Sounds from The Turkish Underground Music Scene
As I was growing up in Turkey, there were not many bands around doing their own music. the whole live music scene was dominated by cover bands that would play hits from the United States and Europe. It was not cool to like Turkish music, we were the generation that would take pride in saying “I don’t listen to turkish music”. When I moved to New York and started doing music photography at the beginning of 2000s, some of the musicians I met were thrilled to hear I was from Turkey and they kept asking me about Erkin Koray, Selda Bağcan with an incredible enthusiasm. At the beginning I was surprised but later I started feeling embarrassed since everyone seemed to know more about them than I and also it felt like not knowing them was like not knowing the capital of Turkey. So as an adult, I went back and listened to them. I was absolutely blown away. Turkey is split between the Asian and European Continents and the music that comes out of it is as unique as the country’s location.
The legendary Erkin Koray, widely regarded as the father of Turkish rock & roll music. Koray is credited as the first Turkish musician to introduce traditional Turkish themes and instrumentation into western rock music, creating a singular, psychedelic sound with far-reaching, international influence.
Beginning his career in the 50’s with western rock covers, Koray went on to create a body of psychedelic rock singles in the 60’s & 70’s and released his psych-rock, full-length masterpiece Elektronik Türküler in 1974. He humbly remembers how he did not know what Turkey was till he went to do his military service. His army mates would turn the radio on at 7 in the morning, all these Anatolian ballads would come on. That is how he heard them the first time and he was surprised, because he had never heard these at his own home before. He says he was the first to realize among his peers that they should not overlook their own culture when it came to making music.
In addition to his far-reaching musical influence, Erkin Koray became a sort of figurehead of cultural rebellion in the 60’s, which flew in the face of traditional, conservative mores. He recounts regularly being assaulted & harassed for the way he dressed, with his blue jeans and long hair. While he could have easily gotten into a cab to go to the club, he chose to walk on the streets on purpose to make a point. Before he reached the club, he would either be taken to the police precinct or the hospital - or both. He was attacked, roughed up, because of the way he dressed. The more he got roughed up though, the more he learned how not to get roughed up. He says in a disbelief 'Can you imagine, I am this person who is going around talking about peace, and they turned me into a fighter?'
Koray’s records have been released around the world and he is frequently cited as an influence to current psych musicians. One of his records Meçhul (Singles and Rarities) has been re-released in the USA by Seattle based Sublime Frequencies in 2011. His musical, cultural, and social influence within Turkey is unparalleled and is felt by every generation. Here, an awe-struck stranger stops to express his admiration for Koray. “I grew up with you. You were in my life in my teenage years, you were in my life in my adulthood, you are in my life now.”
Koray mentions he would like to put out a book telling all the things the musicians in Turkey had done. He breaks into talking about the tapping technique Van Hallen is known for coming out with. He says he has recordings of himself playing with that technique 15 years prior to Van Hallen, however the music made in Turkey then, stayed in Turkey and did not reached too far out.
Istanbul is split between the Asian & European Continents. Thousands of commuters travel between continents by ferry every day.
Children dance to a street performance by musicians playing traditional Turkish music in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul.
Selda Bağcan, one of the most influential musicians in 1970’s Turkey, is best known for her reinterpretations of traditional folk music and outspoken political activism.
With an instantly recognizable voice that speaks strength and courage, Bağcan’s music is firmly rooted in folk traditions while incorporating elements of rock & roll and psychedelia.
Bağcan’s lyrics often carry strong political messages critical of governmental policies and focus on the struggles of the working class.
After the infamous governmental coup of 1980 Bağcan was persecuted by the government for her political activism. She was imprisoned multiple times because of her songs and her passport was seized until 1987.
Bağcan recording “Yuh Yuh” and “Adaletin Bu Mu Dunya?” at Babajim studio in Istanbul with the Israeli band Boom Pam.
Her albums “Selda” & “Vurulduk Ey Halkim Unutma Bizi” remain classics of Turkish rock music with international acclaim.
