Salih Korkut Peker Anatolian Grunge and his Cümbüş

The teenage and early twenties period of many rock music lovers born around mid 70s have found themselves in the Grunge era around early 90s. This was a period when the tendency towards heavy metal and hair metal has declined and these genres lost a bit of attraction. In the meantime, around late 80s and early 90s, bands like Mother Love Bone, Temple of the Dog, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana and many others emerged and created a new style, also called the ‘Seattle sound’. The genre rocked the music industry in the middle of MTV’s heydays and became quite popular among rock music enthusiasts and musicians including myself and my peers.

Salih Korkut Peker was among these musicians. Born and raised in Ayvalik, which is a North Aegean seaside town with diversity of cultures, he was exposed to various styles of music since his childhood. He learned to play different instruments until he found his own way, such as keyboards in 1980s where Arabesque was quite popular, then flute to play Yeni Turku songs and finally ended up with string instruments. As 90s arrived, with a tendency to play western music, such as rock and heavy metal, Korkut started playing electric guitar until he found his main instrument Cümbüş around early 2000s and he mastered himself on it as the years went by and created a nice harmony in his music using both instruments.

Cümbüş is a unique instrument with a unique history. It was invented by Zeynel Abidin Bey, a former weapon maker in the 1930s. After the independence war Zeynel Abidin wanted to create a new instrument to embody the ideals of peace, an instrument for the masses. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern secular Turkiye, loved the instrument so much, especially its capability of playing both Eastern and, with a quick change of removable necks, Western tunes together and named it Cümbüş. The word is also used to express festivity, vitality (of colors) and having fun.

This inexpensive instrument became popular among the poor and ethnic minorities in Turkiye. It was excluded specifically by classical musicians of the era, being seen as lower-class. By the 1970s, Román professional musicians were also playing the instrument at the weddings because of its ability to be heard alongside other instruments.

While exploring the potential of this unique instrument, Korkut went back to his roots and found a unique fusion between Anatolia’s Bozlak musical tradition and Grunge tunes, similar to his predecessors did with Anatolian Psychedelic Rock. Performing microtonal, traditional sounds on drop-d tuning being played by local unique instruments, such as cümbüş and çağlama, he managed to melt the melancholy and humor of Anatolia with the cloudy sky of Seattle’s grunge in the same pot, which eventually became Anatolian Grunge in the artist’s own words.

Photo by: Furkan Akarsu

I had the chance to have an interview with Salih Korkut Peker around July 2023. We discussed his music, influences, future plans and thoughts about the music industry in his home country.

BM : Please tell me the story of how you met Cümbüş and decided to combine it with your western musical taste and the story behind your fretless electro cümbüş.

SKP : I met cümbüş in 1993. I saw it on a comedy show, played by one of the prisoners and I found it quite weird. The body looks like a big pan, the neck looks like an oud and the head looks like a guitar. Among all these absurd characteristics it sounded between sadness and joy which affected me significantly. Later on, I paid quite a lot of attention to cümbüş recordings, which were played by Ara Dinkjian, Erkan Oğur and Levent Yüksel, even in my metalhead years.

In 2004, I took cümbüş in my hands for the first time and started to play whatever I liked, from traditional dance music to blues, from classical Turkish music to hardcore riffs. I love so many different kinds of music and always want to bring them together.

Fretless electric cümbüş however, was not my idea. It was used by local musicians all around Turkiye for many years. As it was hard to amplify acoustically, they found the solution by adding a pickup on the body. The difference for me is the way I use it, where I use various effects and distortion pedals with my electric cümbüş. The pickup is not only to make the instrument acoustically louder but to add a different vibe into it to be able to play with the genres I like and create.

BM : How was the 90s Grunge scene for you? Were you making music back then? Can you please list your favorite bands and albums from that period?

SKP : I managed to jump on the Grunge Train in 1995, when I first started to play the guitar. The very first thing I listened to was ‘Very Ape’ by Nirvana. So I started with the album ‘In Utero’, and ‘Nevermind’ followed.

