12 Songs 12 Stories
Story 4 - RISE (April 2021)
The next story is about my time with the band Natural Life. And the best place to start this story would be way before I joined Natural Life, the story starts way back in 1986 when I was 17 years old.
Even back then the only thing I wanted to do in life was music, I had been playing keyboards for around 3-4 years, I was 100% self-taught and had no clear path for myself musically. I spent all my spare time recording demos on a 4 track Amstrad Studio -100 (by the time I finished with that thing I had nearly 100 demo tapes recorded). So here I was this Turkish dude that did not have many friends, I did not mix a lot with other Turkish boys my age, they tended not to hang around with long haired boys who painted their nails black and dressed weirdly, they were into looking and smelling good, and cars, which I hated then and still do, I could not identify with these people, they were alien to me, and still are, I had only two friends, and even they thought I was weird
I was working with family at a hairdresser, I was not a hairdresser or had any plans on becoming one, but I was working for family so had it easy, life was a breeze but also boring at the same time.
Then one day a new apprentice came to start work, his name was Jon Spong, we hit it off right away, he would quote Frank Zappa and Captian Beefheart lyrics at me, until then I thought I was the only person on the planet that knew Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, wow there was other people out there my age into it, this was a revelation to me at that time.
Jon would dress differently and was an individual who did not follow the heard, this was refreshing to me as I was also like that but never came across many others like me at that time. I had found my long-lost brother; I entered a world of squats and music etc, but at that time Jon had not revealed his musician side to me that much. For that we need to fast forward to 1991.
I had not seen Jon for a while but heard he had formed a band, but I did not know much about it. Back then the UK only had a handful of TV stations, in fact only 4, and Jon’s band was going to be on the biggest youth magazine program The Word which aired Live at 9pm every Friday night, I remember watching it and loving what I heard, they had a sound rooted in the dance music of the time with elements of rock and Santana but all with their own sound, I was impressed, the words were about something, they played the song Natural life live on the show and they went down a storm, I was impressed and maybe even a little envious.
But I was happy for Jon and hoped to see the band live one day soon, they were signed to Hollywood records which was owned by Disney, the band was going places, while I was stuck working with my brother at his dry-cleaning store.
Fast forward to early 1992, while working with my brother I had a phone call, it’s early Monday and Jon calls, will I be able to take over the keyboard seat with the band? Not only that but the first gig was in 2 days’ time, the record company were going to courier over the album right away for me to learn. So that was the beginning of The Natural Life chapter of my life, on Monday I was working with my brother in his shop, and by Wednesday I was a professional musician being paid to play keyboards and on a real tour, complete with tour bus and groupies, this is the life I deserved. We did not even have time for band practise, Wednesday morning the tour bus picked me up from my house, I learned the songs on the way to the first gig on the bus, I remember making one mistake at that first concert, I was hard on myself for playing a simple part wrong, but the band seemed happy with me, and with each gig we added more songs that I had learned and I loved the music we were making. What followed was 9 months of touring, recording and bashing out new songs, what I had learned in the 9 months with the band completely changed my approach to music and not only my playing, but opened up my mind to arrangement possibilities that only this experience could give you.
We played at some mind blowing places, we played at the marquee club in London 3 times, once was with a package that was aired live on LBC radio (still pissed off that the announcer read the old keyboard players name and not mine), we also played the 2 major music festivals Glastonbury and Reading that year. One memory that sticks with me is after playing Glastonbury while we were walking down one of the parade of stalls someone had bootlegs of our concert (and all others on the bill) and was selling bootleg cassettes of the show, we approached him and said hey you’re selling bootlegs of our show, he did not believe it was us, but after checking the picture he put on the cassette cover and comparing it to the 7 faces stood in front of him he had no choice but to give us all a copy of the tape.
So, what is the connection to this month’s song?
Well, during this time we bashed out lots of new songs which we planned for the second album, one of the songs was called RISE, this was my favourite amongst the new songs, now bear in mind this was pre internet days, we started playing some of the new songs live and our fans would sing along to these new unreleased and unrecorded songs, I remember when we played at the Reading festival the whole front row was singing along to the unreleased RISE, this really blew our mind at the time.
During the 12 Songs 12 Stories series I wanted to tell the story of this episode of my life, and what better way to tell it then to record my favourite song that was written during my time with the band, it is still my wish that we can get together and record all the songs that were written during that time. If anyone is interested the bands 1991 self-titled album Natural life has recently hit Spotify, check it out, and who knows maybe one of these days we can get the second album out there as well.
