If you’ve ever sat with friends drinking rakı, you’ve probably noticed how the music changes as the night progresses. 

At the beginning of the night, the music is mostly in the background. A bit of something classic, like Zeki Müren, or perhaps some 1970s nostalgia, like crooner Tanju Okan, sets the mood for the night ahead without overpowering the conversation. Towards the mid-point of the night, people will pop in and out of the discussion to sing along to some particularly poignant Turkish classical music song, like Müzeyyen Senar’s famous rendition of the melancholy “Kimseye Etmem Şikayet.”

Yet at some point during this well-liquored ‘parliament of friends,’ the music will make a decided turn towards the folk. If you’re at a meyhane, this will be the point in the night when the distinctive sound of Anatolian bard Neşet Ertaş’s bağlama or Kurdish singer Ahmet Kaya’s wounded baritone is heard on the stereo. Either way, the mood becomes more melancholic as the drinkers gradually go back in time, singing songs that describe a bygone world of flying cranes and heavy rain and sputtering candles. 

How can we explain the enduring appeal of the folk song (türkü)? Earlier this month I experienced a gathering of friends that got me pondering exactly this question. The contrast between the beginning and end of that night was even more extreme, as we began by listening to Beyoncé and Ezhel but ended by singing “Dolama Dolamayı.” The most powerful verse of this Cypriot folk song goes:

Dew falls and rolls on the ground

The more [one] kisses, the sweeter is gets

Dew falls, on the ground it will not last 

The beauty on you will not last

Like most folk songs, this one is deceptively simple. On the surface, it just something that occurs in nature. Yet the dew becomes a symbol for impermanence: the same way moisture quickly dries up on the ground, the lover’s beauty will not stand the test of time. Then there is the beautiful but cryptic second line: does it refer to the dew kissing the ground and sweetening, or to a scene of lovemaking? Combined, these four lines succeed in being both concrete and philosophical. 

Love, death, nature: perhaps it is themes like this that keep bringing us back to folk songs, preferred among not only the drunk but the homesick and the heartbroken. Amidst all the complexity of our everyday lives, it is helpful to remember the limited number of elements that actually shape our existence.

Yet it is love that forms the backbone of most of the popular folk songs. Another one I’ve heard sung on several occasions is the mysterious “Karakolda Ayna Var”:

There is a mirror in the police station, a mirror

Girl, on your arm there is a stamp, a stamp

It’s clear from your eyes, my Cevriye

You are dangerously in love [sende kara sevda var]

[. . .]

I’m the sand in the seas, the sand

I’m the scale of the fishes, the scale

Open your arms: I’ve come, Cevriye

I too am God’s subject

“Karakolda Ayna Var” takes place in the city rather than the countryside, reminding us that Istanbul too has its folk songs. The meaning of the mirror and the stamp has caused so much speculation that in the 1940s novelist Suat Derviş wrote a novel based on the song. Her story, about a sex worker on the means streets of Beyoğlu who falls in love with a mysterious fugitive from the law, has also inspired several film adaptations. Again, the magic of the song is the way simple images express complex yet timeless emotions. 

Though timelessness is key to the magic of the songs, it is important to remember that this is an illusion. First of all, most of the folk songs widely known in Turkey today actually result from a top-down project of cultural engineering. In the 1930s, the young Turkish state became interested in folk music and musicologists were hired to collect folksongs from the countryside. 

In order to create an official archive that meshed with nationalist principles, songs that were overly regional in sound or used a language other than Turkish were eliminated. Others were changed: the canonical folk song Sarı Gelin (Yellow Bride) originally had a title with the word sari, which means “of the mountains” in Armenian. Then if there were various versions of the same song, a single one was picked. The songs that made it through this process of assimilation were finally housed in the state folklore archives. From 1964 to roughly 1990, when the state-owned Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) ruled the airwaves, it was nearly impossible to play a folk song on air that was not housed in the official catalog. 

Though the days of TRT’s media monopoly are over, and groups like Kardeş Türküler have done important work expanding the canon beyond ethnic nationalism, the state’s work on folk music successfully created a homogeneous canon of songs. Though it might feel like a folk song takes us back to the past, it also important to remember the path by which the song reached us. 

There is another way in which these songs are far from timeless, though this is a more cheerful aspect of the issue. Folk songs are constantly being reinterpreted. Many of the songs one hears most within certain social circles lacking strong ties to Anatolia are well-known precisely because Canadian folklorist Brenna MacCrimmon, Armenian-Turkish-French-American fusion band Collectif Medz Bazar, surf-rocker Gökçe Kılınçer, and similar groups perform them. They bring these songs into the present, making them available to new audiences. Similarly, popular acts like Altın Gün continue to use folk songs as raw material for their songs. Such is the power of these songs, that these new bands often play covers of 1960s Anadolu Rock covers of Anatolian folk songs. 

If anything, perhaps this continual updating of folk music in Turkey does prove its timelessness. This does not mean that these songs are without history, but that however much the world changes, we will always have need for songs that express the meaning of love, infatuation, mortality, and loneliness in the simplest terms possible. This is what keeps us going back to folk songs.