The Bosphorus Strait separates the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. The strait has great significance in the cultural and economic histories of Turkey.
The band Moğollar, known as the pioneers of Turkish pop, or “Anadolu Pop”.
SInce their inception in 1967, Moğollar have built an influential body of work blending the dynamics of Turkish folk music with that of western pop music.
Founding member Cahit Berkay. Moğollar continue to tour and record today.
From the Karaköy ferry in route to the Asian side of Istanbul.
With over 14 million residents, Istanbul is the most populated city in Europe - a hotbed of cultural, historical, and economic significance.
Loading gear from a rehearsal space in Istanbul. The area is made up primarily of garages and auto-repair shops, but is rapidly being redeveloped by new high-rise apartments.
Inside the rehearsal space of Baba Zula. A labyrinth of musical instruments and ephemera from around the world.
The venue, Bronx, is located in a corridor at the end of a street bazaar. All gear must be loaded through this bazaar.
Well known both in and outside of Turkey, Baba Zula formed in 1996 and its current lineup includes founding members Levent Akman and Murat Ertel. The band has received international acclaim for its unique mixture of traditional Turkish music, psych-rock, electronica, and dub.
Central to Baba Zula’s sound is the the electric version of the saz, the traditional Turkish stringed instrument. Band leader & saz player Murat Ertel feels that the instrument offers unexplored and untouched possibilities of expression in a rock music setting in a way the guitar does not.
Murat Ertel of Baba Zula preparing the evening’s set list. He feels a great sense of pride in Turkey’s cultural heritage and a desire to honor it. “I feel like you owe to the culture you are in. I feel this responsibility because I am feeding off of this culture. I am feeding off of Erkin Koray, Barış Manço or from Aşık Veysel and even from things we don’t even see or know. I will never know how much I was influenced by Byzantine culture or I can’t put my finger on what I got from Armenian culture but it is there, I can tell you only that much.”
Ertel feels excited about the current growing interest in 60s Turkish psychedelic music but laments missed opportunities to spread it to a wider audience. Speaking about Ahmet Ertegün, Turkish founder of Atlantic records and his brother Nesuhi, Ertel says “I always felt upset at the Ertegün brothers. They founded one of the most important record labels in the world, they worked with the most important names in 20th century pop music history but they never supported any Turkish musician. I have never understood. If they did something, maybe Turkish music would be in a completely different place right now.”
A Baba Zula live show is a celebratory event the keeps the majority of the room on its feet.
Traditional Turkish drumming mixed with synthetically generated beats form the rhythmic backbone of Baba Zula.
Fishermen on the Galata Bridge, a popular tourist & local landmark.
Catch of the day.
Electronic duo, Reverie Falls On All.
Burak Tamer and Barkin Engin started working together on a thesis project while they were doing their doctorate degree in Sound Engineering at İTÜ MIAM Center for Advanced Studies in Music and this project turned into Reverie Falls On All’s first album “Clouds In My Room” which was self released in 2006. Following that, they self released 3 more albums, 1 ep and a single. Their latest album Rebloom was released in May 2015.
Old World & New World are constantly intersecting in Istanbul.
Metal work in old Istanbul.
Singer Gökçe adds, “While the identity of our band was forming, the discovery of 60s and 70s in Turkey was very crucial. We were listening to them religiously and when we were making the first album, we wanted it to be obvious, we wanted people to know. but after the identity of the band settled, we did not feel like we have the need to make it that obvious. That turkish influence sit where it is supposed to and we started to search for different sounds like electronic sounds. but that turkish influence is always in whatever we do, it is engraved, it is just not as obvious as the first album is all.”
The band Replikas are widely considered to be torchbearers of first generation Anatolian Rock, while carrying it forward and further incorporating it with other genres. One of the longest running bands in Turkey, formed in 1996 and only recently went on a hiatus. Replikas’ guitarist Barkın Engin recounts the evolution of the band: “Around 94-95 in Turkish underground music, there was Zen (a former version of the band Baba Zula), Nekropsi, and us. We somehow survived between underground and mainstream in the middle somewhere. The very first album we put out, “Köledoyuran”, has very obvious Turkish sounds in it. It has a folklore feel to it and it has a certain rhythmic understanding. When something is that specific you can only keep doing it to a certain degree. So with our albums following that, we started to integrate other stuff. For some, it felt like we were ruining something original, but for us it was adding a different perspective.”
