by Frank Lev, Jan 14, 2002 | Destinations: Turkey

When he heard the incredible music that night in Istanbul, it stopped him cold. What was that sound? It was wild. Uncontrolled. Beautiful. Like John Coltrane. He closed his eyes and let the sound envelope him. Before he knew what he was doing he was walking, following the hypnotic melodies through unfamiliar, dark streets of Istanbul. Twisting and turning down mysterious lanes just like the horn player was twisting and turning his mesmerizing melodies. Beckoning. Teasing. Then he was there, looking into a hole in the wall where a group of three musicians and a belly dancer performed for an unappreciative crowd. Unappreciative except for Frank.

He sat transfixed by every note. He stood there for several minutes until one of the waiters caught his eye and in a friendly way motioned for him to enter. Nervously he did. All eyes turned as if on cue. "Tourist" is what he imagined went through every mind. He was the only one. Normally he would have turned to go, but that haunting sound held him. Pinned him to the wall. He listened and watched every move that old man made. He was amazing. He watched until the eyes turned away one by one and he faded into the background to become just another fixture in a smoky Istanbul club. When the band finished, he watched as the horn player, a large, rugged older man, took apart his clarinet, wrapped it in a large piece of newspaper, and stuck it in his pockets. Before they could leave, Frank plucked up his courage and approached the horn player. He looked up, grimaced and turned away.

"I really enjoyed your playing." Frank said. The old man grunted. "I'd like to take a lesson from you," Frank continued. The horn player stopped what he was doing and turned around.

"$100." He looked at his friends in the band and they all laughed. Of course this was a ridiculous offer and insulting. Frank's heart sank. "Get out of here," a voice of reason pleaded. But he couldn't forget that music.

"I could give you $20." The man started to walk towards the door. Desperately Frank threw out, "Well where can I see you play again?"

The man spat, frowned, took a piece of the newspaper, scribbled something in Turkish on it and shoved it in Frank's direction. Then in a haze of smoke and laughter, he was gone. Only the scrap of foreign newspaper in his hand let him know that it had happened at all. About ten o'clock the next morning, Frank got on the first of many buses. He asked people, showed the scrap of paper many times, and watched heads shake and point vaguely, but he was in no hurry, and it was all an adventure.

Someday, he thought it would make a hell of a story. And so he continued. As he traveled farther away from the tourist zone, more and more people looked at him curiously. At last he arrived at the neighborhood in the outskirts of Istanbul. Again he showed his scrap of paper to people and he was pointed in the right direction. Finally a man pointed across the street. And there it was. A bar. A dirty and rundown bar. He'd traveled for two and a half hours, rode four buses and talked to scores of people to arrive at this crummy bar.

"Hey you, tourist. What you want?" someone called. "This no place for tourist." Frank swallowed hard and took out the scrap of newspaper, his ticket. He showed to the unfriendly man. The man looked at the paper and then looked up at Frank. His face showed nothing. He pointed to the instrument slung over Frank's back and said, "What that?"

"A soprano saxophone," Frank answered. The man nodded his understanding, stepped out of the way, and allowed Frank to enter the bar. It was occupied by about 15 men who were smoking, drinking tea and beer, playing backgammon, and playing various musical instruments. It turned out to be a musicians' bar, a place where the local Turkish musicians would wait for people to come in to hire them. As he stood in the doorway feeling out of place Frank spied the clarinetist slumped in a chair with a few others of similar posture.

"Well", Frank thought, "I've come all this way. I'm not going to turn back now." He put one foot in front of the other and headed towards the table. After a moment's hesitation he said, "Excuse me," and offered the paper with the address written on it. The burly man grunted and rudely waved Frank away. It was like a slap in the face. Frank felt completely exposed and naked. He composed himself with some effort and slinked back towards the door. He took one last look around the bar. No one seemed to notice he was there. It was like he was invisible. Everyone was wrapped up in their drinking and games. He shrugged his shoulders and turned to leave.

"What's in the box?" he heard a voice say in pretty good English. He spun around and there was a man in his mid thirties.

"Oh. Its a soprano saxophone," Frank answered.

"Show me", the man said. Frank opened up the case and showed the saxophone to the man.

"Play it," the man ordered.

Frank warily took out the instrument and played a jazz tune he'd been practicing. The man nodded his head back and forth in time to the syncopated beat.

"Why are you here?" the man asked the now familiar question.

"I want to learn to play Turkish music." The man glanced around the room. He thought for a moment.

"I'll teach you to play Turkish music," he said with a hint of a smile.

He took out a guitar and started to play a melody. The melody was simple enough but the rhythm was difficult because it was in an unusual time. Western music usually has either 3 or 4 beats in each measure and it repeats over and over. The Turkish music however may have a pattern consisting of 2+2+2+3 or some other strange combination that makes it sound as if it is limping along. Frank tried to duplicate what he heard. He tapped his foot and concentrated. The man smiled as Frank picked up the melody quickly. When Frank could play it perfectly the man beamed and said, "Good. Come." Frank followed the man as he walked back into the center of the bar.

