One night, sitting across a table full of empty bottles, a group of friends decided to educate each other on the rock music from their respective countries. As the only Turkish at the table, it was my responsibility to tell them about the birth of Turkish rock. Our drunken discussion was highly informative, and today I present to you a more sober but no less exciting outline of the ‘60s in Istanbul.
Only one year after the international success of “Rock Around the Clock,” the first rock’n’roll No. 1 in the world, the gramophones started to play rock’n’roll music in Istanbul where this new genre of music was immediately picked up by the Istanbul’s elite urban college youth. From 1957 to 1963, many college students formed their own rock bands and played cover songs of rock’n’roll, beat and twist music. One such student, Barış Manço, was at the Galatasaray Lycee, his alma mater, on 29 Dec 1957, when Erkin Koray, a young musician from German High School held a concert there. Koray and Manço, still students, would later go on to become rock legends in Turkey.
While Manço didn’t suspect this future stardom at the time one thing was certain; music would only be increasingly important to Manço. He was even forced to change schools because his passion for music became the reason for his declining academic performance. Later in 1962, Manço’s band, Harmoniler, released its first record: “Twist in USA/The Jet.” The second one, “The Twist/Let’s Twist Again,” was released in the same year.
Erkin Koray was doing good job as well. His musical talent landed him a role in the movie named “Naylon Leyla” in 1961 which is when he was given the nickname, ‘Crazy Rocker. ’His astonishing success was the root of envy among other musicians, but that did not lead him off track. His only wish was to produce an original song, and that happened in 1963 when he blessed the country with his first record “Bir Eylül Akşamı” (One September Night). His first record is was regarded as the first rock’n’roll song with Turkish lyrics.
Erkin KORAY – Bir Eylül Akşamı
Besides Erkin Koray and Barış Manço there were many other musicians across the country who formed their own bands and played cover songs of the fathers of rock’n’roll music, namely: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lewish and Elvis Presley. However, from the mid-1960s, their sound started to evolve into what we call now “Anatolian Rock” – a mixture of American psychedelic sound and Anatolian folk music. Interestingly, none of Turkish rock pioneers, save for Erkin Koray, had been bound up with traditional folk music previously. On the contrary these young musicians were the first generation of musicians who were thoroughly influenced by Kemalist music reforms that gave them plenty of exposure to western music.
The growth of different genres in Turkish rock music was intertwined with external events. The decade of 1960s saw important issues coming to the forefront of societal consciousness: race relations, war, sexuality, drugs, ecology, belief in God, world hunger and so on. Rock’n’roll music was used to respond to these issues by rebellious youth whom we now call the flower children. Indeed, rock’n’roll, rebellion, protestation, and profligacy went hand in hand during the 60s and the growing unrest scared conservatives and many others who wanted to safeguard the status quo. The ruling elites saw rock’n’roll as a danger to their position, and their attempts to manipulate the situation included a musical competition for the masses.
The Altın Mikrofon (Golden Microphone) competition, organised annually from 1965 to 1968 by Hürriyet, Turkey’s best-selling newspaper, helped shape the future of popular music in Turkey. Finalists were awarded with studio time, an opportunity to record a 45-rpm disc, and a tour across the country. However, there was one catch: the musicians had to either arrange western style music to a traditional folk tune, or compose a completely new song that blended folklore and modern western style.
Silüetler – Sis
Ziya Gökalp, the father of Turkish nationalism wrote: “In order to create our own international music, we should work on our own melodies…and then polyphonise them according to the rules of Western harmonic music.”’ This idea was endorsed by Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who deeply supported reforms to develop national music. As a result, from the early 1930s, Turkish musical life was altered through state institutions; traditional Ottoman music was banned and the ears of the new generation were introduced to Anatolian folk music.
