A Cultural Reorientation in Turkish Music: Anatolian Psychedelia

A Brief History of Psychedelic Music

Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, the moon landing and Woodstock. 1960s were tumultuous yet somewhat hopeful years, which often left the masses wondering if things were going to be better or worse with each averted crisis and witnessed triumph.

Eastern Illinois, Booth Library, Revolutionary Decade Exhibit

One of the few upsides of the era was the emerging music genre, psychedelia. Music industry of the 60s took the sense of being between triumph and annihilation, combined it with some narcotic substances and turned it into an escapist form of art that asked for happier days. This new genre of music was called Psychedelic music or psychedelia.

Taking its roots from the hippie movement of the mid 1960s, psychedelic music originated in the United States in the form of psychedelic rock. The new musical genre quickly became a global phenomenon as it provided the artists with a new way of expression that helped them manifest their opinions and complaints regarding the ongoing political conflicts without being aggressive towards the authorities, or at least making their work seem like it beneath cleverly written songs and carefully placed motives and imageries.

Turkey during the 60s was no less a boiling cauldron compared to its western counterparts and country quickly imported the psychedelia that was storming through the rest of the world.

Origins of Turkish Psychedelia

A much broader and detailed account could be given regarding the general history of the psychedelic music; however, this article will be focusing on its relationship with the Turkish music traditions and examples that are produced by the combination of these two musical conventions.

In order to better explain how Turkish psychedelic music came to be, it would be convenient to refer to the early Westernisation process of Turkish music. Starting from the 1930s, the Turkish state interfered to shift Turkish music towards a new course, as set by the founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkish musicians were to use Turkish melodies and make them into polyphonic pieces as it was in the Western musical tradition. This idea of synthesising Turkish music with Western conventions was kept alive by the artists of the coming generations, which in 1960s resulted with the fusing of Western rock and Anatolian folk music practices.

Beginnings of Anatolian Rock

In 1961, Tülay German recorded Burçak Tarlası, which is considered the first example of Anatolian Rock by most authorities. Anatolian Rock was a combination of popular US-European music forms and instruments, principally from Rock’n Roll and Anatolian folk music, which itself was influenced by ancient Turkish traditions.

Anatolian folk music has sprung from the Anatolian Aşık tradition. Aşıks, or bards were singer-poets and skilled Saz players who produced poems with Saz accompaniments. Their works centred around the idea of love (the Turkish word ‘aşık’ means ‘the one who’s in love’) and how it is obtained, kept and spread. This love, however, was not of a romantic nature, but a love of the existence and humanity itself, which promoted spiritual aspects of life and death.

A Turkish Saz. Saz or baglama is a long-necked string instrument, it’s variations can be found across the Anatolian lands. The lute-like instrument is often used in the Turkish Folk music.

One of the most recent and prominent representatives of this tradition was Aşık Veysel (Veysel Şatıroğlu) who was amongst the several inspirational bards from their tradition. Another fact that’s worth mentioning is that Aşık Veysel has gone blind at the age of 7 due to smallpox.

Here is the original version of Aşık Veysel’s poem, Uzun İnce Bir Yoldayım played and sang by Aşık Veysel himself and below is the Anatolian Rock cover by Özdemir Erdoğan which is played with Western instruments and features psychedelic sounds. It is considered an early example of Eastern folk music fused with Western Psychedelia.

Anatolian rock musicians were known to pay visits to Aşıks to have friendly discussions regarding their music and to get new ideas for their songs. Aşıks, were in a sense, what hippies and LSD was for the Western psychedelia, they inspired the Turkish musicians to think about topics like being alive, what to live for and how to live like a decent human being. The Aşık philosophy greatly influenced and backed up the Turkish psychedelia in its early steps, but it was a contest in 1968 that lead to the region wide spread of their music.

The Rise of Turkish Psychedelia

At this point, it would be beneficial to acknowledge that Anatolian Rock and Turkish Psychedelic music are often used synonymously, and most literatures refer to the same genre when they mention one or the other. As previously explained, both titles refer to a genre that’s the fusion between Anatolian folk music and rock, but it also carries sounds of the Western psychedelia that were globally popularized during the era.

Around the time Tülay German’s Burçak Tarlası came out, several other Turkish musicians were recording or playing similar pieces, but most Turks were doing covers of the already popular songs from the US or Europe. Then in 1965, music authorities in Turkey wanted to bring these talented artists together and guide them into producing their original songs, in order to achieve that goal, Hürriyet Newspaper organised the Altın Mikrafon (Golden Microphone) Song Contest. Contest ran until 1968, two other newspapers tried to revive the contest in 1972 and then in 1979, but to no avail. Even though no official statements regarding the discontinuation of the contest were made, one could assume its purpose was achieved after generating a significant number of Anatolian Rock artists that fulfilled the industry needs.

