"In Turkey," says Ali Ersin Koray, "the underground music scene is really underground, much more underground than here. In Turkey, for example, we don't have that many famous punk rock bands. I could give you maybe two examples."
Koray, 22, goes by Ersin, but to his Chicago friends he's known simply as "the Turk." Most of those friends are either members of local ska band Deal's Gone Bad or part of the band's immediate circle, and that's no coincidence. Deal's Gone Bad is his whole reason for coming to Chicago.
Koray's family is from Bursa, a large city just across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul, and he's been into punk rock since his early teens. But foreign bands, if they come to Turkey at all, tend to play Istanbul and nowhere else; many Turkish fans have to settle for concert footage on YouTube. Though Koray is currently a marine engineering student at Istanbul University, he still hasn't had too many chances to see live punk and ska—he guesses there are more shows on any given Saturday in Chicago than in a solid month back home. He makes do. "I watch ska videos," he says. "Deal's Gone Bad videos."
Koray came to the States on a work-study program—he was going to take a summer job at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a Bay Area amusement park. In fact his uncle had already bought him a plane ticket to San Francisco when he heard that a friend who'd preceded him had been turned away from the park for having a tattoo. Koray has a half sleeve of ink on one arm, so he decided not to bother even showing up for his job. When he arrived in California at the end of July, he hopped a bus to Chicago.
Deal's Gone Bad had played a show in Istanbul in April, on their first European tour. They were one of the main attractions at an all-night ska blowout that also featured venerable New York band the Toasters and plenty of locals, and they stayed in the city for three days. That's when Koray met them. "They were one of the first Western ska bands to come to Turkey," he says. "People are hungry. They've never seen this kind of bands playing live. I know all kinds of ska and reggae bands, but for myself I love Deal's Gone."
American bands in Europe rarely travel further east than the Czech Republic, and not many even get that far—the western European circuit is generally more lucrative and more culturally familiar. "I was a little leery about Turkey," says Deal's Gone Bad guitarist Dave Simon. "When I think about Turkey, it's like the beginning of an Indiana Jones movie. It's just chaos. They drive on the sidewalk, walk on the street, there's animals walking by and armed guards, you know?"
What Deal's found, though, was a crowd so devoted it made them feel like rock stars. "Everyone was super nice," Simon says. "They washed our clothes for us and took us out to eat and whatever we wanted. It's definitely something I'll never forget. I was out with the locals all day long. When I was leaving, man, there were people tearing up."
"My friend," Koray says, "his nickname is Boss DJ. He's a great DJ and he only listens to ska music." When he met Deal's in Turkey, "he was like, 'Oh my God. They are like the biggest guys in ska music!' His hands were shaking!"
Koray helped drive the band around in Istanbul, and after that he kept in touch through e-mail. "In Turkey we hung out, like really good, and then they left," he says. "Everybody talked about it for months. All of the other bands that I've met as a fan have had that attitude—like they're rock stars." But not Deal's, he says. "They never treat me as a random kid. Like, 'Hey, what's up? Did you like our sound? OK, see you later.'"
After a "crazy" two-day Greyhound ride from San Francisco—"I'm foreign, so redneck people did not like me very much"—Koray showed up in Chicago alone and down to his last ten dollars. His parents weren't yet aware of his change of plans, and he didn't have any obvious way to support himself—with his student visa, he couldn't work legally. He'd told the guys in Deal's he was coming, though, and he figured they'd be able to sort something out.
Saxophonist Aaron Hammes has a spare room he usually rents, but it was empty and he decided to let Koray use it for free. "I made an offhand comment that he should hit me up when he came to the States," Hammes says. "The fact that it turned into him needing a place to stay in Chicago was kind of a shock." Hammes and his girlfriend, along with other members of Deal's, have helped Koray find odd jobs—mostly grunt work in bars and restaurants.
The band's also been showing him around punk Chicago. "I realized that in Turkey we are only able to hear your really popular bands," says Koray. "So I got here and you've got tons of local bands which are really good. Aaron works at Bottom Lounge and he gets me into shows. Dave works at Cobra Lounge and he introduced me to everybody in Chicago. I went to almost all the bars in Chicago so far. I love the city. Even the Loop is really great."
When Koray arrived in Chicago he had a girlfriend, another native of Turkey who'd come to the States not long before he did and was staying in New York with relatives. She joined him here early on, but she didn't share his interest in punk and he didn't share her interest in shopping downtown. They've since split up, and she's now studying in Paris. "I'm done with Michigan Avenue," Koray says.
Koray himself will be leaving shortly; his visa's expiring. He has vague plans to come back, maybe for school. "We've been trying to help him figure out his educational options over here," says Hammes. "It's harder than I thought for someone from overseas to go to school here. Unless they have piles of money."
Even if Koray never makes it back to Chicago, the city has already given him an education in punk. Back home he plays bass in a band called Dinamit (Turkish for "dynamite"), and its music is sure to benefit from what he's heard. "It's really similar to Rancid, which I don't like so much," he says. "I want more original sounds."