By theo beauchamp


The choice of studying exclusively the 20th century is deliberate. Acknowledging the lack of historic, sociologic and ethno-musicological production published concerning the topic of identity in Turkey since the beginning of the 2000’s, the early conclusions that can be drawn within the analysis of the contemporary Turkey in this field would not enrich our reflection. Thus, this paper only discusses the evolution of Turkish identity through music from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the dawn of the 21th century.

In this paper, we shall consider identity as an imaginary construct that defines societies of individuals in defined places. We assimilate identity to the concept of culture. Discussing identity takes back to the social, ethnical and cultural background that communities and societies build themselves on. It is to consider identity as an evolving concept through time, which shapes and is shaped by evolution of societies. Reflecting on identity, in the Turkish case, is all the more interesting since we witnessed a nation-building process at the beginning of the past century. It implied the imposition of a new culture, a new identity. As a reaction to that, the 20th century in Turkey is a long and tumultuous dispute on identity. Indeed, as we will see, the new Turkish national identity is challenged by many competitive identities and cultures that composed the Ottoman Empire. Understanding the challenge of creating a Turkish identity leads us to study the evolution of these competing identities, and illustrate the path or synthesis to Turkishness. For this purpose, we use the paradigm of music as a revealing characteristic of this evolution. We comprehend music as one of the components of an identity; Music defines the community that collectively listens to it. It also defines the spaces in which music is listened, taught and played. Music can be a religious, as well as a social, cultural or ethnical marker in societies. As a consequence, the focus of music proves itself stunning in its capacity to explain identity phenomena. On this matter, the history of Turkish music represents a very useful tool to the study of the construction of Turkish national identity, or Turkishness.

Overview of the subject and presentation of the main thesis:

Funded by Mustafa Kemal on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the Republic of Turkey constitutes a case of nation-building process. If the previous regime was a religion-based state (caliphate), which built its legitimacy on Islam, the new Turkish state chooses to fund its legitimacy on a western concept: the Nation. As Tekelioğlu states, the three main objectives of the Turkish Republic targeted the foundation of a nation-state, the introduction of the concept of citizenship, and the spread of a new culture. As we, then, understand, creating or at least shaping a defined identity is at the very centre of the Kemalist project, ever since its creation. (Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 194) Concerning the cultural aspect of the new Turkish identity, music is one of the main targets of the regime, and will be a guiding reference all through the 20th century. 

    However, at first, to give perspective to our work, this paper studies the musical panorama and culture in the Ottoman Empire. This consists in elaborating an historical research on the traditional musical genres listened, played and transmitted, in this western region of the Ottoman Empire, that is to say the future delimitations of Republic of Turkey. It allows us to define the identities presents in the region at the time. Thus, we note the importance of Turkish Folk Music, very popular in the rural world, as an opposition to Classical Music, the palace music, that will be then renamed Turkish Art Music during the first years of the Republic. We take great care in also mentioning Tekke Music, as an important genre in Anatolia, which takes its roots in religious rituals. In this optic, we digress on the traditional music of the Bektaşicommunity. Thereby, focusing on the currents of music at the beginning of the 20th century will help us to acknowledge the multi-cultural dimension of the Ottoman Empire. And therefore help to determine the differentcultural identities that will be competing after the foundation of the Turkish Republic.

    Thereafter, we logically linger on the first decades of the creation of Mustafa Kemal’s republic, which are crucial to the understanding of evolution Turkish identity. Indeed, as we said, Kemalism implemented a new cultural identity, that is supposed to define every single citizen of the country. The Atatürk regime shaping this cultural identity has obvious consequences in the field of the development of music. As a quick prelude to our detailed argumentation, we can strengthen the imposing cultural public policies led by the State. First of all, we notice the ban imposed on Tekke and Turkish Art Music, both monophonic music genres, influenced by oriental Arabic music, which echoes the negation of the Ottoman identity and past. Also, in the process of creating the Turkishness, the State targets Turkish Folk Music as the Turkish national music, with national instruments (saz or bağlama, for example). From that, a very precise definition of what Turkish music roots - and the imaginary memory of Turkish music figures (aşık)– was designed. Finally, to pursue the differentiation from the East, we need to give a special attention to the introduction of polyphonic music, characteristic of Western music As we already realize, the newly born regime wills to revolution passed musical tendencies, applying a unique musical identity to the inhabitants of Turkey.

