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Unplugged: Turkey's party city Istanbul falls silent

Istanbul was earning a reputation as the party capital of Europe. But terrorism, politics and a failing economy has hit its night life hard
Turkish singer Aylin Aslim performs at Manhattan Rock Bar in Taksim, Istanbul, in 2004. Opportunities for large concerts in the city are now rare (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – The change was abrupt. Istanbul, with its bustling and buzzing population of 16m, quickly went from emerging party capital of Europe to a ghost town.

Not that long ago international acts including Lady Gaga, Roger Waters and Metallica were desperate to add Istanbul to their tours. Coupled with a burgeoning and diverse local scene it meant the city was on a meteoric musical rise until late 2014.

Visitors poured in from Europe and various parts of the Middle East. Istanbul's music scene had reached such prominence that even international publications were producing lists of the city's best venues to find local acts. 

It has all come to a shuddering halt in recent years.

Anything that could draw a large crowd is banned. This has killed the music industry

- Dogan Duru, of Redd

The reasons: terrorism and a faltering economy. But also a fear among the country's current leadership of large gatherings of young people who do not agree with their worldview.

The Gezi park protests of 2013, which morphed from a small environmental protest against the planned destruction of a city park to mass outrage at the government's increasing authoritarianism after security forces used brutal and disproportionate force against protesters, provided the spark for this dislike of youths.

An anti-goverment protester during clashes in Taksim square in Istanbul in June 2013 (AFP)

Although officials from Turkey's current ruling party never hid their disdain for Western cultural influences, there were no attempts to impede events regarded as such before.

"They just don't want certain types of large gatherings anymore. Anything that could potentially draw a large crowd is immediately banned," Dogan Duru, the singer for Turkish rock band Redd told Middle East Eye. "This has killed the music industry."

Duru said international acts and visitors were staying away out of fear given the spate of terrorism acts in Turkey of late, but he also said the government fuelled this fear by always using the all-encompassing explanation of "based on safety and security concerns" for denying permission.

"I don't see how this sort of explanation used constantly by the governor's office can be reassuring to anyone," he said.

Death blow for local music scene

Permission was denied for a major concert on 19 May, a national holiday celebrating youth which was introduced by modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Istanbul's Besiktas district. The reason again was "safety and security concerns".

This was the second time Redd, which was part of the scheduled line-up, has been involved in an event where permission was denied.

The city's Beyoglu and Besiktas districts have always been symbols of modern Turkey with its marriage of West and East.  

"They just don't grant permission for events in Beyoglu and Besiktas anymore. They don't grant permission for what they consider Western-style events always using the same safety and security concerns as an excuse," said Duru.

"But how come there are no safety and security concerns for other events in these areas such as when hundreds gather in these same places for communal fast-breaking iftar events."

Music events are not the only thing affected by the change in the attitude of authorities - Istanbul’s Pride march has been banned for three years running.

Turkish authorities were once hailed by the world for ensuring the safety of thousands of Pride participants, especially when the Pride march fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in 2014. 

A Pride march protester in Istanbul on Sunday (Reuters)

Istanbul had become the venue of the biggest and largest Pride march in a majority Muslim country. 

Not endorsed by the authorities in any way, they nonetheless never banned the march which had been held since 2003 on Istanbul’s most iconic street, Istiklal. 

Security forces also ensured Pride participants were protected from violent fringe groups seeking to attack them. 

That changed in 2015 when police used rubber bullets and tear gas on participants to make them disperse.

On Sunday, it was more of the same after the governor’s office banned the march. Scores were detained and security forces again used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd that had gathered despite the ban.

Of even more concern for local music acts is the denial of permission to hold music festivals and concerts on university campuses. These events were the main places for up-and-coming local acts to establish a following.

From the late 1990s to late 2014 campus festivals vied successfully with bigger commercial ones. Istanbul was never short of a music festival during its long summers.

Although such events always faced opposition and were occasionally even threatened by fringe extremist groups that objected to alcohol consumption or what they regarded as signs of "decadent Western culture", they were not officially impeded.

But a change in how university chancellors are appointed – installed directly by the country's president - and the government's tightened legislation on advertising alcohol means permission to hold "Western-style" concerts is outright denied or organisers struggle to find sponsorship for them.

A barman pours a stein of local beer Efes at a bar in Istanbul (Reuters)

"Just five years ago Redd used to perform at 10-15 university events every year. Now not even one. For us and other bands it is not about politics, it is about music. And it is musical diversity that is being killed," said Duru.

"New bands are reduced to making cheap Youtube videos and hoping they draw a following. This is a blow to the entire industry, from the guy who sells guitar strings to concert organisers and a host of people in between," he said.

"Such events need sponsors, and mostly they have been alcohol producers because people do drink at these events."

Politics of fear

Not just the ruling party but all of Turkey's politicians run scared of rock music with the theme of rebellion often at its core, and would prefer "sanitised" music forms, according to Duru.

He said while Redd has never looked to be political, it hasn't shied away from those topics either.

In 2011, when Redd opened for Bon Jovi in Istanbul, they placed life-sized cardboard cut outs of two imprisoned journalists on stage as they performed their track "Masal".

The two journalists, Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, had been imprisoned for revealing details about the infiltration of the state by the Fethullah Gulen movement.

Masal, released in 2009, was about the Gulenist infiltration of the police forces and how they used police brutality against their critics, Duru said.

At the time the current ruling party was firmly allied with Gulen. The US-based Turkish preacher has since become its arch foe and is accused of carrying out last July's failed coup bid.   

The state of emergency introduced after the coup attempt has made it easier for the government to deny permission for events and concerts it is uncomfortable with.

Yet, said Duru, youths don't go to concerts with plans of political protest in their minds.

"I have never heard anyone who attends our shows or generally speak of attending a concert with the aim of starting a political uprising. Gezi was spontaneous and any fear that another one is around the corner is unfounded," said Duru.

Cavit, now in his early 30s, made the most of his home town's diverse and growing music scene during the 2000s and was also in the streets during the Gezi protests. He agreed with Duru and said a repeat of Gezi was not on the cards and certainly not at any music event.

Government restrictions on open air events is more related to potential terrorist attacks

- Cavit, Gezi park protester

"The hiatus in Istanbul's concert scene is partly down to government interference in public gatherings. It might be concerned about the emergence of a Gezi-like outburst but I honestly don't think that can come out of an open air festival or the like," he told MEE.

He was, however, willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt regarding bans on concerts.

"I think the government restrictions on open air events is more related to potential terrorist attacks," said Cavit.

The last major attack in Istanbul was carried out by the Islamic State group on New Year's Eve when a suicide bomber killed 39 revellers at a nightclub.

An event promoter, who wanted their name withheld, told MEE that while militant attacks had resulted in international stars not wanting to come, it wasn't the only reason behind the slow-down of the city's music scene.

"Look at Manchester. A concert was directly attacked and within 10 days the city held another in defiance," the promoter said.

"Is Istanbul less defiant? No, but Istanbul, at least the part which enjoys Western culture, unfortunately doesn't have its government's backing," 

For the time being, Istanbul's musicians, those involved in the industry and fans will have to bide their time and hope for better days.

"When you get the chance to see the bands you like from all across the world you feel like you belong to an international community with the same musical tastes," said Cavit.

"It's a feeling of belonging to a globalised culture. That is no longer the case."

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