Istanbul Streets: I Hear Music

Istanbul’s street vendors chant their last songs amid the city’s gentrification.

I Hear Music is an intimate portrait of the cultural shift in Istanbul from traditional to modern, told through the stories of three street vendors when their work suddenly becomes illegal.

Halit has been selling home-made stuffed mussels for 20 years; Ismet has been coming and going through the same neighbourhood since the 50s with his freshly-made pastries; and Yasemin walks the streets with her bundle full of bedspreads and curtains.

All three face relocation and competition from modern shopping centres and commercial brands in the midst of gentrification.

As they face uncertain futures, the street vendors are invited to sing their lyrical sales chants at an event organised by local musicians to commemorate the traditional, fast-disappearing sounds of the streets of Istanbul.


By Giulia Frati          

I first visited Istanbul in the spring of 2008. I was a tourist at the time, but was deeply touched by the city’s vibrancy with different cultures living side by side.

I wanted to know more, so in 2009, I spent nearly half a year in Istanbul learning Turkish and how social structures were changing as a result of Turkey’s push to modernise its infrastructure. It was at this time that I decided to make a film about this city.

Since then, I have returned to Istanbul a number of times for extended periods up until 2015. Every visit was dedicated to deepening my research and to shooting portions of my film, Istanbul Streets: I Hear Music. I wanted to capture the urban changes as they were happening slowly over time. As an outsider, I also felt it was important to spend as much time as possible in Istanbul and do my best to understand the situation from a local perspective.   

Beyond the obvious mix of eastern and western sensitivities, what first struck me was how old traditions were still cherished and a part of everyday modern life. This quality was most evident in Istanbul’s street vendor culture.

The streets of Istanbul [Al Jazeera]
The streets of Istanbul [Al Jazeera]

Street vendors

Every day, thousands of vendors ply the city’s steep streets, pushing their heavy carts to bring goods directly to people’s doorsteps.

One can buy almost anything from these vendors: seasonal fruit and vegetables, fresh home-baked pastries, cleaning products, kitchenware, curtains, milk from local farms, flowers, lottery tickets and so on. They’ll sharpen your knives, unclog your toilets, fix your roof and there are even people like the eskicis and hurdacis who collect recyclable items such as paper, iron, copper or old TVs.

The streets are imbued with the personalities and moods of the each vendor who has a specific way of announcing their arrival with a unique call. They walk through the same streets, repeating their call all day long. Their call is their slogan; almost a song.

They often belong to a cultural minority (Roma or Kurds) or have migrated to the big city from rural Anatolia in search of a better life. Although they earn little money, they work hard to provide for their families, send their children to school and give them a better life. 

I noticed that people in Istanbul, regardless of their social class, know their local neighbourhood street vendors. They recognise their individual calls and buy their daily products from them.

As clients open their windows and lower their baskets with a few coins for the vendors’ products, conversations are often sparked between neighbours and passersby. This culture reminded me that cities shouldn’t just be made of cars and concrete. The vendors nourished the human connection that made each neighborhood of the bustling metropolis still feel like a human space. 

Growing up in Italy, my grandmother would tell me stories of street vendors who now no longer exist – they’ve been swept away by stores and shopping malls which have invaded society and changed consumer habits.

Now, in Europe and North America, I see a new generation trying hard to support small local producers again. Small organic markets and food trucks are popping up everywhere. I feel these societies have come full circle, while in Istanbul, street vendors have been part of everyday life since the Ottoman Empire. Society has accommodated them while adapting to modern lifestyles. I felt that other societies could learn from Istanbul, but as I looked closer, there were signs that things were about to change there as well. I started capturing this change in 2010 which turned out to be a pivotal year in many ways, but the wheels had been in motion for some time.

A street vendor [Al Jazeera]
A street vendor [Al Jazeera]

Urban renewal

Since 2005, the city was undergoing a big urban renewal process. Law no. 5366, popularly known as the “Urban Renewal Act”, had been passed allowing the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality to destroy old neighbourhoods and rebuild them anew. This was happening primarily in old historical areas near the centre, where cultural minorities and low-income families lived.

The houses were often architectural gems from the Ottoman, Byzantine, Neoclassical or Art Nouveau periods but they were run down because the residents couldn’t afford the upkeep.

Instead of restoring them, the Municipality decided to tear them down and build new houses and condos in their place.

In 2006, the process started. Homeowners were approached individually and forced to sell their property to the Municipality at a low rate. In exchange, they were offered low interest mortgage deals on a much smaller apartment in the new buildings. Renters were often left out in the cold. They were evicted and relocated to gated communities 50km outside of the city.

This began in Sulukule, then spread out to Tarlabaşi and many other areas across the city. These areas were home to many street vendors and talented musicians, who lived day to day, didn’t drive and needed to be close to the centre for their income. 

I started following and documenting this process in 2009, when I met with a group of activists who created the Sulukule Platform, an NGO that represented the rights of the neighbourhood’s residents. They brought together people from many different disciplines. Sulukule was home to a community of Roma, which had been living there for a thousand years.

The Sulukule Platform appealed to UNESCO and their neighbourhood was recognised as an historical place that should be preserved. I was touched by their strength and determination: they mobilised the media, organised events and demonstrations to convince the Municipality to implement an alternative plan – drafted by independent architects and urban planners – one that would be more in sync with the real social needs of the people living there.

The plan was submitted and many negotiations ensued. Although some things improved, the neighbourhood was still slated to be renewed. This happened over the course of several years, despite recommendations from UNESCO. By 2010, the Municipality had progressively torn down almost all the houses, leaving behind rubble and people’s broken belongings. Sulukule residents lost their homes, properties were sold to third parties then changed hands again several times, eventually bought by a wealthier social class. The real estate value inflated and the Sulukule community, with its rich musical culture, was torn apart.

