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Thursday, July 27, 2006

History of Turkish Pop Music

Album cover of Putumayo Presents: Turkish GrooveIf the history of Turkish pop music reveals anything, it is that fusion comes easy to the children of the Ottoman Empire. Artists channel the sounds that have defined the region for centuries to give Turkish pop music its own special groove.

The story begins in the late 1950s with Turkish cover versions of a wide range of imported popular styles, including rock 'n' roll, tango, and jazz. This large collection of songs were labelled as "Hafif-batı" (easy listening Western) music. Reflecting a push for modernisation in a republic carved out of the carcass of an imperial regime, the short-lived genre is recorded as being the godmother of pop music in Turkey.

Breaking away from simply penning Turkish lyrics on to modern tracks, it wasn't long before Turkish musicians began to compose original songs by fusing sounds archived in the Ottoman psyche, melodies ranging from Persia to Vienna and wrapped up in a popular 1960s format. By 1964 the genre had even got its name when the phrase Turkish pop music was first used on a record sleeve for Tülay German's aptly named single "Yarının Şarkısı" (Tomorrow's Song).

The popularity of this trend was initially limited in Turkey as traditional music was infinitely more successful. Centuries old regional folk songs and Ottoman palace music, which included a progressive version known as neo-classical art music that was sometimes sung in the musical halls and meyhane or taverna inns, still occupied the mainstream.

However, in the 1970s two women were to change all that.

Sezen Aksu and Ajda Pekkan became so popular that they not only achieved superstar status domestically, but permanently changed the sound coming out of the Istanbul music scene.

Turkish pop music was now Queen.

The Seventies vs the Eighties

With Aksu's songwriting and composition abilities and Pekkan's vocal talents, Turkish pop music evolved from its heyday in the 1970s into the original Turkish pop sound emulated in Greece, the Balkans and Middle Eastern countries.

Aksu also campaigned, and eventually succeeded, in making Turkey a member entrant of the Eurovision Song Contest.

A perfect fusion between the East and West had begun, but not everyone was making a song and dance about it. What these two women worked so hard to build was to be threatened by the social events of the early eighties.

In the 1980s, increasing immigration from rural areas to big cities and particularly to Istanbul gave rise to a new cultural synthesis. These new residents from the country were suffering from hard economical conditions and finding it difficult to adapt to the big city.

This newly constructed culture generated its own music, derogatorily coined by musicologists as arabesque, due to the high wailing pitches in vocality and the depressing content of the lyrics.

Music tastes were changed so much so by this mass exodus, that not only the popularity, but the very existence of Turkish pop was threatened. However, the genre came back from the brink with a new wave of young stars.

Pop Back: The Nineties

Along with an opening economy and society, Turkish pop hit back in the 1990s with great success, capturing the strong foothold it had enjoyed on the Turkish music industry in the seventies.

The Turkish pop sound became so widespread that it even affected the arabesque genre that had been so popular before, with female artists incorporating upbeat pop melodies to keep mass appeal, eventually giving rise to the sub-genre of arabesque/fantazi music.

A large exponent of Turkish pop's "second heyday" was again Aksu. Now the outspoken grand dame of the genre, she secured her legacy in sponsoring future stars of pop, by producing quality albums and composing songs for them. In doing so, she helped rejuvenate the genre back to the top spot.

Under her guidance, stars such as 2003 Eurovision winner Sertab Erener and European chart-topper Tarkan ensured that Turkish pop was here to stay.

A Look Back: Pop Albums

The comeback of Turkish pop in the nineties was marked by albums that have now become 'pop classics' and collector items.

Aksu sounded the horn herself that Turkish pop music was back, with her ground breaking electro-dance album Gülümse (Smile), in 1991. Musicologists see it as one of Aksu's best albums, commercially and musically, and is noted for introducing the 'modern dance sound' into Turkish pop music. Meanwhile Pekkan released one of her career's best albums in 1998 as a milestone to the resurgence of the genre in her compilation album Best of, which was a collection of songs from her acclaimed Superstar series of albums (1977-87).

The years in between 1991-1998 saw Turkish pop music rise, with the production of many notable albums by young pop artists.

It should be mentioned there were other albums released in the 1990s that changed the soundscape of Turkish popular music, for example Şebnem Ferah's rock album "Kadın" (Woman), but as such works are not 'pop albums' in the strictest sense they do not take place here.

