Epic Co-Creation: DÜNYA’s Tale of Constantinople and Istanbul Journeys Through a Millennium of Musical Innovation and Bittersweet Longing
In every dazzling palace and every shadowy alley hums a barely palpable but evocative drone. It’s the ache of glory days now gone, a stirring melancholy that ennobles and embroils the City, once at the heart of so much.
This is the sound and pulse of Constantinople/Istanbul, and Boston-based musicians’ collective DÜNYA, with Schola Cantorum and Ensemble Trinitas, brings it to the forefront on A Story of the City...Constantinople, Istanbul, their journey through a thousand years of the music that echoed along the Bosphorus. The double CD is currently submitted for a Grammy™ award.
There, Greek Orthodox melodies collided with rousing Crusader ballads and the unexpectedly complex folk tunes from Central Asia. A Polish Protestant convert transcribed elegant 17th-century Ottoman melodies. Armenian composers wrote music for Turkish-speaking Jewish and Greek lyricists (“Bu gece çamlarda kalsak ne olur/Apopse”), while Sufi chants uniquely transformed Jewish religious songs (“Yeheme levavi”). Migrants, traders, and conquerors invented new genres, from the court music of the sultans to art music and protest pop in the 20th century.
“I think that the rich diversity reflected in this album will be appreciated by Americans,” reflects Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, musical director and co-founder of DÜNYA. “Through that appreciation, I am sure the American view of the Near and Middle East will change. The Grammies are a great platform for our work to find a greater voice, and to highlight DÜNYA’s unique structure and many talents.”
DÜNYA sprang from frustrating success. Sanlikol, who came to the U.S. to study both at Berklee and the New England Conservatory, had won a name for himself on the jazz circuit, playing festivals across Eurasia and collaborating with legends like trombone icon Bob Brookmeyer. And yet he longed for something very different.
Then one night a decade ago, he played a game of Risk. A friend wanted to provide a fitting soundtrack for world domination and included a few tracks that struck Sanlikol like a bolt from the blue. It was music many believed to have been played by the Janissaries. Sanlikol couldn’t get it out of his head.
“It wasn’t about ideology or nationalist feelings of any kind. It wasn’t because I missed Turkey, though the distance helped make the discovery genuine,” Sanlikol recalls. “It was totally an accident and completely about the music. I listened like never before, and it rocked like Zeppelin. And though I had all this theoretical training and sophistication, I just couldn’t find the tonic.”
Seriously intrigued, Sanlikol began to study Turkish music with the same dedication he had pursued his Western classical and jazz training (he is now a leading scholar on Mehter or the so-called Janissary music, as well as a professor at Brown and the New England Conservatory) He found himself taken by the entire region and took lessons in, among other traditions, Greek Orthodox chanting (from Nektarios Antoniou, leader of Schola Cantorum and DÜNYA member). He soon discovered dozens of other kindred spirits around Boston, high-powered musicians who loved Middle Eastern, Sephardic, Greek, or other Eastern Mediterranean sounds.
Sanlikol, working together with close friends Robert Labaree and Antoniou, suddenly understood: An ensemble flexible enough to cross cultures and play across musical genres, yet broad enough to embrace all the local talent, would have to take a somewhat unconventional form.
DÜNYA was born, a true collective made up of interlocking ensembles—playing everything from New Music to Anatolian folk—and concentric rings of participants circling a highly committed core. It felt like the ideal response to the unsatisfying life of a touring musician, always performing the same repertoire night after night. “With this structure, we can find a fresh kind of continuity,” reflects Sanlikol. “We can come together as friends and keep playing together over and over at radically different concerts.”
Several years ago, contemplating DÜNYA’s next concert, Sanlikol toyed with the idea of a program of songs about Istanbul, of putting together a nice, light evening of pop music. Then he got in way too deep, finding music that extended back in time, and into a plethora of cultures and faiths. “I realized, ‘Wow, I’m getting sucked into this thing. What do I do?’” Sanlikol remembers with a smile. “That’s when [Nobel laureate] Orhan Pamuk’s novel about Istanbul came out. He has this melancholic idea about the city, and it inspired me. I listened to all these musics, even military or upbeat ones, and I couldn’t help but hear that melancholic tone. It’s all over, whether it’s Greek Constantinople or Turkish Istanbul. The great heydays are long gone.”
Yet the unexpected figures who helped fashion the city’s music live on. There’s the love-struck medieval French nobleman and crusader, Gui de Coucy (“A vous amant, plus qu’a nul autre gent”). Or the intriguing Ali Ufki (Wojciech Bobowski), who converted to Islam from Protestantism and became a musician in the Ottoman court (he wrote down instrumental pieces like “Buselik Asiran pesrev”). Or Sephardic Jewish singer Haim Efendi (“La rosa enfloresse”), whose upbeat love song is pure Istanbul folk.
And the music is still glorious, though often elusive. As Sanlikol and DÜNYA began to map out their journey, starting from Greek antiquity and ending in modern Turkey, they faced a multitude of interpretational challenges. Sanlikol had little interest in historical recreation or ethnographic preservation, and opted instead for innovative twists that evoke the spirit of a time and place.
Sanlikol’s opening original composition, “Byzantium,” places the ghostly fragments of ancient Greece’s music in a bold, 20th-century atonal frame. DÜNYA fearlessly turned traditionally vocal pieces into instrumental tunes, mixed companion instruments from different traditions, and turned to thoughtfully arranged folk melodies to complement the sometimes scanty historical record. The music leaps with surprising grace from spare Sufi chants (“Salat-i ümmiye”) to full-on, wah-wah guitar-powered pop anthems (“Felekten beter vurdu”). Artfully recorded by Grammy™-nominated engineer, John Weston (Futura Productions), the result is an epic work of co-creation, mirroring the rise, fall, and continued vibrancy of one of the world’s crucial cultural capitals.
Though willing to play with tradition, Sanlikol and DÜNYA ‘s players have developed keen sensitivities to the complex emotions that surround place, time, and identity in Sanlikol’s native region. Sanlikol experienced how complex, ambiguous, and visceral the past’s impact could be: His exiled Turkish Cypriot parents recalled singing “God Save the Queen” in Turkish and knew what conflict meant. “This isn’t feel-good musical diplomacy. There’s an edge to it; there’s tension,” Sanlikol states. “When you speak of identity as a concept in mid east, in all the nation states that came out of Ottoman Empire, it’s problematic.”
“But music is first and foremost,” adds Sanlikol. “This is not the story of this or that people, but the story of the city. That’s what makes it work.”