The Mongols are back. That is, legendary Turkish rock band Moğollar are back with their latest album. Anatolian Sun was released to celebrate the 53 years since the band was formed. The double album features songs from various periods in Moğollar’s career, from the instrumental 1960s tracks combining Anatolian melodies with electric guitars to the protest anthems of the 1990s. Anatolian Sun reminds listeners why the band has been so influential in Turkey. At a time when “Turkish psychedelic music” is all the rage, the album will also hopefully cement their reputation internationally.
Moğollar was founded in 1967 by guitarist Cahit Berkay, singer Aziz Azmet, keyboardist Murat Ses, bassist Hasan Sel, and drummer Engin Yörükoğlu. The band first became widely known in 1968, when they won third place in the Golden Microphone competition. The Golden Microphone was an influential musical contest hosted by the daily newspaper Hürriyet. Young musicians were encouraged to compete in “giving new direction to Turkish music by taking advantage of the rich techniques and forms of Western music.” Acts like Mavi Işıklar, Fikret Kızılok, and Cem Karaca were first launched to fame through their rock ‘n’ roll covers of Anatolian folk songs performed during the Golden Microphone. With songs like “Kaleden Kaleye Sahin Uçurdum,” Moğollar pointed the way to a new synthesis of Turkish traditional music and global counter-cultural style. The band continued developing this genre until 1976 and then reunited with a new line-up in 1993. They have been active recording and playing concerts ever since.
It was Μoğollar’s bassist Taner Öngür who gave a name to this genre combing Turkish and western popular music: “Anadolu Pop.” Öngür coined the term in 1969 after the band went on a long tour of Anatolia during which the long-haired musicians performed in villages and small towns, acquired local instruments, and collected regional folk songs. With their music, Moğollar showed that Turkish music was more than Istanbul and Ankara. The wellspring of creativity was the countryside. Though music should be nourished by tradition, it need not be constrained by it. In a popular slogan of the 1960s and 1970s, the band showed that locality was the key to universality: it is only by honoring the specificity of the place you are from that you can create art with potentially universal relevance.
The global fascination, from Chicago to Stockholm, with Anadolu Pop musicians like Selda Bağcan and Erkin Koray shows just how accurate this wager about universality was. In fact, new acts like Gaye Su Akyol and Altın Gün owe their popularity to international audiences’ hunger for what gets known as “Anatolian psychedelic.” Despite Moğollar’s important contributions to the genre, and their collaborations with such legendary vocalists as Cem Karaca and Barış Manço, the band still isn’t well known outside of Turkey. Anatolian Sun is set to change this.
The English name of Moğollar’s latest album shows that it is marketed for international listeners. Anatolian Sun was released as a collaboration between Gülbaba Records and the British/Dutch label Night Dreamer. The album was recorded in the Dutch city of Haarlem in Artone Studio using cutting edge direct-to-disc recording technology. This is a form of
analog recording that requires the musicians to play live, rather than editing and splicing after the fact. This way of recording both hearkens back to the technology Moğollar used to record their first songs and points forward to a new interest in stripped-down, authentic recording techniques. It also shows off Moğollar’s strength as an ensemble act. It takes musicians who intimately know each other, their limits, and their strengths to pull off this kind of feat. Listening to the album, one hears not just individually talented musicians but a true musical collectivity.
The songs selected for the album tell a story. They come from various stages in the band’s career, whether early or late. The band sought to preserve the spirit of each song’s original version while bringing out new elements. One of the most powerful tracks is also one of the oldest: Iklığ. The song’s title comes from an Anatolian double-stringed plucked string instrument that the band discovered during their early tours of the countryside. The song was revolutionary when it came out in 1971, showing off both Cahit Berkay’s skill as an instrumentalist and also the band’s effortless combination of tradition and experimentalism. 49 years later, the song is still impactful. The new recording shows off the darker edges of the song and verges into a trance-like beat.
Another stand-out track is “Gel Gel,” originally performed by Moğollar and Cem Karaca in 1973. In the new version, it is sung by Emrah Karaca, Cem’s son and Moğollar’s vocalist. In performing this song sung by his father and dedicated to his mother, Emrah links generation to generation and past to present. "Ölüler Altın Takar Mı?" (Can the Dead Wear Gold?) is a song from the more explicitly political manifestation of Moğollar in the 1990s. This critique of greed and environmental destruction is as relevant now as it was three decades ago, especially as environmental activists seek to defend the Kaz Dağları (Mount Ida) from cyanide-leaching open pit gold mining.
Other highlights from the album include the jazzy instrumental track “Haliç’te Güneşin Batışı” and the traditional narrative song “Alageyik Destanı,” which the band has recorded several times from the 1970s to the present, each time using different instrumentation to bring out different emotions in this story of an ill-fated deer-hunter. The only aspect of Moğollar’s career not represented in the album are the songs originally performed by late vocalist Aziz Azmet. This retrospective project would have been enriched by new versions of Anatolian pop staples like Garip Çoban and Dağ ve Çocuk.
It takes not only serious talent but strength of conviction to sustain a musical project for half a century. Moğollar is as stimulating and challenging today as they were in the 1960s. This is a sign that they are a band of not only local, but world stature.