Two Cultures One Love

SET UP BY A GROUP OF GREEK AND TURKISH MUSICIANS IN 2009, CAFÉ AMAN İSTANBUL BRINGS TOGETHER TWO DIFFERENT CULTURES ON A SINGLE STAGE. THE ENSEMBLE SINGS REMBETIKO, PERFORMING GREEK AND TURKISH SONGS IN BOTH LANGUAGES. SOME SONGS START IN GREEK AND END IN TURKISH, OTHERs START OFF IN TURKISH AND END IN GREEK…

An April evening, the sun is just about to set. All of a sudden the sky lets loose. How it comes down! İstanbulites scatter lıke pearls. Into corners, under eaves… such was the evening of the Café Aman Istanbul concert, one of many. But concert-goers cast summer and winter, rain and mud to the winds to meet two different cultures and two different seasons in a single moment.

Café Aman was the name given to the musical coffeehouses where orchestras made up of eastern instruments like the keman (fiddle), ud (lute), santur (dulcimer) and kanun (zither) used to play and sing in cities like Istanbul, Athens, Izmir and Thessaloniki. They took that name from the Turkish exclamation ‘aman aman’ so often repeated in the songs, which are largely improvised. When the singer can’t find the word, or is looking for new words, or is simply unable to put his sorrows into words at all, he sings ‘aman aman’, dragging it out for effect.

Aman cafés sprang up in Istanbul and Izmir in the 1900’s. But there was something else emerging there in those same years: Rembetiko. It was inevitable that the two would meet. Just as it is inevitable that Rembetiko should be performed at Café Aman Istanbul, where Turkish and Greek songs are sung in both languages.

FASL-I REMBETIKO
Café Aman Istanbul’s repertoire is made up of the Ottoman period Rembetiko songs that were sung in its 19th century counterparts. Most of the songs are from the 1920’s. Two different Rembetiko schools, the Istanbul-Izmir school with its keman, ud and kanun and the Piraeus school with its bouzouki and guitar, work in tandem here.

The purpose of the team, which calls its style ‘Fasl-ı Rembetiko’, is to bring together the Ottoman ‘fasl’ tradition with the rapidly disappearing Café Aman musical culture in the place where it was born. “The tradition of musicians and listeners participating and sharing together in the music has gradually given way to a more distanced form of communication,” says Stelyo Berber, vocalist of the Café Aman Istanbul, which gave its first concerts at the Istanbul French Culture Center in June 2009.

“We want to make this music popular and keep it alive by forming a warmer and closer communication with listeners.” He adds, “Of course, we also have other aims along the same lines. Namely, to bring closer together these two peoples, who shared the same lands and a cultural exchange for 500 years, but who are now neighbors.”

It is not known for certain just when Rembetiko first appeared but research has shown that it flourished between 1850 and 1950. The areas where Rembetiko music was common were the cities where the Greek diaspora was becoming urbanized. These included port cities like Izmir, Istanbul and Thessaloniki in the Ottoman Empire and Greek cities like Athens and Piraeus and the island of Saros. Although there are different theories about where Rembetiko arose, the consensus today is that it first appeared in Anatolia, like so many things!

A MODERN FAIRYTALE
The light of the Café Aman Istanbul, founded in 2009, was lit by a love story. Born in Istanbul in 1974, Stelyo Berber is the son of an Anatolian Greek family from Gökçeada. He started singing as a ‘muganni’ (boy soprano) in church choirs from the age of 7 or 8. Although he studied economics at the University of Piraeus, music was always on his mind.

When he finished school and returned to Istanbul, he met accordion player Muammer Ketencioğlu and joined his group. During a concert he gave with Ketencioğlu in 1999 he noticed a girl dancing in the audience. Her name was Pelin Suer. Born in İzmit in 1978, she was a dance graduate of the Istanbul Technical University Conservatory of Music and the Pera School of Fine Arts. When the duo’s paths crossed again in 2001, that clinched it.

“A modern fairytale is being written that was born in Istanbul and will continue in Istanbul. Coming together again to love’s old sweet song: cultures, languages, religions, lives… We would like to see all our friends with us at our wedding ceremony. Signed: Pelin and Stelyo. Beyoğlu Marriage Bureau, June 17, 2006…”

STELYO BERBER TALKS ABOUT REMBETIKO
It is not known for certain just when Rembetiko first appeared but research has shown that it flourished between 1850 and 1950. The areas where Rembetiko music was common were the cities where the Greek diaspora was becoming urbanized.

These included port cities like Izmir, Istanbul and Thessaloniki in the Ottoman Empire and Greek cities like Athens and Piraeus and the island of Saros. Although there are different theories about where Rembetiko arose, the consensus today is that it first appeared in Anatolia, like so many things!