    Later on, in 1950’s, the modernization and industrialization of Turkey provoked a fast urbanization of the country. The population in the main two cities Istanbul and Ankara skyrocketed because of the arrival of population from rural Anatolia, that were to become the working-class of Turkey. We aim to present urbanization as a key-trigger in the construction of Turkish identity. While the first two decades of the Republic were exclusively characterised by a national culture identity imposition on a rural society- that could maintain their local traditions-; The 1950’s are a time of growing awareness in Anatolian new urban class people’s minds, of the existing gap between the state-promoted identity and their own traditional. In the field of culture, and music, the popular masses we mentioned reject the official polyphonic music programmed on national television and radio, while the promotion and transcription of Egyptian songs and movies are very present. The movement of the “unrestricted performance” is key on the matter. This cultural and musical defiance to the regime shows the deepness of this identity challenging. As a result of that, the 1970’s witness the emergence of Arabesk, a new genre embracing broader musical traditions, especially oriental ones. This phenomenon is the perfect illustration of the popular challenge to the Kemalist vision of Turkish identity. 

    After the 1980 coup d’état, a very precise swift is produced in Turkish politics. The Motherland party, under the rule of Turgut Özal, presents the characteristics of the so-called “New Right” (Betül Yarar, 2008, p. 57): A liberal-oriented economic policy, and a conservative and authoritarian vision of society. Alongside, Özal’s rule also materializes a consequent swift in its approach of Turkish cultural identity. The new tendency is the revival of national heritage, in particular of the Ottoman legacy and memory. The State renews with Ottoman culture. In the field of music, we logically note the revival of Turkish Art Music, banned and censured from1923 to 1988. The official canals of the State media start to value Arabesk, and program it live on television and radio. Arabesk, in the 1980’s and 1990’s will reach, through diversifications of the genre, far beyond the gecekondu and the urban poor. Indeed, Arabesk will, for example, conquer middle-class citizens and new liberal conservative rich classes. Arabesk, is no longer the music of the gecekondu, it becomes the Turkish Popular Music. Arabesk realizes a new synthesis in the field of Turkish music, the westernization of Turkish Art Music. This new synthesis around Arabesk identity tells us a lot about how the nature of the Turkish identity at the end of the 1990’s has differed from the original Kemalist Turkishness.

This overview was necessary to introduce the thesis of this paper. We will proceed chronologically in the development of our argumentation. The first part will concern the first half of the 20th century, until the beginning of urbanization and modernization of Turkey. There, we try to prove that the Ottoman Empire was a multi-cultural society, composed by many identities, and traditions, coexisting under the Caliph authority. Atatürk’s ambition of nationalization produces a selection among these various identities and results in the imposition of a single Turkish identity. (I)

    The second part focuses on the journey of that imposed-from-above identity, and the popular contestation that risen. The identity synthesis imposed by Kemalism is questioned. Studying the second part of the 20th, we try to prove that the multi-cultural roots of the legacy of Ottoman culture, undermined by the State, remerged from the popular masses and created a new synthesis. From the beginning of the 1980’s to the end of the 1990’s, we aim to demonstrate that Turkish identity evolves, embracing the diversity of cultures that characterizes Turkey. (II)

The study of the history of Turkish music’s journey through the 20th century will be a reference point in the identity evolution. The main thesis, and therefore, the conclusive point of this paper can be resumed in one sentence: The consecration of Arabesk musicas the national popular music, at the end of 1990’s, embodies the national acceptation of the multi-cultural dimension of Turkey, and the unification of different traditions under one plural identity.

The selective Kemalist definition of Turkishness: Imposing an exclusive identity on a multi-cultural society

The diversity of musical genres and practices at the end of the Ottoman Empire: Classical Turkish Art Music, Turkish Folk Music and Tekke Music:

    In this first part, we intend to detail the diversity of musical genres and practices that characterised the Ottoman Empire musical sphere. That will allow us to acknowledge and define the multi-cultural dimension of the Ottoman society. 

