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Anatolian Rock: Phenomena of Hybridization

Anatolian rock – what does it sound like? Why does it sound the way it sounds? How has it started and how can this music be contextualized? These are some simple questions to begin with. I will try to answer them following a musico-ethnological approach, which is rooted in Alan P. Merriam and Jacques Attali’s ideas of music as culture and music as politics, complemented with a historical perspective [1] [1].

So what does it sound like? Here is a first and early example, a tune called «Abudik Gubudik Twist» by Adnan Varveren, recorded around 1965. This tune is played with Turkish instruments, sung partly in Turkish partly in English, and shows a smooth, apparently natural transition from Turkish folk to American twist music. It contains both Anatolian folk and Western pop [2] [2]. We will later come back to this tune and its specifics.

The First Wave of Global Pop

To provide some historical background: Anatolian rock belongs to the first wave of global pop, which took place from the end of the 1950s through to the 1980s worldwide, for example even in Uzbekistan, Nepal, North Korea and Mongolia. After the first wave of global pop the second wave followed, so-called «world music», which was released on labels like Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records (1989 onward) and produced, like the earlier exotica genre, primarily for the Western market and its aural tourists by Western music companies [3] [3]. From 2000 onward a third wave of global pop emerged, so-called hyper pop. Example for the latter are offered by M.I.A. with tunes like «Bad Girls» (2012),

Also relevant here are tendencies in hip hop to use beats from all over the world, like the hip hop-style double album Dr. No’s Oxperiment by U.S. DJ and producer Oh No, released in 2007 and based exclusively on Turkish funk and pop music samples. A more recent example is Action Bronson’s use of Ferdi Özbegen’s jazzy «Köprüden Gecti Gelin» (1969), which he sampled for his tune «The Madness» (2012).

Back to the origins: three more short examples for the Turkish participation in the first wave of global pop will give you a more precise idea what we are talking about. The examples chosen include some of the most popular figures of Anatolian rock: Erkin Koray, Barış Manço, and Cem Karaca. Barış Manço was the most popular of them all, and even today there are ships named after him.

Boat on the Bosporus named Barış Manço

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Example 1: Erkin Koray – Cemalım (1974)
The music is played with the typical instrumental setting of a rock band, it sounds like anglo-american rock, until the guitar comes in and composition, melody, and harmonies become Turkish. Indeed the composition is based on a Turkish folk tune. The Turkishness is enforced through the lyrics sung in the language and with a phrasing typical for Turkish song [4] [4].

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Example 2: Barış Manço – Dere Boyu Kavaklar (Kolbastı)
The intro is performed on a Turkish instrument, an electrified saz, combined with electric guitar, the singing is again in Turkish, composition, melody, and harmonies as well, while the rest of the tune is Western, as is the band’s fashion sense, featuring long hair and some psychedelic clothing [5] [5].

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Example 3: Cem Karaca – Obur Dünya
The music starts in a Turkish folk manner with the zurna or mey, a flute, playing solo, then Turkish percussion jumps in combined with a drum set, sounding almost traditional, until an electric guitar begins playing along with the Turkish vocals, and later electric bass and a hard drum beat transfer the tune into a Western musical idiom.

These four sound examples from Varveren to Karaca show different ways of building musical hybrids. Two patterns are involved: the relation between the different parts, and the amalgamation of these parts. Adnan Varveren’s tune shows strong amalgamation even while the language is still separated into English and Turkish parts. The twist sounds grow naturally out of the Turkish folk music, as if there were no ruptures between the styles at all. Opposed to this approach Cem Karaca sticks to a sort of juxtaposition, where a Turkish folk part precedes a Western-dominated rock part. Erkin Koray and Barış Manço build a continuous mix of both Turkish and Western elements to construct their musical hybrids. Karaca, Koray, and Manço are all singing continuously in Turkish, combining Turkishness on the language level with Western rock music [6] [6].

A Combination of Turkish and Western Elements

If we go back in the history of these musical hybrids, we come to three key dates: 1957, 1965, and 1923. This order is not chronological, but helpful to understand the development. First 1957: European, Arabic, and Turkish radio stations played surf rock by the Tornados or the Ventures and films with Elvis Presley and Bill Haley were shown in Turkish cinemas. This inspired musicians like Erkin Koray to start already in 1957 with cover versions of rock’n’roll tunes, using the new electric guitar. Turkish musicians, including female artists [7] [7] like Tülay German, Ajda Pekkan, and Rana Alagöz, were among the earliest particpants in the first wave of global pop worldwide [8] [8]. In 1962 Ilham Gencer covered Bob Azzam’s «C’est écrit dans le ciel», but he sang the tune in Turkish, «Bak Bir Varmis Bir Yokmuş». In the same year, which was also the year of the Beatles’ first single «Love Me Do», Erkin Koray released his first single with «It’s So Long» on one side and his own composition «Bir Eylul Aksami» on the flip.

