“Why should I listen to rap performed in Turkish that sounds just like American rap? I can just listen to the original.” Ever since an Istanbul-based DJ asked me this question I have been struggling to find a satisfying answer.
Young musicians in Turkey are adept at following the latest global trends and re-creating them in their own context. But does this just mean that they are simply copying foreign styles? “It’s so much better,” my friend added, “when they’re able to add something distinctively Turkish to the music. Then it becomes something interesting.”
The question of Turkish music’s relationship to foreign and—let’s be honest—western music is a vexed one. As early as 1828, Sultan Abdülmecit hired an Italian composer to come to Istanbul. His job was to teach European music to the Ottoman military. As the empire fell apart, the pan-Turkist intellectual Ziya Gökalp dreamed of “modernizing” Turkish music through a synthesis of East and West. Similarly, the early Turkish Republic embarked on a program of making European classical-inspired music out of Turkish folk songs.
According to music scholar Orhan Tekelioğlu, these top-down projects that consisted in synthesizing Turkish music into Western music largely failed. Yet in its place came something more grassroots and long-lasting: a “spontaneous synthesis” that incorporated styles of Western music into Turkish music. The conqueror became the conquered. And something “more interesting,” as my friend described it, was born.
The best example of this spontaneous synthesis was Anadolu Rock, the 1960s genre that began with a combination of Turkish folk melodies with the classic rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation of guitar, bass, drum kit, and keyboards. This genre reached its heights thanks to a music competition hosted by the newspaper Hürriyet, which launched Cem Karaca, Moğollar, and Erkin Koray to fame.
In its call for bands to compete, Hürriyet set out its goal: “To give a new direction to Turkish music by taking advantage of the rich techniques and forms of Western music.” It was another version of the old dream of East-West synthesis, but one that had arisen spontaneously by teenagers who grew up with Elvis Presley and The Beatles. And there was always a slight national pride at the heart of this music, or at least a quest for a kind of Turkish authenticity. As a writer at Hürriyet described the competition, “the contestants have proved what an immense and unique treasure we possess.” This treasure was, of course, the local folk music of Anatolia.
There is a group of musicians today that continue in this vein, mixing a distinctively Turkish flavor into their music. I like to think of this group as “The Authenticists” because as much as they are inspired by global trends, they seek to add a distinctively Anatolian authenticity to their work.
The chief Authenticist is Gaye Su Akyol, who combines the melodies of Turkish classical music (think Zeki Müren or Μüzeyyen Senar) with the blistering electric guitars of psychedelic rock. Another example is the Dutch band Altın Gün, which plays hipster covers of Anadolu Rock covers of Anatolian folk songs while mixing in electronic beats and funky rhythms.
The Authenticists are popular abroad. They win awards and an international following because they meet the expectation for something that is both “authentically Turkish” while also being familiar. In the end, the music is indie rock or electro-pop with an exotic twist. This is not to belittle the very real talent of these artists. However, their music follows a successful strategy for recognition.
Their inverse of the Authenticists would be a group that I call “The Importists.” Examples include R&B musicians like Seda Erciyes or the rapper Ezhel. In terms of sound, there is almost nothing about the music or production that feels distinctively Turkish. Both work with world-class producers who create music that would be equally at home on the radios of Europe and North America. The only difference is that the lyrics are in Turkish. With this formula, Ezhel is one of the few success stories with megastar status in Europe.
Another success Importist is the band She Past Away, which despite its English-language name is a Turkish band playing in the dark, goth-wave style. They still sing in Turkish, but have still reached international fame from Stockholm to Mexico. They have managed to overcome the expectation of having a “Turkish twist” to their music. Few of the Importists are lucky enough to reach this level of fame, even when they become full Globalists and choose both English band names and lyrics.
Then there is a third group between the Authenticists and the Importists. They are the middle-of-the-roaders who try to maintain just enough authenticity as they adapt genres like rock or rap for local listeners. Let’s call them “The Melancholists” because they draw heavily on the gloomy, Arabic-music-inspired genre of arabesk (though most of them would deny it). The most striking examples of Melancholists are new indie rock bands like Yüzyüzeyken Konuşuruz, Dolu Kadehi Ters Tut, Evdeki Saat, and Adamlar. Ιn the realm of rap there is Gazapizm, Şanışer, and many more. These musicians do extremely well with fans in Turkey while remaining almost completely unknown abroad.
The main ancestor of the Melancholists is the band Duman, a grunge-inspired rock band with an unmistakably arabesk twinge. Musicologists Songül Karahasanoğlu and Gabriel Skoog have studied Duman’s music from the 1990s and established that they use a mixture of Turkish makam (a system of melody types used in Turkish classical music), particularly the one called kürdi, and combine it with the Phrygian mode (a minor scale more common in western music). These two scales resemble each other, “allowing for performing artists to seamlessly include European and Turkish elements” in the music. This makes it sound both local and foreign, melancholic and modern (just as mainstream pop does). Melancholy a selling formula for local consumers. The once obscure band Dolu Kadehi Ters Tut, for example, just played its first concert at the prestigious Cemil Topuzlu open-air theater in Istanbul.
Now that we have met the local-flavor Authenticists, the ultra-hip Importicists, the escapist Globalists, and the pandering Melancholists, it is hard to say who is right and wrong. To expect a Turkish band to play up their local flavor is a double standard. After all, a rock band from England just gets to be a rock band, not a specifically English one. And they aren’t sold as “world music.” In that sense, I respect the R&B singers, rock bands, and rappers who don’t want to play up their exoticism but just make the music they love in their own language. As for those of the arabesk persuasion, they know what local listeners love.