"Play," the man commanded again.

Frank took a deep breath and played. The sound rang out into the bar and the men stopped what they were doing and listened. The hostile faces softened a bit. When he finished there was a silence in the bar. Then a big cheer exploded.

"Eminae. Tourist," the men called out, raising their glasses and drinking a toast. Everyone smiled at him. Some came up to him and patted him on the back. Amidst the laughter, an old man came up with his instrument and said, "You play."

He proceeded to play a different melody. After a few minutes when Frank could play the tune perfectly, the man motioned for attention and told Frank to play it. Another cheer went up. Another man approached. It seems it had suddenly become a status symbol for the men to teach Frank their favorite tunes. Frank didn't mind at all. He was absorbing everything, taking it all in. Every now and then someone would call out, "Eminae," and Frank would play the first song he had learned amidst good-natured catcalls and toasts. By the time they let him out of there it was well past dusk. He didn't worry about finding his way home, he was floating on a cloud. He eventually arrived back at the tourist section safely in that same euphoric state.

The Turks are a friendly, curious, and music-loving people. As Frank traveled around the country, people often asked him to show them his instrument. Invariably they would ask him to play. By the second week of the trip he had a set routine. He would play a little jazz and watch their faces carefully. If their eyes stared to haze over from the unfamiliar music, he would suddenly switch to Eminae. It never failed to produce an enthusiastic reaction. It carried him all over Turkey.

On the fourth week of his travels, he found himself the strange and beautiful Cappadocia region, famous for its bizarre rock formations, which resemble immense twisted candlesticks. Many people actually had had homes carved into the soft rock. The date was November 8, two days from the national Independence Day celebration. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is revered throughout the country with a zeal that borders on worship. They are passionate about this man who transformed the country into a world power.

The national day in Turkey is a celebration of Ataturk and a day of great pride to all the people of Turkey. It is the most important holiday in this secular Moslem country. Frank found himself in the small Cappodocian town of Urgup. After a few days he became friendly with the manager of the hotel. Ali was a modest man in his thirties who was an accomplished Turkish drummer. They spent many hours playing music together and became friends.

"Where are you going for the National Day Celebration?" Ali asked at one point.

"I don't know."

"Why don't you stay in Urgup? You can be our special guest performer at the city ceremony." Frank smiled.

"Will you be up there with me?"

"Sure, we'll play together." Frank shrugged and smiled.

"Sure. Sounds like fun."

He'd played before large audiences before. And how many people could there be at the city celebration of a small town like Urgup? The morning of the celebration, they stopped off at the elementary school. There, lined up in neat rows, were about 200 school children. Frank was introduced as a famous musician from America, a profound exaggeration. Ali motioned for him to play. Frank played one of his favorite jazz tunes. The children gave him an enthusiastic ovation. "Just wait," he thought. "Wait until I play my show stopper later on at the ceremony."

They headed over to the main square of the small town. Frank couldn't believe his eyes. There were thousands of people there. Where did they all come from? The town was very small, however it was the largest city in the immediate area, so the farmers and country people came from miles around. Frank gulped. Panic started to set in. What would he do? What would he play? Then he remembered he had a sure fire winner under his fingers, the song he'd been playing throughout Turkey for three weeks now. It had never failed him and it wouldn't fail him today. There were speeches. There were more speeches. Children displayed their talents. Medals were handed out. An introduction was made. The people stood packed together with rapt attention as the manager nudged Frank and whispered, "Its our turn." Frank heard the speaker say in English, "And now we have a special guest from the United States of America, a famous jazz musician, Frink Leb."

As if in a dream, Frank followed Ali across the stage to the microphones. "You play a beat and I'll come in," Frank told Ali. Calmly and professionally, Ali played a traditional Turkish rhythm. Frank looked over the excited crowd. He wanted to grab them right away. He decided to start out with his best piece first, Eminae. As the sounds of the sax first spread out over the crowd, a cheer went up. Then moments later a hush fell over the crowd. There was total silence except for the drum and the sax. Frank glanced over at Ali who was making strange faces at him. Frank didn't quite know what was happening or what to do so he kept on playing. The show must go on. For what seemed like an eternity he played, until the song was over. Then amidst silence and a mixture of avoiding looks and hostile ones, he and Ali returned to their seats.

"What did you do that for?" the manager asked. "You've insulted our community on our most important holiday."

"What do you mean?" Frank asked. "I thought people liked Eminae."

"Look," explained the manager "You don't play a song about drinking, gambling, and whoring at the national day celebration in front of the whole town and all the children."

Frank looked out at the cold faces surrounding him and wished he could disappear. He did, the next morning. He was on the 6 a.m. bus out of Cappadocia.