The On Going Journey of the Modern “Aşık” In Turkey

Bard singers are an example to the interesting sources of the modern tradition of popular music. Even though international music industry divides and classifies the source in question in different boxes on occasion, it categorizes every singer who writes their own music and lyrics as a singer-songwriter. This term has a very ambiguous meaning. Because popular music has always had singer-songwriters from all over the world who, in addition to the mainstream genres such as pop, folk, rock, etc., embody the different and specific characteristics of their respective eras. Therefore, this term has different meanings in different countries even though they all are categorized as popular music. 

On the other hand, every country has its own musical and folkloric and therefore their unique ‘aşık’ (bard) tradition that goes back centuries. City-centric popular music and culture only start to shape at the end of the 19th century. The transformation of this music into an industry, its initiation into the consumption culture, happens in the 1950s in the Western world. That is why the feelings of loneliness and alienation deepen to create alternatives, sub- and countercultures, within pop music and culture. Rock and Black music emerge and embody different radicals. The reflection of the technological advancements or the era in the music play a big role in this. Music becomes more cosmopolitan with time in the cities, causing modern ‘aşık’ singers to find their own musical expressions. They represent a resistance towards the typical singer-songwriters of pop music. The modern ‘aşık’ type hasn’t yet emerged in Turkey in the 1960s. The widespread branch of pop in Turkey was arrangement music whereas the lyrics were filled with plagiarism of foreign popular songs. The attitude against this process finds body in the Anatolian-pop movement. However, there weren’t examples to the genuine modern ‘aşık’ type yet.

Popular music in Turkey has a past with various meanings. Therefore, pop culture and music created its own description in the 1990s. Because international music industry can find an equivalent to this only as it related to the reflection of the growing neo-liberalism in the Turkish music sector. Turkish classical ‘Art’ music and arabesque music have been the main branches of popular music until the 1990s. Even though pop became well-known in the 1960s, it wasn’t defined as it was in the Western culture but instead described with terms such as Turkish Light Music, Light Western Music. It was positioned below the entertainment culture.

The journey for the Western-centric popular music to create its own modern ‘aşık’ singers has been grueling in this situation. Because these aşıks start to look for their own “homeland” as the urban culture makes popular music more cosmopolitan. A striking point about the situation in Turkey is the direct effect of the nationalistic tendencies born after first military coup on the 27th of May 1960 on the artists and intellectuals. The intellectuals of the popular music circles embrace Anatolia’s ‘aşık’ and folk music traditions in the name of modernization against the mediocracy of the arrangement music. Not only the traditional ‘aşık’ singers find themselves in the middle of the intellectual circles with their native ‘bağlama’ (a string instrument) but they also become politicized with the motivation of the socialist culture as created by the Turkish Workers’ Party which was founded in that period. Bağlama and Cura are string instruments these circles embraced as a part of their national heritage. This allows the ideology of “nationalism”, getting more popular, to become nested in the sociologist ideology. Interest in many local instruments increase. Anatolian Pop emerges as a reaction against arrangement music when this ideological position in question comes together with the youth movements in Turkey and Western rock music and culture. The guitar and bağlama find their place together or separately in this musical movement, which shoulders a profoundly serious political role in the 1970s.

Young musicians were in the pursuit of a synthesis in that era. Modern ‘aşık’ types start to find a different embodiment. I will detail these developments in my next article. This process causes a kind of Rock-Bard prototype. While one branch has a modern and epic character with a social and political attitude; the other tendency follows the path of pop-rock with lyrical songs written on the theme of love with a focus on individual aspects. 

The forefathers of the modern ‘aşık’ types finally emerge in the 1970s. Even though we described them as a kind of Rock-Bard, they are not exactly Bard-Singers. That is because the music produced is “band music” and therefore making the rock bards who wrote all their songs exceedingly rare. As I emphasized before, poetry; imagines, symbols, irony, humor and many other elements are not worked into the song lyrics. While it is a diligent and narrative language; it does not become unique “songs” combined with music. These characteristics are rarely seen in political songs, meaning that it is not possible to encounter a diligent poetical language in the lyrics written despite the facts that they are social song lyrics. 