    First of all, we will linger on the music played and developed by the Ottoman Palace, and that can be considered as the music of the regime: Classical Turkish Art Music (Sanatmuzigi). On the practical level, it is to be remarked that it presented two forms at the time: the popular performance of the genre, and the formal one. The formal Classical Turkish Art Music is specific to the educated elite of the empire and integrates various forms of oriental and Balkan music. (Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 197) For example, the main instruments used in Classical Turkish Art Music are “the ud, the tanbur, and the klaşık kemençe” (Banu Senay, 2012: p.280)On the other hand; the popular sub genre of Classical Turkish Art Music is mainly composed by the tradition of the şarkı (song), embodied by figures such as Hacı Arif Bey. (Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 197) Both can be considered as urban music. Jerôme Cler proposes an interesting analysis of Sanat muzigi, and states that it is the result of a “synthèse créatrice” of many different concurrent cultures. He enumerates the plurality of origins and cults of Palace musicians, as we can quote the “danseuses et harpists ziganes” or the “poètes compositeurs (musulmans, juifs ou chrétiens)”. At the end, he concludes that Ottoman music was not fundamentally based on ethnic principals, rather on “makam” model (Luc Weissenberg, 2001: p.2-3).

It is for us to understand the diversity of music genres played in Anatolia at the end of the Ottoman period. If we first referred toClassical Turkish Art Music, we need to stress out the similar importance of Turkish Folk Music (Halkmuzigi, as opposed to SanatMuzigi; As Tekelioğlu stresses, Turkish Folk Music defines “Anatolian traditions of folk music”. (Tekelioğlu, 1996: p.197) Turkish Folk Music leads us back to the poetic legacy of türküs nomads, ‘bard errants’, called aşık (literally “lovers” or “poet musicians”). The aşık is a local figure, which is traditionally the responsible of collective memories, through the telling of “epopee(s) héroïque(s)” accompanied by the traditional saz (or bağlama). This imaginary figure of the aşık playing the saz is defined by Jerôme Cler as the symbol of an “appurtenance identitaire à une culture de pasteurs nomads turcs apparentés a l’Asie Centrale”. The production of türkü, which are the poems sang by the aşık, constitute a parallel tradition to şarkı, the songs played and produced in the cities. We note here the important distinction between the rural music and the urban music. To go further, as Jerôme Cler points out, this distinction comes from the parallel development of: “musique savante et rurale (sédentaire et nomade)”. (Luc Weissenberg, 2001: p.2-3 and p.6)

To end the presentation of the diversity of the musical panorama under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, in heartland Turkey, we need to mention the strong religious Sufi practices in Anatolia: “The traditional music of the tarikat’s (…), yet another type referred to as Tekke Music” (Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 198). “tekkes” are literally the gathering sites of the Alevis, or Bektaşi community, places of spiritual practices, close to Sufism in certain characteristics. The Bektaşi ritual is known under the name of the semah, from sama’ in Arabic. Similar to the Sufi “audition mystique” (Luc Weissenberg, 2001: p.6) and (Anders Hammarlund, Tord Olsson, Elisabeth Ozdalga,2004: p. 133) More generally, Tekke Music will be later used as a topos categorization that includes all the religious practices, whether Sufi or Bektaşi).


    Regarding to the provided elements, we acknowledge that the ethnic, religious, and social diversity of the musical genres we’ve been reviewing, describe the multi-cultural aspect of the Ottoman Empire. If the Classical Turkish Art Music tells us about the oriental-oriented tendencies of the Ottoman elite, the Tekke Music illustrates another experience in the identity of its musicians and its public, while the Turkish Folk Music is significant in depicting the rural ex-nomad identity of Türks. But the Ottoman Empire, because of many different factors, was not exclusive in its conception of identity. 

    During the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, it is to be noted the growing influence of Western modernism, especially French influences, on Ottoman elites. The dawn of the Ottoman society saw the emergence of two types of “music entertainments”: alafrangaversus alaturka (Volkan Aytar and Azer Keskin, 2003, p.148): 

“To tell the truth, I am not especially fond of alaTurka music. It makes you sleepy, and I prefer alafranga music, in particular the operas and operettas. And shall I tell you something? The modes we call alaTurka aren't really Turkish. They were borrowed from the Greeks, Persians, and Arabs. And people say the drum and zurna [a kind of shrilled pipe] are specifically Turkish in origin, but I have my doubts. It seems that both instruments are really Arabic in origin. I once looked into the observations of an individual who had travelled in Turkistan, and who reported that the time-honoured instrument in villages there was the saz [long-necked fretted lute]. Here, too, in Anatolian villages they always play the saz.” Abdülhamit II (Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 197). 

