Any event called “Eternal Love” can potentially smack of sacchariferous Celine Dion insipidity. Fortunately for the Istanbul Music Festival, there was nothing syrupy or schmaltzy about the “Sonsuz Aşk” concert by the dynamic Şimdi Ensemble presented in the legendary Grand Bazaar. The occasion was as significant as the setting, as it was the first time in its 600-year history that a musical event had been held in this unique temple to trading.

Şimdi Ensemble © Benek Ozmez
Şimdi Ensemble
© Benek Ozmez

As it was Sunday, the bazaar was closed, so the concert was spared the customary market place caterwauling and vociferous exhortations to buy. Built in 1455 by Sultan Mehmet II, the Grand Bazaar was the world’s first covered caravanserai and until the mid-19th century – the largest agora in the world. Regrettably, modern day Turkey seems to measure economic success by the number of new soulless shopping centres which are becoming more ubiquitous than köfte kiosks. Undoubtedly, the original Grand Bazaar, which still houses around 26,000 vendors, has much more character and charm than its gleaming, garish modern reincarnations.

The Şimdi (“now” in Turkish) Ensemble compromises an outstanding vocalist, harp, ney (a traditional Middle Eastern vertically-played flute), kemençe (a small bowl-shaped 3 stringed lute), oud (a pear-shaped multi-stringed lute) and various kinds of percussion. On this occasion, Şimdi was joined by the grand master of serpent and tuba playing, Michel Godard.  All musicians were superb instrumentalists, and even if much of the programme may have been unfamiliar to non-Turkish audiences, the quality of musicianship was unmistakable. Şirin Pancaroğlu’s harp playing was particularly impressive. To Western ears, the quartertones and Ajam Maqam Ionian and Phrygian scale modality may initially sound strident or disconcerting, but after a few minutes, there is a surprisingly calming effect in this mystical, magical music.

Michel Godard © Benek Ozmez
Michel Godard
© Benek Ozmez

Many of the compositions were written by vocalist Bora Uymaz, who displayed remarkable versatility and impressive breath control. The text is invariably about various aspects of love, which in translation at least, was not exactly Shakespearian. But typical of traditional Sufi music, it is a case of prima la musica, dopo le parole. Together with the harpist, the undisputed star of the performance was serpent tamer and tuba-player extraordinaire, Michel Godard. This multi-talented musician is as much at home in baroque and ancient music repertoire as he is in avant-garde jazz, classical and traditional Middle Eastern genres. Godard’s technical skills were astonishing as he produced booming double octave glissandi, didgeridoo-like droning, high-pitched raspy raspberry-sounds and terrific trills not only on the tuba but also on the esoteric serpent. Out of favour since the 19th century, this unusual wooden six-holed instrument – which is technically part of the brass family – appears in the scores of Mozart’s Ascania in Alba and Wagner’s Rienzi. The combination of Godard’s virtuosic playing with the ensemble’s tight mesh of infectious rhythms and melismatic melodies made for a grand time in the Grand Bazaar, and the sold-out house roared its enthusiasm.