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Music, migration and cultural revolution

Turkish music producers brought crowd funding to Europe unnoticed, and combined with technological change it restored Turkish music to the immigrant community. It made possible what was not allowed in Turkey for religious and political dissidents. Turkish Hip-Hop broke through the cultural barrier to German society.


Almanyada Iscciler Ve II Kusak 1989-90; Mariage and Circumcision Party in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Photo by Ergun Cagatay, Fotoarchiv Ruhr Museum / Stadtmuseum Berlin / Stiftung Historische Museen Hamburg.

Graham Douglas


Making and listening to music was an important part of Turkish migrant life in Germany, as a means of connecting with their country and family.

And through the innovative DIY spirit of the community and their refusal to be exploited, it not only changed the lives of the migrants but also kept alive musical traditions that were suppressed in Turkey. By the late 1980s their musical innovations, namely in Hip-Hop, broke out into German cultural life, which had previously excluded them. Music was also an important source of social solidarity and protest. An early scene in Kaya’s film shows two men singing to each other on the platform of a railway station, and one popular Turkish singer tells the camera: “We aren’t going to sing happy songs”.

By the 1980s the Turkish music business was well-established and lucrative in Germany, where a wedding with 1,000 guests could net the musicians 10,000 DM, and performers clothes were stuffed with banknotes by people in the audience.

The story is one of repeated innovation, and as Professor Holger Lund tells us, it was Turkish Hip-Hop music in the 1990s that finally broke the boundaries between Turkish and German communities.

Cem Kaya’s film ends with people playing guitars in the Hasenheide Park in Berlin, and reminiscing about the 40 years they have lived in the city, and how it feels like home, finally.

You began talking about racism and nation-building.

The process of national homogenization in Turkey by Ataturk after 1923 suppressed over 50 distinct ethnic identities. They needed a Turkish national music, so they invented Turku, the Turkish folk-song. They collected folk music from all the regions of Turkey, and changed the words, the meanings and the instruments that were played, to make one homogeneous ‘tradition’, which is now in the form of a ‘national’ archive of about 10,000 songs but it is actually a semi-fake, erasing a variety of regional traditions. Religious lyrics were changed to secular, and any songs with divergent political sentiments were changed. This went along with excluding Jews, Greeks, Armenians and their music as well: anything and anyone who didn’t fit their ideological model.

It was called a cultural revolution, but it combined incongruous elements, nation-building, modernisation, and westernisation.

II. Kusak Almanya. Ouranic school. RFA; WERL: 1st mosque in east Germany. Photo by Ergun Cagatay, Fotoarchiv Ruhr Museum / Stadtmuseum Berlin / Stiftung Historische Museen Hamburg.

Some of the new migrants after 1980 had a decisive effect on music production in Germany.

The most prominent example is Cem Karaca who was a very left-wing opponent of the coup, and he remained in exile for 7 years before he could visit Turkey again. He accelerated the development of Turkish music in Germany because he was the first to release an LP with words in German, speaking to Germans about the problems of Turkish migrants. But the first, largest and most successful independent record company in Germany was Turkuola, founded in 1964 by Turkish immigrant Yilmaz Asocal. It released over 1,000 albums and compilations of Turkish music and also exported it to Turkey and other European countries. And yet these companies are not mentioned in official histories in Germany. A weekly magazine Hey was produced in Turkey during the 1970s mostly dedicated to Turkish music.

So, a whole development went on in the Turkish music community, unnoticed by mainstream German society – they innovated in three areas: technologically; with novel distribution methods; and in the music itself – Turkish Rap emerged a few years before the German groups who are the only ones in the official musical history books. And after 60 years there still exists no comprehensive history of Turkish music produced in Germany, or its record labels. And although millions of Turkish sound media were sold in Germany from the 1960s onwards, it was not reviewed in German music magazines, it remained in an excluded universe.

Technological change had a big effect on Turkish music production.

45 rpm records arrived in the late 1950s in Turkey and could be produced on large and small scale, independently from western companies. Prior to this, Turkish records had been produced inside Turkey only by large western companies who had invested in the equipment needed to make 78 rpm shellac discs, but they had been put off by copyright insecurities and import tariffs.