The opinion of Sultan Abdülhamit II on the matter constitutes an ideal transition to our second part. On one hand, we perceive the will to differentiate Turkishness from the Arabic and oriental identity. On the other hand, it represents the growing elitist idea in urban educated classes that insists on importing Western elements in Turkey.


The revolution of Kemalism: Negation of Ottoman musical heritage, sacralisation of Turkish Folk Music, and importation of Western polyphony (1923-1950’s)

    This second part studies the Kemalist identity revolution, which consecrates the negation of the past Ottoman musical heritage and the sanctification of Turkish Folk Music. We try to argument that the Kemalist imposition of a shaped Turkish identity is nothing else than a biased selection carried out among the multi-cultural nature of Turkish society. 

    Mustafa Kemal’s speeches and ideology on the conception of Turkish music were mostly influenced by Ziya Gökalp, “who was univocally the most influential thinker, the leading ideologue of his day”. (Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 201) He can be considered on the initiative of the cultural policies imposed by the regime at the beginning of the Turkish Republic (1923). We propose to bring three targets out of the cultural policy of the Kemalist revolution: (1) the negation of the Ottoman music legacy as a differentiation from the Arabic/Islamic world; (2) the sacralisation of Turkish Folk Music as the representative music of Turkish history and identity; (3) the provision of Western polyphony and music into the Turkish society. 

    First of all, as already noted, we need to focus on the undertaking of erasing great part of Ottoman musical heritage. As a non-exhaustive list of measures that will shape the musical panorama of Turkey, we start by focusing on the denial of Turkish Art Music (ex: Classical Turkish Art Music). At first, in 1926 was closed down the Dogu Müzigi Subesi (department of Oriental music studies) of the Dârül’Ethan (State Conservatory), forbidding the teaching of oriental instruments. Additionally, a national ban was imposed on broadcasting Turkish Art Music in 1934. This is made possible by the state-control over Turkish Radio and Television (Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 195 and 205). From the beginning of the Republic, Turkish Art Music is defined as the “enemy” and categorized the following way: Turkish Art Music is “the elite music of the Ottoman Palace, representing the apogee of what Ottoman culture had achieved in terms of music, essentially Byzantine. And he calls it ‘Eastern’”. (Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 201) As to speak about the popular expression the Classical Turkish Art Music, the şarkı was denied. At the same time, pursuing the secularist ideal of Kemalism, the regime also targeted Tekke Music, and Sufi religious practices as incompatible to the Turkish identity. Some rituals were repressed, such the Bektaşi semah – On the political level, the Bektaşi highest institutions were removed from the Turkish territory and displaced to Albania. During the same period again, every single Tekke was closed, and the Sufi spirituality teaching was forbidden. (Luc Weissenberg, 2001: p.3) As Tekelioğlu states that “Münir Nurettin Selcuk, and the tekke musicians (…) were forced to earn their living after the tekkes were closed by giving private lessons” (OrhanTekelioğlu, 1996: p. 204)At the end of the 1940’s, both Ottoman and Islamic music was been removed from the panorama, which paved the way for the newly State-selected music: Turkish Folk Music.

    Indeed, since the beginning the 1920’s, Mustafa Kemal, still following Gökalp’s ideology, glorifies the Turkish Folk Music, as to promote the Turkish Anatolian roots, and design the relevant Turkish identity. (Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 202-203) Thereby, we note the amount of efforts put into place by the State and its different institutions in order to promote Turkish Folk Music. Free of charge, the Halk Evleri (“People’s House”), were institutionalized all over Turkey, providing music classes for everyone. (Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 202-203) These local institutions participated to the collection and transcription ten thousand türküs, spreading the myth of the aşık in the country. Banu Senay recollects a Bates statement: “to become a türkü, a song needed to be sung in Turkish and not suspected of having religious functions or meanings” (Banu Senay, 2012: 279). Furthermore, we witness, what Aytar and Keskin point out, the “re-spatialization of the music and entertainment localities”. The State creates a National Music Conservatory, Concert Halls and Ballrooms, and as already mentioned the Halk Evleri. (Volkan Aytar and Azer Keskin, 2003, p. 148) As we just proved, the public policies put into place favoured the spread of Turkish Folk Music in the first decades of the Republic. Turkish Folk Music, and its history, is sacralised as the National music.

