Erkin Koray is one of the pioneers of Anatolian rock, and although he and his band started out in the 1950s doing Elvis Presley covers, his music evolved into one of the most idiosyncratic expressions of Turkish folklore, rock, and psychedelia. His third studio album, 2, is far more grounded in traditional Turkish music than its predecessors, and demonstrates a sophisticated approach to cross-cultural genre-blending, using echoey vocals, subtle psychedelia, and even a touch of funk to create an expansive, trippy Anatolian dreamscape.
The story of Anatolian Rock is usually told starting in the 1950s, when Turkish musicians first began mixing Anatolian folk with Western pop and electrified instruments. But while that is when this kaleidoscopic style first started taking shape, it helps to go back a few decades to 1923 to really understand its roots.
For centuries Turkey was the heart of the Ottoman Empire, one of the biggest and most enduring in history. The Empire was based on Islam and over time it absorbed the culture and customs of the Islamic societies it ruled over, and even evolved its own style of classical music. But after centuries of decline the Ottoman Empire collapsed and in 1923 was replaced by the Turkish Republic which through the teachings and a policies of Atatürk, “the founding father of Turkey,” moved away from its Muslim identity and towards a vehemently secular and modern one.
The creation of modern Turkey was a real exercise in state building, carried out through a series of political, economic, and cultural reforms, which included turning away from the classical music of the Ottoman Empire. At one point Turkish classical music was even banned, and the fanciest ballrooms in the country tried (unsuccessfully) to entice people with western jazz and waltzes. But rejecting Ottoman classical music, with its distinctive Sufi features, didn’t mean rejecting all Turkish music: the folk music of Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey), which came from the Aşık tradition (Aşıks are Turkish bards known for the poetic lyrics accompanied by saz compositions), was seen as a “pure,” pre-Islamic form of Turkish culture, and thus was promoted and encouraged. Soon, the sounds of the ney flute, bağlama, and kemençe began filtering back into Turkish popular music.
Fast forward a few decades and by the 1950s Turkish airwaves were filled with European and American surf and rock’n’roll, inspiring Turkish musicians to pick up their electric guitars. Initially they mostly covered Western songs and sang in English (even Erkin Koray, who went on to be one of the founding fathers of Anatolian rock, started by playing Elvis Presley covers, and one of his first hits was the English language “It’s So Long”), but soon started translating lyrics into Turkish and incorporating Anatolian rhythms and instruments.
There are many fascinating parts to the story of Anatolian rock, but the role of the Altin Mikrofon Talent show has to be one of the most surprising. The talent show ran between 1965 and 1968 and had very specific rules: the artists who competed in the “pop” category had to compose their own songs in Turkish, or rearrange traditional Turkish melodies, but in a “Western” style and with modern instrumentation. The whole idea was to create a new style of Turkish popular music, based on Anatolian tradition but with a cosmopolitan outlook and approach. People who went on to become stars, like Erkin Koray, Moğollar, and Cem Karaca, cut their teeth on the show.
Initially this new hybrid reflected the pop and rock’n’roll sounds coming from Europe and the US, but during the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s Turkish bands began integrating the bağlama and davul while their British and American counterparts were using the sitar and the tambura. In the late 60s and early 1970s Erkin Koray abandoned his rock’n’roll roots and released a series of psychedelic 7” singles, starting with the swirling Anma Arkadaş and culminating with his psychedelic masterpiece, the 1974 album Elektronik Türküler. Moğollar, who in 1971 released the very successful modern folk album Danses et Rythmes de la Turquie, began to move away from their traditional, folksy sonorities and aesthetics in favor of a more psych rock identity and sound.
By the mid 1970s, against a backdrop of political turmoil and violence, psychedelic rock became the sound of the left wing resistance, with artists like Selda Bağcan and Cem Karaca penning lyrics that were openly critical of the state and the nationalist, right-wing squads it sponsored. Although the rock scene was flourishing, the country was collapsing, and on September 12, 1980, the Turkish army overthrew the government. During the military rule that followed the coup musicians were subject to censorship and banned from playing, many fled the country, and the scene all but came to an end.
