Being one of the most important public spaces, can the streets prevent alienation and form a meeting area? Or a stage for musicians who left their hometowns and came to another country for one reason or another?

When you walk down Istiklal Street, you encounter musicians playing on the street so many times. Some of these musicians are Turkish, while some are travelers on their way to discover the world, and yet others are immigrants who are just passing through or end up in Istanbul due to war in their country. The answer to the question why these people make street music should be studied without strict generalization. At first look, as an external perspective, being a street musician seems pretty fine with its enchanting ways, bringing people who are there together due to different circumstances to a single area with a relatively homogenous status; though, how does it make one feel to do the job?


On the subject of immigrant musicians, I would like to talk about a group of 3 people from Ukraine whom I met while strolling around Istiklal Street. On this hot day with a soft breeze, Alina, grabbed my attention, as she sang beautifully with her great voice and danced with unique moves and stood slightly in front of the two other people.  After that, I realized Svetlana whose body movements were in harmony with her violin, and Denis who calmly played the guitar. After listening to their music for a while, I approached them wondering about their stories. Alina warmheartedly told me about their position in Istanbul. “It is not our first time coming to Turkey; sometimes we even come twice a year. This year, we are in Istanbul for 3 months to spend the summer here. We are also engaged in arts in our own country Ukraine and teach music, but we are here to make save money as well as putting our holidays to good use. Denis and Svetlana are siblings; we met long years ago while making music. We receive positive feedback from people we met here or from those who stop by to listen. We dance together; sing together what else can be more beautiful than this? We haven’t faced any problems; after all, if we had we wouldn’t come here this often. We are doing the job we like; therefore we get more excited each time we go out on the streets. Istanbul is a very big, touristic city; we get the chance to meet people of many different cultures. This both thrills and enriches us, as well as making us gain brand new experiences. We like to be out on the streets to discover. We usually prefer singing Russian classics; however we also have an instrumental composition we particularly made in Istanbul. Leaving Turkey creates a feeling of emptiness in our hearts, and when we go back the first thing we do is always to prepare next year’s plan.” After Alina explained all this, I thought they can earn a living doing this job –at least for their basic and simple needs- all over the world. They do not need to know the language of the country for they have instruments to vocalize their ideas. They do not need to know directions, for music can be performed on the streets and if it saves the day and makes them feel joyous; maybe it is also a tool to earn money up to a satisfactory point. On top of that, they have the chance to return to their countries whenever they want. But, what if they were street musicians as immigrants?


While searching for books to read or movies to watch on immigrant street musicians, I came across a 5-episode video conference series called “Sounds beyond the Border” from Evrim Hikmet Ogut and Umut Sulun. The stories of 5 people from across the border, all five of them had brought different stories to Istanbul, but they had a common point which was their experience as street musicians… First of all, I have to mention a young lady, Sadim, who is younger than the other musicians. Being both an immigrant and a woman, she faces some difficulties making music on the streets; as a matter of fact she could only experience street music once in order to feel this emotion. Having had an education of music in Syria, Sadim left her school due to war and had to come to Turkey. Sadim, who mentions that she would like to continue her education says: “Actually I really wanted to graduate school and continue my education abroad on scholarship. However, the war started and we had to leave the country, so it was not my decision or something I have done to enrich my personality. When I came to Istanbul, I would have liked to continue my education, but I had to work here to earn a living, and earning money takes precedence over education. I want to join courses, but I cannot afford them. Apart from the occasional musical nights we have or singing something at home with my parents who are also musicians just like me, I cannot do anything for the sake of music. I have not come across any Syrian woman singers or instrumentalists in Istanbul. Or maybe they are an unseen minority. Usually, men musicians are able to make music on the streets. We once tried it with my mother, but it was very difficult since you need good quality sound equipment in a crowded metropolitan city. It would be nice to make music on the streets if only we had better opportunities.”