The lead singer Gökçe Akçelik says “I think in 96 the beginning of the magazine Roll changed things a lot since they started publishing interviews with musicians from 60s and 70s. People started to collect records. And a new generation that includes us started to dig the past. With the re-discovery of the past coincides with the time when people started to make turkish music.” Barkın adds “Musicians like Erkin Koray were not getting any air time on traditional radio channels. When the FM radio channels started to appear, that is when things changed. As the monopoly in music distribution was broken down, Erkin Koray type of musicians were able to reach a wider audience. I remember the awakening that happened as i heard them play. And definitely helped us define our music.”
At Bahçeşehir University.
Two members of Replikas hold teaching positions in music at the university. Their last full length album, a tribute to Anatolian Pop, Biz Burada Yok Iken consists of covers of songs from 1965 to 1975 and released back in 2012.
Orçun Baştürk of Replikas and Kırıka.
It is common for musicians to play in multiple bands in Istanbul, often with overlapping members. Orçun says “Wedding drums are used intensely for zeybek music. Rhythmic part of the music is basically played with the wedding drum. Bass drum with the right hand and all those variations with a thin stick, which rests against the side of the drum and rattles, and acts as a snare. so i had to adapt that to drums.” as he was talking about Kırıka's music.
The band Kırıka, whose music is rooted in traditional Turkish folk forms, especially Zeybek rhythms & dance, infused with the energy of rock and roll. The band’s live shows, which often incorporate traditional dances, has been warmly received in their tours throughout Europe.
Erdoğan Türksever and Özgür Yılmaz of Kırıka stop for tea.
In discussing their music, founding member Salih says, “I think turning your back to tradition and folklore is foolish because it is based on thousands of years of experience. At the same time, i think being imprisoned to folklore means you have no vision of your own. Kirika lies somewhere between these two. Kirika definitely feeds from folklore, respects it highly and is rooted in it, but it is not limited to it.”
Burgaz Adasi, an hour’s ferry-ride from Istanbul.
Kırıka breaks into song after lunch by the sea. “The music is not new. It is in your veins - you find a treasure in your own culture and you express it,” says drummer Orçun Baştürk.
Even with the success they have found, Salih is careful to make the point echoed by so many others: “We are not mainstream musicians in Turkey. We are underground musicians. Underground musicians making a living just from playing in a band is impossible. I don’t have any problem with that, now. I overcame this problem, I am a lawyer. But in my earlier years, it was a very big problem, not only for making a living but for also for your existence in the world. How to define yourself, how you express yourself - your identity.”
Passengers feeding the seagulls on the way back to the European side of Istanbul.
The backstreets of Karaköy, a rapidly transformed neighborhood where hardware stores and metal recycling centers rub shoulders with cafes & boutique hotels.
The band Ayyuka opened a short-lived DIY venue at their rehearsal space in Karaköy, called Külah, which was quickly shut down by the authorities. “We had to give it a try because we knew it was going to be beneficial to the music scene here.”
Ayyuka at Külah, the short lived DIY venue.
Ayyuka share a building with another band that they have repurposed into a studio and rehearsal space. A Friday night at the space feels like a musical club-house, with people floating in and out, jamming, and hanging out. There are not buildings in Istanbul that are specifically purposed for musician’s rehearsal spaces and finding a place to practice can sometimes be difficult. In order to find places to practice regularly it is common for bands to join together into small collectives to rent an apartment or studio that can be used for practice, to share resources, and to sometimes organize shows together. “This studio we are in right now has an importance in that it houses so many musicians. It is such a big deal to keep a place like this.”
Ayyuka celebrate the release of their new record, ‘Sömestr’, with a show at Salon, one of the larger venues that frequently hosts rock shows in Istanbul.
