One of Turkey’s most popular rock bands has an unlikely source
Late one night in 2016, Jasper Verhulst sat on his balcony in Amsterdam, pondering his next career move.
The Dutch bassist was playing in an indie band, he recalled in a recent video interview, but his singer had decided to stop touring and Verhulst needed a new project.
That night he put on a playlist of his favorite Turkish rock songs – tracks written in the 1970s that combined traditional Turkish melodies and instruments with psychedelic rock, to create a funky sound all their own. . Suddenly he was struck by a thought: “This is what I want to do.
Turkish rock songs like these would sound good at a music festival, he thought, but he had never heard that before. So he decided to fill the void. He just had a few problems to overcome first: he didn’t speak Turkish, and he didn’t play any Turkish instruments.
Soon he was posting “Wanted” ads in Turkish grocery stores and restaurants in Amsterdam, as well as on Facebook, looking for musicians. to play covers of the most famous tunes from the 1970s. “I really didn’t know if there would be any Turks who would like the idea,” Verhulst said. “But I thought, ‘I would love to do this, so let’s try.'”
Five years later, the six-piece band Verhulst formed, Altin Gun (meaning “Golden Day” in Turkish), is arguably the most prominent Turkish-language rock band in the world. Two of its members, Merve Dasdemir and Erdinc Ecevit, both of Turkish origin, joined it through its publication on Facebook. The other members are Dutch or British and the band rehearses in Amsterdam.
In 2019, the group became the first Turkish-language group to be nominated for a Grammy, leading Hurriyet, a Turkish daily, to call them “our pride on the red carpet”. They regularly play sold-out shows in Istanbul, and they have also become a sight on festival billboards across Europe and the United States. They were due to play the Coachella and Bonnaroo festivals last year, before the coronavirus pandemic halted both events.
The group’s new album, “Yol”, released last week, is already being praised by fans in Turkey and abroad. “These people are doing a better job than our Minister of Tourism and Foreign Affairs to strengthen our foreign relations,” a Turkish fan wrote on YouTube under one of Altin Gun’s recent videos. Another fan simply wrote the Turkish word for “Gorgeous!” and followed by Turkish flag emoji.
Verhulst said he found the band’s growing popularity, particularly in Turkey and its diaspora, sometimes overwhelming. “It’s kind of weird when something is bigger than you feel,” he said. Dasdemir, in a video interview, agreed that it might be weird. Playing sold-out concerts in Istanbul “is like conquering my own country”, she said.
Turkish psychedelic rock is enjoying a resurgence, Cem Kayiran, music editor of Bant Mag, a Turkish youth magazine, said in a phone interview. The style emerged in the 1970s, when some of Turkey’s biggest pop stars took old folk songs and updated them with modern instruments, he said.
In the early 2000s, several record labels, including Finders Keepers in Britain, began re-releasing records from that era, bringing the music to Western audiences, he added. Now artists like Altin Gun and Gaye su Akyol, a Turkish rock star, were revitalizing the genre again. “It’s really trendy right now,” he said.
Altin Gun was so good at what they did, Kayiran added, that some young Turks didn’t even seem to realize the group was covering old folk tunes. “I have Turkish friends in the US who sent me YouTube links of their songs saying, ‘You have to listen to this band, they’re really cool,'” he said. “I have to send them back links to the originals,” he added.
Dasdemir, who was born in Turkey but moved to the Netherlands as a young adult, said she had no hesitation in joining Altin Gun after seeing Verhulst’s advertisement. “I was tagged in his Facebook post and I couldn’t believe my eyes that this Dutchman wanted to make music from my culture,” she said. “I thought that was so cool.”
A handful of people have accused the group of cultural appropriation, she says, but it didn’t make sense to her. “I am 100% Turkish,” she said. “If I’m not going to cover music from my own culture, who is going to?” she added.
Fans agreed that it didn’t matter where the band members were born. “You could literally dance to their music at a Turkish wedding, in rural Turkey,” Ozgur Muslu, a fan living in Massachusetts, said in a Facebook post.
“I finally look at the final product and see a rainbow of influences,” Muslu said, including electronic elements that are far from typical Turkish rock music.
Dasdemir and Ecevit, the Turkish members of the group, often choose the songs to cover. But Verhulst said he also suggested tracks, though he had no idea what the lyrics were about, choosing tracks from his own record collection or from YouTube. It doesn’t always go as planned. “Sometimes Merve and Erdinc say, ‘We can’t sing that, it’s a wedding song!’ or ‘No, it’s too religious’ or ‘Those lyrics are really lame,’” he said.
He always accepted their decision, he said. “I’m the bassist. It’s not like I’m going to sing Turkish songs to the Turks,” he added.
Gaye su Akyol, one of Turkey’s most famous rock musicians, said she would like to see the band release covers and release their own material. “Musical genres need new compositions to grow and grow,” she said in a phone interview. Altin Gun were great musicians, “true to the soul of Turkish psychedelic music”, she said, but she was sure they could push the genre into new places if they wanted to.
Dasdemir said that was not the plan at the moment. For starters, she would struggle to write an original song in the old Turkish style, she said, because the lyrics were often old-fashioned and very poetic.
The original music was also not what Altin Gun was, Verhulst said. “We’re a folk band,” he said, just like those who traveled across Britain, the Netherlands or, indeed, Turkey, bringing old songs to new audiences.
He loved music from all over the world, he added, and Turkish music made up “only 5%” of his record collection. But for now, he added, that was all he wanted to play. “There are all these beautiful songs written in Turkey, some of which are over 100 years old, where the composers are totally unknown,” he said. “It’s good to carry on this tradition.”