Music of Turkey

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Turkey is a country on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and is a crossroads of cultures from across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus and South and Central Asia. The music of Turkey includes elements of Central Asian folk music, Arabic, Persian classical music, ancient Greco-Roman music and modern European and American popular music.


Modern history

The traditional music of Turkey is composed of two major traditions with distinct characteristics. The first one is Turkish folk music, characterized by the culture of Turkish-speaking rural communities of Anatolia, Balkans, and Middle East. While Turkish folk music contains some traces of the Central Asian Turkic cultures, it has also strongly influenced and been influenced by many other cultures in the region. The second one, on the other hand, is Turkish classical music, which is characterized by the culture of Ottoman elite and strongly influenced by Islamic (mainly Arabic and Persian) cultures, a trace of Indian Music, but still contains traces of the Greco-Roman history of the region.

During the Ottoman era, Turkish classical music was known to be the authentic music of Turkey. Folk music was being oppressed from time to time and region to region, because of several reasons including religious intolerance. When the modern Turkish state was proclaimed in 1923, the new republic aimed at creating a nation with a distinct and unified culture. This included replacing the culture of elite Istanbul, which was considered Ottoman, by the culture of rural Anatolia, which was considered Turkish. Hence, folk music was promoted, while classical music faced some restrictions. Moreover, western classical music was introduced and encouraged as one of the most important policies of the new state was westernization of the society.

By the 1960s, western popular music had been introduced to Turkey, with the name "western music with Turkish words", which literally was true. At the same time, socialist movements were getting popular in accordance with the world. Musicians who were inspired by these movements started adapting folk music with contemporary sounds and arrangements, giving rise to Anatolian rock and protest music.

Starting in 1970s, increasing immigration from rural areas to big cities (particularly Istanbul) gave rise to a new cultural synthesis, which is regarded to be a degeneration by some sociologists. The new residents of metropolitan areas were mostly suffering from hard economical conditions and having difficulties in adapting to the big city. This newly constructed culture generated its own music, Arabesk, known to be the music of suffering. Arabesk was a synthesis of Turkish folk and middle-eastern music. Following the military coup of 1980, the suffering left-wing subculture also found its own arabesk, in a new degenerated version of protest music, named ozgun muzik. In the era influenced by the military government, arabesk and ozgun muzik were labeled "degenerate" and discouraged by the government, while Turkish classical music was promoted.

Arabic music, for a brief time was banned from Turkey, as for it to create its own identity, despite being heavily intertwined. In a similar move, Indian Music was banned from Turkey, since Hindi, the language sung in, despite having similar Turkish words, also possessed many Arabic loan words, and at a time when the country was trying to create its own identity, Indian Music was also downplayed alongside Arabic music.

Western-style pop music could only become popular by the beginning of 1990s, as a result of opening economy and society, and still dominates the popular culture. The increasing popularity of pop music gave rise to several international Turkish pop stars such as Tarkan. Note that Turkish pop is still strongly influenced by Arabesk, Turkish folk and middle-eastern music.

Turkish folk, which has been popular from time to time, again came into public attention by the end of 1990s. It now has a broader popularity regardless of subcultures. Moreover, the folk music of several ethnic cultures such as Kurdish and Laz, which were not able to express themselves openly due to language restrictions, are rediscovered and gain popularity following the recent democratization attempts.

Pop music

Main article: Turkish pop music

Turkey has produced a number of popular musicians from a wide range of styles, most famously including Arabesk performers. There is also a wide range of imported popular styles, including rock and roll, hip hop, heavy metal, tango and reggae.

The biggest Turkish pop star of the 20th century was probably Sezen Aksu, known for overseeing the Turkish contribution to the Eurovision Song Contest and was known both for her light pop music and her controversial stances on feminism, Serbia and the Cumartesi Anneleri.

The biggest male pop star in Turkey is probably Tarkan, who conquered not only Europe but also the entire world with his single Simarik (Spoilt) which has been covered by numerous artists just like the British Holly Wallance in her "Kiss kiss" song or the Russian Philipp Kirkorov in "Potzeluy" (Kiss).