The album finds the band exploring textured, instrumental music with strong influence from first generation Turkish rockers, Erkin Koray & Barış Manço. “We never go into the studio thinking let’s make something that sounds like this, whatever comes out of us comes out. But there is an influence that you can’t deny. When I play guitar, I can feel the influence of Orhan Gencebay, Erkin Koray ve Murat Ertel.”
Drummer Alican Tezer.
“Here, you always stay underground because there is not a subculture of support and you try to do everything yourself. It is the same in the rest of the world too I guess but it is felt here more because there are so few venues and not much money changes hands. Everyone tries to do something on their own, but beautiful things are happening.”
Ayyuka in Karaköy.
Gaye Su Akyol is currently a critical favorite of Turkish music for her artful blend of western rock and psychedelia with a traditional style of singing common to Turkish Classical Music popular among an older generation.
“In the 80s there was a global cultural pressure about capitalism, it affected everything especially third world countries like us. Countries like us started to refuse their own cultural wealth and that affects everything, not only music and art but everything you can imagine.”
Like many current musicians in Turkey, Akyol finds great importance and inspiration in the traditional music of the country. “If you don’t know your own culture, and its elements and if you don’t know the things that have been done before you, you can’t really build on it. A new generation of musicians started to understand the importance of cultural inheritance. And set out to do something bigger and something new.”
Gaye Su Akyol’s newest release, “Develerle Yaşıyorum”, released on Istanbul-based record label, Olmadi Kaçarız, has been met with critical and popular praise and finds her playing frequent concerts both in and outside of Turkey.
“When a country gets into a tough spot, it is more likely for its musicians to find their own voice and music because it turns into a necessity.”
Musicians Ali Güçlü Şimşek, Görkem Karabudak, and Emrah Atay of the band Bubituzak.
They also play with Gaye Su Akyol. “Even though we all have been playing together for a long time, Bubituzak represents a new era for us. Of course it is not independent from our past but it brought out a life for us that is more at peace with and inspired by turkish traditional music.”
“I really do not want to talk about negative things like ‘making music in this country is very difficult’. It is a really sad and boring subject. Everyone always talks about it negatively. This kind of attitude really represents where you stand in life, how you look at things. when you ask how a person is doing, the answer is never “really good”, you know what i mean? We, as Bubituzak, try to be “really good” overall.” says Ali Güçlü Şimşek .
Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul. A historically important venue for political dissent, Taksim was at the center of the Gezi Park protests of 2013.
Instrumental duo, Balina. Originally from the coastal city of Izmir, they are now based in Istanbul.
“We don’t contain anything Anatolian but we are not concerned about having that or not having that. You need to be able to use the local influence in a way that doesn’t cheapen it.” He adds, “I have so many Turkish resources that I feed off of, such as Erkin Koray, Barış Manço, Fikret Kizilok - these are really revolutionary names. If we really want the music scene to get somewhere, I would agree that some sort of local influence has to be there because as a Turkish band when you play, older generations should be able to listen to you and understand what you are doing.”
The band illustrates a commonly held frustration amongst Turkish musicians: “One of the main problems in the Turkey’s music scene is that it is not being documented. There are so many musicians creating great music but there is no document of it. In 20 years when you look back, there is not going to be any document related with this very day. It is sad.” Balina recently played with Mogwai in Istanbul. They just put together a new recording studio in a small village outside of Izmir and are developing material for their next release.
The band, Pitohui, gathers in the backstreets of Cihangir, a neighborhood in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul.
In discussing the impact the current political climate in Turkey has on the vibrancy of the Turkish underground music scene, drummer Yankı Bıçakçı says “the general situation of being under pressure grows a subculture stronger. It is important to be under pressure to create something new and different.”
The band points out a pitfall in the increased interest of western listeners in Turkish music: “Anatolian music has become a trend. Western audiences demand in a way that the music that is coming out of this land should be more exotic. Embracing our origins becomes playing-in to a sort of hype. As musicians, we are confused about it.”
Burçin Esin of Balina.