    Ziya Gökalp separates music in three different classes, the Eastern Music, the Western Music, and the Turkish Folk music. And according to Tekelioğlu, he wrote: 

Which of these, one wonders, is truly our national music? We have seen that Eastern music is not only ill, it is also non-national. Folk music is that of our national culture, and Western music is that of our new civilisation, so that neither of these is foreign to us. Thus our national music will be born from the fusion of our Folk music and Western music. Folk music has given us numerous melodies, which, if we collect and harmonize in the Western manner, will yield a music that is both national and European ... This, then, is in broad outline the programme for Turkism in the field of music.”

(Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 201-202) This can probably sum up the best way what the West-East synthesis, in the terms of Tekelioğlu, consists in. Also, it synthesises the last remark of the second part. Ironically in line with late Ottoman elite’s yearning for Western modernism in the field of music, Kemalism asserts that the model to follow is ‘Western Music’: “Atatürk wanted Turks to listen to symphonies, operas and oratorios”. Even though we won’t discuss it further, we need to mention that the introduction of polyphony, as opposed to Eastern/Oriental monophony, symbolizes, in Kemalist elite minds, the path to civilization. In reference to Eastern Music, Ekrem Zeki Ün argues: 

“(Here is music) to which one’s response can be only cheap sentiment and a tendency to bow to fate. Ignorant of polyphony, which in the West was invented in the tenth century and was based in an effort of intelligence, this simple-minded, whining music represents at least a millennium of stagnation.” 

(Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 200) Finally, we comprehend the Kemalist effort to accustom Turks to polyphony and Western music influences and practices. 

    This second part narrated the Kemalist revolution and the actions taken by the Kemal’s government, in the field of music. We’ve been describing authoritarian policies on cultural matters that ambitioned to model Turkishness. We have tried to prove, through the denomination of three target points that Kemalism intended to totally reshape Turkish identity, by alienating the Ottoman heritage and glorifying the Turk’s ethnical origins and traditions.

    As this first phase of the paper comes to an end, we need to sum up the main guiding ideas that justify the argumentation that has been presented. We reviewed the plurality of musical genres, during the Ottoman period. From Tekke Music to Folk Music, or Classical Ottoman music; all of them differing intheir ethnic origins and in their practices. This diversity of musical genres tells us one thing: At the end of the Ottoman Empire, mainland Turkey offers a very diverse panorama of cultural identities. The Kemalist Revolution intended to impose a singular Turkish identity, which was the product of a selective choice among the several cultures at stake in Turkey at the time. As we will see, in the 1950’s, this identity will be questioned by a great part of the Turkish population, that don’t feel included in the Kemalist identity project. At the end of the 1960’s, Turkey witnesses the stunning hatching of Arabesk music, which illustrates the popular challenge on identity. 


Questioning Kemalist identity; redefining Turkish identity: The emergence of Arabesk music

The challenging expression of Turkish popular masses’ identity: From serbest icra* to Arabesk (1950’s-1970’s)

