Filmmaker: Faysal Soysal

"Music is an unrestricted culture. There's no difference between Greek, Rum or Istanbul music. They've all blended," says Ivi Dermanci. Dermanci is referring to Rebetiko, a musical style created by ethnic Greeks in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. 

Music is the bridge between cultures. I think that it will be the salvation of the world and that peace will come.

Karen Sarhon, Sephardic Jewish singer

When Istanbul was at the heart of the Ottoman Empire, it was one of the most ethnically diverse cities in history; Rebetiko was one of many cultural and musical variations. However, after the founding of Turkey in the early 20th century, most of the city's minorities slowly disappeared and were gradually replaced by Kurds and other economic migrants from Anatolia. Turkey had begun its transformation itself from an agricultural to an industrial economy; a change that would become more prominent from the 1950s onwards.

But all these groups had already left their indelible cultural mark on a country where musical influences come from Greece, the Balkans, Egypt, Iraq, Armenia, Spain, medieval European romance, 70th-century Islamic chant, as well as traditional Ottoman folk music, the western classical tradition and contemporary pop music.

Nearly all these ethnic groups are now gone.

Ethnic Greeks descended from the Byzantine Christians (known as Rum under Ottoman rule) left in the 1923 population exchange and 1955 riots - but not before Rebetiko, a kind of Greek blues, had become hugely popular. The Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors had fled 15th-century Spain, gradually emigrated to Israel - but had kept its Ladino language and music alive, and its Andalusian, Gypsy, Balkan and Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms were hugely popular in Turkey.

Attaturk banned traditional Ottoman music in 1934 so Turks tuned to Arabic radio, leading to the rise of Arabesque music in the 1970s; and there are still prolific and popular Arabesque musicians in Istanbul today. The Armenian composer Komitas was once compared with Bartok and impressed Claude Debussy. He was traumatised by the ethnic cleansing of the first world war but had already collected and transcribed over 3,000 pieces of Armenian folk music and published the very first collection of Kurdish folk song.

Yet, still, Istanbul's undeniable musical history remains: "Music is the bridge between cultures. I think that it will be the salvation of the world and that peace will come," says Sephardic Jewish singer Karen Sarhon. "I consider myself very rich I was Jewish but grew up in a Muslim country and had a Christian education. I absorbed these three cultures and felt their richness."

Source: Al Jazeera