Balina and Pitohui have put together the rare show consisting of only local bands.
Cem Kayıran of Pitohui. He is also an editor at local Bant Magazine that cover music, art, movies and politics.
Pitohui’s instrumentation includes a trombone. They currently have two EPs available for streaming and download on Bandcamp. “We dont get together and say ‘lets make this style of music’. We just put ourselves in it and play. Naturally, it has some Turkish influence, but it is not something we think about.”
Outside the venue, Roxy. One of the oldest venues for rock shows in Istanbul, the club now primarily hosts DJs and dance parties. The show brings out many regulars of the local music scene. Booking live shows in Turkey can be a challenge. There are only a handful of venues in Istanbul that regularly book rock music and when they do the focus is on touring, foreign bands. Tightly enforced restrictions make DIY venues like those common to US cities near impossible to open for any length of time.
Alican Öyke of Balina.
Hayvanlar Alemi is a instrumental psych-folk-rock band that started in Ankara, Turkey. Their new album “Visions of a Psychedelic Ankara” will soon be released on Glitter Beat. “For the past two-three years, some independent labels appeared in istanbul, like Shalgam records. We were going to do our digital distribution with her too but we decided to do it ourselves with a label of our own. I am putting together my own record label. Besides our own music, I would like to release long lost stuff from bands from 90s.” says Işık Sarıhan.
“Young bands here are more into acoustic storytelling, singer songwriter kind of music these days. There is not much music that does not really on lyrics and just music. Our generation was a bit more like that. We have been doing more instrumental music. With Replikas, and Baba Zula, there has always been a big focus on sound and song structure and instrumentation. Maybe it is a generational thing that we can not understand, maybe these lyrics mean something. ”
Özüm İtez and Işık Sarıhan of Hayvanlar Alemi at Özüm’s apartment in Kadıköy.
View from Galata Bridge.
The band Fakap at the Istanbul music conservatory Itu Miam, Center For Advanced Studies In Music, where guitarist, Anıl Çamcı, holds a teaching position.
It is not uncommon for musicians to have degrees in higher education, allowing them to work in the field of music as a parallel to creating music. This is a big difference in the common trajectory to becoming a self-sustaining musician in the US, with the focus on incessant multi-city tours, press exposure, playing to increasingly larger rooms, label interest, and growth into a self-sustaining musician. With only a handful of venues in Istanbul, only three cities with a market for live rock music within Turkey, the expense of foreign travel and getting visa difficulties, and limited press interest, those benchmarks of progression are not available. Amongst the musicians, there isn’t bitterness about this, but a general sense of understanding as that being the situation.
“You most likely to go to college, you have an education, you are not that kid that has nothing to lose. That class does not really exist in Turkey,” says Anıl Çamcı. “When your band is doing good, you can play few sold out shows at relatively bigger venues. But are you going to play a sold out show every month? Every week? It is not something sustainable.”
Kerem Öktem, Fakap’s drummer, plays in classical orchestras to earn a living.
Fakap schedule a late-night, after-hours recording session for a music video they are working on at the school.
A shipping barge, in route from the Black Sea, makes its way through the Bosphorus.
Gökhan Deneç and Gökhan Gorali have played together in D2GG for many years. The band’s sound is ever-changing, morphing and taking on different shapes with different instrumentation, but at its core is the collaboration between its two members. “We are two different people, we don’t agree on all the topics, but in terms of music it is very special. I cannot find any other second person that I can share this musical open mindedness. In this musical voyage, we are like musical soulmates. Things kept changing on and on and a lot of things changed in our lives, but we have this two way musical sharing.”
Gökhan Gorali recounts a common way that kids in Turkey were being introduced to new music when he was growing up: “There was this kind of a junkie looking guy selling copied cassettes with photocopy covers with his own handwriting. These were all commercially available albums, like Metallica, Slayer. if there is some time left on the cassette, he would put one other song from another band and then you go and ask him what it was and then he would sell you that other band’s album. from each cassette you would learn one other band. copyright was not that big of an issue back then. this person, hakan, he was selling these cassettes on the streets. these bootlegged cassettes he duplicated at home. from him, we learned a lot. he was recording from lps, there was this “shhhhh” sound on all the cassettes. same handwriting on all of them. “
Daire 2 General Gramafon is also known as D2GG.