Top Pop: Nine Young Artists of the Nineties

The albums below are not necessarily the best pop albums ever, but those albums that marked a change or development in Turkish pop. For example, even though Tarkan's Ölürürm Sana is arguably the most successful domestic pop album ever produced, Tarkan's effect on the Turkish pop genre began with his A-acaypsin album.

The following nine works are put in order of year, not popularity or merit. Click on the covers for further information, and read how Turkish pop music came back on track.

Med Cezir [1993] (Ebb and Flow): Released in 1993 and a hark back to the roots of Turkish pop, this groundbreaking album inspired by Western motifs of the late eighties and early nineties was Levent Yüksel's debut work. Coupled with the album that followed two years later simply entitled number 2, this is probably the best work ever published by Sezen Aksu protégé Yüksel. Both album's have Turkish pop diva Aksu's fingerprints all over them.

Med Cezir has been described as a perfect blend of lyrics and harmony, and it has arguably stood the test of time. It is one of those rare albums that never seems outdated.

The album was a commercial success. Being one of the first pop albums to sell over a million copies since Turkish pop's heyday in the 1970s, it is credited for heralding the revival of Turkish pop in the early 1990s and is readily found in any Turkish pop aficionado's top 100 albums of all time.

Lâ'l [1994] (Red): Like ex-husband Levent Yüksel's Med Cezir, Sertab Erener's album is another high contender for the top 100 albums of all time.

Another Sezen Aksu pupil, formerly trained opera singer-turned-popstar Erener received mainstream success as a result of her 1994 second album Lâ'l, with nearly two million copies sold.

Recorded with live instruments, the album's acoustics in all ten original sounding tracks made it stand out from the rest. The song that lends its name to the album is a composition from one of Turkey's foremost musicians Fahir Atakoğlu, and in 1999 was selected to be included in the 500 song compilation Soundtrack for a Century, published by Sony Music.

Erener's 1997 album Sertab Gibi (Like Sertab) comes a very second close to the quality of this album, however that album has too many songs that could fit into the 'rock ballad' category to be strictly categorised as a pop album.

Yonca Evcimik '94Good friends with Tarkan, many pop enthusiasts would not regard female dancer Yonca Evcimik as a singer with any high acclaim. Going by the nickname "Yoncamik" - a mix of her names and as her first name means "clover" it also stands for "little clover" in response to her slender frame - she is, however, hard to ignore in the early 1990s.

Her first three albums between the years 1991-94 brought a new lyrical phase into Turkish pop music - female sexual domination. A wannabe Madonna at her worst, Evcimik began to sing unabashedly about sex and desire, which finally culminated in her third album marking a keystone in Turkish pop.

This 1994 self titled release and pop counterpart Mustafa Sandal produced opening track "Bandıra Bandıra" (Dip It In) rose more than just eyebrows with its sexual innuendoes. That the song was very professionally arranged, with Evcimik skilfully rap-singing such chorus lines as "Dip it in/Eat me/You can't get enough of me" only helped glue the popularity of these types of songs. It also helped to end the successful partnership between Evcimik and Sandal, the latter bowed to growing criticism of the song and disowned it. Evcimik however has always stood by the song.
A-acayipsin [1994] (Oh You're Something Else): This Tarkan album isn't simply a turning point in the pop genre musically or lyrically, but also culturally.

With the collaboration of Sezen Aksu, this album confirmed the seeds sown in his modest debut album. His second album heralded the first home-grown pop idol mania in Turkey, and the concept of an iconic image being the driving force behind the album to sell it. Even though it may sound a little dated in places, arguably the power of the album that created the Tarkan phenomenon is still prevalent when listened to today.

From sensual hypnotic trance (Seviş Benimle) to catchy upbeat alla turca (Gül Döktüm Yollarına) and to Tarkan's first and only officially released Turkish rock outing (Biz Nereye), its songs attracted a wide cross-section of music lovers and is even said to have inspired David Bowie. A-acayipsin was released in mid-1994, and due to record breaking economic success in Turkey, and for the first time high album sales outside of Turkey, it was re-released in 1995.
Adam [1995] (Man): In 1995, discovered by Yonca Evcimik and supported by Mustafa Sandal, Sibel Alaş released an album indicative of things to come in the Turkish pop music sector, in terms of the importance of visuals and musical arrangements.

