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In Flight With My Turkish Prima Donna: The Little Sparrow

I got out of the bus that brought us to JFK in New York. After weeks of travelling with the Sezen Aksu Acoustic band I was on my own again. I wheeled my Double Bass flight-case into the Odd Size Luggage Office and I was alone. Everybody was heading back to Istanbul, Hanover Germany (Mustafa Boztuy) or stayed in the US for some time- the lot. I went back to Amsterdam. Needless to say travelling with a 55 kg case that doesn’t fit in any van is troublesome. It wasn’t long before I started to use my electric upright for the Sezen gigs. I had a smaller and little less heavy case that made travelling easier. Plus we played for huge audiences. That means that an acoustic double bass can’t define the low end as it should. It’s all simply too loud! As soon as my man Jarrod hit the Bass Bendirs and the other 2(!) percussionists would start to hammer their drums; my acoustic bass would produce the biggest “whooing” sound of feedback possible. Our front of house mixing engineer Serdar Altincisme needed control over the low end and he’s an integral part of the team. You don’t mess with him: he’s probably the most demanding and professional mixing engineer I’ve ever worked with (and I met a few!). Having worked with some of the greatest demanding artists like Miles Davis, Keith Jarret, U2, Foo Fighters etc. he knows how to deal with high volumes and keep everything clear.
I had bought an electric upright for a few hundred euros with the name Bass Stud – what’s in a name-…. Of course it wasn’t working the way it should since the pick ups had been placed way out of line: no bass in that bass. So I started to change a few things of that instrument; switching pick ups for a deeper bass sound and putting them on the right spot according to the placement of the strings. It worked fine for a while. Until we played at the edge of the Bosphorus on an open air gig. The crowd was wilder than wild and kept singing Sezen songs long after we had stopped our hard rocking gig. But during the whole gig I could listen to BBC World Radio that came through my bass and strings and was amped into a 810 Ampeg stack. Both Jarrod and I could enjoy the radio while Sezen was talking to the audience and we didn’t play. That’s not really a problem when it remains on stage, it’s just annoying. But when the FOH gets the same signal it’s a bit different. Serdar came after the show and said I need to get a new solid bass.  It was great when I asked him what he thought I should buy as a better/professional electric upright. He simply replied: I’ll check things out. Next gig he came and said: buy this one: the specs of this instrument fit your style of playing best. And I could not foresee how right he was. If I had had the NS Electric Upright 25 years ago I would never have played anything else. It’s a deliciously delicate and extremely versatile bass with clarity on the whole fingerboard – most of the times basses have serious dead spots where notes drop dead spontaneously. And the “good old days” of bass feedback were completely behind me.  On stage nobody would look over his shoulder anymore where a feedback occurred….
We had a songbook containing hundreds of Sezen’s songs. She’s been around since the early 80’s and always has been writing her own material.  Often she’d write hit songs for others like Tarkan and assumed rightfully so that the whole band knew all her songs. But it was a lost battle from the start.  It happened more than once that she’d start to sing a song which both Jarrod and me had never heard before. And there would be 5ooo people singing the song as if it were the first words they’d ever spoken…. We’d look to each other in an expression of “here we go again” and would follow the singer…. “bloody following” is the Turkish expression for playing like that. Turkish muso’s marvel at that.  We managed to get it reasonably well to the end most of the times though. The most important thing of being a musician is to have big ears: not necessarily in all details but outlines of song movement and harmonic structures.

