Let there be music!

Will the ongoing urban transformation of Istanbul really benefit its inhabitants? While the demolition projects in Tarlabaşı, Maltepe Gülsuyu-Gülensu neighborhoods, Fener-Balat-Ayvansaray and Taksim Gezi Parkı are being discussed, it is important to remember what went on in Sulukule. It is as important to refresh our memories and recall the demolitions in Sulukule as to remember the events that took place in the face of destruction and the volunteer efforts that followed. One of those efforts is “Sulukule Children’s Art Workshop.”

The weird silhouette of the luxury housing complex “Osmanlı Houses” has risen in Sulukule, consisting of 3-story villas with personal parking space, adorned with orange colours and metal staircases. Five years ago, as the Roma inhabitants of the demolished houses were being evicted by the police from the the Neslişah and Hatice Sultan neighborhoods that make up Sulukule, Fatih Municipality Mayor Mustafa Demir had said: “This project is not about moving those who live here to another place. Those families who have property rights here still hold those rights.”

However, Sulukule carved out a place in the collective memory of the city as an example of the cost of urban transformation in Turkey. While the “Osmanlı Houses” that were built by TOKİ’s (Public Housing Authority) contractor Özkar Construction are on the market for 600,000 Turkish Liras, each waiting for their new owners who will settle here in search of a “safe” housing complex in the center of the city, only 50 out of the original 900 shareholders whose houses were demolished were allocated shares in this new 640-unit project. Other inhabitants of the neighborhood who insisted on not leaving their houses from the beginning have had to relocate to adjacent neighborhoods such as Balat and Karagümrük. They were forced to submit to the decisions made by the municipality and the public housing authority, instead of being allowed to live in their old houses with the culture of solidarity that operated between the inhabitants.

Sulukule residents had filed a lawsuit to protest against the project that started the demolitions in 2006, but it remains unresolved to this day. The commission of experts appointed to the lawsuit has decided for the third time in March 2012 that the project is against the general public good. The report notes that the historical texture and the structure of the streets were not preserved, while also emphasizing that the City Wall Preservation Line determined by UNESCO was not observed. Expert legal reports like this one repeatedly expose that the project is unlawful. There is also another ongoing lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights filed by a few inhabitants of the neighborhood against Turkey, on the grounds of violation of property rights and discrimination against the Roma population.

Clarinet in the kitchen, tambourine at the entrance, rhythm on the roof

While the unlawful project is about to launch new stages, sounds of music rise from a building adjacent to the neighborhood, as it did many years ago. When the demolitions were causing massive devastation in 2007, the Sulukule Platform was organizing protests, music workshops and panels. The members of this platform and professors from Istanbul Technical University’s Conservatory for Turkish Music jointly came up with the idea of opening an educational center where the artistic heritage of the neighborhood could be passed down to the next generation. This was the idea that sowed the seeds of Sulukule Children’s Art Workshop. The activities of the center first started in buildings and streets that remained intact, and when all those were demolished, they moved to the 3-story wooden building at the end of the demolition zone. This building still provides a space where children can come together and express their talents despite the destruction of their neighborhood. Sixty children participate in workshops where courses such as music, art, dance and English are taught.

Sulukule Children’s Art Workshop published a book titled Let There Be Art last March with the support of the 2010 Istanbul Cultural Agency. The book genuinely describes the neighborhood’s struggle with demolitions since the 1960s wave of gentrification in a detailed way while conveying the neighborhood’s culture and the activities of the workshop which have blossomed as the demolitions were in full swing. Funda Oral, the project manager, describes a day in the workshop:

“Yesterday, there were sounds of music coming from all the rooms of our workshop. Clarinet was being played at the kitchen, tambourine at the entrance, rhythm on the roof, violin on the middle floor, and dancers stopped by for rehearsal. There were 23 kids between the ages of 10-16 in a violin class the other day including those who left mid-class and those who stopped by to take a look. (…) In the second section of rhythm, violin and musical note classes, teachers work with kids who have an advanced knowledge of music and who are musicians themselves. Those who participate in these sections activities are children of families who have been musicians for generations. This section is performed as seriously as a concert or show would be, and it is very joyous.”

These young musicians’ work at the Sulukule Children’s Art Workshop finally paid off last August when they performed at the opening act of the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra’s concert in Istanbul. Even though they put on many other shows before, this concert was especially meaningful: “El Sistema”, which is a social responsibility initiative including the Bolivar Youth Orchestra, has been giving musical education to poor and at-risk children in 280 centers. “El Sistema” has been doing in South America for the last 37 years the equivalent of what Sulukule Children’s Workshop is doing here.

We hosted the young musicians from Sulukule after their Galata concert with the Bolivar orchestra at the “Açık Dergi” (Open Journal) show at Açık Radyo (Open Radio). You can listen to Erdoğan Çimen, Efkan Haylaz, Onur Kayaroğlu, İbrahim Tellaloğlu, Hasan Göçer and Tolga Severler in the recording below. Finally, it might be useful to give some information on Sulukule Children’s Art Workshop’s system of education, since it seems that the system created at the workshop is an interesting fusion I of an apprenticeship and a conservatory discipline. Aykut Büyükçınar of Istanbul Technical University’s conservatory puts it this way:

“Because of the musical tradition that has been continuing for years, their [the children’s] education starts in the family. They don’t like an education that’s too strict, they get bored. So I approach them as a big brother rather than a teacher. The kids are happy – we have fun and they learn.”

This article would not be complete without talking about another music initiative which we hosted on this radio show. “Tahribat-ı İsyan” talks about demolitions, marginalization and discrimination in a completely different way: Asil, Burak and Hasan defy demolitions and life with the rap band that they founded when the demolitions in their neighborhood started. This is how the book Let There Be Music describes them: “The neighborhood could not make it, could not resist the demolitions. But they will. While they rebel against life without feeling oppressed under the gazes that makes them say ‘Calm down and listen, you never knew us’, their music and rap will save them.”

The album entitled Listen to Roma Rights published by Amnesty International to commemorate the World Roma Day on April 8th, features 23 Roma musicians and bands, and draws attention to the discrimination faced by the 10-12 million Roma in Europe. It also includes Tahribat-ı İsyan’s contribution “Ghetto Machines.”

What if initiatives such as Sulukule Children’s Art Workshop could start in other neighborhoods? What if if we could let children discover their artistic talents in the early stages of their life, in their own living spaces? The Sulukule example seeks to make visible the musical identity of the Roma children and young people (which perhaps is the only positive typecast attributed to the Roma by others) as their neighborhood’s identity has been destroyed. This workshop run entirely by volunteers provides us with a picture of the original Sulukule which has taken its place in the collective memory of the city along with bulldozers, TOKİ (Public Housing Authority), and its new motto, “sterile living accommodations to counter the unhealthy living conditions.”

Translated from Turkish by Cihan Tekay, edited by Christine Riedel and Laïla von Alvensleben. You can contact the workshop on: sulukulecocuksanatatolyesi@gmail.com. 

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