve had repairs that were very difficult,” the repairman goes on. “Sometimes I’ve even picked up that beloved machine and thrown it across the room. But with patience and putting part of myself into it, the problem was solved and all that remained was to put on my favorite record and listen.”
Mehmet Öztekin is the only gramophone repairman in the Grand Bazaar. Besides those he has restored to life, he also has gramophones he has built himself out of old parts. He is a ‘master’ who puts his feelings into every gramophone he repairs or makes. Öztekin, who is utterly modest about his craft, says, “It is my responsibility to bring the gramophone and the cultural values it has imparted to us up to the present.”

A GOOD COLLECTION
Despite all the difficulties Öztekin, has pursued his occupation for years. He has also put some of the gramophones he repaired into a collection, the oldest member of which dates to 1914. His 50-piece collection was exhibited at the Beyoğlu Municipal Art Center in 2002 with the support of Kadir Topbaş. Besides his passion for gramophones, Öztekin also owns over a thousand old 78 rpm records, some of them priceless, the majority of them recordings of Turkish-style Commedia del Arte plays (‘ortaoyunu’) performed by İsmail Dümbüllü and of the non-Muslim artists who devoted themselves to Turkish Art Music. “I have a very large record collection,” says Öztekin. “A significant collection of singers, theater actors and official talks from all over the world. Some of the rare pieces in my collection are recordings by the non-Muslim singers and musicians who sang Turkish Art Music.”

THE STORY OF THE GRAMOPHONE
When Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 and Emile Berliner the gramophone in 1887, the pleasure of listening to music became the province not only of the upper classes but of ordinary people as well. At the beginning of the 1900s, gramophones began to be produced in a number of countries including France, the U.S., Italy and, most notably, England. The highest quality instrument was the English ‘Victrola’, dubbed ‘His Master’s Voice’, which was precision-manufactured and designed to last a lifetime. The manufacturers of the period produced a variety of models so that the gramophone could be listened to under any circumstances. These models, either portable or non-portable, included floor and table models as well as machines in a carrying case and even ‘pocket’ gramophones. The ‘beggar’s gramophone’, for example, was a model produced for listening to music in the street, which in time became a source of livelihood for some people. Its most outstanding feature was that human figures danced in front of it to the music on the record. Although its popularity waned with the First World War, the gramophone was restored to its former glory towards the end of 1925. Until, that is, it was superceded by the record player...

HIS WIFE HIS BIGGEST SUPPORT

Mehmet Öztekin describes how music had a special place in the series of reforms that followed each other in rapid succession after the proclamation of the Republic in Turkey in 1923. “Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) thought music was very important. One day at a ball he was attending he heard Münir Nurettin sing and was very impressed. A musician, Münir Nurettin also played soccer for Fenerbahçe. Inviting Münir Nurettin to his table that day, Atatürk told him he should go into music, and he sent Münir to France on a government scholarship to receive a musical education.”
As Mehmet Öztekin is amplifying his views on music in Turkey in the 1930s and ‘40s with his own stories, he puts a record of Hafız Burhan’s ‘Neva Gazelleri’ on the English-made Victrola that he has not replaced in years. “Hafız Burhan has a very beautiful voice,” he says. “That’s why he is a ‘gazelhan’ or singer of gazels (a poetic genre in Ottoman literature). One day I happened to come into possession of a tango record. On it gazelhan Hafız Burhan was singing a tango! I was taken aback and told a journalist friend about it. He looked into it and got back to me. It seems that during the founding years of the Republic, Burhan was asked to sing a tango. The purpose being that people should take an interest in music and the arts.”

Öztekin regards himself as lucky for two reasons. First, because he is doing work he loves. Second, because his wife loves his work and is his biggest support. “I have close to fifty gramophones at home,” he says. “Since they are large items they take up a lot of room. I spend most of my time either in my workshop or in my shall shop. And my wife watches over them as if they were her own.”