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Istanbul's Genre-Mixing Music Scene Won't Be Silenced By Limits on Free Expression

Turkey is a melting pot of cultures, and its storied capital is no exception. Explore arabesque, hip-hop, post-punk, and more from the conflicted, cosmopolitan city where East meets West.

Leyla Hamedi

Hayko Cepkin and Mercan Dede / courtesy of the artist

Turkey is an ad agency's dream. There are so many scenic, beautiful, and just plain weird snippets to cut masterfully into one of those all-too-familiar "Travel to…" promos. Istanbul is the culmination of all the history, art, culture, and the ubiquitous draw of the exotic that the entire country boasts, and epitomizes the "modern Middle East," and has done since 1923, when the modern Turkish republic was born and proved that a mainly Islamic country could be secular and keep up with the pace of the rest of the world. But Istanbul has also been the battleground of an identity crisis, which is truer today than ever before. Whether to focus on preserving cultural traditions or adopting the new is the question this city kills itself over and over again. While every school and business has portraits of Atatürk—the founder and beloved leader of the country who abolished the headscarf and all it represented—there's also the current, religion-driven government trying to exact new, opposing laws. Istanbul was the cultural and historic center of the world; now, it's a European leader in malls per capita statistics.

The 2013 protests of Gezi Park perfectly highlight the push and pull of the city's ideals. Plans by the government to destroy a historic park were met with protests and country-wide demonstrations led by the younger generations to preserve their legacy, and culminated with eight deaths—including that of a fourteen-year-old boy who was hit in the head with tear gas canister launched by the police. Old fighting new on matters of old versus new is a paradox, but in the city where the East literally meets the West, the notions of belonging and identity are never clearer than in the rapidly declining freedoms of expression, especially in music and media. And yet the music thrives on combining nationality with inspiration, lending more and more voices to the opposition movement.

Arabesque is a traditional, soulful sound with its roots in Arabic poetry, but to most, it's that mournful, braying noise that accompanies Turkish melodramas. The most common comparison for me as a kid was a lowing cow in the form of a blubbering over-made-up singer. However, Gaye Su Akyol combines the slow, rhythmic melodies of arabesque that her smoky voice so complements with a 70s psychedelic trip in a lounge bar atmosphere.

Though fiercely proud of our culture and legacy, there are those moments and traditions that are open for mockery (thus the lowing cow imagery). The international cult classic that is the Turkish Star Wars may have been a blatant er, reimagining, but it encapsulates an entire era of Turkish cinema history of which arabesque played its part. Though we may make fun, heaven help the outsider who dares disparage us. Nationalism is an extreme expression of patriotism, but there are probably few Turks who would take offense at being called nationalistic.

Anatolian rock is another genre of a by-gone era. Fusing folk music with rock, it was a popular from the 1950s, reaching its peak in the 1970s with national favorites like Baris Manço and Selda Bagcan, who, over the course of her career, was jailed, censored, banned from national TV and radio, and sentenced to multiple life sentences in prison. She leads a secluded life now, but a 40th anniversary reissue of her hits this year shows just how relevant the fights of the past are today. Her song, "Yaz Gazeteci, Yaz," blasts the restrictions on media and journalism and begs reporters to seek the truth rather than bow down to the pressure of the authorities, while "Adaletin Bumu Dunya," (Is This Your Justice World) could very well have been the anthem for Gezi Park.

Her deceptively sweet voice still calls out for the freedoms won in 1923 that have gotten somewhat muddled, especially in the last few years. Reports of protests and media bans in Turkey were all stifled during the protests, and there remains a close monitoring of sources that speak out against the governing bodies. Bagcan still performs at festivals, and various international artists have sampled her music, finding common ground in her message for freedom and justice.

This nationalism translates into music, because while there are many non-Turkish named bands, lyrics are primarily still in the language. She Past Away is a synth rock band that looks like The Cure and sounds like Flock of Seagulls but while using "White Wedding" reverb guitar as a the goth comfort blanket is a steady feature of their sound, they keep themselves firmly rooted in the Turkish scene with their lyrics of existential ennui.

English expression is getting more popular, as it is a way to reach a wider audience, and the bluesy punks Ringo Jets sound like they could've popped out of some bayou in Louisiana. This threesome is unique because one hardly ever sees this kind of separation between music and country; there's always an element of essential "Turkishness" in all of Istanbul's local bands and artists. No matter the genre or medium, there's an ineffable quality that makes us pick out one another, whether it's through a song or hearing a snippet of conversation as you walk around on a random day in New York—an ingrained radar, if you will. Despite their refusal to toe the Turkish music party line, the Ringo Jets play their part in speaking up against the powers that be in the war between us and "them," the authority. The Away Days is another extension of the emerging popularity of English lyrics with their dreamy, liquid pop-rock.

Rock is probably the most prolific genre in terms of number of bands and a thriving scene. Kök fuses of classical Turkish beats with progressive rock, Model peddles riot grrl rage on Valium, and there's a thriving metal scene in Istanbul that spans both continents. Bootleg T-shirts, cassettes, and records can be tracked down in the arcades on the Asian side, while the metal bar, DoRock, hosts bands almost every night of the week on the European.

Whatever the genre of the music, there's always a close element of Turkish pride that rears its head. Ney-player (a traditional Turkish flute) and DJ Mercan Dede mixes Sufi poetry and folk instruments with electronic samples and beats. His work with rapper Ceza on "800" combined spiritual heartache with self-expression, and he's performed with "the Turkish Marilyn Manson," Hayko Çepkin, who aims to shock and even disgust with his appearance—anything to rattle the norm.

Istanbul is a city that thrives in the space between blurred lines. It's the constant back-and-forth of old and new that shapes each one of us, and that allows us to keep moving forward, because we're used to having the comfort of that one eye fixed backwards. These days, we can't take that comfort for granted anymore, and the bridge that connects the two sides is no longer steady, The fear that those who would silence this scene will prevail is the new cultural identity crisis.

Leyla Hamedi splits her time between New York City and Istanbul. Ask her about hair metal on Twitter.