Anatolian Rock: The Roots and Rediscovery

Moving from Istanbul to Berlin, desperately looking for new sounds, I unexpectedly kept running into some old and familiar ones in the hippest parts of the city. Skaters putting on a show in Wedding Stattbad with Selda Bağcan singing, DJ spinning a Barış Manço single as the Berliners dance at 5AM in KaterHolzig, and Erkin Koray playing on a Friday night playlist in Heiners Bar. Reaching out from the colder part of the continent, Todd Terje drops Neşe Karaböcek into his Essential mix while the vinyl compilations with Anatolian Rock, Funk and Psychedelic tags seem to be destined to sell out. 50 years after its birth in the motherland, this unique sound is being discovered and hyped in Europe, but how much does its new crowd really know about the story behind these songs?

Following Turkey’s establishment in the 20s Anatolian folk culture was neglected by the modernization movement, resulting in a popular music scene where the productions were merely amalgamations of westernized pop songs albeit with Turkish lyrics. In the early 60s, political changes along with the increasing migration from rural to urban, the popular culture slowly evolved to become an experimental playground for the authentic Anatolian sound and its new ally, the Western music. Thus Anatolian Rock was born; a unique musical synthesis of traditional Turkish instruments, poetry and rhythm fusing with rock & roll; a sound that was ever-taking over the world.

Selda Bağcan - Adaletin Bu Mu Dünya(1971)


Early years & Altın Mikrofon song contest
In the early 50s it was common to hear Turkish popular music artists singing in different languages, often English or French. This integrated westernized approach to contemporary music reached a breaking point in 1964 when Tülay German and Alpay performed Burçak Tarlası at the Balkan Melodies Festival. This would, later be known as the first real Turkish pop hit. The song was originally Türkü, a traditional Turkish folk song, that was arranged with western instruments. Accepted as a pioneer of the Anatolian Rock movement, the song’s huge success was an indication of the public’s demand for Anatolian folk culture.

The attention generated an immediate response in the form of Altın Mikrofon, AKA. The Golden Microphone a national song contest organized by Hürriyet, one of the major newspapers of the country. The contest’s outcome shaped Turkish Popular music as well as the unique sound of Anatolian Rock. The contestants would either have to arrange a Türkü with modern instruments, write Turkish lyrics over a foreign song or compose a  completely new song fusing folklore and the modern style. Carried out annually between 1965 and 1968, the contest encouraged many newcomers to join the popular scene and tour across the country. During it’s short existence, Altın Mikrofon became the platform for many important artists including Mavi Işıklar, Sis Beşlisi, İlhan Gencer, Haramiler and Silüetler; yet it was Erkin Koray, Cem Karaca and Moğollar who found their place amongst the future nobles of Anatolian rock.

Cem Karaca and Apaşlar - Emrah  (Altın Mikrofon 2nd Winner in 1967)

The scene’s defining artists & Different Approaches
Throughout the late 60s, Anatolian rock was gaining popularity across the country, yet the change was mostly limited to lyrics and not the musical style or instrumentation. In the 70s, Erkin Koray, the godfather of Turkish rocka, introduced  the groundbreaking electric bağlama. Koray had rebuilt the seven stringed bağlama, one of the basic instruments of traditional Turkish music, into an electric guitar.

In 1974 Koray and his band, Yeraltı 4lüsü, released the album Elektronik Türküler (Electronic Türküs,) which is now accepted as the first intentionally released Anatolian rock album. On the other hand, another cardinal figure, Cem Karaca, set a good example for sticking to western instruments while writing folkloric Turkish lyrics (with a few exceptions like Gel Gel) in traditional tunes. Another seminal, and also equally representative record of the genre, was Barış Manço’s Dağlar Dağlar. In It was the same era that Manço also worked with the band Kurtalan Ekspres, in which Murat Ses, a pioneer of Turkish electronic music, played synthesizers. These different takes on the Anatolian rock resulted in subgenres like Anatolian psychedelic and funk.

Erkin Koray - Fesupanallah (1974)

Anatolian Folk Rock in Europe
As the movement keeps on evolving in Turkey; the Anatolian rock, funk and psychedelia from the 60s, 70s and 80s have been infecting European record shops for the past few years. It has been proposed that Turkish immigrants have influenced the introduction of the genre, however since the majority enjoy mainly arabesque music, this argument lacks substance. Developments in world politics since 2001 have certainly moved attention to Eurasia and the Middle East, yet Anatolian Rock seems to be the only sound that’s traveling way globally despite of the language barrier.

European crowds joyfully listen how Mos Def sampled Selda Bağcan’s İnce İnce Kar Yağar in his 2009 hit Supermagic, but how many really look into where that voice comes from. Bağcan was a revolutionist as an Alevi woman who sang gloriously about social issues during a period  when Alevis were suppressed? How many are interested that Cem Karaca was one of the thousands who had to live in exile for almost a decade for his political ideologies or that Barış Manço spent the majority of his career as a cultural ambassador?

Whilst this movement continues to advocate equality, it’s artists have been singing songs about freedom, revolution and hope at high costs; yet how willing are the new listeners willing to investigate deeper into the origins of this unique sound? Decades ago this movement fueled freedom fighters and today it still gives a powerful message to the new generations of youth. Hopefully it will remind it’s European listeners to investigate further and appreciate the power of music, refusing to take it as a product of consumption.

Barış Manço- Dönence (1982)