Rebellious psychedelic rockers of Turkey

Psychedelic rock from Turkey continues to be a successful cultural export. The global popularity of legendary rocker Selda Bağcan or Grammy-nominated newcomers Altin Gün have sparked fresh curiosity in Turkey’s ever dynamic and rich musical scene.

Psychedelic rock from Turkey continues to be a successful cultural export. In the past hundred years, Turkey has had no shortage of great writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians. Yet aside from a handful of exceptions (Halide Edip, Nâzım Hikmet, Kerem Görsev, Orhan Pamuk), few have gained worldwide recognition. Granted, the recent interest in Turkish psychedelic rock remains somewhat niche. However, the global popularity of legendary rocker Selda Bağcan or Grammy-nominated newcomers Altin Gün have sparked fresh curiosity in Turkey’s ever dynamic and rich musical scene. Turkish musicians performing in genres from rap to darkwave increasingly have a world platform.

Two of the musical acts responsible for bringing this attention to Turkey are BaBaZuLa and Gaye Su Akyol. Recent albums released by both provide an opportunity to take stock of the state of Turkish psychedelia. 

Gaye Su Akyol has been releasing music under her own name since her 2014 debut Develerle Yaşıyorum. With her smoky voice, somber melodies, and futuristic costumes, she has captivated fans both in Turkey and beyond. After the success of her 2018 album İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir, Akyol was featured in the New York Times. She has also been interviewed by The Guardian, won various world music awards, and been promoted by the likes of Iggy Pop. 

Akyol’s latest release is an EP titled YORT SAVUL: İSYAN MANİFESTOSU!. The fuzzy guitar on the title track is reminiscent of 1960s acid rock. One can imagine go-go dancers with heavy eyeliner twisting to the beat. The sassy lyrics showcase Akyol’s rakish persona: a woman who lives how she wants, the world be damned. Musically, the melancholy second song “Bittim Ama Tamamlanmadım” is more like the Akyol fans have come to expect. The vocal melody, mirrored by distorted guitar, sounds like something out of Turkish Art Music. While Akyol gets lumped in with the 21st-century revival of Anatolian Rock, a genre combining Turkish folk music with psych, her music has always been more influenced by the urbane music of Zeki Müren and Müzeyyen Senar. Here she enters new territory by incorporating electronic beats, darbuka, and a wistful trumpet. “Şerefe,” the third track, is a drinking song. Somewhat hackneyed lyrics describing life as “nonsense, comic, painful, and tragic” urge listeners to seize the day. 

This is the first album for which Akyol has admirably taken on not just the lyrics and music but also the arrangements and production. Despite this, the EP does not offer much that is new. Like her previous work, İSYAN MANİFESTOSU! (or “Manifesto of Rebellion”) is something of the concept album. Her artist’s statementfor the project describes it as “a manifesto that defends and celebrates the liberalizing nature of the rebellious acts of individuals, in a time, where the political climate in the world disregards the individualization and views the society as detrimental masses that need to be controlled.” Despite this grandiose rhetoric, it is hard to see exactly where the politics in this album lie. Certainly not in the lyrics. Similarly, the music video released for the title track is visually rich but politically lacking. If anything, the Chinese-ish font used to write “İsyan Manifestosu” and the vaguely Japanese fashions and setting could be construed as offensive. 

Of course, no artist should be required to offer political messages in their music. However, when the artist herself describes her work as “the rebellion of individuals through music,” one expects some substance to back it up. For example, in Akyol’s previous concept album İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir the theme of dreaming as a form of political utopianism created a consistent through-line. The music video for the title song, released on International Women’s Day, illustrated this concept with a woman minibus driver breaking through social polarization by taking passengers on a cosmic journey. It was both tongue-in-cheek and compelling. 

In contrast, İSYAN MANİFESTOSU! seems to show Akyol at a creative impasse. When the Guardian calls her “the most courageous artist in Turkey,” it is clear that politics is part of her global appeal. Yet one of the biggest critiques one hears from Akyol’s detractors within Turkey is that she presents herself abroad as an activist while not backing this up with political involvement at home. Certainly, one’s self-presentation should match with one’s actions. Yet for a creative artist, the most important thing should be consistency within the work itself—which is exactly what is lacking in Akyol’s EP. The political rhetoric doesn’t match up with the music. 

Even more troubling is Akyol’s references to the modernist poet Ece Ayhan, from whose 1977 poem comes the title YORT SAVUL. On Instagram, Akyol falsely referred to Ayhan as “she” and a “poetess.” Ayhan was in fact a gay man. His linguistically experimental poems describing both the Christian minorities and underground queer communities of mid-century Beyoğlu can and should inspire contemporary political art. But falsely gendering Ayhan seems less like a typo (subsequently corrected) and more like a sign that elements of Turkey’s rich history of rebellion are being used to score points without the proper research. Let us hope that Akyol’s newest album slated for 2021 will be a more coherent statement. 

BaBaZuLa formed in 1996 and since then has collaborated on 12 albums. In 2005 they were exposed to an international audience in Fatih Akın’s documentary about Istanbul’s music scene, Crossing the Bridge. To date, they have played concerts in 60 countries and every continent but Antarctica.

BaBaZuLa’s career paved the way for people like Akyol to succeed internationally, though despite the band’s success they have not quite exploded the way Akyol has. This is partly because they reject pop formulas and marketability. Where Akyol artfully synthesizes tradition and hipness in an understandable package, BaBaZuLa’s long and sprawling compositions can sometimes try the listener’s patience. Yet the clarity of the band’s musical vision continues to win them loyal followers.

BaBaZuLa’s latest album is Hayvan Gibi. The title, meaning “like an animal” is a pun. It refers to the fact that this double-album is heavy and substantial; it also points to the fact that it is a concept album with each song focused on a different animal. These instrumental tracks match the music to the animal. For example, in “The Foal Dub” the wah-wah guitars and sprightly percussion give the sensation of a prancing foal. Meanwhile, the saz and oud in “Desert Lions” creates the picture of a stalking predator. 

BaBaZuLa also flirt with politics in their music, but in a more modest way. In interviews, the band’s founder Murat Ertel describes the most recent album as pushing listeners to think about how we share the world not only with people but plants, animals, stones, and water. A simple concept, admittedly, but with the music an evocative one. 

For Ertel, the band’s politics also lies in its use of traditional instruments, including kaşık (spoons), darbuka, oud, and of course the saz or bağlama. The saz was the instrument of the Anatolian countryside and existed in opposition to the music of the Ottoman court. At times it became a symbol of rebellion. As Ertel remarks, “If you take a saz in your hand and raise it to the sky, anyone in this geography will know what it means.” The masters of the saz are known as aşıks (“those in love”) and from 16th-century Pir Sultan Abdal to 20th-century Aşık Mahzuni Şerif have combined mysticism and revolution. 

This tradition lives on, according to Ertel. Anadolu Rock musician Barış Manço was an aşık of the city, while BaBaZuLa works to keep the same culture alive for the 21st century—in which the influence of this culture of subtle rebellion extends far beyond the geography where it originated.