I have nothing but great memories of this time with Natural life, but after 9 months by the end of 92 it was all over, due to circumstances not in our control the band could not really carry on, with heavy heart I was the first to leave, the band I think did a another few gigs and called it a day, they were stuck in a record contract that they could not leave and go elsewhere, and that was that, my first experience with the big nasty record labels, and nothing has happened since then to change my mind, what I have lived since has made me more convinced than ever that these people are anti music, but as Zappa said “music is the best”
So, fuck the labels.
Fast forwarding to early 2020, just before the virus hit, the band had been offered to play at a charity concert, and for the first time all of us said yes, there had been talk of getting together before, but there was always someone who would not want to, but now after all these years everyone said yes, we were after all these years truly going to play again, I was excited, my 17 year old daughter was going to see me on stage for the first time, and we we’re all excited and getting ready to get together and rehearse, but then we found ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, so for now the dreams of playing live together have been put on hold.
But this story does not end here, to be continued….
I was born and brought up in London, all my life I have lived in a typical London Victorian era house, so the apartment culture of Turkey, or more to the point Istanbul was completely foreign to me.
Here in London no one knocks on your door, or if they do they will clear it with you ages beforehand, but in general London is a lonely city with many lonely people in it, millions of people living in isolation and convincing themselves that they are happy this way, sure they would see people at work, maybe even go out after work, but at the end of the day a large amount of people go to their empty homes and eat their sad microwave meals and watch some mind numbing braincell killing TV program and be programmed. And like little robots we live this life in the greatest city in the world (this is the lie we are told).
I am the product of this city and its people are my people, we went to school together, we played on the same streets, we danced to the same music, in the playground at school we played the same games.
But from an early age I noticed from my privileged position that there was poverty here, while after school I went to a home with cooked meals, a friend would go home to abuse and a can of soup as dinner, I did not even know soup came in a can until I went to a friend’s house after school when I was around 9-10. I did not know prejudice existed until around the same age when I was asked by someone why I had a black girl friend come to my house after school. So even though I was part of London I was definitely apart from London, there was something quite not right here. So, this is where I come from, this is where I grew up and learned about the bitter pill that is life, In the lonely city called London.
In 2001 I went to Istanbul to stay for 3 months (I had been many times before, but this was the first time renting my own place) I rented my own apartment in Esenkent (next to Bahçeşehir), the concept that people would come and visit you whenever they liked was foreign to me, I was looked at weirdly when I would say sorry I’m busy, one friend did not talk to me for a good few weeks because I would not let him in early in the morning and told him I needed to sleep some more, come back another time, in my defence who comes around at 7am? Does he not know musicians do not wake up till late afternoon???? I was a product of a city that would say it was rude to turn up unannounced, while my friend was a product of a city that would deem it rude to turn away a guest even if it was at 7am in the morning, I had trouble understanding this.
I was not having a good time with this and was happy when I went back to London after 3 months, back to my solitude.
Then a few years later after my first album came out, I made the decision to move too Istanbul for a couple of years, again Esenkent was the destination, but this time until I found my own place I was living with a real Turkish family (I had married a girl from Istanbul) and there was a constant stream of visitors in this new for me foreign environment. I was even more shocked as the number of knocks on the door far exceeded the number at my own Esenkent apartment 3 years previously.
Writing this now I don’t recall how I felt this second visit, but I remember I was becoming more accustomed to this, and I started enjoying these visits, after not seeing certain people for a couple of days I would say when is so and so coming around we have not seen them for a few days? I secretly started enjoying the visits and wanting that interaction with people that previously seemed so alien in London and to a Londoner like me.
I used to see certain to my mind unrealistic characters in Turkish TV programs and I would think surely such characters do not exist in real life, what is this? it’s so unrealistic. But then when I stayed there for 2-3 years (eventually getting my own apartment) I noticed none of those characters were exaggerated, they existed in real life, and coming to visit you at your very own Istanbul apartment soon. A steady flow of great characters, life, and food, and Turkish Tea (which I still do not drink) and laughter and living, unimaginable in London, and me as a Londoner not only enjoying but revelling in it.
So, what’s the connection to the song?