“That is an istanbul reality. Everyone here starts playing guitar with a classical guitar. You would go to buy a guitar and you would say i want to play like slayer, they would give you a classical guitar. But I have to say, practising on classical guitar made my fingers very strong.”
Gökhan Gorali is also a member of a band called Nekropsi which was formed in 1995-1996 and is one of the very crucial bands that played an important role in paving the way for younger musicians. “Last year in 2014, Nekropsi decided to release one song a month like a magazine. Each month we came up with a new song. Some better and some not as good. Nekropsi is kind of active, but not entirely. Our drummer broke his collarbone. And the other two has another band. He laughs and adds “As far as i know we are still together.”
Haydarpaşa Terminal, was an active railway terminal in Istanbul up until recently.
Kutay Soyocak heads the band Peygamber Vitesi.
Kutay Soyocak at Dunia, a cafe bar in Kadıköy. The band has released 2 EPs on local label Muzik Hayvani. The second EP Ulu was a concept album around bears and the changing perception towards them. He thinks in order for the Turkish underground music scene to get anywhere, first the bigger local venues have to have that mission in their heart and let local bands play as direct support for the foreign bands that they bring in. “Forget about getting a step further outside of Turkey, it is a big deal to be able to go one step further in the venues in Turkey. Playing in these bigger venues turned into a bigger deal than it should be. There is nothing more normal than a local band to be able to play a local venue. The system works little bit different and weird here”
James Hakan Dedeoğlu , who records & performs under the name Tsu!. He is also the editor of Bant magazine, a print & online publication that focuses on Turkish culture, art, music, and politics. “i think the scene is heading towards a right direction because what we needed was to have couple of names to break through from the underground scene and start to play to bigger audience, like, well i am not talking about real underground bands. bands like buyuk ev ablukada. a lot of people hate their music and i dont either but they really did something, they changed something in people’s minds. maybe not for bands like me, kim ki o or pitohoui, because we are mostly underground bands, we are going to stay like that. we dont need to attract a bigger audience but there are so many bands that were hoping for bigger audience and somehow just never make it and now they have a role model.”
Under recent restrictions by the increasingly conservative government, alcohol brands are no longer permitted to sponsor music festivals & concerts, removing a major source of funding for live music. Hakan, with Bant magazine, organizes a series of concerts called Demonation, that focuses on bringing greater exposure to local bands as well as bringing in touring indie bands. “In Turkey let’s say a kid at 18 does not leave his house and goes to a different city with an idea of becoming a rock star, in Turkey that kid probably says i am going to study in high school, i am going to go to a university, I am going to find a good job and also I am also going to play guitar. how do you start playing guitar, you start taking lessons , your father buys you a guitar and your family pays for your guitar lessons. so a lot of people starts music that way, that is why a lot of them knows how to do a decent solo”
Ekin Sanaç & Berna Göl of Kim Ki O. The band has completed several European tours, most recently with Moon Duo. While they have recorded five albums, only two have been released and distributed internationally.
Kim Ki O at work in their rehearsal space. The duo utilizes vintage synths, bass, and programmed beats.
In the same way they were inspired and influenced by the riot grrl movement of the 90’s, they express a hope to provide encouragement and to help pave a way for younger female musicians in Turkey, where the music industry is heavily male-dominated.
Fishing boats on the Bosphorus.
Barış K’s studio in Beyoğlu. A LP of Neşe Karaböcek, a very popular singer known for her Turkish Arabesque music.
Insanlar is Cem Yıldız on vocal, bağlama and electronics, Barış K on electronics and an ever rotating musicians on other instruments.
They describe themselves as Acid Folk. Their first album was released by Aboov Records which was also founded by Bariş K in 2013.
Barış K’s studio in Beyoğlu.