This song on the flip was already a fully developed example for a musical hybrid, a blueprint for what would historically follow, as we have heard in the musical examples at the beginning: Turkish and Western elements combined in language, instrumentation, rhythm, melody, and harmonies. In 1966 the term «Anadolu pop» was coined by keyboardist Murat Ses, who had joined the band Silüetler, and then in 1971 the term was used as the title of a LP by Moğollar

Cover Anadolu Pop by Moğollar

and in 1983 as title of an LP by Ersen.

Cover Anadolu Pop by Ersen and Dadaşlar

The term changed to «Anadolu rock», that is Anatolian rock [9] [9], later also the expression «Arabesk rock» came up.

Cover Arabesk Rock by Ersen and Dadaşlar

All these terms were used to describe the same synthesis of Western pop or rock and Anatolian folk [10] [10]. Just to be clear: the term Anatolian rock is not bound to Anatolians playing rock music, but used as an umbrella term for all sorts of music which combine different styles of Western pop and rock, psychedelic, funk, disco, progressive, folk, and so on with Anatolian folk music. At the same time all these terms function as a differentiation, separating a specific version of pop-rock music from purely traditional styles of music on the one hand and from Western pop-rock music on the other [11] [11].

Altin Mikrofon – a Hürriyet-Contest

In 1965, the second important date, a very popular music contest took place that included record releases. The contest was named Altin Mikrofon (Golden Microphone) and was initiated and organized by the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet. The requirement was to compose a new song in Turkish or to rearrange a traditional Turkish tune, which should be performed in a Western style incorporating electric instruments. The significance of this contest cannot be overestimated [12] [12]. It led to a music, which was no longer just copying The Beatles or Buddy Holly in language, composition, or instrumentation, as was the norm in many other countries participating in the first wave of global pop. This contest opened the gates for the development of a specific Turkish hybrid – Anatolian rock, with a fundament in Turkish language, Turkish compositions, and Turkish instruments, combined with modern electric instruments and a modern rock approach.

This contest also changed the music market. The big old record companies (Odeon, Pathe, and HMV) which had dominated the Turkish market so far, backed out because of piracy practices and a difficult legal situation [13] [13]. With the releases of the Altin Mikrofon contest numerous local, often musician-owned Turkish record labels began to flourish [14] [14] and «were providing an avenue of creative expression» [15] [15], something which the global major companies probably could not have done the same way.

A New Music for a New Nation

One part of the hybrid, the Anatolian one, leads us back to the third important date, 1923. On this map [16], there is shown the decline of the Ottoman Empire as a history of territorial losses down to the frontiers of the Turkish Republic in 1924. Replacing the old Islamic Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic with its leader Kemal Atatürk tried to invent a new Turkish nation, based on secularism and the project of modernization through westernization. What Kemal Atatürk and his chief ideologist Ziya Gökalp, who wrote the book The Principles of Turkism (1923), did was nothing less than nation building [16] [17]. And a new nation needed a new music, for sure. Therefore the classical Arabic-Islamic Ottoman music had to be discarded and instead the research for a «true» Turkish music started. And it was found by Gökalp in Anatolia, as Anatolian folk music was a pre-islamic, secular music and for him it «represented the essence of Turkish culture» [17] [18].

So the new music for the new nation consisted partly of a very old, even pre-islamic and pre-Ottoman music. For the other part Gökalp was convinced that European classical music had to be regarded as the peak of Western civilization. Pierre Hecker relates: «With this in mind, he proposed a synthesis of Anatolian and European music traditions» [18] [19]. The main point here is that Gökalp’s political strategy for infusing a new music into the new nation from the start in 1923 contained the idea of a «modernized» and «westernized» Turkish folk music [19] [20]. Hence, as Daniel Spicer says, «conditions were perfect for Western pop music to take root» [20] [21]. Martin Stokes calls this concept «nationalistic cosmopolitanism» [21] [22] as part of a musical strategy of the state, welcoming Western music to merge with indigenous folk music, opening the path for the aforementioned other two dates, the start of rock’n’roll in 1957 and the Hürriyet song contest in 1965.

