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Cymbal Sabotage In Old Istanbul

The streets of current-day Istanbul may not be paved with trashy dark old Ks, but surely if you poke around a little in the music stores you’re going to end up paying pennies for cymbals that bring the big bucks over here, right?

Wrong.

True, they’ve been making cymbals there for hundreds of years. But keep in mind that cymbal design has always been driven by popular music. The sweet K rides with all those dark overtones were for the most part made during only a 30- to 50-year period, and nearly all were exported. Every drummer who travels to Istanbul checks around for a cymbal deal, and I was no exception. I spent long hours under the hot Turkish sun trudging from one music shop to the next, only to find that each had the same kind of inventory – lots of odd-looking stringed instruments, wooden flutes, and some ethnic percussion instruments. There were a few western instruments, but nothing very exciting, just inexpensive electric guitars and amps, a few electronic keyboards, the occasional five-piece drum kit, and rather mundane cymbal offerings.

Shortly before my last visit to Turkey, I received a letter from a renowned academic/author/historian I had corresponded with numerous times over the years. “I have exciting news.” he wrote, “I have obtained a cymbal that is about 350 years old. It is therefore of great historical importance.” He went on to explain that he was willing to part with the cymbal for the same amount that he paid for it: $5,000. He was approaching me because he felt that the cymbal should be displayed in either a museum or by a manufacturer and was hoping I could act as an intermediary. I wrote back that I would visit in a few weeks, and was anxious to examine the cymbal. I was very curious as to how he obtained the cymbal and what sort of documentation he had, but refrained from making such inquiries. The letters we exchanged over the next few weeks set up our meeting but did not discuss the particulars of the transaction.

We were to meet in the lobby of my hotel in the old district of downtown Istanbul. He arrived right on schedule, carrying a briefcase in one hand and a parcel under the other arm. We sat on the sofa in the lobby to chat. He opened his briefcase and began pulling out all sorts of papers. I knew just from his stationery that this man was quite proud of his accomplishments. His letterhead featured a large photo of himself, a list of his degrees, and a list of the academic organizations to which he belonged. In keeping with his academic ego, he began to “impress” me. He explained that he had just returned from Portugal where he had delivered a very important lecture to an international gathering of historians. He showed me the text of his address and a photo of himself with the Turkish ambassador to Portugal. He then showed me a book he had recently authored, which he explained was the first in a multi-volume set detailing the contributions of Armenians to western society and culture. He would appreciate it, he explained, if I could assist him in this work by providing details of the Zildjian family and business in America. I agreed to do what I could to help.

Finally the man put all the books and papers back in his briefcase and closed it. “Would you like to see the cymbal now?” he asked. “Certainly.” He stood, picked up the briefcase and parcel, and said, “We go to your room.”

I was a little bewildered. I glanced around the lobby. We were virtually alone. This was a very small hotel and aside from the desk clerk, there was no one in sight. I figured that with such a valuable artifact, there might be any number of reasons why this man wanted privacy, so I stood and led the way to my third-floor room.

He placed the parcel on my bed and slowly unwrapped it. With somewhat of a hand flourish, he invited me to feast my eyes on his rare find.

I approached the cymbal somewhat dumbfounded. Here on my bed was an American-made concert cymbal, one of a pair, with the leather strap still on it. The black ink block letters said “MEDIUM BAND,” and the Zildjian logo stamp was clearly “Made in U.S.A.” Somewhat in a state of shock, I stared at the cymbal (probably with my mouth open). Finally I turned to see if his expression would tell me anything. He was grinning, his eyes and hands raised as if to say, “well?” I somewhat hesitantly said, “I think this cymbal was made no earlier than perhaps 1950.” He continued to grin, and pointed at the stamped logo. “Very old. Very old.” I decided to try again. “I think no older than 1950.” “1915?” I was getting freaked out. It seemed he was willing to negotiate the age of the cymbal. Was he stupid, or dishonest, or some mixture of both?

My mind had stopped reeling, but now was racing. I didn’t want to make this guy angry. He was obviously someone with a lot of important friends in a town with a questionable reputation, and I couldn’t even speak the language. I had visions of him dropping a piece of hash on the floor just as some police buddies burst in on cue. I was quite happy with my kidneys and pancreas right where they were (there is a lively market in Istanbul for Western organs), and had no desire to get involved in the production of Midnight Express Part II. I decided the best course of action would be to play along. I tried to act delighted with the cymbal, and got out both of my cameras. I took a bunch of photos from a number of angles, and began to explain that I knew many people back home who were in a position to pay his price when they saw my photos. He continued to grin, and nodded. “Please, let’s just get this over and get this guy out of my hotel room,” I thought. He did not dawdle. When I was done taking photos and thanked him, he wrapped up the cymbal and I escorted him back to the lobby. I thanked him profusely (greatly relieved), and he left. I’ve had no contact with him since.

My Turkish adventure continued that night when, at about 3:00 a.m. the earthquake hit. I had to hold onto the sides to stay in bed. Between the initial shocks and the aftershocks, I went to the window and saw that the city had lost power. I heard sirens. But I digress.

The next morning I was scheduled to visit the Bosphorous cymbal company. I was amazed when their man actually showed up in the lobby at the prearranged time. He explained that the city was in great disarray and traffic was terrible, but that he’d left very early. We went to the music store/cymbal warehouse that doubled as a sales office where they explained to me that we could not visit the factory because of the earthquake. We visited, tested cymbals, and took photos. I decided to get their take on my encounter with the academic. I explained exactly what had happened, and when I got to the part where the cymbal was revealed to me, they did not look surprised. “This is not a shocking thing to you?” I asked. They certainly did not look shocked. Or surprised. Or even interested. Mesut kind of shrugged and said, “You have to expect that kind of thing. You must realize that we have a constant flow of visitors who come with great amounts of money and want to buy old cymbals.”

There are two morals to this story. First, don’t go to Istanbul expecting to find great deals on rare cymbals. Second, be careful and don’t assume you can trust someone because of their rank and reputation.

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  • That was a great story! What a riot.