    Here, we will study the emergence of Arabesk music, from the early popularisation of serbest icra, to the development of Gencebay’s Arabesk. We will explain the reasons of this musical spawning, result of the failure of Kemalist imposed identity. First of all, we start from the beginning of the 1930’s, where a certain statement can be made: “Villagers and small town dwellers continued to maintain certain traditional elements of culture that found root in an Arab-Islamic heritage”. (Iren Özgür, 2006: p.178) Indeed, although the Kemalist government tried to change cultural habits and replace them, the traditions in Anatolia couldn’t be totally removed. As a consequence, the villagers started too listen Egyptian music, in a sense, more representative of their identity than the promoted Turkish Folk Music. As Özgür states, “many rural Turks chose to tune into the Egyptian radio when the state-imposed music alternative seemed unsatisfying.”As a massive movement, the popular listening of Egyptian radio, or Egyptian movies countered and impeached the Kemalist cultural policies. “Between 1936 and 1948, 130 Egyptian movies were shown in Turkey”. The population enjoyed the oriental tonality of this imported music, and the State knew it. As an authoritarian response to that, in 1948, “the leaders of the Republic banned not only the importation of Egyptian movies but also the broadcasting of Egyptian music on radio”. (Iren Özgür, 2006: p.178)As a reaction to that, the 1950’s are the time of the translation in Turkish of the Egyptian music, which can be resumed under the appellation of serbest icra (unrestricted performance). As Tekelioğlu explains, Sadettin Kaynak is one of the initiators of this movement. He takes the Turkish music to a renovation of the Turkish Art Music, and promotes the Arabic and Oriental music heritage. (Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 210) On this basis, in 1968, Orhan Gencebay understands the popular cultural claims, and produces a new “synthesis between traditional and modern forms”. (Betül Yarar, 2008: p.53)Gencebay first called this new genre Özgür (“free” or “flexible”) but the intellectual elites renamed it Arabesk (“Arab-like”). In few years, Arabesk became a successful music, his first single Bir Teselli Ver sold 600 000 copies. (Betül Yarar, 2008: p.53) With Arabesk, Turkish masses finally found a genre that represented them, and to which they could identify themselves. 

    There are two main explanations to the success of Arabesk music. Both are complementary. First of all, we will linger on the social explication, which bases its theory on the migration of Turkish rural masses to the cities, the growing urbanization and the creation of the gecekondu. Indeed, most migrants arrived in Istanbul or Ankara and were parked in the outskirts of those cities, living in what was called gecekondu. At the same time, the development of the dolmuş is often considered as a key factor of the spread of Arabesk music. Thereby, Stokes considers those two spaces as the loci for Arabesk (VolkanAytar and AzerKeskin, 2003: p. 149). This explanation was mainly spread by the intellectual elites, which saw in the development of Arabesk the rise of the uncivilised masses, which cannot adapt to the civilised urban life. The gecekondu are a zone of great poverty and low education. The dolmuş (or shared taxis), on the other hand, represent how overwhelmed Turkish cities were during the 1960’s and 1970’s, in terms of public transportation. The government cannot control the spaces of music anymore and suffers from this “Arabesk invasion”. (Orhan Tekelioğlu, 1996: p. 211) As a consequence, those new spaces provoked by the urbanization and the “immense rural to urban migration”, became the loci for Arabesk, and the Kemalist State was swamped by the popularisation of this genre. (Volkan Aytar and Azer Keskin, 2003: p. 149)

However, the social explanation of Arabesk is not enough to understand the 1960’s and 1970’s phenomenon. The elites were wrong in considering the dolmuş and the gecekondu as the only reason for Arabesk.They were in the spirit of undermining the content and the form of this movement. However, we note that Arabesk is the result of the Turkish masses challenging the Kemalist identity. As Özbek says: With Arabesk, the Turks “finally found a name to express the identity problem of Turkish society”. (Iren Özgür, 2006: p. 185) Indeed, what is at stake with the sudden emergence of Arabesk is more of an identity challenge than a social statement. Of course the social factor is not to be neglected, and is definitely the vector of this identity strengthening. Nevertheless, Arabesk expresses the cultural difference of the rural Turks of Anatolia, that don’t feel represented by the culture imposed by the government. To go further on that, we will use the theory of Giovanni Giurati, built on the study of the Red Khmers migrant communities in Washington D.C. He states that migrant communities use music in two ways: “music as necessity, music as cultural identity”. (Giovanni Gurati, 1996; p. 4 and 6)This is exactly what we witness in Turkey. The migrants that arrive in cities realize the difference of the expression of Turkish culture by the Kemalist elites and from that realization; they project their identity in music. The consequence of that is the popular support on Arabesk. The elites of the 1960’s and of the 1970’s were blind, and didn’t understand what Arabesk illustrated in the Turkish society.

