Istanbul’s Roma share identity through music

Years after Turkish municipal authorities demolished their historic neighbourhood, Roma musicians look to move forward.

Members of the Sulukule Youth Orchestra say music is in their blood [Italo Rondinella/Al Jazeera]

Istanbul, Turkey – Sheet music is spread out on chairs or perched on rickety music stands. Bows whip across violin strings as fingers move rapidly across hand drums.

“No! No! No!” cries the conductor of the orchestra, made up of young Roma musicians. “Start again, from the top.” The musicians begin again, playing the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song.

Formed in October 2013, the Sulukule Youth Orchestra is part of a push to reinforce young Roma musicians’ sense of identity, following the demolition of their neighbourhood on Istanbul’s historic peninsula by municipal authorities between 2006 and 2010.

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Istanbul’s Sulukule neighbourhood was home to the Roma for more than five centuries. The demolition – which made way for bourgeois Ottoman-themed villas, pristine residences, recreational facilities and a shopping mall – was part of the government’s “urban transformation” plan to overhaul the face of Turkey. But the demolition scattered the neighbourhood’s 3,400 impoverished Roma to all corners of Istanbul, and in doing so threatened the survival of a community that has long scratched together an existence, and gained a sense of shared identity, from street music and dance. Sulukule, with its bustling nightlife, was renowned for it.

“We don’t want to think about this [the demolition] any more,” orchestra coordinator Funda Oral told Al Jazeera. “Now we are looking to rebuild and move on, while preserving the Roma’s musical heritage and providing our youth with the tools to survive, through making music.”

It is impossible for us to have any other life. Music is everything to the Roma.

by - Erdogan Cimen, percussionist

All of the orchestra’s 14 members are between 15 and 20 years of age, and they say music is in their blood.

“Music came into our lives through our parents and grandparents, through our community,” percussionist Erdogan Cimen told Al Jazeera. “It is impossible for us to have any other life. Music is everything to the Roma.”

The musicians move with ease among cellos, clarinets, electric bass, percussion and piano.

“People love this music. The 9/8 time signature is perfect to dance and sing to,” 15-year-old percussionist Tolga Severler told Al Jazeera. “We want to combine Western and Roma music too; bring joy to people through music.”

Critics contend that Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power for more than a decade, has been marginalising the country’s many minorities while exploiting their existence to garner prestige on the international stage. In 2010, as bulldozers ripped apart the last ramshackle houses in Sulukule, Istanbul was designated by the European Union as a European Capital of Culture.

“We have two kinds of gypsy in Turkey,” orchestra director Gonca Tohumcu, an academic specialising in Roma identity politics, told Al Jazeera. “One which the government parades so that it can say it supports minorities: a Roma identity it manipulates. The second are the people living the real gypsy life.”

Tohumcu says the AKP government is attempting to force the country’s 2.7 million Roma to assimilate into an idealised, fantastical Roma identity that essentially reduces Roma culture to a caricature. “I want to see these teenagers develop themselves aside from all the manipulation and assimilation politics, aside from what the government says they should be,” Tohumcu said. “We give them just enough technical information to develop, but we don’t want to stifle their creativity. We want them to grow and interpret, not just recite music.”

A representative for the AKP did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the issue.

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The Roma – who variously describe themselves as gypsies, travellers or Manouche – came from the Indian subcontinent, migrating northwest into Europe via the Middle East in the 11th century. Roma have had a presence in Sulukule since Mehmet the Conqueror captured Istanbul, known as Constantinople at the time, from the Byzantines in 1453.

“The government calls us Turks. But we are gypsies who live in Turkey,” Tohumcu said. “We have a different sense of identity.”

Back in the studio, a mournful cello solo echoes through the rehearsal space, before livening up with a screaming clarinet riff. The bass player’s head bobs; the pianist plays an accompanying tune.

Standing on a balcony outside their small rehearsal space overlooking the Golden Horn inlet, Efkan Haylaz says he has been teaching young Roma children percussion. “I want to pass on my skills, so that they will always have something – a ‘golden bracelet’ – to fall back on,” he told Al Jazeera.

The orchestra’s repertoire is diverse. Traditional folk songs are rehearsed alongside the theme from the serial drama Game of Thrones and the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.

“Let’s play Pirates of the Caribbean again,” one of the musicians cries.

The conductor shakes his head, feigning exhaustion: “Please! Don’t start with the Pirates thing again. We have other music to practice.”

Source: Al Jazeera