Istanbul, as many will know, is huge. So huge, in fact, that one might not know where to start in this continent-crossing metropolis. My mind was therefore put at ease when we were told we’d be spending four days there without a single chance to see the city.
We arrived at the airport on the European side, and were soon on the road to Asia, crossing the bridge over the Bosphorus waterway, towards our hotel. There are some cities so vast, so built-up and brimming with life, their buildings merging into the natural landscape, that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. Here was an endless city scape, peppered with rolling hills, thousands of buildings old and new, of every shape and size, the minarets of decadent mosques peeping out of every block, interrupted only by a mammoth harbour to rival any other around the world.
Our venue and hotel, both on the Asian (or Anatolian) side of the city, were apparently on the outskirts, far from the centre and any major landmarks. Yet this area was so full of life, of people, with not a spare space to build in sight, it would be easy to imagine we were in the heart of Istanbul. Between gigs we sat in the spring sunshine on the rooftop of our venue, a brand new shopping mall, eating ice cream while practising paradiddles, or guiltily sneaking pieces of the tastiest baklava I’ve ever tried from a box in the dressing room. With three to four gigs every day, we were at the venue from morning until night, leaving minimal time to explore, but the events of the Saturday night gave us enough storytelling material to last a few generations.
Following that day’s shows we were taxied to a nearby (in Istanbul terms, within an hour’s drive) restaurant, under the direction of our generous host. There, we were led down some steps into a cosy wooden building by a small team of people who seemed suspiciously pleased to see us. At the entrance was a poster for the night’s entertainment: a scantily clad woman with big hair stood in various poses on a stark white background. If I hadn’t known better I would have said it was Cher in her ’80s perm phase. We’d been promised Turkish music and belly-dancing and we were giddy with anticipation.
Then we entered a large dining room, filled with tables assembled around a stage and central dance floor, shiny disco ball included. This dance floor would come to be at the very centre of all the evening’s pleasure and pain, though at this point we were none the wiser. At each table there seemed to be a different kind of party, with everything from a hen do to a birthday and an engagement party. We were evidently the last to arrive and constituted the ‘post-gig’ party, with remnants of clown white still in our hair, and sat down at the last free table where the first course of dinner was already served. So long as there is hummus, we are content, and here there was so much more than hummus.
The evening’s entertainment began with a stallion-esque male singer/guitarist, competent and passionate in equal measure, who sang Turkish songs to which everyone in the room knew every word and were not afraid to show it. Everyone except us, of course, who sang ‘watermelon watermelon watermelon’ in the hope we might at least look involved. We laughed at all the right moments, were moved to tears by words we didn’t understand, and keenly stood up to clap along to songs in complex time signatures.
Next came the bellydancer, who burst onto the stage to an exciting backing track, wiggling brilliantly in her floaty gown. It was clear she wasn’t expecting to get upstaged by an overzealous bride-to-be and her hen party, and then for her finale to get completely hijacked by a sudden flurry of excited dinner guests who leapt into action on the dance floor and forgot to give her any tips. Everything that happened from then on was deemed the most surreal moment of the night, until something else happened that topped it. Here I present you with just some of the highlights.
Turkey’s answer to Cher appeared soon after the bellydancer incident, lighting up the room with her bright smile and unmissable gold hotpants. Her band were ‘sooo tight man’ – in the words of all musicians – and blasted out an incredible set list of Greek and Turkish songs, moving smoothly from one complicated groove into the next. A couple of dinner guests who just happened to be Greek dancers soon got up to the floor: a very broad, dark-haired man preceded by his beer belly, wearing a white shirt and black waistcoat, was poised and ready to pounce onto the dance floor every time the right song was played. He was closely followed by an incredibly strong-looking woman, and the pair of them danced around a single glass tumbler or a chair, falling purposefully onto their knees with such force that one would’ve expected the kneecaps to shatter, yet on they went, legs kicking and arms flinging in time to the steady beat. It wasn’t long before the dancing circle began to grow, and the floor was once again filled as more dinner guests got up to join in the fun and show off their Mediterranean dancing skills.