My life changer album is ‘Down on the Upside’ by Soundgarden. They had more surprises and spice in their music. I followed Soundgarden’s energy, sarcasm, depression and melancholy in my music. Since then, Soundgarden has been my favorite band and the albums Badmotorfinger and Down on the Upside are my best picks. Nirvana and Pearl Jam with their first album ‘Ten’ can be added to the list.

BM : I’m sure your music has influences from the 60s and 70s Anatolian Pop/Rock era, but when we look at today’s Turkish Psychedelic movement and the musical style, your music stands a bit far and different. Do you think this difference comes from the 90s influence?

SKP : Exactly! Because 90’s music is my “main menu”. All my music was shaped and cooked in that period. I discovered 70’s Anatolian Pop-Rock after reaching musical maturity. The traditional Anatolian acoustic music I play has a touch from the 90’s as well. Not only grunge, but also Eric Clapton, Suzanne Vega, Metallica and  Radiohead from the 90’s era.

Illustration by: Selin Çınar

BM : You also have other bands called Yasak Helva and Duble Salih. Are there any new projects with them or are you planning to go on solo? What are the future plans?

SKP : I choose both. I always want to create with the bands I’m in. In Yasak Helva, there is too much electric passion and we want to push our limits every time. Our second album is loading.

In Duble Salih, we play only pure acoustic folk, but with little spice ups like flamenco, blues and even rebetiko. Besides those, I also love to be alone on stage, and in my own band. To be alone, strengthens the ‘story telling’ part, not only about ‘my stories’, but the stories by my instrument.

BM :  How’s the live music scene in Istanbul or in Turkiye in general from your perspective? Were you able to do any tours outside Turkiye or any plans in future?

SKP : Music scene in Turkiye is a little bit complicated. There are so many solid bands or musicians with huge potential, who create their own music but cannot find enough opportunities to take the stage. So the market becomes a bit tough for independent music and musicians. Few labels, few halls, few bookers try to keep ‘unique music’ alive. A bunch of names playing in a loop of concerts and this loop barely changes with a new name. An outsider might even think, “hmm there are only 10 pop stars, 10 rockstars and 10 avant garde musicians in Turkiye”. Unfortunately we had more concerts in Europe than in our hometown Izmir.

Beyond this reality, Turkiye is a ‘cover country’. Maybe thousands of musicians, playing cheesy covers for hours each night and earning nearly nothing. I believe they can not enjoy the music beyond a certain point, and music becomes their ‘defense to survive’.

Photo by Barış MUMCU @ DB Music, London – 19.04.2024

After nearly nine months since we had this interview, Salih Korkut Peker performed a live show at DB Music in Stoke Newington, London on 19th of April. Under the intimate ambiance of this cozy venue, Salih Korkut Peker has woven a captivating musical tapestry unlike any other. Armed with his cümbüş, guitar and a trusty looper pedal, he effortlessly built layers of melody and rhythm, creating a rich sonic landscape. But it’s not just the instrumentation that mesmerizes; but also Korkut’s voice – a beguiling blend of soulful resonance and raw emotion – that truly enchanted the audience.

The playlist of the night included songs from his album ‘Denize Dik’, covers of well known grunge songs such as Nirvana – Something In The Way and various well known Turkish folk songs that the audience sang along with the musician, as soon as they recognized the familiar sounds. The energy and euphoria during these songs created an emotional atmosphere and the audience rewarded Korkut with a fulfilling applause.

Photo by Barış MUMCU @ DB Music, London – 19.04.2024

Recently, Salih Korkut Peker is making plans to make London his home for his family. After touring for concerts this summer, we will hopefully be seeing and listening to him live on various stages around London. There are also signs of an upcoming extended EP or maybe a new album towards the end of the year and we’ll be eagerly waiting to hear these new songs.

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