We played huge audiences, sometimes to 40-50.000  and Turkish stardom meant we were always placed in 5 star hotels flying in and out of anywhere anytime. The crew consisted of over 28 people that were  always(!) in the same hotel as Sezen. No need to say it was a hell of a job to make money for any organizer in any place any where.
The musicians got to be friends, some very good;  some a little reserved but always very respectful; we were a good band of brothers. I’ll cherish the moments that were glorious and full of joy; when music, drama, cultures and minds came together. But it wasn’t all great. Sometimes alcohol and drugs took the proper direction and perspective away from the band. At times shows would last for hours extra because of endless talking and way too little music. A few times organizers even put on the lights in the hall because the audience needed to be given the chance to get home in time or catch the last public transport available. I don’t think we ever played a given set list from top to bottom; there were always changes in the middle of the gig or skipping the last songs because Sezen couldn’t or wouldn’t go on no more. Sometimes it was not so cool.
We started out with the feeling we’d be able to make this a great strong band comparable to Peter Gabriel’s band. In the beginning when we only played as an acoustic band, we had a strong competitive spirit and rocked the stages. It was a full blown Rock ’n Roll experience when we managed to bring the music to such a high level that we became known as the best band Sezen ever had.

The language remained an issue because I started to learn and study Turkish  to be able to communicate properly but after a year or so I spend too little time in Turkey to develop my language skills onto a decent level. It didn’t help that I could speak German with Mustafa, French with Goksun Cavdar and English with Jarrod & Fahir and most of all my dear friends Alp and Riza Okcu from StageArt- the booking agent and producer of the project.

In the years this band worked we grew to be close friends and while writing this I know an awful lot has changed in Turkey lately. The freedom which was emerging when I came to Istanbul for the first time has slowly been replaced by repression. Decades ago it was the army- a military state; now it’s Erdogan ’s conservative Islamic ruling that strikes hard among creative minds and arts. It’s no difference to be bitten by a dog or a cat….
Riza always had a strong opinion on many things. He’s a mastermind and knows a lot about geopolitical issues.  He’s clever, funny, direct and generous. He’s a great musician and producer too -he remixed and reworked the whole recorded Sezen Aksu repertoire prior to our project. He really knows his shit. Many times he’d pick me up at the airport and we’d have to eat first. Being someone who really likes good food, Riza introduced me to the best of the Turkish cuisine. He taught me the different flavors and which was the best place to eat what. We shared many bottles of raki (and Hefer Weizen in Germany)and he was the one that introduced me there. He’s a truly remarkable friend.
It’s been over two years since I was with them in Istanbul but my gratitude to be part of this thing remains… it was just awesome!

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Switching To Bassguitar….

But it was my fascination for Deep Purple that got me going. As soon as I learned a few chords I’d record music on my cassette player while I told my friends to play drums on chairs and window boards simulating snaredrum and high-hat. Smoke On The Water was probably the first riff I learned to play and Woman From Tokio the second.  I worked my way through Ilja Kroon’s Guitar method book 1 and 2 and when I had learned the barre chords I was ready to try everything on my own. I must have been about 13 years old when I played with my friends Ad Ghering -a hockey-playing-drummer whose father was an (upright)  jazz bass player where I first saw a real huge impressive double bass- and Rene Samuels the guitarist that I met when I had my first guitar lessons with Peter van de Par who’d become a successful antique trader later. My first electric guitar was an Eco semi acoustic that I bought from Peter. It had a huge feedback and was a nice easy to play guitar.  But It was my Rokkoman Les Paul copy that I would play on for some time. It didn’t take long before I’d switch to bass guitar and bought myself a Hondo Precision Bass and an Ibanez Cube Amp. In our local music shop “Bill Coolen” I’d spend hours and hours just looking at the most fabulous basses and guitars that were way out of my league. Especially real Fender Precisions or Rickenbackers like the one my hero Roger Glover in Deep Purple used to play like a wet dream. In fact they still are: an old ’62 Precision or a good old Rickenbacker are still worth a fortune.