Below are the entry requirements for the contest as declared by the Hürriyet Newspaper:

A new Turkish song that blends folk and Western music elements,

Or a known folk tune in Western Style.

Artists are only allowed to use western instruments.

A newspaper clipping announcing the 1967 winners of the Altın Mikrofon song contest. The below caption says, “People listened, people chose, people applauded”

The contest led the younger population of Turkey to create original songs with Turkish lyrics and sounds, instead of covering the popular ones from the US and Europe. Finalists of the song contest included, Cem Karaca, Selçuk Alagöz, Edip Akbayram and the bands, Moğollar, Mavi Işıklar, Silüetler. They were awarded with studio time to record their songs and were given a chance to tour the country and spread this hybrid genre of music to the peoples of Anatolia. Similar to the spreading of the Western psychedelia amongst the Euro-American populations, Anatolian Rock was an era defining genre for Turkish people. Even beyond the borders of Turkey, some of these musicians were loved and praised by foreign listeners. Furthermore, from a genre that started with covering songs, one could argue that Anatolian Rock turned into a genre that was covered.

Elijah Wood getting an autograph from Selda Bağcan, 2015.
Album Cover from Barış Manço’s 1996 concert in Japan.

The most popular example for this argument is a song by Erkin Koray, Bir Eylül Akşamı. Some music scholars argue that Erkin koray’s 1966 composition has inspired the hit Rolling Stones song, Paint it to Black, here’s the song if you want to give it a listen and see if you can find the similarities between the two pieces.

Turkish Psychedelia as a Cultural Phenomenon

To better examine this musical genre that became a cultural phenomenon,  we can take a look at this reference from An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture by John Storey, which provides an insight to various approaches to cultural theory and popular culture and refers to Michel de Certau’s The Practice of Everyday Life where he claims “Popular culture is a site where the construction of everyday life may be examined.” (Storey, 11)

Applying this approach to Anatolian Rock, one may deduce that this musical genre reflects and propagates the everyday life of the Turkish people. As it had its roots in the spiritualist poetry and composition of the Aşıks, Turkish psychedelia was able to discuss the topics that affected the human spirit in song, which was well received by the Turkish public as they were going through many hardships and were glad to finally hear something that announced their wishes and demands from the authorities.

Selda Bağcan’s 1976 song “Yaz Gazeteci Yaz” (Write news writer, write) is an ideal example of this, in which Bağcan asks newspapers to write more about the underrepresented members of the society and the hardships they are going through while receiving no help form the government.

More Examples from the Genre and Anatolian Rock Revival Project

Anatolian rock musicians created some of the best received songs of Turkey’s music history. Until recently, today, if you want to take a look at several of their works, it is possible to find them on almost all music platforms, but there is one specific archive which accommodates the true spirit of the genre. Anatolian Rock Revival Project, its creators define it as “an art project dedicated to bringing non-mainstream pieces from Turkish Rock History (1964-1980) into the light with unique artworks.” Indeed, the tracks you can find on their YouTube channel include detailed and exquisite alternative album covers for many great songs from the Anatolian Rock tradition.

An example of their works featuring Cem Karaca and Ferdy Klein Orchestra’s Adsız.

You can check more examples from the genre and take a look at their brand-new artworks and animations at their channel. They also put short summaries regarding the bands and artists that created the song under the videos.

Artists of the genre produced these and many other great pieces. It was all going great for music, but on the eve of a new decade, backed by financial turmoil and social struggles, the political winds in Turkey were about to howl at a different direction.

1980s and Political Upheaval Against Anatolian Rock

The Turkish democracy was, and still is, of a fragile kind, and unlike the booming Anatolian Rock, Turkish economy was on the brink of collapsing, Turkish people were divided more than ever before into ideologies and creeds and were committing criminally assaultive acts against each other. On September 12, 1980, Turkish army stepped in to end this state of chaos and instability by overthrowing the government with a coup. The event that we now call the September 12th Coup d’Etat came with strict restrictions on every sphere of life. It would be rational to deduce that there was no love lost between the musicians of the Turkish Psychedelia tradition, who never abstained from being critical towards the figures of authority and the new military government that wanted to get the total control of society.

Rock musicians were banned from the stages and all music that propagated against the establishment were subjected to censorship, reduction and were generally perceived as a career suicide. Some or the artists fled the country, some were imprisoned, and Anatolian Rock was abandoned to its unfortunate destiny.

