Where The Cymbal Found Its Mojo

It's a cosmopolitan hub that has it all — from great food and architecture to Whirling Dervishes and a vibrant jazz scene. It's also a place where drummers can stroll along Galip Dede, a street near the famed Galata Tower, home to dozens of music stores. There you can find great deals on cymbals, as well as a whole range of Middle Eastern percussion instruments, including a vast selection of frame drums and darbukas. With a little luck, after asking around, you might even get to see the inner sanctum by visiting factories where cymbals are hand-hammered using time honored techniques passed down for generations.

That's exactly what I did last year, during a trip to Turkey I'd dreamt of taking for decades. With my laptop and camera, I captured every stop I made, so please join me as we tour the city that keeps one foot in Europe, the other in Asia, and its finger on the pulse of cymbal making.

A Time To Explore

Istanbul is a drummer's paradise, not only because it's loaded with enough B20 bronze to make any cymbal aficionado weep, but also because it has amazing bazaars and markets, locally crafted drums, ethnographical museums with vintage instruments and costumes, and jazz clubs. With an exchange rate of 2.2 Turkish lira to the dollar, Istanbul is as affordable as ever. We spent the first day getting to know the lay of the land, exploring the streets, alleyways, mosques, and historic destinations.

A trip to Istanbul wouldn't be complete without a visit to the labyrinth known as the Grand Bazaar. We scheduled a half day in and among the bazaar's 61 covered streets and 3,000 shops, and discovered 200-year-old cymbals made during the Ottoman Empire, as well as camel bells and buckets of zils (finger cymbals). A bit deeper into the bazaar, among the spices, jewelry, and knock-off Prada shoes that line the dimly lit and cavernous alleys, we found darbukas starting at about $20.

We spent the rest of the afternoon seeing nearby sights. Within a short walk from the Grand Bazaar is the Hippodrome, the center of Byzantine life for 1,200 years, where chariots once raced. Then it was on to a tour of the majestic Aya Sofya, a former Eastern Orthodox Church built in 537, which reverted to a mosque, then turned into a museum. The day wound down with a visit to Topkapi Palace, the royal residence of the sultans. Wandering through the streets, you can treat yourself to fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, take a Turkish bath, or have a shoeshine, all performed with the requisite fanfare that will make this one of your favorite places on earth.

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Music Shops, Museums & Music

With all the touristy stuff behind us, it was time to get to the core of Istanbul's music scene. After stopping for a fish sandwich at the water's edge, we walked across the Galata Bridge, and took a funicular to the Tunel Beyoglu district, where we found Galip Dede Caddesi, a shopping street with dozens of music stores, many specializing in percussion. You'll want to spend an entire day here visiting shops, taking in the buskers, and ascending Galata Tower with its stunning 360-degree view of the city.

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Our first stop was Emin Percussion, where store manager Mustafa Isleyen (Fig. 1) displayed his amazing locally crafted darbukas, bendirs (frame drums), tefs (tambourines), and davuls (two-headed bass drums). He proudly showed off his darbukas with fish skin heads, as well as professional clay darbukas custom fit with a light bulb on the inside to tune the natural goatskin head to performance pitch. After some tea and great conversation, Mustafa demonstrated them one by one. We picked our jaws up off the floor while witnessing his speed, finesse, and rhythmic vocabulary that made a single drum sound like an ensemble.

There are some great conventional drum and cymbal shops on Galip Dede Caddesi, too. We stopped by Drum Club (Fig. 2) and met with manager Bulent Akbay, who showed us his selection of locally made Istanbul Mehmet and Istanbul Agop cymbals, and talked about the new prototypes and designs evolving as we spoke. You can lose yourself in shops like the Turkish Cymbals factory showroom (Fig. 3), Zuhal Muzik's comprehensive downstairs percussion shop, or Dore Drum Shop (Fig. 4), a drummer's drum shop stacked high with brand name pro gear you might expect to see in Los Angeles or New York.

A few blocks away, we went to the Galata Mevlevi House Museum (Fig. 5), where the Sufi Whirling Dervishes use music and dance in their mystical journey by spinning hour upon hour in their white gowns. Over the course of twirling 20–30 rotations per minute, the dance, in concert with the music, causes dancers to dissociate from reality and fall into a trance in a similar way that bata drumming in Cuba can induce trance in dancers during Santeria ceremonies. You can experience a traditional Mevlevi Sema Ceremony at the museum three nights a week in what a local guidebook says, "is a ceremony representing the mystical journey of man's spiritual ascent through mind and love to perfection."

But music here isn't just tribal or traditional. In fact, Istanbul has a vibrant jazz scene and plenty of music festivals throughout the year. If you come out of the Whirling Dervish ceremony without having achieved personal perfection, at least you can wander down to the Nardis Jazz Club, just a few blocks away. The club features live jazz six nights a week and, along with a tall mug of Efes beer, offers a great way to cap off a busy day of exploration. If you happen to go in June, you can catch the International Music Festival, or the Istanbul Jazz Festival in July. Before you go, take a look at the Istanbul Foundation For Culture & Arts (iksv.org/en) to see what's going on.

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