A Fight Is on to Save the Sounds of Turkey

Why you should care

Some of our most cherished memories have to do with sounds. 

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For years, the cacophony of Istanbul’s Kumkapi fish market evoked happy memories of childhood for Pinar Çevikayak Yelmi. As a little girl she would wander around the stalls with her father and listen to competing fish sellers holler out a bewildering array of names and prices, and share bursts of rapid repartee with customers.

In March 2015, Yelmi was set to record the market for her sound archive “The Soundscape of Istanbul,” but a week before her planned visit the decades-old market was abruptly torn down and its dozens of tenants displaced to make way for a mega infrastructure project — a road tunnel under the Bosporus. Istanbul has multiple fish markets, but few this large or evocative, and Yelmi felt its loss acutely. “It had a symbolic value for the city, but now it’s gone,” she says.

It gives me a strange sense of happiness to know that nature will finally win.

Emre Yücelen, musician and sound recorder


Yelmi may have lost the race to save the sounds of the iconic fish market for posterity, but she’s part of a growing number of field recordists battling daily to preserve Turkey’s unique sonic heritage in the face of dramatic shifts that are threatening that legacy.

This sonic war is being fought across the nation, but unsurprisingly, Istanbul is home to the most pitched battles. The city is particularly noisy: The ezan calls out five times a day; Bosporus ferries strike deep, mournful notes underneath impatient, nasal car horns; boisterous hawkers and vendors shout in the streets. Fire, earthquakes, migration and gentrification have each changed the city dramatically in the past. But now, it’s the sound of construction that often drowns out the city’s more organic strains. Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is busy razing and building at a furious rate as part of an unprecedented construction boom. Add new technology and economic trends into the mix and there is a widespread sense of loss and displacement — of buildings, spaces, entire neighborhoods, and unwanted people and their activities — which is reflected in sound.

With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan monopolizing power and cracking down on dissent, politics is increasingly unavoidable in every battle — even those over sounds. Elif Yasemin Azaz, a contributor to MIT’s CoLab Radio and a member of the Turkish collective Architecture for All, has posted soundwalks online from Istanbul neighborhoods she believes are under threat from the government’s urban renewal program, which many see as a euphemism for gentrification and social engineering. The collective Emek Is Ours, Istanbul Is Ours contributed to sound maps on Cities and Memory’s global protest project — uploading audio of police violently breaking up a demonstration against the closure of a famous old movie theater in 2013. But for some, the race to salvage Turkey’s sonic legacy is also just about coping with the flux that the country and its landscape are witnessing. The musician Emre Yücelen has been recording natural, threatened and culturally significant sounds across Turkey since 2004, using them in his music and compiling them into maps and collections. Listening to them helps him survive the noise and chaos of living in Istanbul.


“It gives me a strange sense of happiness to know that nature will finally win,” says Yücelen.

Yelmi began recording and archiving sounds important for cultural identity and memory as part of her doctoral research at Koç University. She spent 2015 in the field collecting recordings, but realized that she needed to develop the project into something more comprehensive, sustainable and accessible. She launched the Soundslike interactive sound map in late 2015, which sought crowdsourced contributions to paint a fuller sonic picture of the city, and categorized them by theme, location and date. More than 200 people created accounts, and more than 200 sounds have been added by other people — Yücelen is among the most prolific contributors to the project. Now, Yelmi is looking to expand her project to other Turkish cities undergoing major changes, and has also launched a Soundslike map for London.

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Istanbul’s famous Istiklal street tram, Jan. 29, 2016.

Source Chris McGrath/Getty

But the Turkish political context within which these sound recorders are working is hard to ignore. Firat Yücel — a leading member of the Emek Is Ours, Istanbul Is Ours collective — says he believes slogans bring people together and trigger political thought and action. “The sounds can make people position themselves politically in the world,” he says.

Political activism is also important to preserve sounds — just recording them isn’t enough, says Meri Kytö, a soundscape researcher at the University of Tampere, Finland, who has worked extensively in Istanbul. Archives, she says, can support urban planning and encourage people to understand local sonic cultures — and take action to protect them. “Sounds tend to disappear before we notice they’ve gone,” says Kytö.

But Kytö says sound archivists must be careful not to claim representation of a city or a soundscape, to think about who is being recorded and who is being ignored and to treat recordings like artifacts that require supporting context and information — otherwise, they can become indecipherable. Few understand that context in Turkey better than Korkmaz Çakar, who worked as a sound effecter for the state broadcaster TRT for 40 years, and began collecting street recordings around Istanbul in 1967, mostly to use in radio plays.

Now, the 73-year-old retired man is among the most important contributors to Yelmi’s sound map. He uploaded many lost sounds — of cotton fluffers, steamship horns, even the razed Kumkapi fish market. He still records on his smartphone, mostly sounds of nature like seagulls arguing and hissing downpours of rain — an escape from the traffic and construction that is increasingly blighting the shrinking forest in his neighborhood of Sariyer.

When he’s in the city, he most often just wants to plug his fingers into his ears, he says with a laugh. “And I am still thinking about all the lost sounds I missed recording.”

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