But the same strange alchemy that had given birth to Anatolian rock never really disappeared, simmering below the surface for almost two decades. Already in the 1990s some of the legendary 1970s bands began reuniting, and new groups like Baba Zula emerged to take up the baton.
Since the early 2000s there has been a real renaissance of Turkish rock, a term which has now come to signify the mix of any “Western” style, from prog rock to funk, disco, and psych, with Anatolian folk music. But rather than being nostalgic tribute acts, artists like Altin Gün, Gaye Su Akyol, and Derya Yildirim and Grup Şimşek are able to move the sound forward with their synthesis of traditional and modern sounds.
Part of the crop of Anatolian rock forefathers, Les Mogol (also known as Moğollar, their Turkish name) were already making psychedelic rock in the late 1960s, but soon began to incorporate traditional Turkish instrumentation and melodies to their compositions. Their album “Danses et rythmes de la Turquie d’hier à aujourd’hui” contains 13 delicately psychedelic folk instrumentals, which are far less heavy than those of contemporaries like Erkin Koray, preferring gurgling hammond organs over Koray’s loud, fuzzy guitars. While some of their other records do veer towards heavier psychedelic rock, “Danses et rythmes de la Turquie d’hier à aujourd’hui” is far more traditional and acoustic. Nonetheless, their blend of modern rhythms and Turkish tradition was a hit, and the band actually achieved the top spot in the Turkish Hit Parade. More importantly, Moğollar remained at the center of the Turkish rock scene for decades (they even reunited in the 1990s), and played with stars like Selda Bağcan, Barış Manço, Cem Karaca, and Erkin Koray, and had an incalculable impact on the development of Anatolian rock.
On the surface sibling threepiece 3 Hürel mightn’t sound very different to the crop of Anatolian psych bands around at the time: Turkish melodies, some traditional instrumentation, heavy percussion and distorted guitars. But the three were great experimenters, throwing polyphonic synthesizers into the mix and playing an 18-string double necked instrument that combined the saz on one side and the electric guitar on the other. With their driving percussion, super smooth vocals and subtle electronic interjections “Yara” and “Döner Dünya”, originally released together on a 7”, are two highlights (the break on “Döner Dünya” is a killer).
By the time this record came out Selda Bağcan was already known as one of the country’s most politically outspoken folk musicians, but with the help of several other musicians (including members of Moğollar) she took her music to new levels with the addition of electronic effects, synths, and fuzz guitars on this self-titled album. Her lyrics are satirical and scathing, calling out specific politicians and even calling on the working classes to stand up and revolt; even though you might not understand the language, you can hear the emotion and determination in her voice, which earned her the nickname “the bitter sound of the Turkish people.”
Lalalar’s debut album is an explosion of energy, a wave of dark electronics and Anatolian rock that you can’t help but be swept up by. The trio balance all the different elements to build a powerful soundscape: commanding drum beats, vigorous guitars, throbbing synths, Ali Güçlü Şimşek’s stern vocals, and snippets of Turkish folk come together in something that feels enormous, theatrical. Despite all the energy and power, the 15 tracks on the record are elegant and elevating, building a deliciously operatic atmosphere.
If Erin Koray is the Godfather of Anatolian rock, this is his masterpiece. His second album (although his 1973 debut was just a collection of singles) translates as “‘Electronic Ballads” and blends traditional Anatolian tunes with psychedelic guitars, heavy bass and percussion, and traditional instruments such as the bağlama, zurna, and ney flute. “Elektronik Türküler” is an exhilarating trip through a colorful, LCD-tinged Anatolian universe, and is still considered the template for Anatolian psych rock.
