Audiophile's Journey, Part 2

Audiophile's Journey continues.

Our few days in Istanbul stretched into a dreamscape with its own strange normality. We ate and drank and walked and talked about anything and everything—music and audio, of course, as well as politics, art, literature. In contrast to often one-track American engineers, Leonid Korostyshevski showed an amazing depth of knowledge about painting and sculpture and non-Russian authors—and revealed a previously unexpressed interest in creating new forms of dance that would reflect the effects of technology the way other art forms have.

"Dance is a dead art," Lenny grumbled, "I want to shake it up." English lessons: "I believe you mean 'moribund'—and funny, you don't look like a dancer. How about 'Renaissance man in the guise of a wrestler'?" One of his most recent projects is the development of image-analysis software for use by visual arts professionals, about which I cannot reveal more lest I scuttle what could be our friend's lucrative future.

Along the Istanbul waterfront was an overpass packed with people all looking eagerly in our direction; below it a gaggle of police cars and other official vehicles making a vague attempt to block traffic on the main thoroughfare. For a mile or more we had seen people toting Samsung pennants and paraphernalia, many of them unlikely to ever afford a product bearing that brand name The promo goodies were dispensed from a couple of Samsung vans among the vehicles of ad hoc officialdom and other authorized sponsors of the Olympic torch relay. Climbing the stairs to the overpass—the bottom step was inexplicably absent, as if the builders had run out of concrete, collected their last paycheck, and never returned—we saw, back where we had just been, a group of light blue police motorcycles trailed by straggling runners jogging along doggedly in the withering heat. Police half-heartedly blocked a single lane while traffic weaved crazily around the obstruction. No sooner had the runners made their turn toward a waiting ferry boat and an eventual destination in Athens than the traffic began to flow. "In Russia, they would have blocked the streets for miles," Lenny observed.

In the spice market, near a stall selling "Al Capone" cologne, was a vendor of soccer jerseys and T-shirts, some emblazoned with the glowering face of rapper Eminem near others with the image of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevarra superimposed on a Confederate flag. "Random symbols of rebellion as capitalist icons," I muttered, provoking a high-five from my Russian friend. In Istanbul, the absurd makes perfect sense.

Our quest for real Turkish music was fulfilled near midnight as we strolled about after dinner. From somewhere nearby we heard laughter, evocative strains of flutes and the oud (a sort of massive lute), a rhythmic crash of cymbals, and the plaintiff ululating voice of a male singer. Like dogs following a scent, we wandered toward the music. A live Turkish band! The real deal! We came upon an open-air restaurant and spied on its cobblestone patio several dancing adults in formal attire, before them a lone musician with a synth and a microphone. A sign nearby informed us that this was a private party not open to the public. Tourists? Or a wedding celebration? Among the adults spun a boy no more than nine years old, wearing an elaborate lavender turban. "I think it is the little boy's birthday," Lenny mused. "Sultan for a day."

Throughout the oldest part of the city roam freelance tour guides capable of helping befuddled tourists in any of a half-dozen languages. Their tours always seem to end at a cousin's rug shop. We had successfully deflected continual pitches to enter such shops until our last day in the city, when the kindly gentleman who ran the little restaurant in our hotel had arranged a dinner for us at his son Mustafa's rug shop, on the edge of the ancient wall separating the grounds of the Hagia Sophia from the sprawl of commerce outside. Near sunset we assembled on the shop's rooftop veranda, where Mustafa's father prepared a feast of Mediterranean salad, roast chicken, vegetables, and the piquant mint yogurt sauce that seems to accompany every Turkish meal.

We could hear the crowd gathering not far away for the evening's concert, and soon our conversation was drowned out by a Turkish rock band playing British and American oldies. Note-perfect and bass-heavy riffs from Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy had us miming like zombies toward the veranda's edge. "Mmmmm. . . rock good." For a moment the music blended surrealistically with the muezzin's amplified call to evening prayers, but stopped abruptly to let it finish. To do otherwise would have been blasphemous in the extreme. Educational, informative, and entertaining though he was, American-schooled Mustafa failed to close a deal, much to his father's disappointment and with many apologies from us.

Our musical dessert had to wait until after the sales presentation. Late in the evening we escaped to the crowded concert grounds. We had heard the Turks from a distance. It was the Greek band's turn to play. Kids scaled the trees seeking a better view during what seemed an interminable delay between acts—a technical glitch or backstage artists' tiff, the cause wasn't clear.

The crowd's buoyant energy didn't waver, and eventually a handsome young official or promoter or media personality in a blue blazer appeared onstage. Not speaking the language, we could only guess his role. Merhaba, Turkiye ("Hello, Turkey"), he said, to great applause. Greek and Turkish flags danced above the crowd, among them equal numbers of pennants bearing the logo of event sponsor Mavi Jeans, both a heartening display of brotherhood and brilliant marketing ploy.

A long speech, which, we assumed from the periodic cheering, heralded a new age of cooperation between old adversaries, segued into the long anticipated appearance of the Greek pop stars—preening guitarists and drummer, a sinuous female backup singer with jet-black hair, and fronting them all, a hip-shaking hybrid of Shakira and Britney Spears. "Here I am," she sang in perfect English as the crowd went wild. Our search for authentic Mediterranean music was capped by sounds all too familiar, American hits, the lingua franca of music fans everywhere. We hung near the side of the stage for a few more songs, then threaded our way through the crowd, exiting to John Lennon's "Imagine" as a duet by Barbra Streisand and Johnny Mathis.

A melancholy moment as Leonid and I sat outside our hotel, not knowing when we would meet again. The Greeks finished their set, the crowd still rowdy as the clock neared midnight. It was then that he revealed something still haunting me. It's common knowledge that perestroika, the restructuring, presented vast new opportunities for organized crime in Russia. In the west, we see regular reports of collusion between the mob and government at the highest levels. What's not known is that criminals have also infiltrated law enforcement at the local level throughout the country. "They have a very well-organized program to get kids hooked on heroin," he said. A hopeless economy and widespread drug addiction are among the deadliest social evils. Armed gangs of teenaged addicts, like something out of A Clockwork Orange, roam the streets of Russian cities and towns, looking for victims whose few rubles might cool their fever. "I cannot imaging raising children in such an environment," Lenny confessed. It's my hope and belief that he won't have to. Talent, intelligence, and insight such as his are rare and valuable commodities.

Nighttime in Istanbul, soft windless air, the concert crowd still rustling. Lenny's taxi pulled up to take him to the airport and the midnight flight to Moscow; a bear hug as the Turkish band retook the stage. The taxi pulled away, around the corner and out of sight. I sat alone in the warm evening. Beyond the ancient wall, "Blue Suede Shoes" faded into a deep multicultural hook by Turkish pop star Tarkan, one I know by heart but whose title I cannot yet pronounce. Music will always be the glue that holds everything together.

Photos by Courtney Grant Winston.