Late one night in 2016, Jasper Verhulst was sitting on his balcony in Amsterdam, pondering his next career change.
The Dutch bassist was playing in an indie band, he recalls in a recent video interview, but his singer had decided to stop touring and Verhulst needed a new project.
That night he put together 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 that is all theirs. own. Suddenly he was struck by the thought, “This is what I want to do.”
Turkish rock songs like these would sound good at a music festival, he thought, yet he had never heard that before. So he decided to fill the void. At first he only had a few problems to overcome: he did not speak Turkish and did not play Turkish instruments.
Soon he was posting “Wanted” ads in Turkish grocery stores and restaurants around Amsterdam, as well as on Facebook, looking for musicians. to play covers of the most famous songs from the 1970s. “I really didn’t know if there would be any Turks who would like the idea,” Verhulst said. “But I was like, ‘I’d love to do that, so let’s give it a try.'”
Five years later, the six-piece group formed by Verhulst, Altin Gun (meaning “Golden Day” in Turkish), is arguably the most important Turkish rock band in the world. Two of its members, Merve Dasdemir and Erdinc Ecevit, both of Turkish origin, joined it through its Facebook post. The other members are Dutch, or British, and the group rehearses in Amsterdam.
In 2019, the group became the first Turkish-speaking group to be nominated for a Grammy, leading Hurriyet, a Turkish daily, to call them “our pride on the red carpet.” They regularly give sold-out shows in Istanbul and have also become a poster show at festivals across Europe and the United States. They were scheduled to play at the Coachella and Bonnaroo festivals last year, before the coronavirus pandemic brought both events to a halt.
The band’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 in strengthening 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 “Beautiful! And the Turkish flag emoji followed it.
Verhulst said he finds the group’s growing popularity overwhelming at times, especially in Turkey and its diaspora. “It’s a little weird when something is bigger than what you feel,” he said. Dasdemir, in a video interview, agreed it could be strange. Playing sold-out shows in Istanbul “is like conquering my own country,” she said.
Turkish psychedelic rock is experiencing a resurgence, Cem Kayiran, music editor of Bant Mag, a Turkish youth magazine, said in a telephone interview. The style emerged in the 1970s, when some of Turkey’s biggest pop stars took up old folk songs and updated them with modern instruments, he said.
In the early 2000s, several record companies, notably Finders Keepers in Britain, began reissuing records from this 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 once again. “It’s really the hype 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 that the group was picking up old folk tunes. “I have Turkish friends in the US who sent me YouTube links of their songs saying ‘You have to hear this band, they are 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 the Verhulst ad. “I was tagged in his Facebook post and I just couldn’t believe my eyes that this Dutchman wanted to make music from my culture,” she said. “I thought it was so cool.”
A handful of people accused the group of cultural appropriation, she said, but it made no sense to her. “I am 100 percent Turkish,” she said. “If I’m not going to cover the music of my own culture, who is going to do it?” 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.
“At the end of the day, I watch the final product and see a rainbow of influences,” Muslu said, including electronic elements that are a far cry 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, even 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 to each other, ‘We can’t sing this, it’s a wedding song! Or ‘No, it’s too religious’ or ‘These words are really lame,’ “he said.
He has always accepted their decision, he said. “I am the bassist. It’s not like I’m going to sing Turkish songs to Turks, ”he added.
Gaye su Akyol, one of Turkey’s most famous rock musicians, said she would like to see the band branch out from covers and release their own material. “Musical genres need new compositions to develop and expand,” she said in a telephone interview. Altin Gun were great musicians, “loyal to the soul of Turkish psychedelic music,” she said, but was sure they could push the genre to new places if they wanted to.
Dasdemir said that was not the plan at the moment. For starters, she would have a hard time writing an original song in the old Turkish style, she said, as the lyrics were often old-fashioned and very poetic.
The original music just wasn’t what Altin Gun was, Verhulst said. “We’re a folk group,” he said, as did those who roamed 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.