One Turk’s Take On Turkish Arabesque Music

Tolga Çelik

Tolga Çelik is a Turkish musician who currently lives in Istanbul, the nation’s capital city, and plays the guitar.  He attended Ankara University where he took psychology, and he is passionate about music in general.

As North Americans who don’t know a lot about Turkish music in general, we wanted to ask him some questions about Turkish music, and he was open to discussing it, providing both a cultural and historical perspective that we hadn’t previously considered.

We spoke with him about arabesque music, as well as the effect of the 1938 revolution on music in Turkey, among other things.  He interview was both casual and informative.  We hope you enjoy our chat with Tolga Çelik!

YTMS:  What do you think is the most popular kind of music in Istanbul these days?

TÇ:  That’s a hard question.  Istanbul is very complex musically, but I would have to say arabesque and pop music are the most popular kinds of music in Istanbul.

YTMS:  Is arabesque a genre of music?  I’ve never heard of it.  What is it?

TÇ:  Yeah, its a genre of music.

YTMS: Oh, ok.  Does Arabesque just refer to a type of Arabian music or is it different somehow?

TÇ:  It is inspired by original Arabian style, yes, but this is a Turkish genre of music overall.

YTMS: Interesting, I never heard of it.  In my country, we don’t hear this term very often or ever – “arabesque” music.  What kind of style is it?  I mean, is there some quality or feature which defines arabesque music as being its own type of music?

TÇ:  Again, this is a hard question.  Pain.  Just pain. <laughs>

YTMS: <laughs>  Really?

TÇ:  Hopelessness.  Failure.

YTMS: That’s sad, but we’re laughing about for some reason.

TÇ:  And you should know that it sounds sort of oriental.

(Here is a sample of some Arabesque music by Ferdi Tayfur Orhan Gencebay)

YTMS:  So is this…kind of like the Turkish equivalent of “the blues”?  It sounds rather depressing.

TÇ:  The blues has a very narrow subject matter, so I’d have to say…not really.

YTMS: Oh.  I see…

TÇ:  I want to say something about arabesque music if I may about this history of this type of music.

YTMS: Sure, what’s that?

TÇ:  In 1938, eastern music was prohibited in Turkey, on the radio and stuff, but people could get a signal from Cairo, and they loved to listen to it instead of the genres that were forced upon them.  After that, musicians tried to make music like what they heard on Cairo radio.

YTMS: Hm, this is interesting.  Why did Turkish people care about eastern music so much at that time?

TÇ:  After the revolution, people were forced to adopt lots of western style things, like clothes, scripture, and music.  I think the revolution happened too quickly for people to adopt these things more naturally, and the Turkish people had some sort of identity crisis between their own culture, and eastern culture.

YTMS: What revolution are you talking about exactly?

TÇ:  The Turkish republic, founded in 1923, or the fall of the Ottoman empire.

YTMS: Ah, ok.  So, you say that Turks weren’t allowed to have that music, and so they craved it more?

TÇ:  Yeah, we could say that.  They were sort of forced to cut their relations with the past, and then there was a reaction to this.

YTMS: I heard that Atatürk himself liked music…have you heard this too?

TÇ:  Yes, its a known fact, but I think that he was too harsh about westernizing Turkey around that time.

YTMS: I don’t know a lot about him, I must admit, but I did hear he had a love of music…

TÇ:  Yes, but there’s something you need to know about the arabesque style of music.  Fans of arabesque music cut themselves with razors.  They were doing this so they could feel alive.  And yes, Atatürk banned eastern music as much as he could.

YTMS: Is arabesque music really intended to make people so upset that they try to hurt themselves?

TÇ:  Its more than depressing.  Its on a new level.  You wouldn’t believe some of the lyrics.

YTMS: Really?

TÇ:  With arabesque, its more about pain and desperateness than pure evil.  There’s no sign of life in this genre.

YTMS: Yeah, I see.  I must ask, are you a fan of this style? <laughs>

TÇ:  Not really, I actually hate it.

YTMS:  What is it that bothers you about it?

TÇ:  I just think that people are dealing with their pain in a wrong way.  Arabesque fans make themselves addicted to pain instead of escaping.  I don’t know if I could make myself understood here.

YTMS: I think I understand.  This music is sort of anti-life?

TÇ:  Yeah, its bad.

YTMS: So I guess you don’t like any arabesque music at all?

TÇ:  I don’t like it, but my dad likes it.  I listened to it sometimes when I was a kid.  This genre is for a very certain type of people today, and its not for me or for any of my friends in general.

YTMS:  Very interesting, I’ll have to look into this Arabesque music more… thanks for speaking with me today!

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