Western Music Fails

But history wasn’t that easy. The attempts to construct a new Turkish music were a big failure at first. In the 1930s Turkish radio played Western music like waltzes, tango, and jazz as well as European operas in Turkish translation. In government-sponsored ballrooms Western music was preferred, Turkish music was even banned from the radio for several months [22] [23]. But Western polyphony failed to attract, and in consequence the people turned to the Arab radio stations, especially Egyptian and Lebanese, instead of the Turkish ones, and Eastern infusions became increasingly popular. Later on, parallel to the Anadolu pop and rock music in the 1960s, an Arab-like music was invented, called Arabesk, relying mainly on Eastern music traditions. Here is an example from the year 1977 by one of the most famous Arabesk singers:

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Typical for the Arabesk genre are the Arab singing and the Arabized strings. Before we come to the relationship between Anadolu pop and Arabesk, which gives character to both styles, we should take a look at the East-West-conflict underlying each style, which could also be heard in the four examples of Anatolian rock provided at the beginning.

The Electrification

The Eastern music tradition is connected to the music of the Ottoman past (see this map [16]), meaning a music that ranges from Asian to Persian as well as from Arabic to Balkan sources. Simplifying things a little, one could say that the Eastern music tradition is makam-based, consisting of defined types of interval structures and melodic structures used in classical Turkish music. It is monophonic and microtonal music. A typical instrument for this kind of music would be the saz, which later became very prominent in Arabesk music. Western music tradition on the contrary is well-tempered and polyphonic like European classical music. A typical instrument for this kind of music would be the piano or the violin. The new Anglo-American pop-rock music had the guitar as its most typical instrument, well established in European classical music, but now electrified. This electrification made it a symbol for a young, modern, and urban music.

The opposition of «saz vs. electric guitar» symbolically shows the antipodes, which, however, were not antipodes at all in the actual musical practice [23] [24]. All types of mixtures of East and West took place, in Arabesk as well as in Anatolian rock, and perhaps the perfect symbol for these mixtures is the electrified saz as an old Eastern instrument driven by modern Western electricity. The range goes from the Arabesk singer and saz player Orhan Gencebay to electric saz players Hakki Bulut and Arif Sağ, who played both Arabesk and Anatolian rock, sometimes even mixed, to electric guitar players like Erkin Koray and Barış Manço, whom we have heard before.

Here are three examples:

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Example 1, once again: Orhan Gencebay, «Hatasız Kul Olmaz» (1977)
One can hear an indigenous saz but also a Western wah-wah guitar. Typical for Gencebay is the string section [24] [25].

Example 2: Arif Sağ, «Osman Pehlivan (püfde)» (1973)
The electric saz, invented by Arif Sag [25] [26], is in the foreground, with a wah-wah effect on it.

Example 3: Barış Manço, “Gonul Dagi” (1973)
Despite being one of the most «Western» musicians, Manço’s version of «Gonul Dagi» [26] [27] nevertheless relies heavily on an «Eastern» Arabesk string section.

To sum up: Arabesk and Anatolian rock music were developed in parallel during the 1960s and coexisted until the end of the 1970s. Each style has Eastern and Western elements: the «Eastern» Arabesk has Western strings and is electrified, the «Western» Anatolian rock has Eastern instruments like the indigenous saz or the indigenous zurna, as heard in the introduction of the Cem Karaca example above. Therefore I would propose not stressing the opposition of Arabesk vs. Anatolian rock as much as it has been done before [27] [28], but to have a closer look at the hybrids of Arabesk and Anatolian rock, which are not seldom at all. Here are two more striking examples of what makes Turkish music so rich in building hybrids:

Example 1: Yildiray Çinar [29] [28] [30], «Kıbrız Kızı» (1974)
Rock drums and an electric saz are used, amalgamated with a traditional folk style in respect to composition, rhythm (asymmetrical 9/8), melody, harmonies, and instrumentation.

Example 2: Yildiray Çinar, «Komşunun Kızı» (1974)
Deep hard drums can be heard, amalgamated with traditional folk style elements, but this time coming more from a rock approach due to the straight rhythm.