I started to write songs for my band. Of course they didn’t sound like anything serious but I loved the process of coming up with melodies and chords to make something slightly new, at least according to me….. Another thing that works with me is stamina; I’m not a quitter… I kept looking for my voice both in songs and playing. I’d record ideas with my cassette-recorder and then rehearse them with the band. We got of playing as a school band at the bar and meeting room under the school. We played covers like “Somekind Of Wonderfull” from Grand Funk Railroad and “All Right Now from Free”…that stuff beside some originals.  One of the first songs I wrote was “Never Coming Home”, on which I played harmonica as well, slightly based on “Heroin” by Lou Reed from “Rock ‘N Roll Animal”.  “Babi Yar”was another original song inspired by “Hard Lovin’ Man” from Deep Purple about a massacre of the Jews in WW2.
As time passed I started to find different musicians to play with and I became -in retrospect- overly serious: I wanted it to be a success and drove my fellow musicians to elevating levels to the moment they’d quit. Ronald Voskens started to be the drummer of the band; he was probably the loudest drummer around and exactly what I liked. He was, and is still a very good drummer though he never worked as a professional musician, as far as I know. My friend Rene Wouters played the guitar and we were a real band for about 5 years. We started of rehearsing on Friday afternoon at our former primary school. Later on we rehearsed in the attic of a barn of Ronald’s farm. We build a room of  blocks of hay to isolate both for sound but also for temperature. Of course all in vain…. In summer it would be extremely hot and in winter there was no way to heat anything up but coffee and booze, but at least we wouldn’t have to carry our gear in and out the room every time.  I remember we’d go to some ponds at night after rehearsal and have a great time. I taught a good friend Ben Doomen how to play functional organ in an old chapel- de Hasseltse Kapel-  in Tilburg,  opposite his home. We had a vocalist Robert Sauvé, who had a lot of nerve, not such a great voice though, and had an excellent sense of humor.  They came and went. We eventually added a guitarist Ashna Vishnudat who was a real virtuoso to our standards. He loved Al DiMeola and that jazz rock stuff that was extremely popular with musicians in the late 70’s, and could play like that too.  My eclectic spirit didn’t help to find a musical course though…. We tried several musical styles; Deep Purple and Rainbow like hard rock (Axe) , U2 and Joy Division type new wave (Transmitted Tears)  etc. to get even a bit of success but it wasn’t really happening in the end. We played some loud and nice gigs but never enough to get a working band ethic that I longed for so much. To this day I regret that we didn’t play more gigs back then to really get the hang of touring in a Rock And Roll Band. I’m always looking for a working band atmosphere; I still do. My efforts to enroll Conservatory put an abrupt end to my band efforts in contemporary pop music. I had the idea that I couldn’t continue in the same way and had to start to go my own way though I had no clue in what I was doing. Instead of focusing on a band effort I took a shot at diving in a new music genre that soon would completely change my musical environment.
My fellow band members were starting to study in different cities and the former close friendship fell more or less apart. I kept in touch, on an of an on basis, with both Ronald Voskens – who got into Solar Energy- and Rene Wouters-who has become a successful photographer and film maker: he produced a portrait of mine called “Tales Of A Traveller” in 2016- they are both still playing music; I still meet up with Ad Ghering every now and then and who started to play double bass too; just like his dad.


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Sezen Aksu: The Conquest Of Carnegie Hall, New York USA 2010

