It’s a spring day in Athens. Over 120 Greek musicians and performers gather on the steps of the southern slope of the Acropolis to sing in Turkish. Some hold flutes, others acoustic guitars, violins or bouzoukia. Some wear masks, others don’t. Either way, the smiles on their faces are unmistakable. T-shirts, tank tops, and shorts abound. The weather is balmy, the virus is abating, and a sense of hope fills the air. The performance also carries a palpable sense of history. For it resonates with a longstanding tradition of left-wing Greek-Turkish friendship.
Though the musicians in this viral YouTube video that came out on May 18 are buoyant, the reason they are singing is rather grim. These are members of #SupportArtWorkers, a group campaigning for state support of the arts in Greece during the COVID-19 pandemic. They gathered to express their solidarity with the Turkish protest band Grup Yorum.
Throughout Grup Yorum’s 35-year lifespan, there was no shortage of repression. Despite their best-selling albums and sold-out shows, the left-wing band’s outspoken stance against injustice has made them a target. Accused of being part of a terrorist organization, in recent years, several of Grup Yorum’s members were arrested. They were banned from playing concerts. And the cultural center where they work was repeatedly raided.
To draw attention to this situation, in mid-2019, Grup Yorum’s singer Helin Bölek and bassist İbrahim Gökçek went on a hunger strike. Despite the campaign’s widespread publicity, none of the group’s demands were met. Helin Bölek, 28, died on April 3rd on the 288th day of her hunger strike. 41-year-old Gökçek died in an Istanbul hospital on May 7 after fasting for 323 days. Police fired tear gas on mourners in an Alevi house of worship during Gökçek’s funeral. Then, as the bassist’s body was taken to the province of Kayseri to be buried, local right-wing groups attempted to block the funeral convoy and threatened to dig up his corpse.
Following these events from Greece, the members of #SupportArtWorkers decided to take to their instruments to display their support for Grup Yorum. The song they performed below the Acropolis of Athens was “Tencere Tava Havası” (The Song of Pots and Pans) by the Anatolian folklore ensemble Kardeş Türküler. The song was originally written for the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, during which supporters banged on kitchenware to express their discontent with the government. The YouTube video for Kardeş Türküler’s song shows the band melodically hitting spoons on metal whilst declaring: “We’ve had enough… we’re really fed up… what arrogance, what hatred!”
#SupportArtWorkers created a lush, orchestral arrangement for “The Song of Pots and Pans” featuring hundreds of harmonizing voices and musical instruments. The song reaches a crescendo with the entry of trumpets and trombones as a banner is raised declaring “From Greece to Turkey, Solidarity with Grup Yorum!”
Still, one is left wondering why the group chose to support Grup Yorum by playing a cover of a Kardeş Türküler song that has to with a protest movement that took place 7 years ago.
The answer lies in the song’s lyrics, which lament endless “speeches,” “bans,” and “orders.” While it’s hard not to detect the sense of hope of that marked the summer of 2013, the song was also remarkably sharp in diagnosing the authoritarian attitudes that underlie the prohibitions and interdictions that groups like Grup Yorum has suffered from so drastically.
Likewise, while the song’s complaints against gentrification and call for the right to the city might seem like they belong to a bygone era, the lyrics about Turkey’s endless shopping malls gain new relevance in today’s context. While access to parks and beaches remains curtailed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, last week, the government allowed shopping malls to reopen.
Each week seems to bring unprecedented crises to Turkey. Yet the disastrous headlines are in fact mere variations on a set number of themes, including human rights and urban issues. In this sense, the Greek musicians’ choice to perform “The Song of Pots and Pans” in 2020 actually gives us the much needed perspective that often only someone with some distance can provide.
Yet as much as the performance offers a much-needed message from abroad, it points to some important similarities. Musically, songs like these do not sound strange at all when sung from the other side of the Aegean. The cries of “Aman, aman!” are equally at home in Greek music. Likewise, the uzun hava (a kind of semi-improvisational vocal breakdown) that comes in the middle of the song is just as much a part of Greek rebetiko as it is Turkish folk music. The two Athenian performers who sing this complex melody in the video nail it perfectly. And the light accent that one notices in the song (‘biktik‘ for “bıktık,” “soïle” for “söyle”) cannot help but remind one of the gracious twang of Greek-accented Turkish. This accent was once widely heard across western Anatolia until the remaining Rum community mostly decamped from Istanbul, fleeing pogroms and discrimination.
Despite this bloody history, there is a long tradition of left-wing collaboration across Greece and Turkey. Just like with the performance by #SupportArtWorkers, this solidarity is most often expressed through music and poetry. Communist writer Nazım Hikmet remains one of the best symbols and catalysts of Greek-Turkish friendship. Fellow left-wing poet Yannis Ritsos translated Nazım Hikmet’s poetry in the 1950s. This book remains in print nearly 70 years later, alongside countless others.
These translated poems by Hikmet have provided lyrics for a number of enduringly popular songs by Maria Dimitriadi, Cypriot composer Manos Loïzos, and others. One reason Nazım Hikmet is beloved across the Aegean was the solidarity he expressed with the Greeks: whether through his personal friendship with Yannis Ritsos, poems dedicated to anti-fascist partisans of WWII, or his support for a unified and independent Cyprus.
Nazım Hikmet and Yannis Ritsos are just the tip of the iceberg. Cultural collaboration like poet Cevat Çapan’s translations from Greek to Turkish or the joint albums of Maria Farandouri, Zülfü Livaneli, and Mikis Theodorakis provided a context for more tangible political collaboration. The solidarity we saw expressed at the foot of the Acropolis this week exists within this long history of music, politics, and friendship.