Outside the country, Turkish music used to be mostly associated with belly-dancing, while recently the Mevlevi (“whirling”) dervishes have gained wide popularity on the World Music circuit. Yet there’s much more to Turkish music than that, as demonstrated by its great influence across the eastern Mediterranean and Balkans, and its growing following amongst the Turkish and Kurdish diaspora in northern Europe.

Turkish Folk

Folk music is currently one of the most popular genres in Turkey. It is performed in daily life in its traditional, orally transmitted form but it has also become a commercial phenomenon, with a new wave of young singers performing the traditional songs in new orchestrations on TV and on disc. Turkish folk music is dominated by the sound of the saz, a long-necked lute which comes in various sizes and with a varying number of strings.                                                            

Saz Music and the TRT Sound

Large ensembles of saz dominate the Turkish Radio and Television Station (TRT) folk music style. All recordings bear the mark of Belkis Akkale’s tremendously successful style from the mid-1980s: buzzing saz orchestras, driving rhythms, and a deep, soulful voice singing a türkü (folksong). Current exponents include Gülay and Kubat.

 Regional Folk

The quintessential rural Turkish ceremonial music combination is the zurna and davul (the shawm and drum duo). Outside the large cities in the west of Turkey, these instruments can be heard at almost any celebration. You will know you are among Black Sea Turks (Laz) if you hear a small upright fiddle (kemençe), a bagpipe (tulum), or a smaller and shriller version of the zurna and davul.

All around the country contemporary musicians are updating and reinventing the local styles. Grup Çığ is an exciting band performing türkü with electric guitars.

Aşık Music

There are said to be twenty million Alevis in Turkey today (out of a total Turkish population of seventy million), so it is little surprise that the best-known regional music is associated with the aşık, folk bards from these heterodox Muslim communities. Aşık sing a repertoire of songs of mystical quest, interspersed with invocations to the Alevi saints, and to Mohammed’s brother-in-law, Ali.

Classical Traditions

Urban Turkish music divides into three genres: religious (sema), art music (klasik or sanat) and nightclub (fasıl). These styles have overlapping repertoires and instruments, and share the musical system based on makam.

The makam are musical modes or scales in which the musicians compose their songs and instrumental pieces, and, more importantly, weave their taksim (improvisations), which are essential to classical music performance. The makam currently practised in Turkey have a lot in common with those of the Arab world; the Iranian dastgah are more distantly related.

Classical Fasil and Later Developments

The taksim improvisation usually precedes, and also punctuates, the classical fasil – long suites of music. The tradition dates back to at least the fourteenth century, and composers include Ottoman sultans like Selim III. Many instrumentalists and composers inhabit the world of professional secular music-making, whose association with the profanities of drink and dance led to its becoming the preserve of Istanbul’s Armenian, Jewish and Orthodox Christian and Gypsy communities.

Central to today’s scene are some top-quality instrumentalists who are keeping the classical tradition alive as well as producing their own compositions. Kanun players Göksel Baktagir and Ruhi Ayangil, and ney players Kudsi and Süleyman Erguner are some of the most important contemporary soloists.

Classical Stars

The voice lies at the heart of all classical genres. Zeki Müren, perhaps the highest-rated vocalist in the latter half of the twentieth century, performed his own compositions as well as specially composed pieces. Bülent Ersoy, Turkey’s most famous transsexual started her career while still a man as a singer of Turkish classical music.

The Whirling Dervishes and Sufi Music

Because of the Mevlevi connections to the Ottoman court and the Sufis’ potential political strength, Atatürk banned the Sufi orders in 1926 and they remain banned to this day. However, in the mid-1950s, the Mevlevi sema, the whirling dervish ceremony, was revived. The most notable ney player in the Sufi tradition is Kudsi Erguner. Reconnecting a younger generation with Sufi tradition is Mercan Dede, who fuses the ney with electronic beats and whirling.

Gypsies and Fasıl Music

Gypsies (known as Çingene) are an important presence on the Turkish music scene, and they are responsible for some of Turkey’s most thrilling sounds – music often referred to as night-club fasıl. The music has sleazy associations with nightclubs (gazino) and bellydancing but it is also performed in more respectable restaurants.

The clarinet and darbuka dominate, and many, if not all, of the most noted instrumentalists are Gypsies. They play with great skill and passion. Celebrated Gypsy musicians include Mustafa Kandıralı, Selim Sesler, and the band Laço Tayfa.

Minority Musics

It is only relatively recently that music in Turkey can be said to have become a true reflection of the country itself, rather than what its politicians hoped it could be. Most important has been the acknowledgement of the national minorities of Anatolia, including the Kurds who represent an estimated 15 percent of the population and whose language, music and culture were banned for many years.

Kurdish Music

The most popular Kurdish artists in Turkey are the male singer Ciwan Haco and the young female vocalist Aynur. Kardeş Türküler (Songs of Fraternity) is an Istanbul-based group which draws on regional traditions, largely from eastern Turkey, and which frequently performs repertoire in Kurdish.

Greek–Turkish Music

The Turkish audience has always been interested in Greek music, and in the pop market there can be found both co-operations between Turkish and Greek singers and Turkish covers of Greek songs. Turkish art singer Melihat Gülses has also released a CD of songs dedicated to Istanbul and Athens.

Jewish Traditions

The Jewish presence in Istanbul goes back at least to 1492, when Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain were welcomed by Ottoman sultans. Today, amateur and professional musicians still perform the traditional songs and there is even a pop group called Sefarad, who have revitalized and repopularized the style.

Arabesk

Arabesk – Turkey’s dominant popular music in the 1980s – draws on folk, classical and fasıl traditions, though it takes its name from its predominantly Arabic rather than Turkish melodies. It is a working-class and to an extent outsiders’ music which addresses everyday realities and problems, and the concerns of the poor and disenfranchised.

Arabesk Goes Big-Time

In the 1960s Turks bought into Anglo-American rock music, and some singers adopted elements into their music. The first figure of interest to do so was Orhan Gencebay, whose first solo recording, “Bir Teselli Ver” (1969), related to the classical form, but the sobbing intensity of the voice owed much to the gazel, and frank lyrics addressed the plight of the lonely lover. Despite his colossal status, it is the voice which defines Arabesk aesthetics, and those of İbrahim Tatlıses and Müslüm Gürses are the most significant.

Mahsun Kırmızıgül has been the biggest Arabesk star of the new millennium, while singers with classical backgrounds, notably Emel Sayin and Muazzez Ersoy continue to drift in and out of Arabesk.

Anatolian Rock

Somewhat away from the mainstream, a number of musicians began to try to reconcile Anatolian folk and Western rock. As the Anadolu (Anatolian) Rock movement gathered pace, the music became increasingly politicized, with singers such as Cem Karaca.

The group Moğollar, formed and reformed under Karaca’s direction, has kept a political edge, alongside an uptempo stadium rock style. Popular mainstream rock acts with Turkish lyrics are Mor ve Ötesi and Kargo.

Pop

At the heart of Turkey’s resolutely mainstream indigenous pop scene is one figure: Sezen Aksu. Having released around twenty albums since 1975, she is still very popular, mainly for her love songs, and at her concerts the audience can sing the lyrics to each and every one by heart. Aksu’s “students” dominated the Turkish pop scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Among the singers are Eurovision winner Sertab Erener and teen idol Tarkan.