Well there was a couple of families that we would mix with a lot, they would come around and we (my ex-wife and I) also started going to visit them as well, obviously it’s a 2-way street. Sometimes music would be played, dancing would take place, and to my embarrassment they would play and dance to one of my songs, always the same song (Karanlıklar İçinde), I can’t dance well so I mostly made awkward gestures instead. I still remember it so well, just a great night in Istanbul with people from the same apartment block, just enjoying life and living in the moment, singing, dancing, being loud, the neighbours won’t complain because they’re the neighbours, and in that moment I went into “THE ZONE” while people we’re dancing to Karanlıklar İçinde. Being in the zone for me is when a song idea or a root of an idea comes to you and if you don’t capture it there and then it will be gone as quickly as it came, so I went to my room which had a keyboard and I composed this simple piece of music and called it Esenkent Dansı. Like a lot of what I wrote that would have been it, never to be heard by anyone else, but with this project It was begging to be released saying to me I am also a story let me free for the world to hear me, and so thanks to 12 songs 12 stories I bring you Esenkent Dansı, whenever I hear it, it reminds me of Istanbul Apartment culture, lovely neighbours and friends and the welcomed knock on the door, any time of night or day, always open with love and Çay.
Konkurt was a London based Turkish Cypriot band who formed in 1973 and performed until 1989, they not only played the wedding circuit, but they also made records with their own songs written by singer/keyboard player Hüseyin Katkın, these records now fetch a high price from collectors, Hüseyin Katkın also made homemade solo tapes of his songs, these are also highly sort out and are very rare.
When I was in my early teens, I started having an interest in music, being Turkish Cypriot naturally most Saturday or Sunday nights were spent going to weddings with my family, and the only band I wanted to hear at the weddings was Konkurt. There were many other bands around at the time, but Konkurt to me was the best, even when playing the hits of the day they never sounded Arabesque, a sound I really do not like, while every other band was bleeding peoples ears with that sound, Konkurt was making great music.
Hüseyin Katkın - Keyboards/Vocals
Doğan Ahmet: Guitar/Vocals
Mehmet Ahmet: Bass Guitar/Vocals
Hasan Ahmet: Drums/Vocals
I had not been playing keyboards very long and was really interested in watching others play, so during one of these weddings I snuck up next to the band and was intensely watching Hüseyin Katkın playing and singing, he noticed me and nodded over for me to come next to him and watch, which I of course did, then the band started playing Işte Hendek Işte Deve by Baris Manco, after the first verse when it was time for the instrumental break he nodded at me to play, I was nervous but there was no time to think so I started playing the short melodic section of the song, it maybe lasted 30-40 seconds but for me it was all my 14 year old brain could think about for the next few days. After I played, he gave me a thumbs up and I left the band area thinking yes this is what I want to do as well.
I never joined a wedding band because what I wanted to do was play and sing and write my own songs, I did once audition for a wedding band to see if I could get in, and when I did I politely said I had changed my mind.
But I did get to do what I always wanted to do, which was to write sing and play my own music and this small step was the start of that. Hüseyin Katkın is still alive and well, we have never met since but have spoken on the phone a few times, and I hope once this pandemic is over to get to meet him properly. That fleeting moment was my first time on stage, and I remember my whole body shaking, it’s a great memory that I will treasure for ever.
My new song Nazlanma Güzel Nazlanma is a tribute and thank you to Konkurt and Hüseyin Katkın, they made the record to this song in 1977, on the liner notes of the 45 there is a special thanks to a secret hero who played baglama on the recording, that secret hero was none other than Ohannes Kemer, who was of course the Baglama/Guitar player for Baris Manco’s Kurtalan Ekspres band at that time, Ohannes Kemer is maybe another story for another timeJ
Sometimes a song comes to you right away, with no notice it just turns up and you need to catch it quickly otherwise once it's gone that's it, no second chances. But other songs can take for ever, and some will just never be finished (most in fact). Having written the music for this song years ago I could never get the words done, all I needed was an opening line, but nothing ever happened, every few months I would try always to retreat defeated, with the song mocking me "you will never work me out".
Then one day during this lockdown, during this painful time that we are all living, you pick up a poetry book that you have picked up many times, you read the same poems you have been reading and loving for years, then you go to one of your favourites, but instead of reading the now familiar poem you start singing it, it fits perfectly, Oh my I think I found it, and for the first time in my musical life quite my accident I had set to music a poem, and not just any poem, a poem from one of my favourites Turkish poets, but am I worthy? The words not only fitted perfectly but quite summed up how I was feeling in those first dark months of uncertainty.
I rushed to the studio and made a brand new arrangement playing everything myself and spent the rest of the week recording only pausing to eat and sleep, the song instead of admitting defeat now said well done you found me, but you took your time.