Returning to the topic of the new language and aura created by music, song and poetry, it is worth questioning to what extend these Rock-Bards achieved poetry in their lyrics while somewhat creating the “aesthetics of noise”. They bring together the social sensitivities of their time with their poetry-lyrics in a political language. Since “bard-singers” are not complete in the level of their products, they are mainly influenced by the social poetry of their era. Those who sing “love” songs without correlating to any political discourse try to emphasize their characteristics as an “aşık” by writing lyrics adorned with the tradition of “folk poetry”. However, most of these singers do not make a cause out of being a “bard-singer” and instead sometimes use this to write lyrics for their songs while making use of folk songs. Therefore, this is a complex period. 

We emphasized that modern aşıks found their place in life easier as the urban popular life became more cosmopolitan. This situation relates to the new ideologic grounds emerging as well as being of a social origin. Ultimately, the development of real pop, folk and rock cultures, as well as the emergence of their lyric writers, composers and arrangement writers, take place in this period. That is why there are almost no Bard-Singers who write and sing their own songs. Even though relatively higher in number, these Bard-Singers who have the need to write songs due to having “words to say”, making the attitude of protest a part of their songs; those who ultimately cannot keep up with the rules of the process of producing records at the time, only find some amount of success in the 1990s. In addition to the technological advancements, the role of the competition of the chaotic and stressful social life of the consumption culture is immense in causing this. Music genres increase in number and produce more alternatives, lead by local and ethnical sources. Deep individualization finds its place in the limelight along with socialization. This causes Bard-Singers and Rock-Aşıks to find momentum, because popular music coalesces with the pop culture after this period.

The years between 1980-1990 are the most critical ones. Not only the effects of the neo-liberal ideologies and technologies on songs but also the tensions that emerge after the coup define different qualities as they relate to the sector and lyric writers. Popular music gets re-defined, expanding from the tavern culture of the city to the style of entertainment. The development of the social scape becomes more painful, melancholic; creating a new emotional position that focuses on despair. This situation causes an increase of the number of songs of more poetic nature as produced by singer-songwriters. 

Sometimes the lyrics written are more important than the sound produced for the bard singers, rock poets or “aşık” in the general sense. The vocal range of the aşık is of course a decisive factor. However, the fact that the voice might be “muddy” or not in accordance with the vocal preferences of the time do not carry much importance. The important aspects are the musical style and the uniqueness of the style of delivery. This shows a natural resistance to the preferences of the period. Irony and humor are decisive factors. The listeners look for the allegory in the works of those whose narrative sides outweigh the rest. The choice of words and the way they intersect with the music must have purity and genuineness even though love songs or social satire are also present. This happens while they compose for the lyrics-poems or vice versa. There are many who write their songs with their instrument of choice. In addition to the strength brought by words, syntax and structure to the song lyrics, creating a body of work in a song while paying attention to the prosody through the tune, melody and rhythms as well as making sure not to damage integrity created by many technical details. This requires different emotional states and accumulations in aesthetics and spirituality. For example, Bob Dylan, who is one of the forefathers of this tradition, transformed these details as mentioned above into unique building blocks while singing folk or rock. His expansive knowledge on modern poetry is widely known. In addition to being a fan of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, it has also been written that he took his last name from Dylan Thomas. 

Whether this musical tradition has been prolific or not in Turkey until the 1990s is up for debate. Those who come to attention with their lyrics that approach lyrical poetry outnumber those that have epic characteristics. Daily love stories riddled with chaos, introversion caused by social pressure, and the feelings of loneliness and strangeness created by the mundaneness fed by the city culture have been the main artery of these songs in Turkey as well even though their music genres vary greatly. We will be describing how Bard-Singers evolve in the upcoming articles.