While everyone shook and jived the night away, a waiter did the rounds with numerous stacks of white plates, which guests took turns to smash into thousands of tiny pieces, Greek wedding style. It soon became clear that this was an opportunity not to be passed up, and so I took the top plate and smashed it repeatedly onto the pile in his hands, watching with manic satisfaction as each plate shattered onto the floor, shards bouncing chaotically up into the air. A colleague then proceeded to do the same, and then another, until our boss, reminded of the cost of such an activity, stepped in and gently said ‘Enough now.’ Standing by for the entire night was a slight man whose sole job, it seemed, was to sweep away the shattered plate remnants with an enormous broom. It reminded me of a parent attempting to make a point by vacuum cleaning under their oblivious child’s feet as they continue playing. The patient man with the broom never had chance to leave the dance floor, and the plate-smashers never ran out of energy.
At some point the music slowed down and the floor cleared a little while guests returned to their tables to finish their food and try the local digestif – a mystery pale-white liquid something like ouzo and certainly no weaker, or at least that’s what our faces said as we knocked it back. It turned out to be Raki, the unofficial national drink of Turkey, also known as Lion’s Milk, and supposedly it’s bad etiquette not to order an entire bottle to accompany your meze platter; in any case, they didn’t give us a choice. At that moment it was time for the world’s most attractive couple to take their slow dance in celebration of their recent engagement. A tall, bearded, triangular-shaped man with a chiselled jawline and rolled-up white sleeves to accompany his perfectly-fitted waistcoat led the dance with his partner, a tall, slim woman with striking eyes and a sleek, long red dress, who had turned every head as she had entered the room. We felt as though we might have seen them before, but only on a screen, and probably in a Disney movie. Fortunately this only lasted for one song until other couples got up to dance, or we all might’ve died from the lack of breathing. Once again, passionately singing along to slow, sentimental songs to which we didn’t know the words proved unexpectedly rewarding.
As the music became more upbeat again, two of us left the group on the dance floor to find the toilets. When we returned, less than two minutes later, we found our bandmate playing riq (a type of Arabic tambourine) at the back of the stage with a microphone set up, now a fully-fledged percussionist with the house band. For a while we thought we might have to leave Istanbul without him, and that next time we visited this restaurant we’d find him still here, by then a world-famous Turkish percussion player.
Sometime into the small hours, Turkish Cher announced that a visiting percussion group from the UK was about to give a performance. A few awkward glances around our table proved quickly that she did indeed mean us, but we had no instruments and hadn’t gone too lightly on the Raki. Fortunately we were feeling just about merry enough to improvise with the materials at hand, and so one drummer took to the kit onstage while the riq player kept his place by the mic; meanwhile the rest of us, with no percussion instruments left to acquire, occupied the dance floor, where we partook in a shambolic – but not lacking in enthusiasm – version of some of the choreography from our show which, without drums, lights or costumes, doesn’t look like much. Still, accompanied by our own drummers and the bouzouki and clarinet players from the house band, we made it our moment, and danced as if no one was watching (which they probably weren’t, as dessert had just been served).
It wasn’t long before the other guests got bored of sitting sensibly at their tables again, and a bout of Turkish dancing occurred between our table the hen party next to us: about 20 young women who insisted the music now being played was from their specific region of Turkey and that we must all join pinky fingers and wave napkins in the air. It was great fun, and most importantly put us first in line when they decided their delicious celebratory chocolate cake was simply too large to have all to themselves.
The final hoorah of the night was one which ended in tears, and perhaps it was only tears that could possibly bring an end to a night this eventful. The bride-to-be, from our cake-offering neighbour table, was led to a chair in the middle of the dance floor, while a large vail was placed over her head and the remainder of the party proceeded to dance around her, throwing rose petals over her as they moved. Watching from the sidelines, we could see from the moment she walked barefoot onto a floor covered in shards of smashed plates, things weren’t going to end well. After more drunken dancing, bleeding feet, and generous offerings of sticky plasters and paracetamol, there were too many tears to contain the party-goers any longer, and all of the hens got up to leave in what could only be described as the evening’s greatest anticlimax. We sat and pondered how soon the wedding might be and whether she’d need more than just a finger plaster, before seeing the outrageous amounts of leftover bridal cake and helping to clear up…
Still, the music played on, and now it turned out the singer’s mother was also in the room, and so she swept up to the stage to dance and throw more rose petals onto her big-haired daughter who continued to sing and boogie under the giant disco ball. By the end of the night we were covered in plate-remnants, petals, wine and cake, and all of the evening’s events were already blurring into one.
Taking some time to reflect, as long hours staring out of airport windows encourage one to do, there may be a lot that I’ve missed. Perhaps more of it will reemerge when we’re sitting at one of our future post-gig meals and somebody says, ‘What was the best dinner we ever had?’