Listening to these two examples one gets the clear idea that Yildiray Çinar and his arranger Zafer Dilek had studied the developments in rock music and were now constructing an amalgam between traditional folk elements and Western rock music. Is this Anatolian rock? Yes, as it contains a Western rock drum set played in a rock style. Is this Arabesk music? Yes, that too, just listen to the Arabesk singing. It is an hybrid of Anatolian rock and Arabesk, of which so many exist, often neglected in music perception and music studies since Western DJ and Beat-Making Cultures are not able to work with asymmetrical rhythms and Arabesk singing.

All the more: Arabesk music has a bad reputation, especially in Turkey itself. This has to do with its public. Arabesk was made for the poor rural immigrants and workers, living in gecekondus, informal settlements in the periphery of the big cities like Istanbul. Arabesk music was also called «minibus»-music due to the social group it aims to. It was even regarded as impure, dirty, degenerated with its Arabic and therefore non-Turkish orientation, being so far away from the bourgeois urban center and its well-educated, Western-orientated population [29] [31].

Between Westernization and Turkishness

Martin Stokes has made a very subtle analysis of the mixing of Arabesk and Anatolian rock and its connotations: «If the guitar was turned up relative to the voice, the result was Bati: Western, intimate, polyphonic, the product of a shared group socio-musical process. If the reverse [if the voice was turned up relative to the rest], Dogu: Eastern, dependent on the authoritative, monophonic, coercive presence of the solo voice» [30] [32]. Interestingly you may even have both structures, Bati and Dogu, in one tune.

To conclude, Anatolian rock may be perceived through two patterns: Turkishness and Western World as the first pattern, and the Turkishness itself ranging from Arabesk to Anatolian rock, from East to West, as the second pattern. Hence the music reflects the range and problems of Turkish identity. Music on the Turkish territory was practiced in the Ottoman past, then separated from this past by state politics of the new Turkish Republic. Later on, this past came back via Arabesk. The young Turkish Republic was orientated toward the modern Western culture, even by law, which did not work out at first. With the infusions of Western pop-rock music in the frame of the first wave of global pop, a Westernization took place, perhaps more intense than ever imagined by the founders of the Turkish Republic. This Westernization did not erase Turkishness, on the contrary it built up a new Turkish identity in hybridity.


Université Charles-de-Gaulle Lille 3 [33], Lille.

[2] The title, «Abudik Gubudik», means «weird», «strange», or «odd». In fact this tune is mocking twist music, offering a satire of the style.

[3] Cf. Motti Regev: Pop-Rock Music, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013, p. 23.

[4] Koray’s «Cemalim» is based on a Turkish folk song (Türkü) composed by Refik Basaran and entitled «Sen Olasin Ürgüp».

[5] Manço’s «Dere Boyu Kavaklar (Kolbastı)» likewise is as a Türkü from the Black Sea region.

[6] The complete picture of course includes Koray, Manço, and Karaca singing cover versions of Western pop with Turkish lyrics and also own songs written in English.

«Ten Electronic Extroverts from the Middle East and South Asia, Part 2» [34], March 29, 2013, accessed April 6, 2013.

[8] It seems Barış Manço’s single «The Jet/Twist in USA» was the first pop single by a Turkish artist, released in Turkey in 1962. Therefore it took five years of playing cover versions of American pop music until the first release of the music on vinyl.

[9] It seems Moğollar has started to use the term, cf. Songül Karahasanolu and Greg Skoog, «Synthesizing Identity: Gestures of Filiation and Affiliation in Turkish Popular Music« in: Asian Music 40, 2009, p. 60f.

[10] Cf. Daniel Spicer: «Turkish Psychedelic», in: The Wire, 12/2011, p. 42. Many of these tunes were based on Türkü often written by composers like Neşet Ertaş, Aşik Mahzuni, and Aşik Veysel.

[11] Cf. Regev: Pop-Rock Music, 2013, p. 53.

«The aesthetics of imperfection and hybridization—what is so interesting about Turkish funk and pop music of the 1960s and 1970s?» [35], 2011, and Spicer: «Turkish Psychedelic», 2011, p. 42.

«Contesting the Global Consumption Ethos: Reterritorialization of Rock in Turkey» [36], in: Journal of Macromarketing 30/3, 2010, p. 241, accessed September 18, 2013.

[14] Cf. Martin Stokes: «Sounding Out. The Culture Industries and the Globalization of Istanbul», in: Caglar Keyder (ed.), Istanbul. Between the Global and the Local, Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999, p. 134. One of the most important labels was Sayan. When the Altin Mikrofon became a popular song contest, Sayan started to release Anadolu pop and rock, and almost all artists in the 1960s were on the label’s roster.