Main article: Arabesk

Arabesk music dominates the Turkish pop scene. It is largely Arabic in origin, which led to condemnation from some Turkish nationalists. Arabesk stems from Raks Sarki (more often known as belly-dancing music) and was popularized beginning in the 1940s by Kaydar Tatliyay and other performers, leading to a 1948 ban on Arabic language music. The effort was largely unsuccessful, as most Turks listened to Radio Cairo and Arabic music continued to be popular. In the middle of the 1960s, Turkish urban and folk styles were incorporated into Arabesk by musicians like Ahmet Sezgin, Abdullah Yüce and Hafiz Burhan Sesiyilmaz. This was followed by performers like Orhan Gencebay who added Anglo-American rock and roll to Arabesk music.

Anatolian rock

Main article: Anatolian rock

Cem Karaca is the best known performer of Anatolian rock music, which was banned for most of its existence. Karaca set the stage for politically-charged performers like Mogollar, Yeni Türkü, Bulutsuzluk Özlemi, Zen and Zülfü Livaneli. Livaneli was known for the mid-80s innovation of özgün, a guitar-based genre that combined mellow vocals with Arabesk music and rural melodies. The lyrics were generally not revolutionary, though the Kurdish Ahmet Kaya performed the poems of Nazim Hikmet, a leftwing activist banned by the government.

Turkish hip hop

Main article: Turkish hip hop

In 1995, the Turkish-German community produced a major hip hop crew named Cartel which caused controversy in Turkey and Germany for its revolutionary lyrics. Other Turkish-German rappers include Aziza-A, DJ Volkan, KMR and DJ Mahmut.

Folk music

Main article: Turkish folk music

The folklore of Turkey is extremely diverse, consequently the music. Nevertheless, Turkish folk is dominantly marked by a single musical instrument called saz or bağlama, a type of long-necked lute. Traditionally, saz is played solely by traveling musicians called Aşık (see Aşık tradition below). In modern times, saz orcheastras, accompanied with many other traditional instruments, keep folk music popular in Turkey. The zurna and davul duo (shawm and drum) is popular in rural areas, and play at weddings and other celebrations. Some other common instruments are elektrosaz (especially around Ankara), darbuka (especially in Rumeli), and kemenche (around Black Sea).

Folk music generally accompanies folk dances, which vary significantly across regions. The diverse range of folk music and dances include iftetelli (Thrace), zeybek (Agean), horon (Black Sea), and halay (Eastern/Southeastern Anatolia).

Aşık tradition

Main article: Ashik tradition

Alevi music: Semah, Deyiş, and Nefes

Main article: Alevi music

About a third of the Turkish population are Alevis, whose folk music (performed by travelling bards called aşik) is well-known. These songs, which hail from the central northeastern area, are about mystical revelations, invocations to Alevi saints and Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, whom they hold in high esteem as Shi'a Muslims. Many of these songswere written in the 16th century by Pir Sultan Abdal, a martyr who rebelled against the Ottoman Empire. Ruhi Su, an outspoken leftwing massace, led a roots revival of asik music in the early 1970s. Many of the biggest stars of the 1990s, including Muhlis Akarsu, were killed in a fire started in 1993 by Sunni extremists. Some aşiks included socio-politically active lyrics, especially Mahsuni Şerif, Aşik Veysel and Ali İzzet, who were well-regarded by the Turkish left. Western Anatolia is home to bozlak, a type of declamatory, partially improvised music, especially known for Neset Ertas. Around the city of Kars, aşik music has a more spiritual bent, and also features ritualized insult contests.

Roma music:

Main article: Roma music

Roma are known through Turkey for their musicianship. Their music is called fasil and is often associated with the underclass of Turkish society, though it also can be found in more respectable establishments. Many of the most popular Roma performers come from Tarlabasi and play the klarnet and darbuka. Mustafa Kandirali is the most famous fasil musician.

Kurdish music

Main article: Kurdish music

Traditionally, there are three types of Kurdish performers -- storytellers (chirokbej), minstrels (stranbej) and bards (dengbej). Many songs are epic in nature, recounting the tales of Kurdish heroes like Saladin. Love songs, dance music, wedding and other celebratory songs, erotic poetry and work songs are also popular. Musical instruments include the bloor (flute), ghol (drum), duduk (oboe), tenbur (saz), kamanche (spike fiddle) and zurna (wooden shawm).

The most frequently used song form has two verses with ten syllable lines. Kurdish music is characterized by simple melodies, with a range of only three or four notes, and strophic songs, in which an identical line of poetry and music occur at the end of each stanza. Music is modal, with its maqam (or mode in Arabic music) is called Kurdi and is known throughout the Arab world.