The carts of the eskicis who collect recyclable goods [Al Jazeera]
The carts of the eskicis who collect recyclable goods [Al Jazeera]

Economic change

In 2010, Istanbul was the designated European Capital of Culture. Architect Korhan Gümüş, who was part of the Sulukule Platform, was instrumental in making this happen. He drafted the initial proposal for the European Commission with the intention of spurring new and positive projects for the city. Once the proposal was accepted by the European Commission, he was placed in charge of the urban restoration department and an agency was created in order to manage the funds and organise all the events planned for 2010.

In this position, Gümüş was involved in many urban projects which aimed to protect historical buildings rather than destroy them. He also worked hard at opening the discussion with the Municipality to include residents’ voices. I met with him several times and he helped me greatly in understanding the city’s urban issues and need for a more democratic process. He agreed to be part of my film and his contribution has been invaluable. 

I broadened my research and met with more architects, urban planners, financial advisors, real estate investors, professors, municipal representatives, social workers and more activists. I learned that in 1999 Turkey received funding from the IMF to help with the financial crisis caused by the earthquake of that year.

In exchange, the IMF imposed structural conditions that impacted several levels of the economy. Among them, was a condition for reforming the private sector. It was suggested that Turkey should benefit more from its strategic geopolitical location. Istanbul’s economic model switched from small manufacturing businesses to a more global financial and service-oriented model. It started to become a major tourist hotspot and a safe centre for transactions between eastern and western businessmen. Much of the urban renewal in the city centre was designed to cater for the future influx of these new people.

In 2010, the urban renewal plans were starting to be implemented so quickly that local residents barely had time to think about them. That year, a new Municipal regulation was passed following a European law to limit noise. The zabita (municipal police) were in charge of applying this law that was said to target loud dance clubs, while in fact, it was implemented mainly towards street vendors. One of the main responsibilities of the zabita is to maintain order in the streets. In this role, their principal aim is to eliminate street vending. With this new law, the traditional customer calls became illegal, limiting street vendor activity more than ever.

Halit has been selling home-made stuffed mussels for 20 years [Al Jazeera]
Halit has been selling home-made stuffed mussels for 20 years [Al Jazeera]

A platform for the vendors

I was curious to find out what kind of cultural events were being supported by the 2010 European Capitals of Culture agency as a window on to Istanbul for the world’s tourists to see, while in the meantime, so much vibrant culture was being swept aside in the backstreets of the lower class, historical neighbourhoods.  

I met the cultural organisers of the 2010 agency and was introduced to several people who were preparing different kinds of cultural activities.

Through the agency I met Dost Kip of the Creative Minds Studio Istanbul (CMS Istanbul) who was planning a 10-day music festival following in the footsteps of Turkey’s famous jazzman Ismet Sıral who had been part of Woodstock’s Creative Music Studio in the late 1970s and had dreamt of recreating a similar space for musical experimentation in his own city. Although Sıral never succeeded in realising this dream, he passed on his vision to Dost. Sıral was in fact a close friend of Dost’s father and was very present in Dost’s childhood. 

Dost decided to pay tribute to Sıral’s ideas about music being a universal language which can be found everywhere. He wanted to put a spotlight on his city’s unique soundscape and honour the street vendors’ calls. One of the highlights of his festival was to be an unprecedented concert where local and international musicians would jam with Istanbul’s street vendors. Putting the vendors on stage for such a unique concert gave them recognition they had never received before. Dost heard music where the municipal police heard noise. It was a musical experiment and also a social statement. It became evident to me that I needed to capture this event, and through it, tell the story of Istanbul’s street vendors and the urban changes that they were struggling to adapt to. The concert became the starting point of the story that unfolds in my film.

While filming the concert process, I met Halit, Yasemin and Ismet, the vendors I followed over the course of several years afterwards. They lived and worked in the neighbourhoods that were undergoing big urban renewal projects. Their homes and their livelihoods were at risk. But they each had a beautiful voice and a strong free spirit that touched me deeply. They were, and still are, passionate and talented independent hard-working people. I respect them, I admire their resilience and their generosity in letting me into their lives with my camera. Their stories embody the shift that their city and so many other street vendors are living.

Yasemin walks the streets with her bundle of bed linen and curtains [Al Jazeera]
Yasemin walks the streets with her bundle of bed linen and curtains [Al Jazeera]


What is happening in Istanbul today is happening in many other megacities across the world; modern life is erasing ancient customs almost overnight. What are we collectively losing by making all cities look and feel the same?

I hope the film will shed a light on the complex urban and social issues that are still at play in Istanbul today. Amid the geopolitical tension and violent attacks, these issues slip under the radar, but they continue to affect people’s everyday life in a profound and defining way.

My film also pays tribute to the CMS Istanbul street vendor concert, to Ismet Sıral and to Woodstock’s Creative Music Studio’s musical approach.

Istanbul is a place where the sound is incredibly rich and diverse. Among the calls to prayer, the dogs barking, the cat fights, the loud traffic jams and the construction sites, the sound of Istanbul could be perceived as a wall of noise. I wanted to challenge this idea of noise and share my musical experience with the viewers by creating an urban symphony using the sounds of the city itself. 

The street vendors’ calls stand out like soloists against a playful backdrop of a musical urban soundscape. It is the counterpoint to the important social struggles that the protagonists of the film face every day as they fight to keep their place in the new order that the city is imposing on them.  I hope my film will inspire viewers to appreciate diversity, pay attention to what surrounds them so that it doesn’t disappear, and maybe even hear music where before they heard noise.