Until about a year ago, the Bogˇaziçi Jazz Choir was relatively unknown inside its own country of Turkey, despite the fact that the ensemble had been around for nearly 20 years and brought home multiple prizes, including gold, from the 2010 World Choir Games in China. That all changed in early June 2011 when 14 members of the group boarded a subway in Istanbul during rush hour and staged a vocal flash mob, the current cultural phenomenon where a group of people gather in a public setting and appear to break into a spontaneous—but what is really a well-rehearsed—performance.
In this case, the crowded car of commuters was treated to a finger snapping, a cappella rendition of the American spiritual, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” It was a most unusual scene in the predominantly Muslim country, but one that, nonetheless, delighted the captive audience, who burst into enthusiastic applause when the last note took a jazzy slide downward.
Choir Director Masis Aram Gözbek had brought along a filmmaker friend that day to capture the event, hoping that it could be used to attract sponsors to help fund the choir’s then-upcoming trip to Graz, Austria, for the World Choir Championships. The video immediately went viral, accumulating an amazing one million hits worldwide within two weeks. “It was mentioned on TV and radio shows as well as in newspapers and magazines,” Gözbek says. “We did countless interviews and appearances on the news and talk shows.” The video also sparked the ultimate sign of success: imitators. “I even managed to break my mobile by making more than 500 calls the day after the video started being shared,” Gözbek says. In a flash, the Boğaziçi Jazz Choir had an international following and more attention than they ever could have imagined.
The choir’s performances at the World Choir Championships last July were equally impressive. They were named Champions in the Folk and Contemporary Music categories and No. 1 in the Folk World Rankings. They also earned 13th place in the overall World Rankings, claiming the distinction of being one of the top 20 choirs in the world. They’ve been busy with competitions and performances since. “We appeared in the 18th International Istanbul Jazz Festival, the Akbank International 18th Jazz Festival, the 17th World Route Development Forum in Berlin, and the 4th International Istanbul Choir Days,” Gözbek says. “We were part of a project called Play for Nature, as well as a Turkish National News Channel documentary, and were nominated for one of the most prestigious musical awards in Turkey, the Donizetti Classical Music Award. We won Choir of Year and Ensemble of the Year. Right after the 2012 World Choir Games, we will go to Hungary for the Cantemus International Choir Festival.”
What makes Boğaziçi Jazz Choir’s success all the more remarkable is that its membership is constantly changing. What had been a student choir at Boğaziçi University became an independent musical organization last year, open to anyone who wanted to audition. “There have been pros and cons to that,” Gözbek admits. “It can be very difficult to keep a group of people together who come from different parts of Turkey and who have different lifestyles and backgrounds. It’s not always easy for members to attend every concert so, as weird as it sounds, we often do concerts and competitions with different numbers of choristers.” The group also lacks a permanent rehearsal space and a reliable source of funding. Still, Gözbek believes that the many wonderful moments the group has experienced in the past year outnumber the hardships.
From its inception in 1994 as the Boğaziçi University Music Club Jazz Choir, founder Deniz Şener, a student himself, wanted a musical activity that every member could take part in. “As far as I know, he was not interested in American jazz exclusively,” says Gözbek, who first joined the choir as a student, becoming its conductor in 2007. “The choir was singing all kinds of repertoire.” That was a departure from Turkey’s choral traditions. “Choirs in Turkey are generally monophonic [one-part singing],” he explains. “There are also Turkish folk music and classical Turkish music choirs who are accompanied by traditional instruments, but western style polyphonic [two-to-four part singing] choirs are small in numbers.”
Nonetheless, Gözbek and the choir slowly have been winning converts, including one spinoff that proves non-traditional choral music’s profile is on the rise in Turkey: “Recently, you can see choral music included in TV commercials,” he says. Gözbek believes that’s a direct result of last year’s subway video. “It definitely helped soften the rigid perception in Turkey of what choir music should sound like,” he says, adding, “It’s very pleasing to us, of course, and for those who have set their hearts on choral music here.”
At this year’s Games, around 40 members of the Boğaziçi Jazz Choir will compete in the Contemporary, Folklore and Mixed Choir categories, but they will pass on the Jazz competition. “We realized that we want to represent Turkey in the international festivals and competitions, and therefore we needed to select music and categories to reflect our music by including contemporary Turkish composers and folk music,” Gözbek says. As for equaling their achievements at the last World Choir Games, Gözbeck responds with his characteristic optimism: “We will accomplish our best,” he says, then corrects himself: “We will do even better.”
Click here to watch the YouTube video.