The popularity of the Anatolian Psychedelia was replaced by a new genre, that heralded of another cultural shift to come, Arabesk. Arabesk was an oriental form of non-Turkish origins, but that’s a subject for a different article. Essentially, Anatolian Rock was a dead genre between 1980 and 1990. After the 90s, several old and newer artists came to the genre to repair it unjustly taken popularity. Today, we might be closer than ever to a new era of Anatolian Psychedelia, where the genre could reclaim its former glory.

Legacy of Turkish Psychedelia

One could argue that Anatolian Rock is making a comeback since the early 2000s. Not only new artists like Gaye Su Akyol and bands like Altın Gün and Palmiyeler are keeping the genre alive and kicking toda;y but works of the former artists still keep inspiring the world of music. Like in the case of Dr. Dre and Mos Def, who are told to have been inspired by Selda Bağcan’s riffs from her 1976 song Ince Ince.

The latest success story in the genre’s record book is Altın Gün’s 2020 Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album. Although they didn’t win the award, a Grammy nomination is no mean feat. Altın Gün, being the Turkish-Dutch band that covers songs from Anatolian folk culture, embodies every aspect of the Turkish psychedelic music culture and carries the legacy of the synthesis tradition and might even lead to its re-emergence along with the other new artists of our era.

Altın Gün at the Festival des Vieilles Charrues, 2018.

Having mentioned the re-emergence of the genre, and the incoming new artists, there is a certain new band that’s about to make their debut; and since they were formed in coordination with Turquazz, this is a brilliant opportunity to introduce them: Giants of Anatolia. It’s still rather hard to form a detailed opinion of the band as their debut concert is on June 9 in Jazz Café, London, hence these will be rather prefecture arguments and opinions on the group made prior to listening to their music, but since I had the chance to meet them for a couple hours during a discussion on the future of the band and their repertoire for their debut concert I have an overall idea on what could be expecting us on June 9.

Giants of Anatolia, Volume.1 – Roots. 2022.

I’ve gone to through each of their musical backgrounds, and each bandmember seems like an accomplished musician on paper, of course this alone does not guarantee anything, but another thing I noticed about the band was the level of communication they had with each other, some of them knew each other, but there were new faces too. After a certain point in our meeting, me and my colleagues stepped down from the discussion as they claimed the stage for themselves in unexpected harmony.

Up there, on the stage, it’s told to feel like a battleground, where you are up against the expectation of hundreds, or even thousands of audience members and your best allies are your experience and more importantly, your bandmates. I believe the Giants do possess that kind of unique comradery some bands have, or at least they seemed promising to develop that kind of a relationship as they play along, which gives me hope. Hope that they can perhaps be the latest link in the revival of this once gigantic genre and show the world how it should have never come to a stop in the first place.

Conclusion

To sum up, this was merely a summary of a massive journey that is still going on. A journey that almost came to end due to unfavourable circumstances, but it did not. One can appreciate the fact that it didn’t die out and continues to be an inspiring cultural aspect. In any case, the conclusion I’d like to arrive at is as follows:

You can scorch the earth and salt the ground, but as the saying goes, nature finds a way. Music -and art in general- is a part of the natural order of the human species; one may try to remove it by force, but the will of an angry, bigoted minority cannot go against the organic development of a cultural entity. That is, as suggested in this article, is what happened with the Turkish Psychedelic music, it didn’t fade away and, even though small, it’s still a part of our lives. My final proposal is that we can come to a nomenclatural agreement and combine the ambiguity in the genre’s naming for convenience’s sake and to indicate the genre’s unifying nature, and name it as Anatolian Psychedelia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bell, David. “Revolutionary Decade: Exhibits.” EIU, Eastern Illinois University, 26 Aug. 2014, https://www.eiu.edu/booth/exhibits/1960s/supporting/.

Ela, Elçin Deniz, and Mehmet Atilla Güler. “MÜZİĞİN İZİNDE: TÜRKİYE’DE 1980’DEN GÜNÜMÜZE ROCK MÜZİK VE SOSYAL HAKLAR.” Gazi University, Academia.edu, pp. 5–6.

Quantick, David. “The History of Psychedelia – a Brief History of Psychedelia in Eight Colours.” BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/4nWcSYlCbk9BDJryvdBZMNg/a-brief-history-of-psychedelia-in-eight-colours.

Storey, John, and Michel De Certeau. “Popular Culture.” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 3rd ed., Pearson Education, Harlow, 2001, pp. 5–13.