[15] Meral Özbek, «Arabesk Culture: A Case of Modernization and Popular Identity», in: Sibel Bozdoğan and Reşat Kasaba (eds.): Rethinking Modernity and National Identity in Turkey, Washington, D.C.: University of Washington Press, 1997, p. 174. This is something special about the Turkish music market compared to other countries taking part in the first wave of global pop. It was an almost independent music market with some more important companies but also a huge number of smaller players releasing music; cf. also Votel, «Ten Electronic Extroverts», 2013.

[16] Cf. Pierre Hecker: Turkish Metal. Music, Meaning, and Morality in a Muslim Society, Farnham Surrey: Ashgate, 2012, p. 2, and Yazıcıoğlu: «Global Consumption Ethos», 2010, p. 240.

[17] Hecker: Turkish Metal, 2012, p. 2.

[18] Ibd.

[19] Özbek: «Arabesk Culture», 1997, p. 182.

[20] Spicer: «Turkish Psychedelic», 2011, p. 42.

[21] Cf. Martin Stokes: «East, West, and Arabesk» in: Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh (eds.), Western Music and its Others: Difference, Appropriation and Representation in Music, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, pp. 213–233. Regev brings in another concept, that of an aesthetic cosmopolitanism. It «refers to the ongoing formation, in late modernity, of world culture as one complexly interconnected entity, in which social groupings […] share wide common grounds in their aesthetic perceptions, expressive forms, and cultural practices.» (Regev: Pop-Rock Music, 2013, p. 3). According to Regev this aesthetic cosmopolitanism is based on an «expressive isomorphism» (ibd. p .30) , that means «music consciously created and produced by using amplification, electric and electronic instruments, sophisticated recording equipment (including samplers) […] filtering all these through sound editing, modification, and manipulation devices.» (ibd., p. 18). Furthermore Regev stresses the «status of pop-rock music as a signifier of a universal modernity» (ibd., p. 4), and describes non-Western pop-rock music as a «quest for status, participation, and parity in the modern world culture» (ibd., p. 10). While this seems to be quite true, Stokes’ paradoxical expression brings the intersection of national and global components much more in focus and his terms are preferred here. The nationalistic component is the point of view from which a cosmopolitan perspective is developed for the case of Turkish pop-rock music. Still Regev’s ideas on musical nationalism have their value: «The historical musical event of pop-rock is […] the event that altered the way musical nationalism […] is practiced and experienced.» It «admitted openness to ‘otherness.’ Musical nationalism has mutated from being organized, primarily, around acoustic sonorities to a realm in which amplified, electric and electronic sounds are the standard mode of making music.» And «it afforded […] the execution of a change in cultural orientation from being directed toward separatism to one that embodies aesthetic cosmopolitanism» (all quotes ibd. p. 96).

[22] Cf. Özbek: «Arabesk Culture», 1997, p. 182, and Yazıcıoğlu: «Global Consumption Ethos», 2010, p. 241.

[23] Besides: historically, the guitar and the saz are not antipodes but cordophonic instruments which can be related to old Middle Eastern instruments like the santur. Cf. Votel: «Ten Electronic Extroverts», 2013.

[24] The Western violin was introduced in the makam-based Turkish music from the 1930s to the 1960s, both by Gökalp and Atatürk’s Westernization of the Turkish music and by the Egyptian music, which had adopted string sections already in their popular music tradition. This kind of music used the first Arabesk musician, Suat Sayin, as reference source. Cf. Özbek: «Arabesk Culture», 1997, p. 175.

[25] Or invented by Erkin Koray. The inventorship seems to be not clear.

[26] This tune is also a Türkü, composed by Neşet Ertaş.

[27] Cf. Stokes: »Sounding Out», 1999, p. 134f and also the documentary film Arabesk: From Street Sound to Mass Culture (2010) by Gökhan Bulut and Cem Kaya.

[28] In fact not Yildiray Çinar but his arranger Zafer Dilek should be credited for the hybrid here, he has brought Western elements to Çinar’s music which usually, without him as arranger, are not present.

Interview for The Wire Magazine [37] April 2012, accessed January 4, 2013. Problematic for a wider appreciation also seem to be the partly transsexual connotations (cf. Bülent Ersoy) of this music.

[30] Stokes: «Sounding Out», 1999, p. 124.