Distribution also required innovation.

Turkish music was not welcomed by the established German distribution companies. Turkish people were excluded from cinemas, discotheques and even brothels, and their records were not sold in German shops, even those later specializing in World Music.

Almanyada Iscciler Ve II Kusak 1989-90. Berlin. “Torkischer Basar”, Berlin BulowstraRe (fromer Subway Station), 1989. Photo by Ergun Cagatay, Fotoarchiv Ruhr Museum / Stadtmuseum Berlin / Stiftung Historische Museen Hamburg.

They overcame this by selling through mini-markets, where Turkish newspapers and records or cassettes were on display. These shops had first been established to meet the demand for Turkish food and music, and just followed the same path in the same place. By the end of the 1980s there were over 400 of these ‘co-shops’ in Germany.

In another twist of historical contingency an early form of crowd funding was developed by Turkish immigrants, from the so-called ‘bond-system’ of financing film-making in Turkey. The Turkish government had reduced taxes on Turkish films in the 1940s to restrict the import of Egyptian films which they said had an ‘undesirable’ Arabic influence. And in order to raise the capital needed to make films, film-makers arranged with cinemas to finance the films through pre-selling the tickets and screening rights.

So, in the words of one analyst, “Turkish cinema is not the cinema of either imperialism, capitalism, or the state. It is a people’s cinema”. The spirit of this ‘crowd-funding’ model, acting independently in a creative way, was taken up again with music recordings and music distribution by the migrant community in Germany.

How did Turkish music break out into German society?

The Turkish singer Tarkan became a global superstar singing in Turkish through the backing of the neo-liberalised global music business. He also broke Turkish convention by singing slang Turkish. In Germany, things changed with the first collaborations between different non-German ethnic groups in Turkey. Microphone Mafia had Turkish and Italian members, and Advanced Chemistry with different people of colour and German members; Fresh Family is a rap group who for the first time sang in German.

All English names?

The German language was considered uncool, and these bands had an eye towards the huge anglophone market.

Fresh Family used a special ethnolect, a variety of stumbling German that distinguished them from the normal German they would speak in everyday life. This began in the late 1980s and early 1990’s some years before the first all-German rap groups who are the only ones credited in the official history.

Demo in Hamburg against new man proposed for Auslander. Photo by Ergun Cagatay, Fotoarchiv Ruhr Museum / Stadtmuseum Berlin / Stiftung Historische Museen Hamburg.

Thomas Solomon explained that it was black US soldiers who brought Hip-Hop to their bars in Germany, and these clubs and discos were open to non-Germans, unlike those in the cities, so it entered the Turkish community and they started to produce their own with Turkish lyrics.

In Germany, Turkish religious music was freed to develop.

Within Islam in Turkey there are different attitudes to music. The majority Sunnis do not allow it, but for the Alawites, a branch of Shi’a Islam, music is important in religious ceremonies, and also for the Kurds. In Germany Alawite music has been able to develop freely and the Kurdish language was not banned, as it was in Turkey until 1991.

In Cem Kaya’s film there is an openly gay singer – how were gay people treated in German society and in the migrant community?

In Germany homosexuality has been legal since the 1970’s, but public display of affection between men can still lead to violent attacks in some places, and especially in Turkish and Arabic migrant communities. Two of Turkey’s most popular singers for decades -Zeki Muren and Bulent Ersoy- one was gay the other transexual, and they were accepted even by government – but what you could be as an artist on stage or in private could not be displayed in society in general – even the subject was taboo. After Bulent Ersoy made her transition official, she was banned by the government for years from stages in Turkey. She went into exile in Germany.

Is there also racism by Turks against other groups?

There have been reports of ticket inspectors on the Berlin metro racially abusing passengers even some with tickets. It’s a badly paid job that is often done by migrant workers, and there are allegations that there are mafias involved.

(Photographer: Ergun Cagatay. Fotoarchiv Ruhr Museum / Stadtmuseum Berlin / Stiftung Historische Museen Hamburg. Photos provided by The Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin and kindly authorised for publication)

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