For most of the 20th century, Kurdish language songs were banned in Turkey. Some singers, like Ibrahim Tatlises, sang in Turkish, while others violated the ban and were imprisoned, executed or fled to various countries, especially France. A black market, however, has long existed in Turkey, and pirate radio stations and underground recordings have always been available. Sivan Perwer, the most famous Kurdish musician, came from the Kurdish-Turk community. He came to fame in 1972 during a Kurdish revolt in Iraq, and became a superstar before fleeing to Germany in 1976.

Mevlevi music: Ayin

Main article: Ayin

The Mevlevi (whirling) dervishes are well-known outside of Turkey, in spite of frequent state oppression during the 20th century. Their music consists of long, complex compositions called ayin, which is both preceded and followed by songs using lyrics by the founder and poet Jelaleddin Rumi. Internationally well-known musicians include Necdet Yasar and Kudsi Ergüner.

Classical music

Main article: Turkish classical music

Most Turkish music share the makam, a system of modes or scales and other rules of composition, as well improvisatory pieces called taksim. Taksim are part of a suite of music consisting of a prelude, postlude and a primary section which begins with and is punctuated by taksim. Songs are a part of this tradition, many of them extremely old, dating back to the 14th century; many are newer, however, with late 19th century songwriter Haci Arif Bey being especially popular.

Turkish classical music is taught in conservatoires, the most respected of which is Istanbul's Üsküdar Musiki Cemiyeti. The most popular Turkish classical singer is Münir Nurettin Selçuk, who was the first to establish a lead singer position. Other performers include Bülent Ersoy, Zeki Müren, and Zekai Tunca.

20th century classical history

Parallel to this, some radical and practical actions were taken, such as the transfer of the former Mızıka-ı Hmayun (Imperial Orchestra) from İstanbul to the new capitol of the state Ankara, and renaming it as Riyaset-i Cumhur Orkestrası (Orchestra of the Presidency of the Republic. The name would later be changed to Cumhurbaşkanlığı Senfoni Orkestrası or Presidential Symphony Orchestra) in 1924; founding of a new school for the training of Western style music instructors in 1924, renaming the İstanbul Oriental Music School as the Istanbul Conservatory in 1926, sending talented young musicians abroad for further music education (these students include well-known Turkish composers such as Cemal Reşit Rey, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Ahmet Adnan Saygun, Necil Kazım Akses, Hasan Ferit Alnar), and finally the founding of the Ankara State Conservatory with the aid of the German composer and music theorist Paul Hindemith in 1936.

Again on Atatrk's order, a wide-scale classification and archiving of samples of Turkish folk music from around Anatolia was launched in 1924 and continued until 1953 to collect around 10,000 folk songs. Hungarian composer Bela Bartok visited Ankara and the south-eastern Turkey in 1936 within the context of these works.

Atatrk's restriction of Arab and Persian influenced music policy in 1934 was misinterpreted by the bureaucrats, and turned into a full-scale ban on the Ottoman classical music, which was abolished about a year later by Atatrk himself. By 1976, sanat (a form of classical art music) had undergone a renaissance and the State Conservatoire in Istanbul was founded to give classical musicians the same support as folk musicians. The 1980s saw President Turgut Özal liberalize media regulations, and pop, rock, hip hop and arabesk music made inroads into mainstream Turkish music. Kurdish language music was also allowed for the first time, and religious Sufi music, especially Mevlevi ayin (whirling dervishes).

Turkish influence on Western classical music

Main article: Turkish music (style)

European classical composers in the 18th century were fascinated by Turkish music, particularly the strong role given to the brass and percussion instruments in Janissary bands. Joseph Haydn wrote his Military Symphony to include Turkish instruments, as well as some of his operas. Turkish instruments were also included in Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony Number 9. Mozart wrote the "Ronda alla turca" in his Sonata in A major and also used Turkish themes in his operas. Although this Turkish influence was a fad, it introduced the cymbals, bass drum, and bells into the symphony orchestra, where they remain.

Jazz musician Dave Brubeck wrote his "Blue Rondo la Turk" as a tribute to Mozart and Turkish music.

See also: List of Turkish musicians


  • Stokes, Martin. "Sounds of Anatolia". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 396-410. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

External Links

de:Musik der Trkei fr:Musique turque ja:トルコ音楽


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