The Sandal produced song "Adam" (Man) gained a cult following, with many regarding the Turkish music video for this song as one of best filmed. Following its success, other artists began to use the concept/story line music video as a vehicle to raise interest in their works.
Mirkelam [1995]: Released in 1995 with no title except a sticker proclaiming his name, Mirkelam's first album was literally an overnight success.

From one of the first "manufactured" stars by Tarkan's old manager Ahmet San, this album also signifies a cultural evolution in the pop genre. People were not just in it for the love of music, with more and more album sales topping the million mark, they were in it for the fame and money.

However, even though this album is a pop album in the most modern sense, its saving grace is the combined talent of musician İskender Paydaş and Mirkelam, with all the songs written and produced by them. All ten tracks ooze timeless quality, with cleverly pitched arrangements, combing folky violin melodies and traditional elements with pop-rock attitude - presenting a tasty assortment of funky allaturca treats. Tarkan, always proclaiming Mirkelam to be one of his favourite singers, even sang backing vocals on the chart topping opening track "Her Gece" (Every Night).

Mirkelam never managed to repeat this success, possibly because his partnership with Paydaş ended soon after - indicating that success was easy to obtain but hard to hold on to. Ironically, the worst ideals of pop had created an album showcasing Turkish pop at its best.
Gölgede Aynı [1996] (The Same Under the Shadow): Since the early 1990s Mustafa Sandal had been busy honing his song-writing skills, by producing hits such as Yonca Evcimik's flamenco sassy "Bandıra Bandıra" (Dip It In) and Sibel Alaş's pop perfect "Adam" (Man).

After experimenting for five years, Sandal finally emerged with his "sound"; a mesmerising synergy of Latin and oriental beats that is widely enjoyed across Arabia, Persia and the Balkans. This 1996 album epitomises the Sandal sound - smooth, soft and seductive - and even if his lyrics do not make much sense at times, the overall pull of the album is undeniable.

Sandal's subsequent works have constantly failed to emulate the success of this album with sales surpassing two million. He also used the money making technique of re-releasing the album with a bonus track, which many other artists in the industry began to utilise.
Emanet [1997] (On Trust): Released in 1997, Izel's album is the female version of Mustafa Sandal's album Gölgede Aynı (The Same Under the Shadow) that had been the released the previous year.

This was understandable as the album was produced by Sandal, six of the ten songs were written by him and he sang the opening verse on the first track, surprising first-time listeners expecting to hear Izel's female vocals.

Even though the album's success helped to entrench the latinized Sandal sound firmly into Turkish pop, arguably it was the song "Kızımız Olacaktı" (We Were Going to Have a Daughter), however, that really endeared the album to the Turkish public. Written by one time band partner and successful solo artist (and unrequited lover) Çelik, he broke his rule of not giving out compositions for the first time, by giving her this song about love never realised. Most believe he wrote it about her.

Çapkın [1997] (Cassanova): What sets this 1997 Candan Erçetin top selling album apart from other albums is not only the quality of the music, which launched Turkish pop into the 21st century four years early, but its word content. Not since Levent Yüksel and Sertab Erener's early works, had lyrics been so good as to be almost poems in their own right.

Thanks to the combined talents of Mete Özgencil and Candan Erçetin, the combination of progressive, modern beats cooked in a Turkish mix of passion and a stark clarity of lyrical observation, make this an album that is not only evergreen in the passing phases of pop, but also one that appreciates with time.

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Most of these albums are over a decade old and are difficult to purchase for those interested. However, unavailable albums can always be requested at the online store, Tulumba.

Pop Slack: Plastic Production

However, Turkish pop's economical successes in the 1990s brought with it the shallow commerciality unavailable in the Turkey of the seventies.

With large music companies trying to block independent music production, flashy music videos and the mass production of synthetic pop stars, the genre of Turkish pop music is threatened again. Many music critics argue that the pop industry's shallow image is a large reason why underground and reactionary music is becoming more popular, with people turning away from pop music.

In response to this, Aksu is fighting back again by injecting her child genre with these fresh new sounds from the underground music scene - most apparent in her 2006 compositions for Kenan Doğulu in "Çakkıdı" and Pekkan's album Cool Kadın (Cool Woman). Many musicologists also believe that future Tarkan and Aksu collaborations, like the "Şımarık" and "Şıkıdım" songs, will bring Turkish pop a new voice for the next decade.

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