We started to work our way through the concerts in Europe scheduled before the trip to the USA. It was a real treat: I’ve always carried around my own flight case with the huge 7/8 scale Père Pillement Bass from the early 1800’s -Père died in 1830- build to last centuries. And believe me a bass weighing over 30 kgs and a flight case of the same weight is not something to travel light. Many times my bass wouldn’t fit the airplane and would be send later. Often taxis wouldn’t take me because it simply didn’t fit and they wouldn’t bother to call for a van  or anything. But now we had a crew that took care of everything…….my bass stood, in its case, ready behind my place on stage. All I had to do was to take him out of the case and play. Very luxurious for a jazzman used to make ends meet and twist every penny.
We had a stopover in Istanbul before we flew to the US. We landed in New York and were guided through customs by our US hosts; a lawyer firm that sponsored and organised the tour. The bus stopped in Manhattan after a scenic route that tok us across the Brooklyn Bridge  and we were booked in a new 5* hotel across the world famous Waldorf Hotel. Everything was funky, flashy and very hip. Electronic control on the minibar meant you couldn’t even open the drawer without paying for it. Welcome to New York! I had been in New York before and the city is exciting but after my stints in Johannesburg and Istanbul New York was a reasonably quiet, decent city; a far cry from the Soprano’s, Taxi Driver and Hill Street Blues image that I’d kept in my mind. We had a few days off and I got a free chance to go check out the vibe of the inner city. I went looking for traces my ancestors had left when they colonized the first inhabitants in the early 1600’s. I’m very interested in history and my imagination takes over when I look for traces of events and happenings that occurred generations before me, in a different world with different attitudes. I’ve always had a weak spot for the indigenous people that were invaded and decimated by my European ancestors and even when walking though a city like New York I try to imagine what it must have looked like when the first Europeans charged into the New World. For me growing up in post war Europe, the US was both our liberator and role model but also the arrogant superpower and supporter of the dictatorial regiems of Pinochet, Allende, The Shah of Persia, Videla a.o.. The Vietnam catastrophe also had a serious impact on the image of the US. Human rights and democracy didn’t match the ambiguous ambitions of the US in the 70’s and the 80’s.   But even with all that in mind New York and the rest of the US are still images that thrill me. “Blue Highway” by William Least Heat Moon has been a favorite book for a long time.  I’ve never been able to travel there for a long endless trip but it’s still very much on my bucket list. American music however I take to as essential nourishment for my musical well being. In recent times I’ve grown more and more fond of Country, Folk, Bluegrass, Cajun etc. I love the music of Bill Frisell, John Mayer and Bruce Springsteen alike. It’s a a well that never dries.When I was in New York with Sezen, I knew we were going to play the famous Carnegie Hall. For the rest of the band it was like the regular gig because they’d been there before but for me it was a temple of music. The place where all the illustrious jazz stars and singers had performed when they were at their top. The place where Glenn Gould worked his way through the Goldberg Variations on Bach. A magical monumental place. And me, the guy from outskirts of the small industrial town in the south of The Netherlands that nobody heard of, was going to play for a sold out house. In itself a lifetime achievement.
We spend some days hanging around Manhattan but when the time came we were anxious to play. Our tour bus took us to the artist entrance and when we came in there was a small stairway with a big photo of Frank Sinatra climbing the same stairs…. It was a great experience and though the hall, with its classical acoustics, had a hard time with all the percussion in the band the audience was exuberant, loud -like always-, and out of their heads. The broke down the temple. And Sezen was both Lucifer and the Madonna. It was hilarious. People running and shouting, singing out loud and clapping ferociously; turning the chique Carnegie Hall into the Bazar of Istanbul. The conquest was complete: Sezen came, saw and won. And as always after the show there was Turkish food for everyone. That would become the staple diet of the years to come. The delicious and rich flavors of the Turkish cuisine, always, always, always; no matter where we were. If we’d toured India, Mexico Japan or China only Turkish food would be served.
When the food and drinks were finished we were ready to go but….outside it was like stepping into a scene of Hill Street Blues – I immediately got the picture- because there were hundreds of people waiting and while many police cars were flashing their lights, trying to control the crowd that wanted to get a glimpse of Sezen. Being such a star takes a huge toll. It takes away your identity and changes your environment fundamentally. Since I wasn’t a Sezen disciple – I didn’t really know anything of her before I joined the band- I could joke and talk with her on an equal basis. I still take her serious as a person, not as a star and I love her for that. Sezen is a special person with a special place in my heart. Over the years I’ve come to understand that being a superstar is both a bless and a burden. Drugs and alcohol are available anywhere, anytime and as Sinatra didn’t want to sing Randy Newman’s song….it’s lonely at the top.

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