An Italian in Istanbul by Luke Frostick
Federico Rosa, aka DJ Nio, manages to be energetic and chill at the same time. As we talk about his multimedia project Mamma Li Turki!, he has multiple thoughts about his work and tries to express them all at the same time, but speaks with a laid-back Italian accent and is wrapped up in a comfortable hoodie of his own design.
Nio first experienced Istanbul in 2016, a tremulous year in Turkey’s modern history, with some of the worst terrorist attacks in a decade and the attempted coup. Nio explained to me that during this time, a lot of friends and relatives in Italy were concerned about his safety, in particular his mother. The Mamma Li Turki! project started out as a way of explaining Turkey and Istanbul to her, to reassure her that Istanbul was safe and life was like life anywhere else. I asked him if he thinks it worked and he said that she seemed to understand the country and the city better. He mentioned that she preferred the photographic and the video elements of the project.
That’s a shame because, although the project is multimedia, the meat of it is musical. The collection currently stands at 2-beat tapes and an EP. It is a smooth playlist of lo-fi hiphop and chillhop that samples Turkish jazz and old pop songs, the sounds of the streets, the ferries and some of the characters of the city.
I asked him to walk me through his process and he said that the first thing about being a hip-hop producer is going to the flea markets and second-hand shops to find dusty vinyls, a process he refers to as ‘digging in the crates.’ He mostly gets Turkish pop music and jazz from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Then, to simplify the process somewhat, he re-records them, cuts the parts he wants and adds to the beat with kick and snares or hi-hats to produce something new. He says Turkey has some of the richest music on earth and that his own work is all about discovering old music and giving it new life.
His beat tapes also include the sounds of the streets and spoken elements. Anybody who attended the Spoken Word Istanbul scene before the pandemic is going to recognise a few of the characters in there. In the interest of disclosure, I should say that my voice has also been sampled. The overall effect is a musical landscape of Istanbul that captures the spirit of the place, lively, chaotic, but also peaceful.
The more broad multimedia segment project includes a documentary and a photo book. The video is up on YouTube and is mostly Nio laying out his ideas about the project along with some beautiful shots of Istanbul.
When talking about the photography, Nio tells me that the original idea behind it was to photograph the graffiti of Istanbul. He found that during the process of shooting graffiti he was capturing people in those photographs and realised that they were as, if not more, interesting to him than the graffiti. So his subject shifted from street art to taking shots that captured life in Istanbul.
Originally, the photographs were just for his mother and Instagram, but other photographers convinced him that there was value in putting some of his work into a book. I agree. Though some of the shots are a bit rough, for instance a photo of a young, covered woman firing an airgun has an errant hand reaching for a water bottle in the frame, messing up an otherwise interesting composition. However, as a collection, they capture a certain side of Istanbul, the weird contradictions that you stumble across while walking the backstreets of the city.
More than anything else he has a particular eye for the metropolitan district of Beyoğlu and especially its conflicted and diverse quarter of Tarlabasi. When talking about feedback, Nio mentioned that he received critique from a Turkish citizen who accused him of making Istanbul seem “Arabic” by taking photographs of Tarlabasi, which feature prominently in the collection. In addition to the anti-Arabism, the commenter is also wrong about the value of capturing Tarlabasi, a place that is changing fast, despite the district’s stubborn resistance to gentrification.
However, it will not be long until the scenes that Nio has collected in his book will be lost forever. Nio is sensitive to changes and mentions how even the street he lives on has changed so much in the last few years. Moreover, he says that cataloguing some of the changes in Tarlabasi is very much part of what he is trying to do. This is probably just the Istanbul local in me, but it feels somewhat appropriate that a Genovese guy is working so hard to capture the beauty of Beyoğlu.
Do the various parts of the Mamma Li Turki! multimedia project harmonise? Broadly yes. The photobook and the music both try to capture the same sense of Istanbul, becoming old, forgotten, as the overlooked parts of the city, but giving them new life. It’s rather marvellous.
Luke Frostick is a writer based in Istanbul. He is the editor of the Bosphorus Review of Books. He writes for Duvar English and the Three Crows Magazine. His latest fiction publication is a short story in the Vampire Connoisseur anthology.