    At the end of the 1970’s and right before the 1980 coup d’etat, Arabesk music has reached the popular masses and its popularity don’t stop to expand. We qualify Arabesk the artistic expression of the questioning of identity by the popular masses. They reject the identity the government wanted to impose on Turkish society. And this is how we prove the failure of the Kemalist project that was indeed a selection among different cultures; those cultures rise up again and provoke the need for a new synthesis. As we will see, after the 1980 coup d’etat, the government cultural policies reorient Turkish identity. As an illustration of that, Arabesk is consecrated the Turkish Popular Music.


Consecration of Arabesk as Turkish Popular Music; Revalorisation of Turkish Art Music and Ottoman heritage: a new statement on Turkish identity (1980’s-1990’s)

    After the 1980 coup d’etat, Turgut Özal and the Motherland Party ruled on Turkey from 1983 to 1993. That produced a swift in Turkish politics toward economy, applying liberal policies on Turkish society. During those years, we note that in the field of music, the government wills to revalorise Ottoman heritage by bringing back Turkish Art Music. At the same time and on a national level, Arabesk becomes the Turkish Popular Music. 

    First of all, we will dwell on the revalorisation of Turkish Art Music, which was denied by the passed governments, and the reification of Ottoman past. Betül Yarar describes Turgut Özal’s government as the “New right“. As Stokes points out, the government’s cultural policy (…) was based on the recognition of Ottoman history and culture as the national heritage”. Indeed, in the field of music, “Turkish Folk Music was often rescheduled and replaced by Turkish Art Music”. (Betül Yarar, 2008: p.62) The idea was to glorify the Ottoman past in order to provoke a new synthesis for the assimilation of a new identity. As an illustration of that, Orhan Gencebay appeared in 1980 for the first time “singing Yarrabim on the TRT’s New Years Eve programme”. (Betül Yarar, 2008: p.62) As we have just seen, the populist policies of the government could perfect read the popular demands, and while they were promoting Turkish Art Music, they glorified Arabesk, which became the Turkish Popular Music. 

    During the 1987-1988 campaign, Özal chose for jingle of the campaign “‘Seni Sevmeyen Ölsün’”, an Arabesk song. In 1988, the official ban on broadcasting Arabesk music was abolished. (Betül Yarar, 2008: p.62)This is the first time a government of the Turkish republic frees a monophonic music, which is inspired by Arab music. That is considered a huge swift in the field of culture. We note the vision by Turgut Özal and the MP party, of what Turkish people appealed to. They understood the popular challenge of the Kemalist vision on identity. At the end of the 1990, as a result of that, Arabesk becomes the Turkish Popular Music. Indeed, we will demonstrate it by analysing the new spaces of music that Arabesk conquered during the two decades at stake. Indeed, “Arabesk is no longer (…) the music of the dolmuş and the gecekondu”, it conquered wild segments of the population, from the urban poor to the “nouveaux riches”. In the biggest city, Istanbul, new spaces of music appeared and every one of them could play Arabesk, the audience – even the elite classes -is now used to this music genre. (Volkan Aytar and Azer Keskin, 2003, p. 151-152) At the end of the 1990’s, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that Arabesk is the national Turkish music. 

    We tried, in this paper, to draw a parallel between the journey of Turkish identity and the history of music in Turkey during the 20th century. Even though our analysis implied choices, and is therefore incomplete, we intended to reflect in the most complete way about the chosen topic. We think that music is somehow an element of people’s identity, and, at the end of our researches, we remark the relevance of studying music history, when it comes to define identities.

    We said that Mustafa Kemal and Kemalism in general tried to impose a unique identity on a very diverse and multi-cultural society. The Kemalist “Turkish identity” was, in fact, a selection among the residues of the Ottoman Empire different cultures. They put at the centre of their cultural vision Turkish Folk Music, which never really became the popular music. Later on, we saw that Arabesk represented broader musical traditions, including elements both from Western music and Arab music. For that reason, and responding to our thesis, we conclude that we believe Arabesk is the first national Turkish music, which represents Turkish people in general. Arabesk has succeeded in embodying the multi-cultural dimension of Turkey, and in unifying the Turkish people around one hybrid music, and one plural identity; it represent a statement on Turkish identity, at the end of the century, “neither Islamic nor European but (that) incorporates elements of both”. (Iren Özgür, 2006: p.185)













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