Alaa Alkateb, who studied music in Syria for over 20 years, is one of those who had to come to Turkey due to war. Leaving the war environment in Syria and coming here with a small bag containing a few clothes, two paintings and his oud, Alaa says: “During the first months I only dusted my oud and tuned it back into its case because of my mental state, I could not enjoy what I played. Afterwards, I got acceptance from a university here, which was a great accomplishment. When we came to Turkey, we tried different options related to music with my sister; our aim was to meet new people. One of them was to make music on the streets in Taksim with some of my friends. It lasted for about a month. I have never had such an experience in Syria. There are many reasons why I stopped making music on the streets, but the main one is exhaustion and playing for long hours. My shoulder hurt from playing for five hours nonstop and the sound of the oud was insufficient on the street. A second reason is that everybody on the street plays with a band, but it is not a stable job since you cannot sign a contract on the street. However, during my time on the streets I met many people. We are still in touch with these people who are researchers, musicologists, and we have several projects together. Among these is a project related to children, I used to join some projects for children when I was in Syria too. We play interactive games with children, sing and organize workshop. I dream and hope to make music in Istanbul. The simplest and most important language is the language of music. The music you play brings together cultures; it will be easier for Syrians to understand Turkish people and Turkish people to understand Syrians. My goal is to sort of synthesize, finding common elements and bring them forward.” While explaining what he has been through, Alaa’s voice makes it clear that he will never lose his faith in music.


Noise pollution deafens us to a point where we stop noticing it after a while in a city like Istanbul with a population of 15 million or in other metropolitans of the world. Due to this noise pollution, we try to find comfort with our headphones or sometimes with the notes played by street musicians. Why wear headphones when we can travel to other realms via music with the help of the different cultures on the street? Who knows, maybe we should get away from the music industry and hear them out more often. For this to be possible, they need to be able to make music under fair conditions, get the education they need, we need to help accommodate them and most importantly help them earn a living with this job, leaving our deafened sides behind…


A research assistant from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University State Conservatory, Evrim Hikmet Ogut, who has been conducting academic and other studies on the musical practices of immigrant groups since 2011, explains immigrant musicians making street music as such: “Making music on the street is a state of obligation, if you ask me. They are usually not really willing when they first start, since there is no street music culture in Syria and it is regarded as kind of begging. The street is like an open market where immigrant musicians can show-off their products; while performing there, they get the chance to meet other musicians and mediators that lead them to cafes, restaurants and other places they can possibly perform at. It is a public place where they meet the Turkish audience as well as tourists from other Arabic speaking countries and Syrians. Street music is subject to permission in Turkey and above all requires being a Turkish citizen. For that reason, the street music practices of Syrian musicians are pretty fragile.”

Beyoglu Street Musicians Festival

Organized by Beyoglu Municipality in 2007, Street Musicians Festival was held for 3 days on a stage built in Tunel. This festival, which was a one tine organization, can help build space for street musicians if it merges with Beyoglu Festival, held at the moment.


Immigration has been a research topic for various fields of science such as history, geography, archeology, sociology, psychology; and took its place among the important themes of other areas of  art such as literature and music. While even the immigration of the TV at home (moving it to another place) changes the whole atmosphere of the house, the total effects of a collective immigration of living beings would be enormous. This can be regarded as an explanation to how and why immigration affects many different scientific and artistic fields.


We cannot regard music as just an artistic production. Music is a product of cultural fault lines and social interactions; it is a sociological event due to the resources it feeds on and feeds in return. From the moment humans discovered their “voices” and “screamed” they also found a solution to their muteness via music. The image of immigration is being portrayed throughout all the geographies of the world as the scream of those who are unwillingly sent on exile “from where they belong”.

A musical reading will both be ‘meaningful’ and comprehensive enough in order to come in contact with especially the sociocultural level/side of mass population movements that are caused by war, natural disasters, chaos, famine, population exchange, political/cyclical changes and deportation.

By: Dilara Özdeş/Photography: Yağız Karahan

*This article was  published in the  July-August issue of Marmara Life. 

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