The political turmoil and violence of the late 1970s and the coup of 1980 all but stifled Turkey’s vibrant rock scene. Decades later bands like Altin Gün and Grup Şimşek would pick up the reins, but first among the all were Baba Zula, who were founded in 1996 by electric saz player Osman Murat Ertel and percussionist Levent Akman (previously of Zen). Picking up where Anatolian psych pioneers like Moğollar or Erkin Koray left off, they incorporated even more influences into their sound, from dark electronics to Krautrock and of course Turkish folk. XX is a 20 year retrospective that includes reinterpretations or live versions rather than the originals, and comes with some deliciously deep, spacey dub versions.
Altin Gün are by far the best known of the newer generation of Anatolian psych bands, and their fiery mix of Turkish music, funk, and synth pop introduced a whole new legion of fans to this storied sound. While their first two albums were closer to the folk and psych rock of their “forefathers”, Yol and Âlem, both from 2021, moved towards a slicker electronic production, preferring dancefloor friendly disco and synth pop over wah wah guitars. But maybe it’s exactly Altin Gün’s openness and penchant for experimenting that makes them the real heirs of the original Anatolian rock bands, who developed this kaleidoscopic sound through sheer inventiveness and creativity.
For many people around the world Altin Gün’s debut album On was the first encounter with the blend of funk, psychedelia, and Turkish folk that is Anatolian rock. Though inspired by the likes of 1970s Anatolian stalwarts Baris Manço, Selda Bağcan and Erkin Koray, the Dutch/Turkish band were mostly drawn to the music of Turkish folk musician Neşet Ertaş, and many of the tracks here are based on his originals but built upon with funkier grooves, harder, tighter percussion, and psychedelic synthesizers (though the electronic element would come to the fore on Altin Gün’s later albums).
With the release of her first international album “Hologram Ĭmparatorluğu” in 2016, Gaye Su Akyol established herself as a leading figure in the contemporary Anatolian psych scene thanks to her arresting mix Turkish folklore, punk attitude, and futuristic surf. Her third album İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir sees her and her band expand their sound even further to include the squelchy electronics on opener “İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir” or the futuristic “Hemşerim Memleket Nire.” But Gaye Su Akyol doesn’t stray far from her original sound, with the shredded, surf-rock guitar of “Laziko” or the folksy charm of traditional instruments like the oud, the bağlama, and cümbüş on “Bağrımızda Taş” and “Boşluk Ve Sonsuzluk”.
In 1969 Seyhan Karabay and Cem Karaca (one of the biggest voices in Anatolian rock, as well as a political activist who was forced to live in exile for decades) founded Kardaşlar, one of many bands they would play in (Karaca also briefly played with Moğollar). The lineup underwent several changes over the years, and their sound transformed from a more traditional dance orchestra style to the folk psych they’re known for. Probably the main factor behind the band’s trademark sound was the electrified iklig, a traditional bowed stringed instrument which Karabay modified and played with guitar pedals, resulting in some seriously funky grooves. The ney flute too appears in many of their tracks, searching and urgent — listen for example to the intro of Nem Kaldi, a cover of a much loved Aşık Mahzuni Şerif original, also covered by Selda Bağcan and Derya Yildirim and Grup Şimşek decades later.
In the mid 1970s Turkish musician Barış Manço got to work to create one of the most futuristic, cosmic sounding Anatolian psych albums to date, a sprawling conceptual record that imagined the 100 years between the founding of the modern Turkish Republic and the year 2023. His voice, spoken at times, sounds as if it’s being beamed from a different universe — or a different time perhaps — as cosmic synths, electronic sounds effects, and artificial sounding drum machines intertwined with electronically treated saz, ney flutes, and the band’s psychedelic grooves.
The records opens with a track called “The Trip,” which is fitting considering the psychedelic vibes of Grup Şimşek’s sound, and the new chapter this album represents: in Dost 1, the first of a two-part series, the quartet (down from a quintet in previous works) worked together to compose and arrange every track, further honing the collaborative spirit that they cultivated from the beginning. Their music is futuristic yet rooted in tradition, explorative yet introspective, meandering through Turkish folk and poetry while delving into the souls of Şimşek’s four members.