In a way, the Altın Mikrofon contest killed two birds with one stone; it helped secure Anatolian folk music’s position in society and it also postponed the emergence of the real rock music which was considered a threat to the state. But did it work out the way the state wanted it to? The indisputable truth is that the fathers of Turkish rock music were never immersed in any rebellious attitude the way their counterparts in United States or Britain were. Even as the content of rock songs touched upon rebellion, social protest, sex and even drugs abroad, Turkish rock pioneers also made songs about love, suffering, life, death and so on. Their songs spoke about springs, mountains, streams as well as legendary historical figures including the names of Ottoman sultans. Rock music had in the hands and lives of its players, become flowing poetry that provoked restless thought but also invoked still beauty.
Mavi Işıklar – Çayır Çimen Geze Geze
I’ve spoken much of these spectacularly successful young musicians. It is time to name their compatriots, beginning with the bands that proved short-lived despite their awards at the contest. In 1965, the band Mavi Işıklar took the 2nd place with their twist song “Helvacı” and the band Silüetler took the 3rd place with their beat-rock song “Kaşık Havası”. In the following year, Silüetler won the contest with the song “Lorke Lorke”, while Mavi Işıklar took the 2nd place again with “Çayır Çimen Geze Geze”. Unfortunately, also in that same year, the bands disbanded.
Another band, Moğollar, made a name for themselves with their cover songs and took 3rd place in 1968 with the song “Ilgaz”. Apart from their success in Golden Microphone, they released many favourite songs such as “Mektup”, “Lazy John”, “Everlasting Love” and “Sessiz Gemi”, until 1970, when they left Turkey for Paris in search of international fame.
Cem Karaca, came in 2nd in 1967 with the song “Emrah” which was a beat song with lyrics of folk poem written by Erzurumlu Emrah. After the contest, his band “Apaşlar” (The Rowdies) released their first record “Hudey Hudey”, followed by many smash hits such as “Resimdeki Gözyaşları” and “Istanbul’u Dinliyorum”. Despite that achievement, the band faltered under political and personal disagreements. Cem Karaca would later formed a new band, named Kardaşlar (Brothers), running into the 70s with a clean slate.
Cem KARACA – Resimdeki Gözyaşları
Remember Erkin Koray? He moved to Germany to become closer to the spirit of rock’n’roll in the mid 60s, and by his return he was the prototypical rock icon in his looks, lifestyle and music. His song “Çiçekdağı” placed 4th at Golden Microphone 1968. He continued producing hit songs such as “Anma Arkadaş”, “Kızları da Alın Askere” and “Hop Hop Gelsin”, songs whose enduring popularity mean that many Turkish people today still sing them.
As for Barış Manço, he couldn’t join the contest as he was in Belgium studying. However, he was still perhaps the most hardworking rock musician of the 1960s. With the band Les Mistigris, he produced songs while in Belgium and upon returning to Turkey he formed the band, Kaygısızlar. Among all the records he produced in the 1960s, there two records worth taking special note of: “Bien Fait Pour Toi/Aman Avcı Vurma Beni” with Les Mistigris and “Ağlama Değmez Hayat/Kirpiklerin Ok Ok Eyle” with Kaygısızlar, which were Manço’s bestselling record in the 60s.
Barış MANÇO- Ağlama Değmez Hayat
We examined the birth of “Anatolian Rock”, where electric guitars, bass, and drums meet with bağlama, a traditional stringed folk music instrument, and ney, wind instrument in Turkish classical and sufi music. Whether or not Anatolian Rock was wholly shaped by the state did not matter to the Turkish people who greatly loved this unique sound. Anatolian Rock grew in popularity, peaking in the early years of the 70s. It faded away in the mid 70s due to political turmoil in the country that saw a crescendo with the Turkish coup d’etat that happened on September 12, 1980. That brought on the country’s the darkest years, in which there was no breathing space for any kind of art. Consequently Anatolian Rock music disappeared for good, and lives on in old records and in articles like these.
In colloboration with Min Yi Tan.
Special thanks to Anatolian Rock Revival Project for letting me use their beautiful illustrations.
Ilker Yaman is a story teller, story writer, and a relentless researcher, with great interest to be a turnsole test for booksy pimps