2019 was a good year for Turkish music. And 2020 is looking even better. A number of Turkish indie bands have been releasing uncompromising music that has gained them an ever-growing following around the world.
When one thinks of Turkish cultural exports, the first thing that probably comes to mind are melodramatic and historical TV shows—those much-vaunted soap operas we are always hearing about charming viewers in the Middle East and Balkans. Yet today, Turkey-based musicians playing more niche genres like synth-pop or trap are also making waves across the world. Turkey has rich and various musical traditions. Even so, it has been difficult to spark interest abroad, beyond avid followers of world music. This is exactly why I find the reception of musical acts like Gaye Su Akyol, Jakuzi, She Past Away, Palmiyeler, and Ezhel so promising.
Gaye Su Akyol released her third album, İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir, in October 2018. Since then she has played numerous concerts across Turkey and Europe, won Best Artist at the Songlines Music Awards in the UK, received a glowing New York Times profile, and has been praised by the likes of Iggy Pop. The album, whose title means “Consistent Fantasy Is Reality,” contains otherworldly lyrics with a subtly political bent. The music combines the melodies of Turkish Classical Music (associated with the rakı-soaked, heartbreaking vocal stylings of luminaries Zeki Müren and Müzeyyen Senar) with dancy rhythms and a synth-heavy, guitar-shredding back-up band inspired by psychedelic rock.
To foreign ears, Gaye Su Akyol’s musical fusion is equal parts familiar and foreign. According to radio airplay data, the album’s title track has been played over 1,2000 times in 29 countries, including Germany, France, Sweden, Finland, as well as 48 American cities from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles. Akyol is a talented and original musician, but without the interest in “Turkish psychedelic music” it is hard to imagine that she would find receptive listeners.
“Turkish psych” is something of a misnomer. The genre that has come to be known in Turkey as “Anadolu Rock” (Anatolian Rock) began in the 1960s as a hybrid musical form combining global rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation with local folk lyrics and melodies. While hardcore world psychedelia fans outside of Turkey always knew about Barış Manço, Moğollar, Cem Karaca, Erkin Koray, Selda Bağcan, and the like, the last 10-15 years has seen a boom of interest in this music among young listeners in North America and Western Europe. Some have taken to calling this the “Anatolian Invasion,” a play on the Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ famous “British Invasion.” Glossy re-issues of classic Anadolu Rock albums are sold in every city where hipsters dwell. 71-year-old Selda plays sold-out shows across Europe. Amsterdam-based band Altın Gün performs covers of Anadolu Rock covers of Turkish folk songs, and were even nominated for a Best World Music Grammy award for 2019’s Gece.
While the Turkish psych trend is in full swing, other bands are building a global fan-base without having to play up their Turkishness at all. Last year I spoke with Reha Öztunalı of indie label Tantana Records who said something that stuck with me. “Why is it,” he posed, “that a garage rock band that happens to be from Turkey gets labeled as world music rather than simply garage rock?” I have heard some musicians privately voice resentment that certain bands get launched to fame for sounding “exotic” while those who refuse to auto-orientalize fall through the cracks of the global market.
This is exactly why the other bands grabbing attention abroad are so exciting. Jakuzi is a synth-pop group inspired by 1980s classics like Depeche Mode and The Cure. Unwilling to take the “Eurovision” approach and sing in the global lingua franca, English, their lyrics are Turkish. Surprisingly, this hasn’t harmed their popularity with fans and critics across the world. The single “Şüphe” off their second album Hata Payı, released on the German label City Slang, has aired over 500 times in 16 countries, not to mention monthly streaming topping 80,000 in Turkey and the world. Most recently Jakuzi were invited to play the massive Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona 2020.
The more heavy and spooky sound of the post-punk/dark-wave band She Past Away has also resonated with global audiences. I remember hearing them playing at a coffee shop in San Diego. The cavernous reverb made it hard to decipher the lyrics at first, but I quickly realized it was Turkish. Since then, I’ve discovered that aficionados of this musical style don’t care where the band is from—they just like the sound. Similarly, the band Palmiyeler is connecting with listeners abroad with their tongue-in-cheek tropical aesthetic and chill-wave musical vibes. Starting in February 2020, they’re off for a six-date American tour.
Then there’s Ezhel, the Ankara rapper now partially transplanted to Kreuzberg, Berlin. I’ll have much to say about this trap star in future columns, but suffice it to say that he has put Turkish hip-hop on the world map.
While it is certainly too soon to declare the end of American cultural hegemony, the global interest in Turkish bands does suggest that there’s a new openness to music that doesn’t conform to expectations, from places one might not suspect. I, for one, am pleased to see these bands from Turkey receive the attention they deserve.